Scheming House and Family of David

Article excerpt

When I hear the Advent and Christmas liturgy rejoicing in naming Jesus as son of David and claiming for him David's family heritage, I always ache a little. Because when you look at family realities--rather than at military and political realities, at which David excelled--there could hardly be a more poignant symbol of "adopting trouble" than being born into "the house and family of David."

In many ways, David was a magnificent man: generous, loyal, affectionate, gifted and full of life. He was a comradely freedom fighter, an ardent religious believer, and a dedicated if increasingly confused king. But David was a shatteringly unsuccessful father. He was terrible at bringing up boys. And if I'm counting the lists in 2 Samuel correctly, he had seventeen sons, so his lack of fatherly prudence was, well, magnified.

It's not that he didn't care. Far from being a cold father, David seems to have been insanely indulgent with his grown-up sons. O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son! That famous lament of David was over a handsome traitor-son who had schemed against him, lied to him and then died fighting him for the throne. David's raw uncontrollable grief shocked and enraged his own officers, who had just risked their lives trying to undo the damage Absalom had unleashed on the country.

In a similar vein, the story of Amnon (in 2 Samuel 13), David's firstborn who entrapped his half-sister Tamar, then raped her, then threw her out into a ruined future is a chronicle of gross male self-in-dulgence and of a spoiled child. David's response to all this is inexcusable: When King David heard of [the rape], he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. The king, anointed to be responsible for justice, refuses to do justice, blinded as he is by a doting favouritism. That leaves justice to be done by stealth and violence, in a way that presages a whole future of bloody intrigue.

What a change from David's original condition! When we first meet David, in the beautifully crafted text of 1 Samuel 16, he's a model son in a hardworking sheep-ranching family in the rough hills of Judea. He's gusty and spirited, but he's also obedient, disciplined, profoundly responsive to urgent adult concerns. So how do we leap to the elitism and self-indulgence of the royal family in Jerusalem a few decades later? …