1 Samuel 15:1-3, 8, 10-17, 24-25+Psalm 146+(Revelation 1:4-6)+Mark 6:14-29
Every three years in the cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, a plan of Sunday readings followed by most Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches throughout the world, there is a series of four Sundays that are drawn from the 6th chapter of John, known as the “Bread Discourse.” It’s all about Jesus as bread of life, living bread, and every time this series of readings rolls around, preachers everywhere go scrambling to find something new to say about it. I mean, who can talk about bread for four weeks straight?
Well, we are not currently using the Revised Common Lectionary and we are not in Year B of that lectionary where the bread discourse appears, but the lectionary we are using by Professor Wil Gafney has its own discourse. This one is about kings. Specifically, Kings Behaving Badly@, as I have named it. We have been following the end of the period of the judges who ruled Israel and entered into the part where the people demand a king, they get one, and, well, it doesn’t go so well. In the gospel, we either have more examples of wicked kings or the contrast of the kind of “king” Jesus represented. Today, we have wicked kings all around.
Or do we?
Last week, I said that I thought King Saul had been set up for failure. The emphasis in selecting him was on his physical appearance rather than whether or not he would make a good king. He didn’t. But in our reading today, he actually does something good.
This part of 1st Samuel follows in the tradition of the book of Joshua where the text tells us that God commanded that entire nations of people be destroyed. In short, God orders genocide. Do I believe that God did that? No, I don’t, but you have to know a lot about historical and textual criticism (a discipline of scripture study) to arrive at a point of understanding that Israel somehow came into possession of a strip of land on the eastern Mediterranean that had previously been the home for other people.
The Amalekites were one group of people who stood in their way. They may have been descended from Esau, and they were believed to be able to shape shift, to inhabit the bodies of animals (just in case you’re wondering why the flocks were supposed to be destroyed, too). Samuel tells Saul that God has ordered that the entire people and all their possessions be destroyed. But Saul doesn’t do it, at least not fully. He spares the king of the Amalekites and the best of the flocks in order to make a sacrifice. And Samuel rebukes him for it! Saul repents, but in the very next section, Samuel tells him that God has rejected him, and Samuel himself kills Agag, king of the Amalekites.
Everything after this is a descent into madness for Saul. So, maybe Saul wasn’t all bad. Maybe the fault lay at the feet of Samuel, the one so revered among the people.
There is, however, no ambiguity in the badness of Herod. This is Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, best remembered for the death of John the Baptist and his part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Even though Mark seems to believe that Herod regretted his promise to give anything to his daughter in exchange for pleasing his banquet guests with a dance, Herod does not merit any sympathy. He was brutal. And one of the reasons he was so despised was that he was supposed to be one of them, a Jew, and yet he was a mere puppet of Rome.
The beheading of John has inspired an abundance of art and music through the centuries which is ironic, but in keeping with Dr. Gafney’s focus on women in her lectionary, I want to dig a little bit into this story of Herodias, Herod’s daughter, and her dance because, through history, the implication has been that her seductive performance caused John’s death rather than Herod’s attempt to save face in front of his guests.
As the story goes, Herod divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife (who was also his niece), and John took every opportunity to tell him that this was a violation of Jewish law. And the wife, Herodias, did not take kindly to this and wanted John killed, but apparently Herod didn’t want to do that. So, when this banquet takes place, Herodias (the wife not the daughter) finds an opportunity to get what she wants.
The legends that have accumulated over this dance are beyond number. The Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome (which is the name an early historian gave the daughter). She is a temptress, a seductress, and she and her scheming mother are at fault.
Friends, I have issues with this.
Is there an older misogynist trope than the nagging housewife? The one who badgers her husband until she gets her way?
If Herod wanted his daughter to dance, she danced. Do you really think a young girl in the 1st century had any say in the matter? That it has come down to us – from film to play to Strauss’s full-length opera – as Salome playing the seductress, while perhaps a titillating story, is really just one more example of a young woman subject to the whims of the man who controlled her.
Going back to Saul, before I rehabilitate him too much, he spared the king and the animals but not the women and children. I had to consult with my friend, Rabbi Rob Scheinberg of United Synagogue, to see if there is any charitable reading of all of this in Jewish tradition, and there really isn’t. Rob believes that Samuel gave Saul bad advice, and everything deteriorates from there. Rob referred me to an essay by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber that claims that Samuel misunderstood God, and that we often misunderstand God. Buber wrote, “Always when I have to translate or to interpret a Biblical text, I do so with fear and trembling, in an inescapable tension between the word of God and the word of man.”
So, where is the Good News in all of this? As the 650 or so bishops in the Anglican Communion meet in Canterbury this week and next under the backdrop of disputes over same sex marriage (as I wrote in my newsletter essay this week), it is helpful to be reminded that a straight interpretation of scripture is not always sufficient to understanding. You can’t just say “it’s right there in black and white,” because that fails to take into account translation choices and cultural norms and why some of these stories were told in the first place. The early Jewish rabbis began the process of Midrash, drawing a wider story out of what is in the text, trying to make sense of it in their own contemporary terms, and I believe we have to continue to do this.
And where does that act of interpretation stop? As our presiding bishop Michael Curry often says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” So ,in those places where we find genocide and violence and abuse, I invite us all to go deeper, to turn the story over in our hands and hearts, to wonder if maybe we misunderstood, and to always, always come out on the side of love.