Delivered by The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett
March 28, 2003, at Havurah Shir Hadash Synagoue
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our deliverer. Amen. – Samuel 6 – 7:17
This is such an amazing moment. I am so very honored – and anxious. What a privilege to be asked to talk about Scripture at your Shabbat service. Do you call them sermons? Am I a teacher here or preacher? If, in my ignorance, I offend, will you please forgive me?
You all know by now the joy that Rabbi David and I have in one another – he’s my rabbi, he says I’m his priest – and most of all we delight in the joy in having our congregations together – in study, in fellowship, and now in worship. There are many Trinitarians among you this evening; and we pray that on Sunday morning at 10 am we will have the honor of having you as our guests for worship at Trinity, when Rabbi David will be our preacher. So, when we decided this would be the weekend, we exchanged the scriptures appointed for this weekend, in the Jewish lectionary, in the Episcopal lectionary. “Oy,” said Rabbi David, “it’s not so good for you. Leviticus 9.” Leviticus?! I thought. I don’t think I’ve ever read all of Leviticus, much less studied it. “Not to worry,” said my rabbi. “I promised you total dispensation from anything Levitical. The prophetic passage is from Ezekiel.” Hum, I thought. Ezekiel is possible; he was mad as a hatter, but interesting. But when I looked the passage up, it turned out to be an unintelligible (at least to me) commentary on guess what? The Leviticus passage. I knew there wasn’t time for a crash course in animal sacrifice and who gets which part of thigh bone. There was hope, however. In a subsequent e-mail David wrote and I quote, “we’ll study II Samuel 6 through 7:17 the following morning.”
Ah. Grace abounds. Just think: it is the following morning already in many parts of the world.
Here’s what I’d like to do with this pivotal passage in the Hebrew Scriptures. After we get on board with the narrative (that will be particularly important for the Episcopalians, who have an inferiority complex about knowing Scripture, sometimes rightly so) – after we have a sense of the story, I’d like to talk about its implications for both Jews and Christians, how we might bring different interpretative lenses to the text, but how ultimately we share its message of good news.
One difference between our two communities of faith is the length of the Scripture passages used in worship. Ours are much shorter. It is a luxury to be able to have a whole chapter and a half open before us. I feel as if we are at a feast of the Word.
As Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel begins David – the shepherd boy, giant slayer, brilliant military leader, poet and musician, David of the beautiful eyes, charming, charismatic, at the top of his game -David decides its time to retrieve the arc from where it had been stored for a long, long time. Now the arc of the covenant was the most ancient, precious symbol of Israel’s faith, the receptacle in which the tablets of the law, the heart of Torah, were kept. Do you call this the arc? It is where Torah is kept. For Episcopalians, I am trying to think of a worthy parallel. You know our aumbry, the wooden box on the wall in the sanctuary, where consecrated bread and wine are kept? And a candle burns over it at all times? To us, it symbolizes the presence of Christ. I think the arc is not dissimiliar. The Word of God, God’s own self, is present. Well, the arc, Israel’s most traditional and holy symbol was now to be moved to Jerusalem, David’s city. A procession of thousands was formed, a liturgical extravagance, with singing and dancing and harps, tambourines, cymbals and castanets. (And Anglicans have the nerve to think we do liturgical processions better than anybody – we’d better take notes.)
As the holy parade slowly made its way, the cart it was on bobbled a bit and one of Abindab’s sons, Uzzah, put out a hand to steady it – and was immediately struck dead. The arc of God’s covenant is no toothless, tame symbol; God’s holiness was present in it. One can presume to get too close, get too familiar; consider Uzzah. Awe — a respectful fear of God’s holiness – is essential.
Uzzah’s death put a damper on the action. David called a halt and had second thoughts about having the arc of the Lord come into his care, into his city. So he had it left in the house of a guy named Obed-edom to see what would happen. Word came three months later that Obed-edom and his family had prospered while the arc was with them, so David fired up the whole liturgical extravagance again and the procession resumed.
The whole thing was really over the top — endless burnt offerings and peace offerings, singing and dancing, and there was David, center stage, in the spotlight, stripped to his ephod, leading the way. (Rabbi David – what’s an ephod?) Was David’s act one of faithful humility or a shrewd move of political theater? With David, it’s always hard to say.
The mood of Jerusalem? Unbridled rejoicing. The ancient symbol of God’s presence with Israel came now to David’s city, placed in a special tent. A community meal – bread and meat and cakes of raisins for every man, every woman! The old tribal days are over, the royal monarchy has begun, past and future tied together, the arc providing God’s blessing.
The exuberant public celebration of a new era, of new life turns, in verse 20, to a private domestic conversation between husband and wife, David and Michal, who as you remember was Saul’s daughter, poor old King Saul whom God did not favor. In words that still drip with sarcasm, Michal tries to cut her husband down to size, she disdains his actions, dismisses David’s claims but David turns the tables and dismisses Michal forever. The old has gone; behold, the new has come.
Now the prophet Nathan enters into the story (we are into chapter 7). David is concerned because he feels it is not right that his house is far more luxurious than the simple tent where the arc of God has been put. But that night Nathan in a dream hears the word of the Lord. Nathan then tells David that God says: “Do not build me a house. I like to come and go as I please. I will not be bound to any one place.” And in case David may be imagining that he has masterminded his own success, God says: “Remember it is I, the Holy One, who took you from keeping the sheep to be prince over my people, it was I who have been with you wherever you have gone, it was I who cut off your enemies from before you, and it is I who will make for you a great name, and it is I who will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and it is I who will give you rest.
“You won’t make me a house,” said God, “but I will make you a house.” (We have to know the Hebrew for house is also the word for temple and is also the word for dynasty. There is some very serious wordplay going on.) “You won’t make me a temple, but I will make you a dynasty. It will be your son who will build the temple. I will not take away my steadfast love from you or from him, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
Now listen to this: II Samuel 7, Verse 16: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” Forever. That’s three “forevers” in three verses. Unconditional love. No longer the conditional “if” of the covenant with Moses: If you obey my laws, I will be your God and you will be my people. Now the divine love and promise will not be broken. David has been made a vehicle of Yahweh’s unqualified grace for and in Israel.
So the story isn’t really about how the arc got to Jerusalem, or how David won over the people, or how David’s relationship with Saul’s daughter ended, or why it was Solomon and not David who built the temple. The story isn’t even about how the Davidic monarchy got established as an historical institution. What the story is about is how the Holy One relates to Israel, mediated through human beings. Psalm 2, the coronation psalm, says “I will tell of the decree of my Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son. Today I have begotten you.’
Thus begins the ideology of the king as Son of God. This notion of king as mediator between God and people carries forward the theme of messiah, the anointed human one who will do God’s work of righteousness and justice in the earth.
Now the nature of biblical texts is that they invite “daring re-use,” as my teacher of the Hebrew Scriptures, Walter Brueggemann, used to say. This text of II Samuel 7 does not intend to point to Jesus. Let me say that again. This text of II Samuel 7 does not intend to point to Jesus. But I bet as soon as the Christians here heard the phrase Son of God, that’s where we went. And began to remember how important in the birth narratives of Jesus that he be born in Bethlehem where David came from, and how crucial it was that Joseph,
Jesus’s earthly father, was in the lineage of David. It can be seen, I think, how easy and natural it was for the community around Jesus to seize upon this beloved text of II Samuel 7 as a way to understand the reality of Jesus as they experienced him. Words like king and kingdom, Son of God, and Messiah are daringly re-used, enlarged upon, and taken to the extreme in the Christian articulation of its claim for Jesus. Son of God becomes a biological, ontological descriptor, and Messiah becomes not one in a series of human ones through whom God works out God’s purposes, but the one-and-only-for-all-time.
But I believe that this text, precious to both Judaism and Christianity, can be used not to separate us further but to bring us close together. For one thing, biblical texts always are many-layered things, speaking to different communities of faith at different times. We do not have to choose. But Christians must, I believe, acknowledge that our interpretation, what we bring to this text, was not at all originally within it. The text as Hebrew Scripture must be first acknowledged in its integrity.
But what we share is profound. What Nathan uttered – those words from God — made us both, Jews and Christians, communities of hope, a common hope that we hold for the whole world, a hope that believes, confesses and trusts that God will keep God’s promises of righting the world. Furthermore, as communities of this shared hope, we confess, believe and trust that God’s promise will kept within history and using agents of God’s own choosing. This text is gospel new (that simply means God’s news, good news) of how God’s word becomes flesh in time and space in very many ways.
And the very fact of David – charmer, holy man, sinner in God’s eyes, king and humbled one – the very fact of David’s own inability to separate his profound faith in God from his own political self-interest is also very biblical in its complexity. Which means, for us, for all of us, that our faith – how we live it – must stay close to the realities of life, both public and domestic. Jews and Christians cannot escape into some supposed realm of “pure” religion where there is no risk of contamination. The biblical faith, which we share, is confusingly embedded in this world, which teems with mixed motivations, often complex tangles of religious seriousness and self-aggrandizement, a world where faith and politics co-mingle, often with appalling outcomes. But that is how our God works: in history, and through us.
But in spite of ourselves and our angry, broken world, this text, for all of us, is one of grace. For the word is that God will be God – untamed and unmanaged, not to be contained in some box of wood or doctrine; God will be God, and God’s love is steadfast, forever, no matter what; that the Holy One works through history and through flesh and blood (sometimes even ours) to bring about God’s purposes.
When we-Jew and Christian — trust that promise, and rest in that love, then we are faithful and we are freed.