The first reading last Sunday was from the book of Samuel, and it described the anointing of, by biblical and popular account, the greatest king in the history of Israel: David. It’s kind of a short and sweet story the way we hear it in church: Samuel the priest and prophet of the Lord is sent by God to find the chosen new king to the family of Jesse in Bethlehem. All Samuel knows is that God put His eye on one of Jesse’s sons. He comes and announces a sacrificial banquet, and Jesse parades his sons before the honored guest.
As soon as Samuel sees the oldest son, he thinks, Oh, yeah! Eliab must be the one! Eliab was gorgeous and tall, a magnificent specimen of humanity. But the Lord said to Samuel (apparently in an inner voice, for no one else in the scene seems to hear their conversation), “Don’t jump to conclusions. He may be a hunk on the outside, but I’m interested in what’s on the inside.”
I’m paraphrasing. The Bible quotes God to have said, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7 NIV)
Well, one by one Jesse presents his seven sons, and one by one the Lord nay-says each of them. “Don’t you have any more sons?” Samuel asks. “Yes, my youngest is watching the sheep.” “Well, get him over here, or we’ll never eat!” And they call for David.
This is the gist of the whole story: David is the most unlikely candidate for making king. He is the youngest son, and worse than that: he is the eighth, the number that comes after the lucky seven in near-eastern lore. A lowly runt-of-the-litter shepherd with ruddy cheeks – and short to boot. Yup. He was rather little. And it is him that Lord YHWH Elohim has picked out of the crowd to be his all-time favorite servant, the greatest king of Israel, the founder of the one dynasty that would rule His chosen people, the forefather of His Messiah. God picked him for the courage and faith in his heart – who doesn’t know the story of David and Goliath, who hasn’t heard of David’s lyre music? This is the story of the little guy’s triumph over the system, the story of inner beauty prevailing over skin-deep features, truth soaring over the pit of mediocrity’s oblivion.
We can all appreciate a story like that: we as humans, as Americans. Some of us are immigrants, some are nerds, some aren’t pretty. Some have been bullied, others persecuted, yet others put down. We have failed and needed hope, we’ve felt unknown and unnoticed. Ancient Hebrews and modern Jews – all through history – have been the little guy in the midst of giant bullies. It’s their consummate story, and David is their consummate hero.
Except, it’s not that simple. Like every story, myth or court case, this one has context, and in context, it’s not that simple and it’s not even all that sweet. It’s joyous, sad, angry, and cunning – and very, very human.
David, you see, was the second king of Israel, and he was anointed in secret while the first king, Saul, was still reigning. Samuel presided over Saul’s anointing some years before, and guess what? In a fascinating mix of God-directed lottery and popular election, Saul was chosen for kingship precisely because he was a head taller than everybody else. It actually made sense in those times: a king was the chief warrior then, to lead his army into combat, and his fearsome frame and strength would benefit the nation. In short, it bears noting that God’s heart-warming disposition of disregarding outward appearance at the anointing of David was relatively new and has to do more with the particular players than with the principle of a thing.
The Hebrew Bible, you see, loves David and not so much Saul. Its narrative portrays Saul as a failure, angry, jealous, and, let’s say, psychologically unstable. No wonder God withdraws His favor from him and bestows it on a new king. If we step away from the narrative’s bias, however, Saul’s problem emerges more clearly: he didn’t get along with Samuel. Because he kept stepping on Samuel’s toes.
Samuel was the last of the Judges, who governed the tribes before monarchy emerged in Israel. He was the judge, the priest, and the prophet – all in all, the most influential person of his time, the purveyor of God’s message and the shaper of early Israelite politics. Having allowed a king to be chosen, he guarded his sphere of religious influence very jealously, but both he and Saul were strong personalities, and they clashed. When Saul conducted a sacrifice in his absence, it became probably the last straw. Samuel withdrew his favor, and with Samuel, God’s favor went, too.
The anointing of David is a scene of subversion. It’s a political move, and it’s described in hindsight by the narrators writing from the courts of David or his son Solomon. The bias of most of the Hebrew Bible is a Davidic bias, so the things associated with David become positive. His enemies, negative. And the threads of the themes that justify David’s kingship cast their nets back and forth through the Scripture. Some of you are aware of the “youngest heir” motif in the book of Genesis: generation after generation, as the story of the foreparents unfolds, the Covenant is not inherited by the oldest son who is supposed to inherit it according to tradition but by the younger heir instead: Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau. Joseph not Reuben becomes a special hero and prophet and saves his people. Biblical scholars believe that a major reason for this theme was a need in the biblical narrative to cement the counter-cultural right of the younger son to reign, to inherit, to become God’s favored.
This doesn’t nullify the meaning of the messages. I still like the idea of the little guy who triumphs over the system, of God’s eye that sees into every heart, of inner beauty that shines through skin-deep features, of courage and strategy winning over brute strength. But David… David was a remarkable man in real life, a smart general, a musician, and he created out of Israel a kingdom it hadn’t been and a dynasty that would endure unquestioned for over four centuries. But I wouldn’t like David for a friend. The ruddy-cheeked lyrist with a slingshot grew up into a merciless and cunning politician. He disliked people to the point of neglecting his royal duty of holding court. He was an adulterous womanizer, and at least once his sin of lust caught up with him when Bathsheba became pregnant while her husband fought David’s war on the front line. Unable to cover up his crime, David opted for murder.
He paid dearly for this with the death of his first son, and the biblical narrative says he repented. God is to judge. The Bible says God has accepted his penance. May he rest in peace. Thousands of years now, and his people the Jews still flock to the city he conquered for them and made the center of their world, and they wait for the new age to come with the coming of his last heir. And his people the Christians still flock there too, to look upon the stones touched by his heir two thousand years ago.
I don’t know about David. His story is such a consummate story – consummate Judaism and consummate humanity. He was so full of greatness and so full of darkness, so loved by God and so punished, and so forgiven… He is so remembered – and I’m sure, so wrongly remembered… He is just like the rest of us. Isn’t he?