Monday, May 20, 2013

James 3&4 - Two Tales of Kings, War & Peace, Greed & Righteousness

Despite being called a beloved man after the heart of God, even having a king like David was not God’s best for the people of ancient Israel. The nation was ruled by the Law of Moses, a radically just law that directed all of their economic and social practices. Its instructions were righteous and just, showing great mercy to the poor and the marginalized, and had provisions to regularly correct any wealth disparity that could arise among the people, cancelling all debts and redistributing the land equally among all the families once a generation. This was all administered without a king or an army as the nations around them had. They were a unique and set-apart nation, manifesting an alternative community that spoke of the justice and mercy of the God they served.

But, the people were not satisfied. Of the prophet Samuel, they demanded a king (1 Samuel 8). Even after warning the people that to choose to be ruled by a king would mean oppression and violence and injustice, the people still demanded that they have one, saying that they wanted to be great and powerful like the nations around them. Samuel reluctantly made the request of their God, Yahweh. Though it was not God’s best, a king was chosen.

That king was Saul, a tall and handsome and strong man in the eyes of the people. Soon after Saul became king, all that God had warned the nation about through Samuel came to pass. Saul was unrighteous, unstable, unjust, and cruel. During Saul’s reign, Samuel anointed the young shepherd boy, David, according to God’s direction, to succeed Saul as king and lead the nation in righteousness. This young shepherd was the one to defeat the Philistine giant, Goliath. In the years following that victory, a bitter jealousy toward David drove Saul nearly mad. Just as David entered his thirties, after surviving bitter civil war and social unrest in his nation, and after mourning the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, David was anointed king (2 Samuel 5:1-5).

The first tale: David the King and Araunah’s Threshing Floor

David’s first act as king was to secure his capital city, Jerusalem, the city that would be called his stronghold and is named for him to this day (2 Samuel 5:6-7). The battle he fought was against the Jebusites, an indigenous people that had lived in the area even before the Israelites arrived.

Who Were the Jebusites?

The nation of Israel based their claim on the land of Canaan on a promise given by God to their ancestor Abraham. Genesis, their first book of the Law of Moses, gives one account of this promise wherein the Jebusites are actually mentioned by name. In Genesis 15:18-21, God names the Promised Land by its inhabitants, including a promise to give Abraham the land of the Jebusites (v21). This was a promise that would wait a long time to be fulfilled, but over 500 years later, under the command of Joshua, Abraham’s descendants did indeed take the land that God had promised, including the land of the Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 20:17, Joshua 11:3, 14-15).
After Joshua’s army successfully takes the land God had promised to them 500 years before, it is divided among Israel’s tribes for their families to settle and make their home. The Jebusite region is given by God to Judah, David’s ancestors. The Israelites call the land Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8, 24:11-13). The new inhabitants share the land with the remaining indigenous Jebusite people (Joshua 15:63).

*(See note after the main text for more on Israel's occupation of the Jebusite's land.)

The Jebusites and David’s Capital City

So, many years later, when David secures Jerusalem as his capital city, he does so with the belief that the land is his to take. From his perspective it is three times legally his, first as an Israelite by the promise given to Abraham, secondly as a descendant of Judah, the traditional tribal inheritors of the land, and finally as the king who must secure his capital. From David’s perspective, he is the righteous and legal occupant of the city, and the Jebusites are the visitors. If David was to follow the Law of Moses, those Jebusites who remained among them should have been treated with the same justice and generosity as any of the Israelites in the land (Numbers 9:14 and 15:16). Evidence suggests that David himself did in fact respect this law, and this evidence forms the main episode of this story.

David, the King of Israel 
and Araunah, the Jebusite Native

David’s reign in Israel and corresponding relationship with Israel’s God was a lifetime of tumultuous, passionate wrestling on the boundary dividing righteous, just life and rule from hedonism and corrupt dictatorship. His stories are tragedies often told, repeated for how they so often may remind us of our own walks of faith. Despite his many failures, the story of David’s life is punctuated often with his true repentance, submitting himself to God’s righteous judgment and humbly receiving God’s undeserved mercy.

His life is a model for many a believer in the God of David. Though we fail often, the path to Salvation is laid by the only Just One who may judge us fallen, the Merciful One who in our faith-filled repentance calls us the redeemed.

Near the end of David’s life (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21) is a story of one of David’s many mistakes in his life and leadership. In his arrogance he tells the commanders of his army to count all the people in Israel who can fight, probably in preparation for a war or conquest in order to grow his empire outside of God’s instruction. David insists that the commanders do this even after being reminded that God would not be pleased. Just as David had experienced many times before, God did judge him for his sin, afflicting David’s land with a pestilence. As usual, David responds with true repentance, throwing himself before God and asking that the judgment be placed on him alone as the guilty person, not on the people. In his intercession David reminds us of his descendant, Messiah Jesus, called “The Son of David”, who took God’s judgment in our place.

This place where David repented was Mount Moriah, the same place where his ancestor Abraham had been showed God’s mercy when he was stopped from offering his son, Isaac, in obedience to God’s test of his faith (Genesis 22:1-18). Here, too, we are reminded of Messiah Jesus who took our place as the Ram took Isaac’s place on the altar.

But even before David had made his plea, God had already mercifully relented. Here David stood on a high point between earth and heaven, twice the place of God’s mercy, the threshing floor of Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite.

In David’s moment of humility, God tells him to erect an altar of sacrifice on this high place of mercy. And so David, King of Israel, son of Judah, son of Abraham, approaches Araunah the Jebusite Native to possess his land. David was a powerful man, to speak conservatively. He had in fact just finished a census of his army, so he knew just how powerful he was. Besides being able with hardly a thought to take Araunah’s land by force, he could likely have justified his actions at least three times. The land was his by his birthright of the promise of Abraham. It belonged to his family according to the historical division by Joshua. And now, he was being commanded by God to build an altar on this land.

But he does not take it.

Araunah was threshing wheat on a high place where the wind could easily blow the chaff away, likely on his most valuable piece of land, when he was approached by David. He prostrates himself when he sees the king coming. But instead of demanding the land from this Jebusite, David asks for it, and offers to pay full price. Araunah responds by offering not only his land but his tools for building and his produce and animals for the sacrifice, all for free. David refuses. Instead, David says that he must pay him full price because he “will not take for the LORD what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)

In his moment of humility and surrender, though he had the ability and justification to take whatever he wished, David insisted on paying full price for a piece of land from a Jebusite, a conquered people, though he was being offered the land for free.

In sharp contrast to this story is our second story of a king, King Ahab and Naboth’s Vineyard.

           ☠  part 2>>>

*(A note on  Israel’s occupation of the Jebusite’s land.)

This part of the story may be hard to swallow, and I can completely appreciate why this is so. The people of Israel did go into a land already inhabited, and took it by force from those who lived there. But for the sake of this story it is included to help us best understand King David’s relationship with the Jebusites. When God promised the land to Abraham in Genesis 15, he also said that the long wait before Joshua’s capture was to allow the sins of the inhabitants to become full (v16). God’s instructions to Joshua were such that this may be seen as a holy war, God using Abraham’s descendants to judge the unjust inhabitants of the land of Canaan. While the text tells us that Joshua utterly defeated every one of the Jebusites in obedience to God’s instruction (Joshua 11:14-15), it later tells us that the Jebusites continued to live in the land alongside the Israelites (Joshua 15:63). This may mean that God’s instruction applied only to the Jebusites that were hostile, such as the actual army (who attacked Israel first in Joshua 11:3, before they were wiped out), but such interpretations are far beyond the intention of this book or this story. It is sufficient to know that the Jebusites were living in the land that the Israelites called Jerusalem, continued to live there until David’s day, and continued to live there as a foreign, occupied people when David set up his throne as king in their territory. If the people of Israel were following the Books of the Law, these Jebusites that remained among them should have been treated with equality and respect, under the same laws and with the same privileges as the Israelites themselves (Numbers 9:14 and 15:16). Whether or not this law was followed, we do not know.

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