Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hard Work

This morning, a very observant member of the flock pointed out some difficulty with the scriptural text. This person noticed a hard piece of the Old Testament reading from a few weeks back. It was the one about David and Bathsheba. The closing line of the text, the BCP lectionary assigns us, indicates the child of David and Bathsheba was struck ill.

My observant friend felt this was unfair. The child had absolutely nothing to do with the sin of David and Bathsheba, but pays the price for it. The child was innocent. What kind of God punishes an innocent child? It seems barbaric.

I did not deal with this part of the text, because it wasn’t part of my homiletic focus. But still, it is thrilling to know someone was paying close attention to the text, and continued to wrestle with it long after. It also tells me, the Church needs to seriously engage the Bible. We need to find a way to do some hardcore teaching about the scriptures and our ongoing dialogue with them.

I wish we could fill parish halls with people willing to walk through the scriptures, like I did in seminary. It was such a rich opportunity to take the time to study. There is just no substitute for time-intensive work.

Thinking about the text, mentioned above, there is a lot going there that cannot be packed into a sermon of reasonable length. There are so many angles to make sense of the ill child piece. How would the first hearers have heard that portion of the text? It is possible that the child, in actual history, died and the explanation is the indiscretion of the parents. The indiscretion is seen as the “cause” of death. Why did the king’s son die? The king did something wrong. This is simple human nature that could easily be at work.

Another issue is the view of children during that era. If you think about it, our sentimental idealization of children is a new phenomenon. In the early 20th century, children still worked in unsafe factories in this country. Infant mortality rates were much higher in the past. Good, caring and thoughtful people simply knew that some children would die. It seems to me, this would take some steam off the “bad God” claim. We tell stories in particular ways because we live and feel in particular circumstances.

Sin, in the minds of ancient Israel, had consequences. The ancients saw the hand of God at work all around them. If life were good, you were blessed. If the opposite were true, there must be a reason. The perspective was results oriented. So, an offense demands retribution. A price must be paid, and thank God the king lives.

A final point: the David and Bathsheba narrative and the culmination of it is not really about the death of the child. It is a detail of the story, and the first hearers of it would not have been as offended as we are. So, you have to back away, in some sense from the particulars, and try to understand the main thrust of the story. You don’t build a systematic theology out of one line of text.

As we read the Bible, we would do well to remember that we bring our socio-historical baggage to the text. The writers of the text brought theirs as well. Yet, the text is a living Word and we dismiss it or discard it at our own peril. After all, the story of David and Bathsheba is one of David repenting and returning to the Lord. David finds the Lord ready to welcome him back. I don’t want to lose that.

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