Sunday, October 30, 2022

Phil Kniss: Such a wise man! (wink, wink)

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Wisdom and Community
1 Kings 3:4-28; Matthew 6:9-10

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Are you ever ambivalent about the Old Testament?
Do you question our spending time in the Hebrew Bible
    Sunday after Sunday this fall?
    (It’s okay if you say yes.)
    I have one simple aim this morning:
        to move you just a little bit,
        along the path from ambivalence toward love.
    Yes, love.
    I love the Hebrew Bible,
        so naturally, I want you, the people I love, to love what I love.

But the road to love of this ancient text
    might mean you give up some things you assumed,
    and even held sacred.
That can be hard, I grant you.
So, if you only move a little bit this morning, I’m still happy.

The first thing I had to give up
    on my path to loving this first part of the Bible,
    was the idea that it speaks with one voice—
        that God dictated it all to Moses and the prophets,
        that it’s a literal record of everything exactly as it happened,
        and that everything in it reflects God nature.

Those ideas are meant to reinforce the authority of the text.
    But they also raise troubling questions, if we’re honest.
        that make some people run fast and run far from it.

If the Old Testament speaks with one voice, the voice of God,
    Why does it say one thing over here, and the opposite over there?
    Why does a loving God torture his bosom friend Abraham,
        and terrorize Abraham’s boy Isaac
        with a child-sacrifice scare?
    Why does God bless the patriarchs
        with wealth and riches and livestock
            as a reward for outright deceit and manipulation?
        And why does that often come
            at the expense of the women in the family?
    And most troubling,
        why does God directly command
            mass murder and genocide and ethnic cleansing,
            not once, but repeatedly?

I’ve come to understand, and love,
    that scripture speaks with many different voices.
Human voices.
    Inspired by the Spirit of God, yes.
    But still deeply shaped by their humanity,
        and by their peculiar circumstances and culture and world view.
    These sacred stories still bear the unmistakable imprint
        of our limited and incomplete and frail humanity.
    They are told by people
        trying to make sense of God in their particular world.
        And they, like we, don’t get the full picture of God.

But I love mining for gold in the Hebrew Bible,
    those moments when the God we know in Jesus glimmers in glory.
I realize these broken stories from broken people are not solid gold.
    Their assumptions about God are incomplete,
        and sometimes miss the mark.
    But there is still a lot of gold, and it’s worth mining,
        even if we only find the nuggets some of the time.

Elevating the human side of this book
    does not diminish the divine nature of it.
    It does not make it any less a Holy Bible.
    I still believe the Spirit of God inspired and directed these stories
        to end up in our sacred book,
        as a record of humanity’s struggle to know and relate to God.
    We learn from these human experiences.
    We learn of God’s faithfulness in the face of our unfaithfulness.

What we have to know about the Hebrew Bible
    is that it started out as many different oral traditions
        passed down through different communities of God’s people,
        at different points in their history,
        who had different agendas in their pursuit of God.
    Only later did these get put into writing,
        and compiled into a collection of scrolls.

I won’t get too technical, so stay with me now.
    There are different theories about how many sources there were,
        and how to identify them.
    But there is wide agreement among scholars,
        that different communities with different priorities
            shaped this collection of scripture.
    The period of Israel’s exile is a big factor here,
        because scattered communities of Israelites
        were all trying to make sense of why the exile happened—
            how God’s promise to them could crash and burn,
                and now they were stuck in Babylon!
            Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins,
                and they had little hope of resurrection.

Some of these communities passed on stories
    that seem to be from a priestly perspective,
    focusing on ritual law, the origin of shrines and temples,
        and the work of priests.

But there seems to be a major source we call “Deuteronomic.”
    It lies behind the book of Deuteronomy, of course,
        but also much of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Jeremiah.
    Its main concern is the covenant.
    The Deuteronomist, and his community,
        believe there is still hope for God’s people after the exile,
        if they return to God’s original covenant,
        if they order their lives around the worship of God
            and God’s priorities for the poor, the widows, the orphans.
    They understand that God loves the whole world,
        and that God’s promise to Israel is conditional.
        Stay faithful to the covenant, and you can stay in the land.
        Turn your back on the covenant, and you will lose it.

Now why do I say all this as background
    as we look at the Wisdom and Glory of Solomon?
    Because for some of you, I’m about to blow your minds
        with another way of reading this story
        that you may not have heard before.
    It’s a way of reading it that I love and embrace.
    It’s not my invention, of course.
        There are plenty of books and articles that expand on it.

The traditional way to read this long
    nine-chapter treatment of King Solomon, 1 Kings 3-11,
        is to read it as unbroken praise of his glorious reign,
        highlighting his wisdom, wealth, and leadership savvy.

And perhaps, in some of its early, oral forms,
    that we assume emerged during the exile,
        it was entirely that.
    I mean, you can understand why Israelites
        living as lonely homeless exiles in Babylon,
        would be telling stories about their glory days.
    King Solomon was legendary.
    Of course, none of the exiles actually lived during Solomon’s time.
        That was 100s of years earlier.
        But they were longing for an image of the good old days.

Well, something funny happened
    on the way to writing these stories down, apparently.
    As the Deuteronomist got hold of these stories,
        and put pen to scroll,
        the covenant agenda of the Deuteronomist
            found its way into the story.
    It’s subtle, and it’s obvious.

Seems like the Deuteronomist is being careful
    not to take all the wind out of the sail of the people,
    who want to hold on to this legend of greatness,
        to give them courage during the exile.
But without a doubt, there is something subversive going on here,
    if you are paying attention.
    There is glaring irony here in this story.
    One journal article I came across about today’s text had the title,
        “Has the narrator come to praise Solomon or to bury him?”

Are you familiar with the concept of “Easter Eggs”
    in movies or video games or TV shows?
    An “Easter Egg” is kind of an inside joke or symbol
        hidden in a larger work,
        that’s obvious once you notice it,
            but is likely to go unnoticed.
    I like to think about the work of the Deuteronomist
        in this narrative on Solomon,
        as someone who’s hiding Easter Eggs in plain sight.
        Easy to pass by it, but obvious when you find it.

Remember, back in 1 Samuel,
    God only reluctantly gave in to Israel’s request for a king,
        to be like the other nations.
    But God’s permission
        came with a dire warning, and a prediction.

The warning was,
    “Stay faithful to my covenant, and I will bless you,
        but turn your back on my covenant,
        and you and your king will meet with disaster.”

And the prediction, to quote Samuel, was:
    “He will take your sons,
        and will use them for his chariots and cavalry.
    He will take your male and female servants,
        along with the best of your cattle and donkeys,
        and make them do his work.
    He will take one-tenth of your flocks,
        and then you yourselves will become his slaves!”

Well, what do we learn from this ode to Solomon’s glory and greatness?
Ch. 5, beginning at v. 13, and I quote:
    “King Solomon conscripted forced labor
        out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.
    He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts;
        they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home;
    Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor.
    Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers
        and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.”

Wow! But wait, there’s more!
Remember how Yahweh also emphatically said,
    “I don’t need a temple, or house of cedar, to live in.
        I’m perfectly happy traveling around in a tabernacle, a tent.”
    But Solomon used all this forced labor (i.e., Israelite slaves),
        to travel up to Lebanon to cut, harvest, and ship what?—
            massive amounts of cedar.

    And just in case the reader is still fooled,
        and thinks everything Solomon does is glorious,
    There’s this clever little Easter Egg,
        hidden at the chapter break between 6 and 7.
        And the original had no verse and chapter breaks.

So here are two back-to-back sentences in the Hebrew Bible.
    1. “Solomon was seven years in building the temple” . . . and . . .
    2. “Solomon was building his own house thirteen years.”
You think that wasn’t an intentional comparison?

Not only did Solomon use slave labor and kingdom wealth
    to build God a house God didn’t want or need.
He used almost twice as much slave labor and wealth—
    to build his own personal palace.

Solomon is exactly the kind of king Samuel warned Israel about.
    And this all come in the same narrative
        as today’s text about Solomon’s wisdom.
    So we should be looking for the writer’s “spin”
        when we read about Solomon’s remarkable wisdom.
    Because it’s the same story-tellers and interpreters
        who are telling us about his wealth and power and glory.

So, as we heard in chapter 3, two prostitutes come before Solomon
    with a dispute over ownership of an infant.
    Solomon’s way of determining the true mother was clever,
        to be sure.
        But maybe not as awe-inspiring as we think.
        I imagine most clear-thinking judges could have
            come up with a similar test of loyalty to the child.
    But more interesting, some Bible scholars point out,
        the two women were specifically identified as prostitutes.

    Hebrew law strictly outlaws prostitution,
    Deuteronomy calling prostitution an “abomination to Yahweh.”
    It’s worthy of note that the king says not a word
        about that law that he was there to uphold.
    It is also interesting to note, as other scholars point out,
        when we see prostitution mentioned in the Hebrew Bible
            it’s often a metaphor for Israel chasing after other gods.
        It’s at least worth pondering,
            are the women symbolic? is the child symbolic?

As a matter of fact,
    this story of Solomon’s glory ends on a sober note,
    with Solomon’s love for Yahweh being prostituted to other gods.

Listen to 1 Kings 11:1, and following:
    King Solomon loved many foreign women—
        Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women—
        from the nations concerning which the Lord had said,
        “You shall not enter into marriage with them,
            neither shall they with you,
            for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.”
        Solomon clung to these in love.
        Among his wives were seven hundred princesses
            and three hundred concubines, and . . .
            his wives turned away his heart after other gods,
            and his heart was not true to Yahweh his God,
            as was the heart of his father David.”

Bottom line on wisdom from these chapters—
    is that the wisdom of God looks different than human wisdom.
    Accumulation of power and wealth are likely to corrupt,
        and lead us away from the wisdom of God.
    God’s heart is always toward the poor, the widow, and the orphans.
        Those who forsake God’s priorities,
            and instead seek after wealth and power and pleasure,
            disappoint God,
            and undermine God’s purposes in the world.
    Right there’s the gold in this story,
        and why I love the Hebrew Bible.

Today it’s asking us: Who are we following?
    The Leader we think we want,
        may not be the Leader we actually need to be faithful to God.
    Just as leaders are called to be discerning in their leadership,
        so we are all called to be discerning in who we follow.

God, give us wisdom.

As a response, let’s sing a fitting hymn, that Sam chose as a response—
    a familiar tune, with a newer text,
    VT 201 – Hear the Turmoil of the Nations

—Phil Kniss, October 30, 2022

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