Power and Virtue: the Davidic Calling and Promise
Rabbi Hugenholtz gave this sermon to First Mennonite Church (via Zoom).
Dear brothers and sisters, dear siblings,
Not so long ago, before the Jewish High Holidays, my five-year-old daughter – the middle child – insightfully asked me whether God ever makes mistakes. Before we knew it, we were discussing how God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and how Abraham bravely intervenes yet callously offers up Isaac mere chapters later on Mt. Moriah. I told her that in my interpretation, God made a mistake testing Abraham like that and that Abraham made a mistake for failing God’s test. God’s test, I explained to her, was not that Abraham needed to demonstrate his piety through obeisance. On the contrary – Abraham should have demonstrated his devotion to the God of justice and mercy through sacred resistance.
When we Jews engage in interfaith work, people from other faith backgrounds are often surprised at what I call our ‘reverent irreverence.’ We love our Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – but also don’t treat it with kid gloves. We cajole the text, press it, challenge it, subvert it and fall in love with it over and over again. Our great heroes of faith aren’t heroes because of their perfection. They are heroes because they are fallible and still rise to greatness. The God we believe in does not preach an unattainable standard. The Law does not chain us in slavish subservience; rather, she offers us a path of liberation and redemption through justice, compassion, refinement and atonement. The genius of the Bible is found in how all the pieces fit together, revealing the sacred dynamism that allows both the Bible and the God of the Bible to grow, which in turn is an invitation for us to grow. The God of Adam and Eve metes out consequence at first transgression; the God of Noah offers a second chance. The God of Abraham is open to persuasion and the God of Jonah seeks mercy and love for all humanity.
When we live with the dynamism of the Biblical text and with the richness of its characters, then, well, it all starts to make a lot of sense. The Hebrew Bible is God’s love letter to humanity and as we all know, passionate love affairs can be a little intense! God wants people to be good; but doesn’t expect them to be perfect. Our Jewish concepts of t’shuvah, of sacred return or repentance, and Divine chesed, lovingkindness and grace, help us close the gap between the good and the perfect.
So it is too with King David and his remarkable journey of transgression and redemption.
When we look at the stories of King Saul and King David, context is everything. The original intention for the Torah was not to establish state power through kingship. The period of the Judges – chaotic though it was – hints at this. (It’s also telling that the one competent Judge was a woman, Deborah!) It is the people – not God – who want a king over them so that they can be like ‘the other nations’. This is Biblical code for the worst possible reason, since the Israelites are explicitly commanded to not be like the nations. The Torah examines power unreservedly and is skeptical of it, especially when checks and balances are lacking. Still, the people clamor for a king and the Prophet Samuel grudgingly concedes. We read in 1st Samuel, chapter 8:
“All the elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah, and they said to him, “You have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations.” Samuel was displeased that they said “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Eternal, and the Eternal replied to Samuel, “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king. Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day—forsaking Me and worshiping other gods—so they are doing to you. Heed their demand; but warn them solemnly, and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.”
Samuel reported all the words of the Eternal to the people, who were asking him for a king. He said, “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots.”
Samuel continues on, of course, warning them about taxation and the other trappings of state power. Still, the people insist, foolhardy in their idolatrous notion that they can abdicate power and forsake virtue. So, they get Saul—a flawed and unstable monarch, who drags the nation into further conflict.
Eventually, Saul is replaced by David, and this is where the Bible reveals her genius. If Saul was flawed; was David not twice the sinner that Saul was? Yet David gets the hereditary monarchy in the present and the promise of siring the Messiah in the future.
King David becomes an example for us: both in his brokenness and his glory. The Hebrew Bible’s mission is to proclaim a God of mercy and justice so that we may build a world of mercy and justice by walking in God’s ways. This mission is fulfilled through the confrontation with power and the cultivation of virtue. We cannot have one without the other. If we were only to confront power, we would be a revolutionary movement but not a moral one. If we were only to cultivate virtue, we would become indulgent and self-righteous.
This nexus finds its expression in the lectionary reading from 2nd Samuel 7:1-17. God wants David to build God a ‘cedar house’. After the many temporary dwellings, God wants to establish God’s Presence in one centralized location. The text seems to play with David’s emotions through the Prophet Nathan. God presents David with the lure of building the Temple. The kingdom is at peace; Israel’s enemies have been delivered into the monarch’s hands. There is a particular kind of taunt in Nathan’s words, proxy of God: ‘ha’atah tivneh li bait l’shivti?’ – ‘Are you the one who will build Me a house for Me to dwell in?’
For the attentive reader of Psalms, there is a bitter-sweet irony. How often does King David express his desire to dwell in the House of the Eternal? We see this in Psalm 23 as well as 27. David has the power; he is so close to realizing that dream.
It is not to be.
Only a few verses later, Nathan’s rhetorical question is answered. ‘I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish his royal throne forever.’
We can imagine this must have been quite the sucker punch to King David. He has the power to build God’s house, but alas—he lacks the virtue. The answer God gives him is: not yet. David’s hands drip with blood; his heart is infested by sin. It is, as we know, his son Solomon who merits building the first Temple.
If the Bible were a simpler book, we may have despaired at this plot twist. It seems cruel and ironic. But the grandeur of the Bible lies in her subtle wisdom. The contradiction between David’s power and his virtue is itself the check and balance that we need; the very check and balance that the Israelites were willing to forsake for worldly influence and stability.
The Bible doesn’t expect David to be perfect; but it expects him to be good. We know David as the Psalmist with the rich and turbulent inner life that makes clear his connection to and love of God. Embedded in this short passage of 2nd Samuel is that very notion of t’shuvah, repentance. We experience loss through consequences but in our reckoning can be found growth. The Temple is torn from David’s hands, but a greater hope is given to him still.
Fast forward a millennium later, and both the First and the Second Temples lay in ruins. But our Rabbis teach so wisely and compassionately that what God truly desires is lovingkindness and repentance. On these, our world still stands. This is the sacred dance between power and virtue. We are called to be aware of how we impact, through blessings and curses, other human beings, and how virtue calls us to grow in that awareness and exercise it justly. It is this dialectic that models the profundity of King David.
May we both be more like King David as well as learn from his short comings. As we reach for God’s mercy, love justice and walk humbly, dear brothers and sisters, then we can tread the path that King David paved for us: towards our Messianic redemption – speedily and in our days.