Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Man of God, Man of Bloodshed

"After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: 'I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do." 
- Paul, Acts 13:22 
“Get out, get out, you man of bloodshed, and worthless fellow! The Lord has returned upon you all the bloodshed of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. And behold, you are taken in your own evil, for you are a man of bloodshed!” 
- Shimei, 2 Samuel 16:7-8

 David - a man after God's heart, a man of bloodshed, or both?

There was an article in the Guardian recently about the tension between the work of artists - the art - and the artists themselves. It was written in the light of the court case involving the front-man of the Lostprophets, Ian Watkins, who has pleaded guilty to various forms of sexual abuse of children. HMV subsequently took Lostprophets' albums off their shelves (though they continue to stock Garry Glitter albums, apparently).

(As an aside, I couldn't agree less with Giles Fraser's response to the Ian Watkins case, in which he completely butchers the Christian tradition for the sake of sounding radically postmodern. To think that evil can be explained by the mechanisms of existence-in-history is not to deny evil any metaphysical value, but to make of it a positive component of metaphysics, a part of the totality. This is precisely what Christianity refuses to do.)

For a more theological example, Exhibit A is John Howard Yoder. There are some who cannot or will not read Yoder. The sins of the artist are visited upon the art.

What, then, of many of the Psalms? Are they tainted, because their author was a homicidal adulterer, a "man of bloodshed"? Or does Psalm 51 wipe the slate clean?

A critical reader of the Bible could be forgiven for thinking that David gets an easy ride, both from the Church and from the authors of the Bible itself. Consider the opening of 1 Kings, where the author sounds like an apologist for Bill Clinton by emphasising that David did not have sexual relations with that woman - the virgin they used to keep him warm. Are we supposed to say "Well done, David! See, he's not so bad."? A cynic might say that the reason he didn't have sex with her was not because of his new-found moral fortitude, but because, as we are told in the first verse, he was "very old".

Indeed such a sceptical view towards David gains further credence in the next chapter, as we hear David's final words. If 1 Kings 1 sounded like a snippet from the life of Bill Clinton, 1 Kings 2 sounds like a snippet from the life of Michael Corleone. David's last act is a hit list, given to his son and successor Solomon. To paraphrase the passage, David says to Solomon "I'm dying, and here's the people I'm taking with me!" One of those people, it should be noted, is Shimei, the man who had the temerity to call David a man of bloodshed. How dare he! David, of course, promised that he wouldn't kill Shimei. Since he is a man of his word, he does the decent thing and hires Solomon to do the dirty work for him.

This, remember, is David, the putative "man after God's own heart," and crafter of some exquisite Hebrew poetry and song.

I wonder, do those who cannot read Yoder find David equally problematic? Or perhaps those who do read Yoder find this man of bloodshed difficult to read? I have heard the "jar of clay" defence, which is a sort of riff on "hate the sin, love the sinner" except this time "hate the sin, read the sinner's work". Though not at all what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians, this may be a good way approaching the issue. Virtue does not always accompany the virtuoso. And who, after all, can cast the first stone? That may leave some people deeply unsatisfied, however. A forgiveness that amounts to business as usual appears to mock the victims by benefiting the vicious.  David's words are sung with gusto and piety; David's prey are forgotten, or used as pawns to illustrate the nature of a flawed genius. At present, I am not sure if I am one of the "unsatisfieds" number.


  1. I like you writed about David. It will hopefully help me to write about him for my last essay this year!

  2. Hey Dec,

    How are you, bud?

    Challenging article. Wish I were more up on these cultural figures (Yoder, Watkins, Fraser)---it would save me some time when trying to understand your commentary!

    I love that Scripture doesn't soften the "evil" actions of her protagonists. God's mercy and grace flow from deep. Can't we all attest to it!

    Your ex-roomie,