Moral Sense vs. Moral of Story

Yes, back to my Scriptural hobby-horse.  Take four scenes from I-II Samuel (I’ll lump them as one book-one author for now; I can work the same angle even if that’s not a legit move):

I Sam 14: Saul’s Stupid Oath Snares Son Jonathan

I Sam 25: Wise Wife Intercedes for Foolish Husband

II Sam 12: Failure On Top of Failure for David

II Sam 24: David Finally Learns The Lesson On Intercession

The moral of the story is the power of intercession.  The people of Israel take Jonathan’s death sentence upon themselves, dissolving it.  Abigail goes out to meet David to stop him from fulfilling his oath to slaughter Nabal for his pointless insult.  David compounds his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah by not interceding to save the life of his son.  Finally, at the end of David’s saga, he intercedes and takes upon himself the curse of Israel (the plague that he himself had brought upon the people), dissolving it.

Humans can ward off even a curse of death by placing themselves between the doomed and his doom.  Indeed, it is quite remarkable how much this priestly action features in the narrative of the founding of Israel’s royalty.  No surprise there: the monarchy is depicted in priestly terms and David’s legitimate priesthood (and kingship) contrasts with Saul’s illegitimate sacrifices (and kingship).  That’s the simple way to compare the two: David is a priest-king, Saul is a worldly king.  That, and David repents of his mistakes and (slowly) learns the right path.  I knew not how wise I was to take David as my confirmation saint long ago!

Now intercession is a theological topic, and of course has huge ramifications for understanding the New Testament.  But this is not a moral sense reading of I-II Samuel.  It’s the literal sense, clearly intended directly by the human author.  You don’t need the eyes of faith to see that this is the point of the story itself.  It’s all of a piece with David being cast in the mold of Moses and Aaron, all the covenant mediator tests and allusions, all the little details of the story that turn out to matter a lot.  Part of that package is the moral of the story (or a moral, anyway), just like Aesop’s fables.

The moral sense, by contrast, does require the eyes of faith to see–or at least to really see, since I can just say it or explain it to anyone.  Once we start meditating on how these books instruct us on living out the life of grace, things really take off.  What if I told you–

Hang on, let’s do this right:

Samuel Purgatory Meme

These books, in the spiritual sense, are about our universal priesthood that we have by virtue of our baptism.  Our basic priestly action is not to offer the sacrifice of the mass, but to intercede for each other.  And this is not just pious sentimentality or “I’ll  be there in spirit” flim-flam.  Fundamentally this is about the communion of saints and our ability–and obligation, and privilege–to take upon ourselves the suffering of the holy dead.  Any time you are seeing intercession in the Old Testament, you are seeing someone standing at the line between life and death and sacrificing himself or herself.  It’s an easy step, supernaturally speaking, to see purgatory, communion of saints, indulgences, and the rest.

It also puts a new light on one of David’s perplexing actions.  He fasts and prays for his dying son (so he’s not all bad), but only until the child is dead.  Prayers for the dead avail not the damned.  We’ve actually got a complete doctrine of the four last things in these books!  Sometimes the spiritual senses actually make more sense than the literal, or rather the difficult passage makes more sense at the spiritual level.

So, to recap:

Moral of Story: Israel’s kings are priests, intercession is a real deal, think Moses and Aaron

Moral Sense: pray for the souls in purgatory

As a final aside, I have long debated whether or not spiritual senses can ever be intended by the human author.  That’s really a post for another day, but I don’t always feel like I’m standing on solid ground when I assume that a proper moral sense reading would have to be a surprise to the human author.  But at least as a rule of thumb it seems right, and in this case it feels right.

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4 thoughts on “Moral Sense vs. Moral of Story

  1. I don’t really see how the people “take Jonathan’s death sentence upon themselves.” It looks to me like they just tell Saul to his face that they’re not going to let it happen, Magna Carta style.

    What did you have in mind with that phrase in their particular case?

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