Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of kings and temples

I'm intrigued by the way Israelite kingship works. Permission to appoint a king "like all the nations that are around" is given in Deuteronomy 17, along with some laws about the king's behaviour. These laws do serve to differentiate Israelite from pagan kingship. The king of Israel is the Lord's deputy, bound by his law. But a king nevertheless. The book of Judges seems at first glance to add to the impression that Israel is not only permitted a king, but needs a king. Without a king, everyone does what is right in his own eyes, and social and religious chaos ensues. Gideon's misgivings (Judges 8:23) seem to be the minority report.

But when the people ask for a king, using words that are almost a citation of Deuteronomy 17, they are condemned as having rejected the Lord as king over them (1 Sam 8:7). Odd. And even more odd that they are granted a king anyway. The first two kings - Saul and David - in different ways embody the ambiguity attached to the office. It is never absolutely clear whether it is good for Israel to have a king or not.

Something similar happens with the temple. When David suggests building it, his court prophet is initially in favour. But God's reaction is essentially to say 'whoever said I wanted a house?' (2 Sam 7). It sounds like a rebuff. The Lord doesn't need a house; he's happy in his tent. And yet it is followed by the promise that, although David cannot build the temple, Solomon his son will do just that. The ambiguity surrounding the temple is in many ways deeper than that surrounding the king. This is God's house, but even the king who built it must confess that heaven and the highest heaven could not contain the Lord - how much less a human building! As the history of Israel rumbles on, the clearing of the temple by good kings and its desecration by bad ones becomes a running theme. And behind that, the presence of the temple fosters false security. Is the temple, at the end of the day, good for Israel or not?

A couple of theological questions off the back of that:
1. If this isn't about Jesus, what on earth is it about?
2. Is there something inherently dangerous to God's people about fixed structures and 'settling down'? (Think about the tabernacle vs. the temple, the judges vs. the king).

7 comments:

  1. Yep. Puzzling. 1st thoughts
    - boss is an intruiging character to consider the lord's kingship in days without a king
    - I'm increasingly convinced that the 'house' language is supposed to be heard as a double engender. House as household, hence the shock of psalm 127 in vain you rise early to build... *sons are a heritage from the LORD...

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  2. Flipping auto correct!
    Meant Boaz!

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  3. And entendre, not engender
    *sigh...lessons learnt

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  4. I dare say you're right about the house thing, Chris. At least some of the time (2 Sam 7) that is pretty much explicit in the text, and other times it could well be in the background. And I agree too that Boaz shows one of the few positive examples of Israel under the Lord as King.

    But it all just heightens the tension in the narrative, I think, and forces us to look beyond the confines of the OT to find its meaning. I guess that doesn't surprise me as a Christian, but it does make me wonder how these texts function as Jewish scripture...

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  5. "Is there something inherently dangerous to God's people about fixed structures and 'settling down'?"

    Yes, but that doesn't mean we're not to do it (which would be way too convenient for the things our culture adores - informality, spontaneity, lack of structure and hierarchy, anti-institutionalism). Whatever it is you're doing/ whatever type of era or stage of the story you live in there are temptations and pitfalls specific to where you're at.

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  6. As someone once said - if you enroll in a maths class you expect maths problems.

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  7. You must be right, Pete, because the narrative is pretty clear that not having structures was devastating for Israel - Judges, for example. I guess there are correctives here for whatever our potential errors are.

    The Christological point must have some bearing on this - I guess our structures and our lack of structure must all have some relation to Christ. So, not just following or reacting against the surrounding culture. Need to think through what that means in practice a bit more, though.

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