Monday, August 10, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on Proper 19 Year B

As you will have noticed, dear Readers, this week'es notes are late and incomplete. The reasons were technical, tedious, and beyond my control. However, since I wrote this much, I think I should make it available,
For the next couple of weeks these notes will be on hiatus, as they say in the TV biz, while I take a little vacation. I’ll be back before the end of the month.

2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 30-33. More than any of the sections of the story of King David which we have read so far, this one requires work on the part of those who hear it read in church or have the task of explaining it, because we enter the story at the end, as David sends his troops out against his son Absalom.
Absalom was David’s third son, by Maacah, daughter of Talmai the king of Geshur [2 Sam 3.3, 1 Chron 3.2]. The story of Absalom’s rebellion and downfall is told in 2 Samuel from Chapter 13 to Chapter 18. Very briefly, it goes like this. Absalom’s half-brother Amnon, Davids eldest son, raped Tamar, who was full-sister of Absalom. David was angry, but apparently did not punish Amnon. Absalom nursed his anger for two years, and then orchestrated the murder of Amnon and fled to his grandfather’s kingdom. David’s heart went out to him [2 Sam 13]. Joab, David’s general, realized what his king wanted and contrived Absolom’s return to Jerusalem. though David refused to see his son for a further two years. The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests that it was at this time that Absalom began to plot revolt. At last, by another stratagem, Absalom got Joab to act for him again, and was returned to his father’s good will [2 Sam 14]. Absalom began to put himself in the public eye and court popular favour, and at least assure his own succession. He went on a pretext to Hebron, where he had himself proclaimed king [2 Sam 15.1-12]; When David heard the news of this, and that Absalom has marched on Jerusalem, he fled the city, and escaped across the Jordan with his standing army and begins a military comeback. In Jerusalem Absalom was advised, to “go in to your father’s concubines” which he did “in the sight of all Israel”, thus fulfilling the word of the Lord by the prophet Nathan wich we read last week [2 Sam 16-17, see 12.10-11]. David gathers his army and planned a campaign against his son. His officers politely explained why he should not go out with the troops, probably in order that he stay away from involvement in Absalom’s fate. At this point the passage for today begins.
David’s love for his son is shown first in his order, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” and then in his mourning on the news of Absalom’s death, a cry that conveys his agony across the centuries.
The fight with Absalom took place in the forest of Ephraim. On the detail that “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword,” an old rabbinic comment was that this meant “the wild beasts of the forest. So did Jonathan translate it” [Rashi]. Some commentators describe this forest as a “region of thickets”, but one must presume that there were at least trees with enough larger branches for a rider to be caught by his head. The tradition that Absalom was caught by his luxuriant hair is based on the description of the young man in 2 Samuel 14.25-26
Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish on him. And when he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him he cut it), he weighted the heair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight. (According to the note in NOAB, two hundred shekels would have been roughly five pounds.)
The mule on which Absalom rode [v. 9] was the usual mount for royalty.
By omitting verses 10-14, the lectionary has avoided a possible question of interpretation, since it seems that there are conflicting accounts of the killing of Absalom. It also removes the blame from Joab, though I cannot see why that shold concern us particularly today.
On the level of dynastic and family politics, Absalom’s rebellion should not be seen as something too extraordinary. When kings had many sons and there was no fixed law of succession, the temptation to force the event, as Absalom has done, must be great. At the end of his life, when another son, Adonijah, sought to make himself king, David arranged in a sort of counter-coup that Solomon should be crowned king, so that he could succeed him [1 Kings 1].

Psalm 130 De profundis, Domine, is one of the great penitential Psalms. It is one of the fifteen psalms [120-134] described as “A Song of Ascents” The word is also translates “degrees” or “steps”; the term “Gradual Psalms” is also used: it simply means “pertaining to steps” (from the Latin gradus, a step). The name may come from the use of these psalms by the people on the ascents or goings up to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals (from which they are also known as “pilgrim songs”) or because they were sung by the priests as they ascended the steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem. In the case of this Psalm the ascent is clear in another way: the Psalm begins in depths like the depths of the sea (Isaiah 51.10, Psalm 69.2, 14) and rises to trust in the forgiveness and salvation of the Lord.

The Epistle, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, speaks of our duty as Christians towards our neighbours. Last week the reading ended at 4:16. In the verses omitted from the lectionary St Paul reminds his reader that they “must no longer live as the Gentiles do”; the passage we do read puts it all in a series of positive injunctions. Nonetheless it would be helpful to read the whole of 4.17-5.2 for a more complete sense of his teaching. For us the practical meaning is that we are not to model our lives on the ways of the world. It is not that everything not if the church is bad, rather that we cannot simply assume that the normal way of life is the Christian way of life. Fortunately, concentrating on the positive teaching of 4.25-5.2 is more than enough to be going on with!
It would also be useful to read 5.3-14. since these verses are also omitted from the lectionary: next week we pick up at 5.15. When you have read this passage you might ask yourself why it was omitted. The obvious reason is length: the Sunday readings have to be selective; but might there be other reasons?
The teachings in this passage are fairly straightforward. On 4.26 the NOAB comments: If angry, let it neither be in a sinful spirit nor prolonged and refers to Psalm 4.4 and James 1.19-20. Not all anger is sinful, though, like fire, we must be very careful how we play with it.

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