Skip to Content

On Kings

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Judges 21

October 11, 2006
Prof. Darr’s Hebrew Bible class
Robinson Chapel

Living in a former colony famous for its successful rebellion against its king, we obviously have some ambivalence about the Bible’s use of kingship either to describe God’s role or to indicate an ideal polity for God’s people. We in America do not think of our citizenship in terms of being subjects of a king, although people in some parts of the world do think that way. Rather, we think of ourselves as having individual responsibility in ways appropriate for a democracy. Although I do not approve of the American government’s attempts to impose democracy on nations with the barrel of a gun, I do think of democracy as the polity that best models on the human plane the equality of all people before God. So we need to worry about the biblical models of kingship for God and nations.

The text I chose for this sermon, the topic having been assigned by Professor Darr, is not one from your readings on kingship. But I think it is the most important background for the issues of kingship in 1 Samuel and the subsequent books of history. At the beginning of the Exodus story, God was depicted as the overwhelmingly powerful warrior king who defeated Egypt and its gods. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, God did all the fighting for them; the only Israelite effort was Moses holding up his staff all day to sustain the path through the sea. While wandering in the desert, the tribes fought in a few skirmishes with the neighboring people, always at God’s command. When Joshua led Israel into Canaan in its Holy War, the soldiers of Israel did all the fighting but Yahweh was present with commands and advice, and directly contributed to one victory by making the sun stand still. The literary depictions of God in the book of Joshua included a kind of genocidal panic to protect his people (yes, Yahweh was definitely male). The genocides never worked, however, because Israel never did clean the other people out of the Promised Land. We might take this harsh literary depiction of Yahweh, harsh from our point of view, as a function in part of Israel’s attempt to legitimate its claim to the land that it never did fully conquer.

In the book of Judges, Yahweh was present off and on and usually, though not always, unhelpful. In the terrible ending of that book, a Levite traveling with his concubine was given hospitality in a man’s home in Gibeah, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin near Jerusalem. The wicked men of the city demanded that the Levite be sent out so that they could rape him, and the story is parallel to that of Sodom and Gomorra. The Levite’s host volunteered instead to send his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine out for the sexual pleasure of the men. We should remember that the chivalrous protection of the weaker sex would not be a value strong enough to trump the integrity of hospitality for about 2,000 years after this incident. The compromise was that the Levite sent his concubine out alone, and she was raped to death by the men. In anger the next morning the Levite cut his concubine’s corpse into pieces which he sent to the tribes of Israel requesting vengeance. The tribes gathered and Yahweh urged them to war on the Benjaminites, appointing the tribe of Judah to lead the attack. (You know, of course, that Saul was to come from Benjamin and David from Judah.) The united tribes of Israel eventually wholly defeated the tribe of Benjamin, killing all the women, children, and animals and burning all the towns. Six hundred Benjaminite warriors were holding out on a rock fortress at Rimmon, when the elders of Israel suddenly came to their senses. How could they destroy one of the twelve tribes, even if Yahweh had advised it? So, as our text says, they made peace with the remaining Benjaminites, all men. They devised the rape of the virgins of Jabesh-gilead, killing all the men, non-virginal women, and male children of that town; that produced too few women, and they devised the rape of the dancers at Shiloh, all to get wives who could sustain the tribe of Benjamin. Savage as that course of action seems to us, it was a humane improvement on Yahweh’s counsel, which was total genocide of Benjamin. The book ends with the line, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” That refrain had occurred repeatedly in Judges. It meant not only that there was no human king to maintain justice and protect the people. It meant also that Yahweh was no king, as he should have been.

The stories in 1 Samuel of the establishment of kingship need to be seen against the background of this terrible chaos. In a time of similar social chaos in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes argued that a tyrannical despot as king is preferable to the “every one does what is right in their own eyes” principle; this was the theoretical justification for the divine right of kings. How many people in Iraq now long for the bad old days of Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who killed only a few thousand to keep the peace, rather than the American occupation that unleashes Sunnis against Shi’ites and both against foreign invaders (us)? 1 Samuel 8 details the downsides of having kings, and yet Yahweh, Samuel, and the elders of Israel thought kings were worth the price.

You all are studying the intrigues between the traditions of Saul, Samuel, and David. While these are important differences in themselves, to be explained in detail by Prof. Darr, let them be for you a model of the understanding of the tradition within which we work and for which our own works are the next steps. All the different tellings of the story are included in the Bible.

You know that in our time, debates about homosexuality are threatening, divisive, and life-giving to gays and lesbians who want to claim God’s grace for them. I presume you noticed from your reading that Yahweh chose Saul for his beauty and stature, and David equally for his beauty and ruddiness. Saul took David as his shield-bearer, which in warrior societies usually meant apprentice fighter and often sexual companion. His son, Jonathan, also fell in love with David. Father and son had that extraordinary fight in which Saul accused Jonathan of treating his mother as a prostitute, “laying bare her nakedness,” for laying erotic claims on David and volunteering to let David be king before him. As the theologian Ted Jennings has pointed out, all this practice at being the sexual beloved for both Saul and Jonathan prepared David to tame Yahweh when the god was blasting good-hearted people who only wanted to keep his ark from falling off the cart. You remember that when Yahweh killed Uzzah for steadying the ark, David just left the ark where it was and went to Jerusalem; only when wild Yahweh had been tamed, and blessed the household where the ark was stored, did David retrieve it and bring it into Jerusalem, dancing for Yahweh in such a sexual way as to scandalize his wife. Although David’s own sex life was not without flaw, he used Yahweh’s love of him to tame the God. Part of the greatness of David’s kingship was that he seduced Yahweh into behaving more like a kingly god than a deity of impulse who would wipe out Benjamin in a rage. Of course we are dealing with literary depictions of Yahweh, Saul, Jonathan, and David, not with literal history or a theological metaphysics that reduces God to a super-warrior who likes handsome men. But the Bible’s spiritual message is in the literary depiction, not in its putative history or metaphysics.

The case for having a good king is that he not only protects the people and administers justice but can put the cosmos in order, as David corrected Yahweh. By the time of the Christian first century, God was conceived, in at least one line of interpretation, as a wholly just and merciful king of Heaven and Earth, not as impulsive, vindictive, or genocidal. The God of the book of Revelation, who does kill everyone but the saving 144,000, is an anomaly in the New Testament. In a curious way, and despite the representation of human kings as surrogates for the divine king in the books of history, the analogy went from David the good king to God rather than from God to the definition of a good king.

We late modern or postmodern people still do not believe in kings, however. I do not think that the Christian gospel really says that God fundamentally is like a good king and that we should be like loyal subjects, although it has often been expressed that way. So let me take a step back and frame the subject of kingship in a new way. Social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt say that in primitive times certain moral virtues had adaptive survival value, and these became habituated into fairly universal human instincts. There are at least five projects of moral virtue that have this status: the cultivation of care and nurture, of justice and reciprocity, of sharp boundaries of your in-group, of respect for clear hierarchical authority, and of visceral disgust responses to what your group considers impure or unclean. You can see how these virtues would be advantageous when your tribe was in a state of constant competition and often war with its neighbors. As to religion in such conditions, each tribe had its own god or gods. Much of the Hebrew Bible reflects a mature development of this primitive palette of moral virtues. Care and nurture are sharpened to love and mercy. Justice and reciprocity are carefully spelled out. Sharp distinctions with many markers of difference are drawn between the in-group of Israel and the gentile out-groups. The cultivation of hierarchical authority sorted through priest, prophet, and judge to hit upon the Davidic king linked to God. And the elaborate purity/impurity distinctions in Leviticus and elsewhere, while often marking in-group/out-group distinctions, expressed deep-seated visceral responses to what is disgusting in food, sex, clothing, and other matters.

Then around the sixth century bce, in East Asia, South Asia, and West Asia (that is the Mediterranean), a moral and religious sea-change took place that Karl Jaspers labeled the coming of the Axial Age. People in all these areas came to conceive of the cosmos as a whole, not just of their land; they came to conceive of ultimate principles behind the whole, such as the Dao, or a God who creates absolutely everything. They came to see individuals as not defined exclusively by their kinship and tribal affiliations but also by personal relations with God or the Ultimate. This change was associated with the rise of large empires in all these areas, which did at least three things. The empires imposed a common language on top of local languages: Mandarin Chinese, Sanskrit, eventually Koine Greek and Latin in the West. They gave people a more nearly universal citizenship rather than exclusively local affiliations, often moving people around, as St. Paul was a traveling citizen of the Roman Empire. And they by and large kept the peace so that local tribes were not constantly at war with one another. Thus the empires changed the conditions for what moral virtues would be evolutionarily adaptive and advantageous from a time of constant conflict to having to get along with other citizens quite different from one’s local culture. Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, late Zoroastrianism, imperial Greek and Roman paganism, and prophetic Judaism arose in these new conditions, and Christianity and Islam came along in time.

The result was a great strengthening of the moral and religious virtues of the first two sorts: love and justice. All the Axial Age religions profess both in one form or another. The result was also the subtle undermining of the last three moral projects, which were no longer required for survival. The in-group/out-group distinction only causes trouble in a multicultural empire if it is given moral force rather than the force of mere cultural diversity. So Jesus said we should love everyone, and that his true family is all those who love God rather than his kinship family. The gentiles can be brought in to the Church. Hierarchical authority of the tribal sort was called into question—any Roman citizen such as Paul could appeal personally to the emperor, and we all stand equally before God. Although different groups have different codes of purity and impurity, with deep-seated visceral disgust responses, we should not impose ours on others. Jesus and later Peter said all foods are clean, without suggesting that Jews would actually like to eat pork. Jesus associated with women he should not have, even touching them; he dined at least once with the Beloved Disciple in his lap, and no one took exception. The Christian gospel quickly was taken into many different cultures and indigenized in each. I think this is what the Christian gospel is about: the love of all neighbors and the Creator God of all, the establishment of justice in social relations, the rejection of in-group identity in favor of deep gratitude and solicitation for the whole of God’s social and natural creation, the reduction of political authority to pragmatic considerations, whatever works best to sustain a condition of universal peace, and a tolerance of many histories, each with its own set of visceral disgusts.

Of course the Axial Age revolution is not complete, and the Christian gospel has been deeply compromised. Not only have we not loved all that well, nor established universal justice, but we have stumbled on exclusivism that makes Christianity an in-group opposing the other religions as out-groups. We have resorted to hierarchical organizations for the sake of martial efficiency, because the world is not a peaceful place. We have arrogantly imposed our own culture’s visceral intuitions on others.

Nevertheless, I lift up to you my beloved Jesus, a strange kind of messiah, not a king at all in David’s sense. He did not lead the Jews against the Romans. He did not attempt to win a throne. With respect to purity, he said the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath, and he said that those who rail at shameful impurities are rather merely hypocrites with regard to justice. Jesus modeled friendship with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He modeled service to people who are different by healing the centurion’s boy, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, and the madman who lived among people who raised pigs. He modeled teaching with his followers, companionship with his disciples, and love of appropriate sorts with everyone he met. He did not smite foes—he loved them. He did not attack villains—he submitted to crucifixion. He did not fall to defeat in the world’s time—he overcame the world with eternity before he let history take its course. He lived with the eternal God his whole life and in death showed us the way into that eternal divine fellowship. In departing our time, he sent us the Spirit so that we might enter into him and he into us. “Those who eat of my flesh and drink of my blood have eternal life.” The Eucharist of Jesus Christ is no king’s banquet. It is the loving union with God, reversing the bloodthirstiness of kings, in which all justice is revealed, all divisions overcome, all creatures equal in God, and all things clean and pure.


end of content