Priesthood of the Laity–Old Testament Edition

“Priesthood of the Laity” became quite a thing in the Catholic Church a couple of generations ago.  The phrase has played a role in the Catholic identity wars that have been raging ever since.  Often if someone hammers the idea of priesthood of the laity, they advocate a de-sacramentalized church in which we all get to do the fun things that only ordained priests once were allowed to do.  Flat church, anti-hierarchical, indistinguishable from low church Protestantism.

The struggle over the true meaning of the phrase has turned over all sorts of interesting keys in the last few decades.  I can’t pretend to encompass all the literature, nor do I care to broaden myself by attempting to do so.  I’m sure there’s a lot of good work being done out there, and you should definitely go read it and tell me all about it.  Spoilers: we’re not low church Protestants.

But when I think of the priesthood of the laity I think of the books of Samuel.  I’ve written a few things about that before—king-priests, intercession, Purgatory.  Would people be so quick to tout the priesthood of the laity if they took it to mean that, as priests, it is our job to take a spiritual bullet for all the baptized? Continue reading Priesthood of the Laity–Old Testament Edition

High Priest David: Gibeonite Punishment

I’ve argued—alright, claimed—previously that the overarching theme of the Books of Samuel is the priestly action of intercession.  We see the need once again in II Samuel 21, when the aggrieved Gibeonites bring their suit to King David.

A famine has fallen upon Israel, which can only mean one thing: some kind of transgression.  The Promised Land always supports the people so long as they keep the commandments.  When the people abandon the Deuteronomic way of life, the land rises against them.

The last time we saw this was in the time between judges, when the civil war and the widespread sins of the Israelites led to a famine that drove Elimelech and Naomi to sojourn in Moab, bringing the wonderful character of Ruth into the bloodline of David.  We also saw it negatively reinforced when Saul’s rash oath deprived his Israelite army of the sustaining honey of the forest.

This time around, the spiritually alert David consults God and learns the cause of the famine.  Israel has bloodguilt for something Saul did many years previously during his reign.  At the time of the failed conquest, the Israelites had made a covenant with the Gibeonites that they would ally with them against other Canaanites and in return not drive them out.

Upon Saul’s ascent to the throne many years later, he broke this oath and began to wage war against them.  Using a previous divine command to justify enriching Israel at the expense of the nations?  Not surprising, given his failure in I Samuel 15 with the Amalekites!  Saul is dead now, but the bloodguilt for his action has gone unpaid, and the land has turned against the Israelites as a result. Continue reading High Priest David: Gibeonite Punishment

Joab, Anti-Hero

My favorite character from II Samuel is Joab.  This is a hero for the 21st century!

Joab is David’s right hand man throughout the trials and tribulations of II Samuel.  When something needs to get done, Joab is your man.  He does not qualify as one of David’s “Thirty”—his mighty men of valor—but instead commands the armies of Israel.  He is the cunning strategist willing to pay the price for victory.  He is the loyal soldier who wants Israel and the house of David to be strong.

For Joab, “the price for victory” can be anything.  So can the conditions for victory!  He is fully committed to playing the villain so that the good guys can win.  If ever there was a means to worry over, Joab could find the end to justify it.

Obviously Villain

Joab ambushes and murders the noble warrior Abner as he leaves the court of David.  Abner had been the sole force propping up the fading house of Saul; after his honor was impugned Abner concluded a peace agreement with David which forecasted the end of the war between their houses.  But Abner had, in the previous hostilities, slain Joab’s brother Asahel when the latter refused to break off the fighting.  Asahel’s death was a sad but guiltless casualty of war…to everyone except Joab.  Family ties being his apex ethical norm, Joab murdered Abner.

What fascinates me is that David curses Joab and his family for making him into an oath-breaker…but Joab remains commander of David’s armies.  He is the indispensable heavy, the enforcer who does the dirty work so the boss can keep his hands clean.  It is some insight into David’s character that he finds Joab repellent but does not dispose of him. Continue reading Joab, Anti-Hero

If David = Christ, Absalom = ???

There’s a tough question for you: at the level of allegory, who is Absalom?

This question is a lot more difficult than asking the same of Pharaoh, because (again) the Books of Samuel give us richer and more complicated characters.  We can see and understand and sympathize with the motives of the various actors.

In one obvious sense, Absalom just has to be playing the role of Satan.  This is especially clear in II Samuel 15-16.  If David is the true king of Israel, whose people have abandoned him for another king, walking in sorrow up the Mount of Olives…well, Absalom has to be Satan.  He’s the rebel who won the hearts of the king’s people and turned them against him, the one who has ascended in his pride and usurped the place of the king, the one who seems to conquer as the true king is defeated and goes down into exile.  In the king’s absence he plunders his bride(s) just as Satan defiles the souls of believers and the Church herself.  He’s a bad dude. Continue reading If David = Christ, Absalom = ???

Fulfilling the Psalms

Commenting on II Samuel is complicated because of its deeper narrative structure.  The characters are not types like in Genesis or Exodus; they have a lot more depth and development.  More interpretive moves are required at the literal level before the spiritual senses shake out.  Those spiritual senses are in some ways more profound, but they require more explanation and time to see.

Hacking my way through these issues has helped me get a handle on one of St. Luke’s phrases that I never fully understood.  Of course all the gospels are interested in Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, and I can give some easy sense to what it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law.  But St. Luke always chips in this extra mode of fulfillment—that Christ fulfills the Psalms.

Of course there’s a simple way to explain that—St. Luke is saying the Psalms are prophetic.  But it’s a little strange, right?  That’s like picking up a hymnal at mass and saying that it is prophetic.  Prophetic how?

The Psalms sing the story of David—the good and the bad, the triumphs and defeats, and always the cry to God.  They are the soundtrack to I and II Samuel, the lessons that David learns, the internal deliberations and frustrations that he experiences during all these scenes.  Psalms are the blocking to his play. Continue reading Fulfilling the Psalms

Does Mephibosheth Betray David?

The Books of Samuel are compelling because they devote time to character motivations and development.  One of the most interesting of these is the tale of Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan.

Early in II Samuel, as David is wrapping up his war against the House of Saul, we are introduced to Mephibosheth.  His appearance is completely out of place in the story at that point, a “We interrupt this broadcast…” moment, and the information we get is pretty basic—when his father died on Mt. Gilboa at the end of I Samuel, Mephibosheth’s nurse dropped him while fleeing.  Because of this he was lame for the rest of his life.

That’s it!  No other details.  Quelle bizarre.

Four chapters later he becomes important to David’s story.  Continue reading Does Mephibosheth Betray David?

David, Type of Christ

David as forerunner to Christ?  Not exactly news to most people.  But David as type of Christ, according to the four-fold sense of Scripture?  That gets a little less play.

It’s easy to focus on Jesus as a Davidic messiah, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, a descendent of David whose kingship, it turns out, transcends the merely earthly.  St. Matthew in particular is keen to show his royal lineage, and put “Son of David” on the lips of sinners and supplicants.

I think David is underappreciated, however, and have felt so since I chose him as my confirmation saint long, long ago.  That’s right, I roll old school with my saints.  St. Moses, St. Abraham, St. David.  Not a common way to address them anymore, but they all have a place in the old Roman Martyrology.

St. David is a Christ figure according to the allegorical sense of Scripture.  To refresh, take Moses: St. Moses is a type of Christ—indeed a much more famous one than St. David—because the entire Exodus account has as its allegorical sense the Christian’s escape from sin and death.  The Israelites are us, the Red Sea is sin and death, the army of Pharaoh is the host of fallen angels pursuing us to our destruction, the night is the world of sense and sorrow, this valley of tears.  And since St. Moses is the one leading the people through the sea in the literal sense, his very person corresponds with Jesus, our Redeemer who leads us through the dark night and out of the clutches of the sea.  That makes him a type of Christ.

So where’s one to find an Old Testament story where St. David plays a similar roll?  I’m glad you asked! It’s II Samuel 15.  Continue reading David, Type of Christ

Old Testament Precursor Parable: II Samuel 13-14

The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old is made manifest in the New.
(et in Vetere Novum latet, et in Novo Vetus patet)
–St. Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch II.73 (modified for grammar)

There’s a fantastic Old-New connection hiding in II Samuel, one of the last places one would think to look.  Ok, one of the last places I would think to look.  Seeing the connection requires some set up, because stories unfold with quite a bit more detail and complexity in the Books of Samuel.

Going into II Samuel 13, we already know that David has had his major lapse–the rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah–and that pain is coming.  David stands apart from his predecessor Saul not by virtue of sinlessness but rather because of repentance.  That’s what Psalm 51 is about.  But repentance is not a get out of jail free card—you still have to face the consequences of your actions. Continue reading Old Testament Precursor Parable: II Samuel 13-14

Old Testament Adventures: Battle of Ten Kings

Abram is not a doddering old man living out in the middle of Nowhere.  Sure, I get that the advanced age at which he fathered Isaac needs some kind of visual representation in our iconography of him.  But all those cute children’s books obscure what Abram actually was.

One clue is in Genesis 13, an otherwise skippable chapter but for two details.  The first is that, since his covenant with God in the previous chapter, Abram has flourished dramatically.  He and his nephew Lot can no longer share the same land because their flocks have grown so great.  To find a peaceable arrangement, Abram offers Lot his choice of land to inhabit and Abram moves off so that the two of them can continue to (hopefully) grow their estates.

So, clue one: he’s a rich doddering old man.  But the kind of wealth we’re talking about here is not sacks and sacks of coins.  It’s an enormous livestock enterprise: not something to be done by oneself with the missus cooking up grub back home.  Abram actually has a truly enormous estate full of servants. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Battle of Ten Kings

Old Testament Adventures: Abram’s Lie

One of the enduring legacies of my education at Franciscan University is a deep-rooted enchantment with the Old Testament and a confidence in reading and interpreting it.  I think if I had only learned that, my education may still have been worth it.  Thanks, Dr. Hahn!

I especially love the unfinished feel to parts of it: the short, unexplained stories where it is not always easy to see the point, or the otherwise-weird stories that only make sense in light of the larger covenant structure, or the super-long-term payoff stories where you have to remember something that happened three books previously.

So since my son is now of age to read these stories, and as I help a new colleague adjust to the life of teaching 6th graders these stories, I thought to start jotting down how I handle some of these fun passages.  Tone?  Moral?  Purpose in the narrative?  Most people I know find these hard to get a handle on, and I love doing it.  So…

Take a look at Genesis 12!  No, not the three-fold promise.  That’s one of the most famous and most important passages in the entire bible.  Skip that for now and skim down to the part where Abram and Sarai go to Egypt. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Abram’s Lie