Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley


Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  II Samuel 5:1-10


I had a conversation with a young man this week. He was the one who brought up Bible study, not me.  He said that he had read a commentary on Markís gospel which ruined him for reading short passages of Scripture.  After reading that commentary, he said, he wants to know what happened before and after a short passage, and how the piece he is reading right now relates to the bigger picture.  Otherwise, he said, he knows that he wonít have any real understanding of the passage right in front of him.  Well, he started it.  So then I had to pile on, with how hard it can be to preach a reasonable length sermon that pays attention to all that Biblical/historical context and also tries to say something about our current life and world. 

Before I begin to talk about context, I remember what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said.  Heschel was one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century.  He said that the Bible is itself a midrash.  Midrash is usually understood as a kind of commentary on Scripture.  Heschel said that Scripture is itself a midrash.  I think he meant two things. 


First that all Scripture comes to us through human experience.  God did not write the words of the Bible with Godís own hands, so the words of Scripture are a commentary on human experience with God.   And secondly, the Bible is a commentary on itself.  It is in conversation with itself.  So there are tensions between one part of the Bible and another part.  Some parts correct other parts. 


So letís try to understand some of the bigger picture around the 10 verses we heard.  The first action here is that the eleven tribes of Israel anoint David as king over them.  This is the third time David has been anointed. We heard about his first anointing last week.  It was when he was just a young shepherd boy and Saul was the reigning king.  Samuel anointed him king in secret, with only his family members looking on as witnesses.  After that, some years passed.  During that time, he continued as the family shepherd, and then as a musician in Saulís court, as soldier for Saul, and also as a mercenary for the Philistines.  Then Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle and Saulís other son, Ishbaal began to reign over Israel.  But Judah, the southern tribe, chose David as their king.  King David and King Ishbaal went to war with each other. And now,  at the point of todayís reading,  Ishbaal has been assassinated and Israel, the tribes of the north, come to David and ask him to reign over them as well.


David has been king of Judah for 7 years.  Now he begins to reign over all 12 tribes as a united kingdom.  The city of Hebron has functioned as his capital city, but when he becomes king of all Israel, he does a politically astute thing.  He decides to create a new capital in a neutral place. 


He decides on Jerusalem.  It is somewhat more centrally located, but more importantly, it is not associated with any one of the tribes.  Instead it is in possession of the Jebusites, a Cannanite clan.  It is one of the ancient places in Canaan that has successfully resisted the advances of the Israelites, until now. 


Verses 6-8 sound very strange, even offensive, to us with what seem like derogatory references to the blind and the lame.  These verses are very hard to translate and scholars disagree about their meaning.  One of the most popular ideas is that Jerusalem was believed to be so strong and secure that even disabled people could defend it.  So the Jebusites taught David and his men with that idea.  And then when they are successful, the taunt gets turned back on the Jebusites Ė they must be blind and lame because David won. 


And there is that strange verse which says, ďthe blind and the lame shall not come into the house.Ē  Some understand this to be a prohibition against the presence of disabled persons in the Temple.  There is no record of that prohibition, although blind or lame persons were forbidden to be priests. 


What are we to make of this?  If this were all we knew about it, we might say that David and his people were simply reflecting their Iron Age sensibilities and that it is not reasonable to judge them by ours.  After all, today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Thatís a wonderful thing, but it has only been 25 years since we enacted that legislation.  Surely we can cut David some slack, since he lived 3,000 years ago. 


But, in fact, this is not all that we know about David.  We also know how he treated Mephibosheth.  Mephibosheth was Jonathanís son.  Jonathan was killed in battle when Mephibosheth was only 5 years old.  Hearing of Jonathanís death, the nurse was afraid that his enemies would come for his family, so she picked up Mephibosheth to run with him and dropped him and he became lame in both legs.  After David became king, he located Mephibosheth, gave him back his family lands, provided servants for him and also invited him to eat at the kingís table. 


There is another translation difficulty in this short passage.  It is the uncertain word that gets translated water shaft.  Again, the most popular understanding among scholars is that David and his men captured Jerusalem more by strategy than by force.  They entered the city through a water shaft and probably took it by surprise.    


The Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the first pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City famously said that no one ever comes to church wondering what happened to the Jebusites.  He was probably right about that; one of you already told me that you never even heard of the Jebusites. 

But I think thatís an important question.  What did happen to the Jebusites?


It appears that, as military events go, there was relatively little loss of life when Jerusalem was captured.  And it appears that the remaining Jebusites simply became part of the population of Jerusalem.  We know this, because later when David wanted a place to make sacrifices to God, he bought land from a Jebusite.  He didnít just take it by right of eminent domain, he paid for it.   So, the Jebusites got to live.  Thatís good. 


But still, the question nags at me. Almost no one has ever heard of the Jebusites.  So what happened to them?  At minimum, it seems, that their culture, their identity got subsumed into Israelís identity.  And how many times has it happened since then, a larger more powerful entity simply claims as its own the homeland of folks already living and breathing and raising families there?   I am troubled by the idea that Godís presence is with David and that is what enables his military success.  I am troubled by preachers and politicians I hear who quote this text to suggest that God will be on their side in certain battles.  


On the other hand, there is something missing from this story.  What is missing is an order to commit genocide.  When the tribes of Israel first came into Canaan, in the book of Joshua, they were ordered to wipe out all the inhabitants.  The inhabitants were specifically listed:  Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and yes, the Jebusites.  This band of Jebusites living in Jerusalem had survived.  David captures their city,  and assimilates them into his culture, but he does not kill them.  And God does not chastise him for it.  The narrator of the story is silent on what seems to be a serious violation of Godís standing orders to wipe out the inhabitants. If God disapproves, we are not told about it. 

And while it is a weak position to argue from silence, I wonder if this is a case of the Bible as midrash, if this part of the Bible is offering a correction to the horrible slaughter and genocide associated with the conquest of Canaan.


So, that was a whole lot of context-setting on a warm Sunday morning.  Thank you for hanging in there.  Beyond learning a few interesting tidbits about David and Israel, you might be thinking, why does any of this still matter to us? 


To answer that, let me pick up one more piece from this story.  What happens after this is that Jerusalem becomes a holy place, the place where God lives, the place where earth and heaven meet.  Just as Moses is associated forever with Mt. Sinai, now David is associated with Mt. Zion. 


Mt. Sinai was the place where God met only with Moses.  It was the place where the ten commandments were given.  The place of defining covenant with God.  Sinai is associated with wilderness and wandering, with early discoveries about God and with a code for morality and justice. 


Mt. Zion becomes the place of the Temple.  It is associated with being settled in place, with priests and kings.  You might think that Mt. Zion takes the place of Mt. Sinai, but it doesnít.  The community continues to know God through a life of observance of the commandments.  When the people and the kings go astray, the prophets appeal to the covenant on Mt. Sinai to call them back.  But. . . Mt. Zion also becomes a cosmic place.   If Sinai represents instructions for a particular, peculiar people, Zion represents an open future for all, a place where foreigners will be welcome and those once formally excluded will be included.  Isaiah describes it as a place where all nations shall stream, to learn the ways of peace.


Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, says that Israel lives between these two mountains.  I would suggest that we also live between these two mountains, between these two ways of making sense of our faith in the world.  On the one hand, we can find in the Bible various lists of rules, lists of doís and donít to give necessary structure and moral order to our lives.  On the other hand, we can also find glimpses of a God who is not so easily defined, a future that is less structured, more open, where God overcomes divisions of the past and moves people towards healing and wholeness.  Which mountain do we choose?    I suggest that many of the conflicts between Christians today are because we are camped out on different mountains.


I think that if we see the Bible as midrash, if we understand that human understanding unfolds throughout the Bible and beyond, we might be more likely to choose the vision of Mt. Zion, to see that Godís future is still open.  We might be more willing to say with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters that ďthere is yet more light to break from Godís word to us.Ē  Or more simply, with our UCC friends, that ďGod is still speaking.Ē 


ďIf Davidís city begins with exclusion of the lame and the blind, [if it begins with conquest and domination] this is not where it ends.  The vision of Jerusalem expands to become inclusive of all human hopes and possibilities:  John of Patmos says ĎI saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . See the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. . . .Ē [1]


ďIn the Bible there are competing visions of what human community should become. The bible offers us multiple clear visions of a future to pursue, but not all are alike. It invites, entices, cajoles us into choosing. The choice remains ours.  Which vision?  Which mountain?Ē [2] 




[1] Bruce C. Birch, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. II,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1998),  p. 1238


[2] The language of this paragraph and the summary of Jon Levenson comes from conversation with  the Rev. David Cobb, pastor at Spirit of Joy, Lakeville, MN