When scripture bites

This week I am reader at Divine Office, and this morning at Matins I had to read possibly my favourite section in the Old Testament, the death of Absalom and the lament of his father, King David (2 Samuel 18:-19:4). It is a remarkably moving piece of scripture. What is even more notable is that there is about it an air of such authenticity that I can only think with scorn of the excesses of the historico-critical method applied to scripture. Indeed, most of the narrative about King David has such a degree of authentic detail regarding his human emotions, failings and successes that it strikes me as being very authentic and accurate indeed.

King David and Absalom, by Marc Chagall
King David and Absalom, by Marc Chagall

When scholars raise doubts about the dating, authorship and historicity of certain canonical books, very often it appears like ungrounded reason on steroids. It takes insufficient account of the strength and integrity of oral tradition in ancient cultures. The mourning David endured for his son, traitor but flesh of his flesh nevertheless, must have captured the attention and memory of the Hebrew people because of its strength and its unexpectedness. This would explain the detail with which David’s grief is described, which while not overwhelming still rings true. David was obviously a man of great passions, judging by his relationships with Bathsheba and Jonathan, and his ability to rage one day, to repent in fulsome terms another day. Such a man would be much talked about, not least because if his stature as king and national father, and it does not surprise me if history was constantly repeated in all its detail.

Whenever I hear the sad old line against the atonement, that God the Father, if he had willed his Son’s death on the Cross, must be an ogre, I instinctively think of David lamenting for Absalom. Obviously the parallels are very few, and God the Father is not subject to emotion as we humans are, being impassible. Still, if there is something in scripture that would express in some brittle, imprefect way how we should see the Father’s allowing Christ his Son to be crucified, this is it – this, and Abraham’s obedient willingness to sacrifice Isaac. If God could lament, he would have for his Son on the Cross, and David’s lament would be its nearest earthly echo.

But the point here is not to fight exegetical wars, nor to tip-toe along the borders of heresy. This episode in scripture has inspired two sublime pieces of music that fit the text and the episode marvelously. So turn up your speakers and let scripture come alive in music. The first version is by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), the second by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). I find it hard to choose between them. The libretto being sung is:

When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up to his chamber over the gate, and wept: and thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

2 thoughts on “When scripture bites

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