Rich and Storied
April 6, 2014
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
The First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words from The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich
‘Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Story Samson and Delilah ( Judges 16 )
Samson, who eventually ruled Israel for 20 years, was born at a time when the Israelites were in trouble with their God. They had escaped Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and Moses had even received the commandments, but the people were misbehaving again, and so God put the Philistines in charge of them. This was a pretty nasty thing to do, since the Philistines were the Israelites number one enemy. But – not to worry – Samson came to save his people. Even before he was born, his destiny was to free Israel from the Philistines. His mother received a message from an angel, telling her that she was going to have a special child, and that she should eat right and drink only water until the baby came; and then she should do two things: One, never, ever cut his hair; and two, never eat grapes, or anything that comes from them. No raisins, no grape juice, no wine. If she followed those rules, and taught him to also, his life would be dedicated to God, and Samson would be unbelievably strong.
And he was! Samson actually killed a lion with his bare hands, without even trying! He could fight a thousand men on his own, and win. It made the Philistines crazy! They could not understand his powers.
One day, Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who lived in a valley ruled by Philistines. The rulers went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength. We will give you bags and bags of silver if you can.”
So Delilah simply asked Samson if anything could weaken him, and he told her “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
So the rulers of the Philistines brought Delilah seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them, and she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame.
Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.” Twice more this happened –Samson told her that if he were tied with brand new ropes, he would be weak; that if the braids on his head were woven on a loom, he would be trapped. But this was not true, as Delilah discovered when her loom was reduced to twigs.
Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.
So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been dedicated to God since before I was born. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”
Delilah sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, and they returned with the silver in their hands, and hid. Delilah sang Samson to sleep like a child, then called the men to shave off the seven braids of his hair. And his strength left him.
She called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him.
Then the Philistines seized him, and shackled him, and took him down to a prison in Gaza, where they set him to grinding grain. But the hair on his head began to grow again, and so he did not stay in prison for too awfully long.
Reading “Power” from The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power. ”
Reading David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent out the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. One evening he got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.” Then David sent messengers to get her, and he slept with her, and then sent her back home. Soon she sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent for Uriah, and when Uriah came, David asked him how the war was going, and then said, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left, but he did not go to his house. Instead he slept at the entrance to the palace, with all the servants.
Informed of this, David asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just come from a military campaign? Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents,and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”
Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”
So Joab did as he was told, and Uriah died, along with some others. Joab wrote David a full account of the battle, and sent a messenger to Jerusalem to give the report.
When Bathsheba heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. But after the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.
As a kid, I occasionally watched a stop motion show called Davey and Goliath, which came on right before or right after Gumby – that green, bendy guy whose head was cut on an angle, and who had a best friend named Pokey – a red donkey. Davey and Goliath were a similarly odd pair – a boy and his dog, and the dog was almost like a Mr Rogers presence – wise, calm, with a very slow and deliberate voice. Only we viewers and Davey could hear Goliath talk – the other characters on the show couldn’t hear him. Although it was meant as a reassuring program, my cousin once told me that it freaked her out, because in the opening music she detected a chant with the words “God is everywhere, God is everywhere.” It made her afraid to go to the bathroom.
One consequence of this show was a familiarity with the term David and Goliath without knowing the original story, which is from the Hebrew Bible, and is also told in the Koran (Surat 2:246-251). Goliath in that story is not a dog, and he is definitely not David’s friend. He is the champion warrior in the Philistine army – the deadliest enemies of Israel. He has better armor, better weapons, better everything – David has a slingshot and five stones. Guess who wins? A rock to the forehead, Goliath goes down, David cuts off his head, and carries the trophy back to Jerusalem. The enemy is vanquished and David is a hero. The rest is history. The boy who would be King.
The David and Goliath story is used as a cultural reference whenever we are talking about winning against the odds. Malcolm Gladwell twists it a little further in his recent book, saying that our problems are not problems – they are gifts that make us creative and determined. Difficulties are desirable, says Gladwell, and will make you a success, and the world more beautiful. This may or may not be true, but I am not sure it has much of anything to do with the story of defeating Goliath, which is really setting up David’s role as king of Israel. He fights the giant to impress Saul – the first king of the Israelites; the one who has united the tribes, and who really is a king by divine right. David’s plan both succeeds and backfires, because Saul is impressed to the point of jealousy. He chases David up hills, and through valleys. They remain bitter enemies, even though they are on the same side. But then Saul is in the grips of a depression so severe he can barely function. He is alive, yet abandoned by every hint of life. It is utter desolation, probably at least partially because of the way David manipulates things and manages to turn everything his way. Guess who cures Saul? David comes with his harp, and soothes the old king’s mind with music. Oh, and through it all, David has a best friend and soulmate – who is none other than Saul’s son, Jonathan.
All this is to say that the Biblical portrait of King David is confusing. Which is weird, because he is the central figure in the story. He is the king against whom everyone is measured. God described him as “a man after my own heart,” — a little concerning given how David summoned women and disposed of their husbands. What is he supposed to stand for? Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is what got me wondering. The verses carry us from David playing for Saul, to David on the roof spying Bathsheba, to Samson and Delilah, then there’s a holy dove, and then a blaze of light in every word, although the verses change at times. Apparently Cohen originally had 83 verses to the song, and couldn’t get it just right, but once he paid for recording time he became highly efficient, and edited as he sang. I want to know what he left out – but what he gave us is compelling. For me it is both the music itself and the story being alluded to that are irresistible.
When I was in theological school, in the 1980s, there was general acknowledgement that the Bible was no longer the binding agent it once was, but not much clarity on what might replace it. One major topic was defining a repository of literature that we could draw upon with a reasonable expectation of familiarity. Some of us needed stories – not just principles – as part of our shared identity. We never resolved this issue. Many people were satisfied with the abstract ideals, and with the freedom to choose our own sources of wisdom. We used the term, “Loose leaf Bible,” meaning we built our own individual notebooks, adding and subtracting texts from all over. Respect for diversity and openness to new encounters cancelled out the possibility of a defined canon, or a shared story. The idea that old-fashioned Bible stories were critically important did not get too far. If a professor said they were a common language in our culture and we needed to know them, we mostly thought the culture was wrong and needed to change.
But then Leonard Cohen sings about this baffled king, or Dave Matthews writes a song in which he begs a bartender to fill his glass with the same wine he gave Jesus, the kind that set him free after three days down in the ground, and I grow curious. I am pretty sure there are no bartenders in the New Testament, just like there were no kitchen chairs fourteen centuries ago, when Samson was protecting Israel. But somehow these songs blend our lives into old, old stories, and I want to understand why they seem to be saying something that speaks to me. There is hope, too, that all the things that divide us can be bridged, that we do share something essential. Faith never comes from just resisting the culture. We have to transform it, in our own lives. And we can’t do that without, in some way, taking part in the stories.
The thing is, so many of the stories repeated in traditional religion are told as if they mean a specific thing. Even today, if you do a little quick research on King David, you will learn that Bathsheba tempted him; that because of her, David had to kill a man. Delilah, too, is blamed for Samson’s downfall. The critics say he loved her, but she betrayed him, and worse yet, she did it for money! And this is what makes having shared stories so problematic. It gets easy to lose interest when you read about Saul giving David first one daughter, then another; then taking her back and giving her to someone else. Women get used, and then blamed for everything, and the men are not exactly admirable. None of it feels relevant, let alone religious.
But the stories don’t read the way they are talked about at all; at least not to me. Samson does not come off as someone who is being lied to. He just seems stupid. He was sleeping with the enemy, and she kept asking him the secret to his power. How much more of a clue did he need? When I read the story this morning I left out a line, in which the Philistines gouge out his eyes. It didn’t seem like a good ending. But in terms of literature, it is symbolic – this man was blind in his behavior, and then he was literally blinded. And I think its pretty clear from the text that Bathsheba was stolen from her home by a peeping Tom who had the entire army at his disposal; that she had no real power to control what happened to her. David had her husband killed, and then made her marry him. The text does not blame her, it blames him, saying the Lord was displeased with David, and sent a prophet to say so. Nathan says “The Lord made you king in place of Saul, and gave you everything, but you have been wicked, and it is you who killed Uriah, even though it was done with other men’s swords. You did it to take his wife, and now, because of what you have done, everyone will suffer.”
So then my question becomes, what does it mean to have David as a central figure in western religions? He is a major prophet in Islam, partially because his defeat of Goliath is heroic, but mostly because the Psalms are understood as direct revelations from Allah. Christians emphasize the part about a humble non-royal boy from Bethlehem who only has a slingshot and a few stones to his name. He becomes proof that Jesus – that baby born out back amid the animals — was sent to rule – and indeed, Jesus is descended from David. But obviously that isn’t what the story meant to the Jews who wrote it and kept it in their sacred book. Why would the most important king be the one who displeased the Lord and caused everyone to suffer? David was powerful; that much is clear. He gathered the disparate settlements of Judah into a nation, took command of vast territories, and made Jerusalem into a religious center. But that doesn’t really explain why he, out of all the kings, is the one that God calls “a man after my own heart.” Why not Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived?
The fact is that David’s achievements for himself and for Israel meant that he sacrificed pretty much every value that we think decent. He may have been devoted to God in a single-minded way, but he was not a nice guy, and I am not saying that based only on how he acquired Bathsheba, or based on today’s standards. He behaved a lot like some of the political leaders we are horrified by; marching in with mercenaries and displacing ethnic groups, removing the ark of the covenant from its sanctuary and installing it near his palace. The people, in a kind of “Occupy Jerusalem” movement led by David’s own son Absalom, did actually try to get rid of him; but David had spies and double agents and a professional, paid army. The rebellion ended with Absalom hanging lifeless from a tree, and David restored to the throne. He cried for his son, said he wished it had been him instead, but it seems safe to say he only felt that way after the deed was done. He could not stop being King.
Maybe that is what Leonard Cohen was saying in his song. He can’t stop being himself, even when he does things he doesn’t like; even when it makes him lonely. What I see in David is a person who was a conqueror – but only of things outside himself. He could slay giants, and men; he could take wives; he could move settlements and capture nations. He could write songs to soothe men nearly mad with the price of leadership. But he never did seem able to control himself. He could overpower, outwit, and tranquilize others, but he, personally, was on a huge rollercoaster ride, and he could not get off. And he knew it. He knew that despite his strength and position, he was also powerless. Captivity is not necessarily external; not about being tied with ropes or chains. It can be about what drives you; what you let rule you. The throne can make you a prisoner, if you buy into the propaganda that got you there. This is the figure that mirrored God; the man whose heart God recognized and understood.
Clergy and scholars have written thousands of volumes on David over the centuries, and Leonard Cohen wrote 83 verses to his song, so clearly we are not going to exhaust the subject today. That really isn’t our goal, is it? We want to embody this sense of a minor fall followed by a major lift; of hope that is not sentimental; that acknowledges our genuine, even if failed, attempts to love and connect and do right. We all want to feel that, don’t we – the notion of our stumbles being smaller than the things that pull us forward? Otherwise we are forsaken; journeying but never making any progress. We don’t need perfection. We just need to recognize that we are made weak by the same things that give us the power to continue; that make us who we are.
The story of David is only part of Leonard Cohen’s song, anyway. Maybe its actually about the word hallelujah, repeated over and over until it becomes an incantation. It draws us in, casts a spell – all the while telling us that hallelujah is broken. In Christianity, hallelujah is a common word, and it is simply praise for God. It is an interjection; a one word expression used frequently. But in Judaism, which is Cohen’s tradition, it is a different story. The word appears in only one section of the Hebrew Bible: the Psalms. Even there, it is rare – only fifteen psalms use this word, and it is a direction, giving instruction to the congregation. In Hebrew, hallelujah is a plural verb. It says, everybody, join in, and sing this part. It tells you to be active, to participate, and it creates a communal expression. It tells you that even though you may be in a barren place and feel alone, you are in that place with others. They are sitting right next to you, broken and holy, together. The word might be shattered as it dragged from our lips, but as it breaks open, the light blazes, and the music….. well, the music heals, and lifts us up.
So may it be.
Closing Words from Diving into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich
First the air is blue
and then it is bluer
and then green
and then black…..
the sea is another story…. you breathe differently down here.
the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
This is the place. And I am here,
Circling, with you.