[Image description: Photo is a close-up of the face and neck of Michelangelo’s David at an angle.]
Content notice: non-graphic discussion of rape and other forms of abuse
A few days ago, I wrote an epistle called “The Story Still Matters,” a rant about how hard it is for me as a Christian divinity student to use critical theory to interpret the Bible in fruitful ways without missing the stories themselves. To keep the stories alive, I’m going back to the Text. This is the first entry of a series about David as seen in 1 and 2 Samuel–the story of the rise and fall of a wildly charismatic, passionate, and often brutal king. Seriously, Samuel could be an HBO series.
In these posts, I will dig into who David is and the choices he makes, writing from my perspective as a queer Christian. I will use some theory to help me make sense of it over 2,000 years removed. And I will ask how a man with such faith and love can become so cruel and conventional as a ruler. How does this queer romantic hero, whose love for Jonathan is almost startling, become a tyrant, a rapist, and an enabler of rapists? What does his story say about the God that anoints him?
Can Christians learn something from David, especially about sex and sexuality? I believe we can, but it isn’t easy. Tools and background information can help. We need to start before David and even outside the Bible itself. Let’s think about the Christian communities that tell David’s story.
Most churches don’t talk much about sex in the Bible, especially mainline Protestant churches like mine. In fact, a friend once pointed out that fundamentalist churches often talk about sex more than mainline churches do. We’re getting more affirming of same-gender relationships and of gender diversity. We may have even done a study or two on the “Clobber Passages.” But we avoid talking about sex when we can (and we certainly don’t talk about the possibility of queerness in the Bible). We gloss over the passages where our ‘heroes’ (like Abraham and Sarah, and later David) are sexually abusive with barely a thought. We laugh nervously when anyone brings up Song of Songs, a book devoted to sexual pleasure. Academic classes have helped me to see that the Bible has a “multiplicity” of ideas about sex because it was written by many different people and that we get to choose whether we agree with any of them.
Take these two passages for example:
“…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:10).
In Song of Songs (a.k.a. Song of Solomon or Canticle), we see luxurious sexual desire and love thwarted but never killed (Song of Songs 5:7). In Genesis, we see a cruel, enslaving desire, in a passage used over and over to hurt women (it can be interpreted in many ways). What variety!
David’s story is a microcosm of that variety, with issues like rape, adultery, polygamy, and homoerotic desire all rolled into one epic saga. The funny thing is, we often don’t even notice. Normally, we see the boy with the slingshot, the great warrior king, and the adulterer. We’re not socially equipped to see much else; we live in a society that likes to edit its heroes for our comfort. In doing so, we fail to explore huge chunks of these rich, strange stories even as we use them to inspire our own choices. That’s just tragic.
What about biblical background? To understand David, we need to understand Ruth, his grandmother. Let’s look back at the book of Ruth. If you’re feeling especially nerdy, I encourage you to attempt to draw a family tree for David (if not, I made one already :)).
When we read the book of Ruth, we learn that some of David ancestors were poor foreigners who did things to make ends meet that would be condemned in many churches. Naomi sends her daughter-in-law Ruth out to seduce Boaz and “uncover his feet” (Ruth 2:3-3:18). Most Christians never learn that in biblical Hebrew, feet are a euphemism for genitals. Professor Brittney Cooper reveals (heh) this topic delightfully in Unscrewed podcast episode #BlackChurchSex.
Long story short, Ruth doesn’t go to Boaz so that they can have a chaste courtship; she goes to have sex with him in hopes that it will save her and Naomi’s lives; women in that time and place depended on the provision of male relatives. It was not a fair system, but they did the best they could. Ruth loves Naomi, so she engages in scandalous sexual activity.
Before we look at David, who started with few options but eventually had many, let’s remember Ruth, Rahab (a sex worker), and other female ancestors whose choices were seriously limited by circumstance. Their bodies were treated like mere containers for the descendants of Abraham.
David enters the scene in this context. As I follow his journey and the choices he makes (as a sexual being and as a person in general), I will keep in mind the ancestors who made it possible for me to live. I’ll think about my ability to make choices that they never had in conversation with David’s choices, when he rises and when he falls.
Recommended Readings and Sources:
The Bible. I generally use the New Revised Standard Version because that’s what’s used in the academic world, but other versions are valuable too. I would urge readers to keep in mind that every English translation of the Bible reflects the biases of the translators (Ex: for clarity, why not translate ‘feet’ as genitals?).
Bird, Jennifer Grace. Permission Granted. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Hornsby, Teresa J. Sex Texts from the Bible. Woodstock: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2007.
Weems, Renita. “The Song of Songs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Pages 363-373. Print.
I’ll work on finding more accessible sources as I go along!