in Space, Time, and the Imagination
Old Testament Comedy
Chapter17, "Old Testament Comedy," Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp. 267-287.
We have defined a theory of comedy in both formal and emotional terms, applied that theory in a review of comedic theatre from its supposed origins in classical Greece and Rome to its developed forms in the twentieth century, and explored the dark theatre comedy of our own century. Throughout, we have been interested in untangling Gordian knots of criticism, knots tied by a faithful adherence to the simplistic and often unsound ideas of Aristotle. These repeated run-ins with Aristotle have been unavoidable. For Aristotle—in a few pages of The Poetics, which is devoted to a study of tragedy and not comedy—managed to lay out most of the assumptions about comedy that have guided criticism through the centuries. Any new study of comedy must, then, either cut bait for Aristotle, coming to most of his conclusions no more than disguised in fresh rhetoric, or go fish for its own formulations of the nature of comedy. Following the lead of Bergson and Langer, assuming that comedy is grounded in assertions about ongoing life rather than in an Aristotelian representation of trivial or inconsequential character, we have considered the idea that comedic form, as a general patterning of all elements within a work of literature, asserts meaning in itself. Thus, we could not fail to arrive at some conclusions different from those of Aristotle.
Once again, in this final section, we must confront a major difference between Aristotelian ideas of comedy and those we have considered, a difference lying generally in an area known as genetic theory. The disagreement with Aristotle here, however, begins in a basic agreement that the origin of things is a profound clue to their nature. Even in his short sketch of comedic theory in The Poetics, Aristotle is careful to define what he believes to be the origins of the genre. The question of origin was important to him because his logic told him that a thing could never entirely deviate from its original essence or nature without becoming something else. It is possible to talk of both “perversions” and “developments” of comedy. But unless they preserve the basic essence of comedy, it makes no sense to relate them to comedy at all. We do not have to accept the complete system of Aristotelian logic to recognized the legitimacy of attention to generic questions, notwithstanding the popular, modern derision of the genetic fallacy.
Generally speaking, Aristotle makes four major points about the supposed origins of comedy. First, comedy originated as a dramatic form. Second, comedy originated in Greece a few centuries before Aristotle himself wrote. Third, tragedy and comedy share a similar origin in religious festival sources. Fourth, these roots have been lost to posterity and can never be more than dimly perceived.
If Aristotle’s idea of the significance of origins is valid, his idea of where comedy originated is parochial. It is perhaps characteristic of classical Greek thought that Aristotle never bothered to check for comedy in any of the “barbarous” civilizations surrounding Greece. It would be reprehensible for us to follow his example.
Disregarding Aristotle’s supposed origins of comedy and defining comedy as a literary patterning that asserts a faith that human life is destined to continue, often emphasizing the conditions under what that life can continue, we should have little trouble recognizing far more ancient and far more available sources of comedy than Aristotle’s bacchic protocomedies. In the Old Testament canon, there are fully formed, highly sophisticated comedic accounts dating at least six centuries before the Aristophanic satires we considered in chapter 5.
Suggesting the presence of comedy within the Old Testament cannon does not in the least denigrate any part of that canon or any part of its message Throughout, we have asserted the ultimately serious nature of comedic writing, Some modern comedy is truly trivial, written only for financial gain. But many comedies, ancient and modern, are highly serious and deeply interested in an assertion of truth.
On the other hand, we should not think that there is nothing light or mirthful in the Old Testament accounts. In both the Old and New Testaments, there is far more of the laughable than a modern sense of reverence is quite prepared to tolerate. Sometimes Scripture can evoke light laughter, but there is always a deep undercurrent of serious meaning. Thus, Balaam being rebuked by his ass is both amusing and deadly serious. So, too, is David calling down to Saul’s camp and Saul looking down to notice the tear in the hem of his robe, and even Gideon, hiding behind the wine press and being greeted by the angel as a mighty man of valor.
On other, innumerable occasions within the Old Testament, we experience laughing reactions akin to the most sombre moments in modern theatre, when we are tempted to laugh at the tremendous incongruities presented even as we wince at the serious message. In such moments, we may illogically pause to wonder how the Old Testament managed to have the insights of Ionesco, Pirandello, Nietzsche, and Machiavelli until we realize that these playwrights borrowed their idea of dark laughter directly from an Old Testament verse:
Even in laughter the heart may be in pain,
And the end of joy may be grief. [Prov. 14:13]
But, as I have had cause to reiterate, laughter is only tangentially related to the study of comedy It is at best a good litmus for the presence of comedy, but good comedic criticism must explain how the laughable works as part of a comedic assertion, not assume the presence of comedy from the presence of the laughable.
In this chapter, I can pay little more than passing attention to the analysis of the laughably comedic aspects of the Old Testament. Generally speaking, Old Testament comedy always assumes an active supernatural and omnipotent God intervening in human affairs. The interventions themselves are therefore incongruous and technically laughable, even more so when people fail to recognize them for what they are.
Like all comedy, the Old Testament uses laughter to differentiate sympathetic characters with whom we laugh and unsympathetic characters at or against whom we laugh. Biblical comedy also makes special use of laughter as a response to incongruity and disparity to repeatedly emphasize the reality of a God outside time, space, and human limitation intervening in the natural order and managing earthly affairs according to His purposes. What makes the Old Testament essentially comedic, however, is not its technically laughable features but its comedic import.
This discussion is divided into three parts: first, a comparison of Old and New Testament comedic import; second, a somewhat fuller delineation of some of the most emphasized aspects of Old Testament comedy; and third, a case study of a major comedic account within the Old Testament.
In comparing Old and New Testament comedic import, we must not oversimplify the differences between the types of survival presented. Liberal “higher” criticism of the Bible for the past century has too often glibly asserted that, unlike the New Testament, the Old Testament contains no concept of life after death. Such a concept, it is asserted, is a Christian innovation imposed on the Judaic base. This view, of course, ignores the historical evidence that Judaism itself debated the nature of an afterlife, as seen particularly in the contention between Pharisees and Sadducees in the time of Christ. It also ignores or makes unconvincing arguments against Job’s statement:
And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
Even after my skin is destroyed
Yet from my flesh I shall see God . . . . [Job 19:25-26]
It further ignores Christ’s own refutation that the Old Testament speaks of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that the Hebraic construction makes sense only if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continue to exist.
Nevertheless, in defining the kind of survival and ongoing life asserted in biblical sources, it must be admitted that the New Testament contains a steadier and much more fully drawn insistence on an afterlife than the Old Testament. This difference is paramount to understanding the comedic quality of the two testaments. Old Testament comedy is characteristically concerned with the destined survival of God’ elect within the natural order—succeeding, overcoming insuperable obstacles, returning from hopeless exile, multiplying geometrically. Abraham is the ideal symbol of this comedy within the temporal order. Fundamentally, Old Testament comedy asserts a faith in ongoing life at God’s command and for God’s purposes on this earth, limited by finite time and space. The comedy of the New Testament is based on a revelation of God’s providential plan for ongoing life, not just temporally but through eternity. New Testament comedy utterly transcends space and time. It transcends all the vicissitudes, sufferings, dangers, and trials of the present life, pressing as these now seem, all of them having already been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
The second great difference between Old and New Testament Comedy is in the sympathetic figures of the comedy. In the New Testament, comedy develops round those who have been given “the free gift of eternal life” (Rom. 6:23) and “the power to become the children of God” (John 1:12) through faith in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Anointed One, Messiah, or Christ. Old Testament comedy centers on figures of a common line of descent, a genealogical line that includes Seth but not Cain, Noah but not his society, Abraham but not Lot, Isaac but not Ishmael, Jacob but not Esau. The ongoing life described throughout the Old Testament is thus based on God’s promises to a specific, genealogically identifiable people. Those to whom the promises are given are seen conquering lions, bears, giants, and great armies; surviving famine, flood, disease, war, slavery disaster of every kind—and most important, surviving their own inability to live up to their God’s holy standards. They survive not because of their own goodness, talents, or works but simply because they are heirs of promises made unconditionally by God. The New Testament similarly asserts a faith in ongoing life, premised not on talent, exertion, or accomplishments, but on God’s power. The New Testament, however, argues throughout that individual human beings, no matter what their genealogy, can appropriate the promises of God for themselves, most notably the promise of eternal life through faith in Christ.
Both the Old and New Testament comedies make striking use of a comedic virtual future, its elements being known in biblical studies simply as “prophetic elements.” Unlike secular literature, the biblical comedies of both Old and New Testament assert that the virtual future must be taken literally, in real time, in real space. They are to have a real-world reference and must be verified by coming to pass.
One of the most compelling features of the Old Testament’s comedic message is that the virtual future it envisages has not been contradicted by the millennia that have passed since its final chapters were written. While many of its prophesies remain unfulfilled, the striking fact is that so many have been spectacularly fulfilled. Our own times provide some of the most outstanding examples of the virtual-future fulfillment, notably the restoration of Israel.
It is the argument of faith that the kind of destined survival portrayed throughout the Old Testament is as operative today as the elements of prophesy that have only recently been fulfilled. Thus, just as within the Old Testament period the Jew, or Israelite, is repeatedly subjected to almost total annihilation only to come back stronger than before, so in our own times, the holocaust of the Second World War and Hitler’s attempt to settle the “Jewish Question” by extermination has led directly into the Zionist movement and the re-establishment of Israel as a nation.
At the same time, the repeated annihilation of those who would annihilate the Jews (Hitler is perhaps the most notorious example) seems to re-emphasize the virtual future described in Zechariah:
For thus says the Lord of Hosts, “After glory He has sent me against the nations which plunder you, for he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye. For behold, I will wave My hand over them, so that they will be plunder for their slaves. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me.” [2:8, 9]
So it is important to recognize the distinction between biblical comedy and purely literary comedy. It is not that biblical comedy is unliterary; it is some of the most sophisticated literature ever written. The difference is that the virtual future of Old and New Testament comedy have a real-world referent that we do not expect from purely literary endeavors.
Even from these elementary considerations of the comedic pattern of the Old Testament, it should be clear that these Scriptures are remarkable in speaking as if with one voice. They do so even though they were written over almost eleven hundred years by some thirty different authors in two major languages and in at least four major literary forms: law, history, poetry, and prophesy.
That the Old Testament speaks with a single voice despite these disparities is nowhere more evident than in its comedic construction. As already noted, this single perspective includes a clear and universally agreed-upon genealogical record setting apart those to whom the promises were given. There are exceptions to this general rule, but they are also universally recognized and agreed upon. Rehab, the harlot of Jericho, and Ruth, the Moabitess, for example, are clear exceptions to the genealogical rule. There is a joining of these outsiders to the basic Hebraic stock, and such characters are never inconsistently treated from one Old Testament account to another. Rather, they become prominent indicators of the Old Testament import that the God of Israel is also the God of all the nations and that He will accept all who come to Him and accept His ordinances. In similar fashion, the Old Testament consistently presents those who ally themselves with the Israelite conception of God and His demands—whether Nebuchadnezzar acknowledging the supremacy of the “god of Heaven,” Naaman putting himself under the prophetic direction of Elisha, or the citizens of Nineveh responding to Jonah’s half-hearted call to repentance. All are consistently seen as thus partaking in some of the temporal blessings of the promises and capable of further growth in the knowledge of Israel’s God and His purposes for them.
Aside from an agreed-upon list of sympathetic figures, all Old Testament comedy shares numerous other features. Chief among these (shared with New Testament comedy) is the assertion that all survival depends on the recognition of a single, personal God, the only true God of the entire universe. Thus, in Deuteronomy, “Here, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (The English translation “Lord” stands for God’s personal name.) (Deut. 4:6) Conversely, the surest way to destruction is to set up any alternate God to the God of Israel—YHWH or Yahweh. Another way to ensure destruction is to place oneself firmly in the path of Yahweh’s stated purposes for this world.
Another absolutely consistent, and perhaps more surprising, comedic characteristic of the Old Testament is its assertion that survival is always the survival of a remnant. In every generation, of course, there are many outside Israel who survive in the sense of turning society over to their descendants. But the Old Testament gives no value to such survival. Meaningful survival is based on a relationship to God; survival is the survival of those who remain faithful while the majority turn aside, or it is the survival of a remnant that repents after having been drawn away from faith in God by the wayward multitude. The descendants of Cain perish in the flood, and most of the descendants of Seth. But not Noah. Abraham’s whole family leaves Ur, but only Abraham is called to receive the promise. All the Israelites are called up out of Egypt, but only Caleb and Joshua live to dwell in the Promised Land. In the period of the Judges, Israel repeatedly goes astray and is virtually destroyed. Repeatedly, God calls a remnant to repentance and to national renewal. When Israel and then Judah follow false gods, the Lord wipes them out unmercifully, using some of the most dreadful tyrants of the ancient world as His instruments, but a remnant survives and is led away into captivity. Of that, a smaller remnant remains true to their God and returns repentant to Him and reinhabits Jerusalem.
The patterned survival of Old Testament comedy is also the survival of physical prosperity and biological fertility. And this is one of the few other great differences between Old and New Testament comedy beyond the New Testament’s clearer conception of an eternal virtual future. For in the New Testament, those who accept God’s promises are looking for a greater, heavenly reward and survival though undergoing earthly privation, persecution, suffering, and humiliation. There is no particular New Testament guarantee that the faithful will not undergo famine, fire, and sword. In fact, they are urged like the Apostle Paul to know how to live both with little and with much.
In the Old Testament are specific promises of temporal peace and prosperity and biological fertility for those who remain faithful. The pattern is prominent even before the birth of the Israelite nation All the world is destroyed in the days of Noah; yet his descendants are so numerous within a few generations that they can build the Tower of Babel. Abraham doesn’t have children until he is more than eighty, yet his descendants are innumerable. The descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob become slaves in Egypt but four hundred years later are almost as numerous as the Egyptians themselves. Only two of those who leave Egypt enter the Promised Land, the Israelites are repeatedly defeated and enslaved during the period of the Judges; yet strong empire emerges under David. Judah and Israel are crushed as nations; yet a Jewish nation is restored to the land while a substantial Judaism flourishes in the Dispersion. Along the way, those like Job who looked to God as their strength may lose all their possessions and virtually their entire families, but they are rewarded with much more and families are restored to them. Ruth, faithful to Yahweh though a foreigner, is bereft but later lifted up. She is given a place and a family in Israel and is remembered from generation to generation.
Again, the argument of faith is that comedic physical prosperity and fertility, because they are based on immutable promise, continue in a historical future to the present day. The comedic nature of the assertion is almost laughable in the oft-told story of the Lutheran clergyman of some renown who was called to an audience with the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great. It is reported that Frederick asked, “What overwhelming proof to do you have that the biblical record is true?” The cleric responded, “The Jew.” The two words sum up all the ghettoes of Europe, all the pogroms, all the extortions by rulers filling warchests, all the expulsions and deportation of European history. But they also sum up the fact of Jewish survival through it all.
Old Testament comedy is, from this perspective, an almost Punch-and-Judy affair, the Israelite or Jew constantly being knocked down and dragged out, only to come back ready for more. Unlike the Punch-and-Judy show, however, the Old Testament account is not one of senseless brutality. Throughout, the record is one of God’s rewarding national faithfulness and national prosperity and of God’ repeated chastening of an unfaithful nation with adversity. But even in adversity and unfaithfulness, an overall movement toward prosperity and fertility can be discerned, and that movement is based not on any particular merit in Israel but simply on God’s Providence. It is His will that the people which are called by His name will have a certain prosperity, even when they turn from Him, so that the immutability of His promises and His final sovereignty in the affairs of men will be manifest.
Success in the Old Testament is thus grounded in God’s promises. It is also based in a proper relationship to God. Despite common misconceptions, nothing in the patterning of the Old Testament defines the proper relationship as dependent on being a moral superman or a “goody- two-shoes,” Old Testament patriarchs and heroes routinely fail to fit any category of exceptional morality; in fact, they come close to creating a consistent antimoral pattern. Jacob hates Esau. Jacob ‘s sons sell their brother into slavery. David commits adultery with Bathsheba and has Uriah killed. The impossibility of human beings attaining perfect righteousness is repeatedly emphasized in the Old and New Testaments: “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment . . . . (Isa. 64:6b)
The Old Testament success formula for survival is not one of supermorality but one of repentance and a new attempt to let God direct one’s life. David’s fifty-first Psalm states the first half of the formula:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me. [Pss. 51:10]
Solomon’s proverbs contain the quintessential definition of the second half:
Trust in the Lord with all you heart,
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight. [Prov. 3:5, 6]
Other seemingly reasonable routes to success—brains, cunning, guile, deception, forethought, courage, loyalty, sheer weight of numbers—all are portrayed in the various Old Testament accounts. All are seen to be either inadequate props of people trying to make it without God—or at best as instruments which God can use. Often, God refuses to use them at all, jealously rejecting them lest they share the glory that belongs to Him alone. Thus, Joseph is thrown in jail for being too “square” to compromise with Potiphar’s wife, only to be raised up to the vice-regency of Egypt by God’s sovereign power. David is too rustic and puny to accept Saul’s armor but kills Goliath with a pebble. Jehoshaphat, outnumbered and unable to be deceptive or to use diplomacy, dances while his enemies go mad and destroy one another. Gideon chooses three hundred instead of thirty thousand, and Joshua choose a long hike rather than a frontal assault, only to have their enemies destroyed before their eyes.
Let us now consider how these and other consistent features of Old Testament comedy inform a particular account or group of accounts concerned with a single character. For such purposes, David is an excellent example. The main account of David’s career is found in the book of Samuel, but he is repeatedly mentioned in later Old Testament books. His attitudes and self-assessment are fully delineated in the Psalms. His story is intimately associated with the New Testament accounts because he is seen as the ancestor and, within limits, an archetype of the New Testament Messiah.
In considering David’s career, we must give immediate attention to the “higher” critical argument that David is an inconsistently drawn figure. According to this argument, the historical books of the Old Testament canon are largely an amalgamation of priestly and courtly sources. The courtly sources wished to make David superhuman. The priestly sources wanted to minimize all the claims of the monarchy in favor of theocratic traditions. According to the “higher” critics, the light comedic, victorious elements in David’s life are from courtly sources while the dark elements of adultery, murder, royal intrigue, and the like are from priestly sources.
In the present study, such contentions are close to meaningless. As in our study of comedic plays, we are not interested in the publishing history per se or in what may have happened between first and final draft, especially if only conjecture is available on these points. We are interested in whether the completed work shows a consistent and comedic pattern that has meaning of its own. From this viewpoint, we need only investigate the authoritative accounts of the canon as they have been handed down to our day. Comedic inconsistencies might indicate multiple authorship. But if a single book presents a consistent comedic pattern, we have no more real supporting evidence for multiple authorship and the effects of multiple authorship than we do in My Fair Lady or South Pacific.
Because David is most fully delineated in the Book of Samuel (divided in the Christian Bible into the two books of Firs and Second Samuel in recognition of the material’s being too long to be contained on a single scroll), our discussion will center there, allowing the reader to make most of the additional comparisons with other biblical accounts. If the higher critical argument is correct, there should be a strong break in the comedic pattern of Samuel, which devotes in total almost forty chapters to David. If, on the other hand, all the salient features of David’s portrayal in Samuel fit into a consistent presentation of the comedy of David’s life, then our study would not support the higher critical position and might be used as a refutation of it.
Comedy is a patterning of all elements of a work. David is present in Samuel and all other Old Testament accounts, for example, only as an element. In Samuel, this element does not even appear for the first fifteen chapters. Before turning to David, we must establish the pattern of those opening chapters.
First Samuel picks up where the Book of Judges leaves off in the history of Israel and bridges the period between the last Judges and the Davidic monarchy. The book begins with the birth of Samuel, the last Judge of Israel. There is something miraculous in his birth, for his mother, Hannah, is barren. And there is something miraculous in his calling, for he hears God calling him as if he heard the human voice of the high priest, Eli, from the next room. The narrative darkens considerably when Eli’s two sons, Phineas and Hophni, mock tabernacle worship with their dissolute and adulterous ways.
Phineas, Hophni, and an Israelite army are destroyed by the Philistines, God’s punishment for Israel’s deviation from God-centered living. Eli dies when he hears the news. Samuel becomes God’s last Judge of Israel. In the few chapters the greater part of Samuel’s career is summarized as he recovers the ark and defeats the Philistines in several battles. But by chapter 8 we find Samuel an old man, appointing his sons to be judges over Israel. Two verses later, we find:
His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice. [1 Sam. 8:4]
Now it is a common stool of criticism that as soon as somethings happens a second time, it is worthy of note as part of the overall pattern of the work, Here, we find the repetition of a declining Judge and perverted children which can also be traced back throughout the Book of Judges. The meaning of the pattern is difficult to miss. Even the best in Israel, even the Judges themselves, can’t hold true to God’s high standards. Eli and Samuel both degenerate from their original calling. In both cases, the full nature of their failing is revealed only in their sons’ generation.
Because of Samuel’s wicked sons, the Israelites demand a king so that they may be like the other nations. Samuel, old and embittered, is counseled by God that this constitutes a rebellion against His plan for Israel, not a mere repudiation of Samuel. The rest of chapter 8 is devoted to Samuel’s warning to Israel of all the evils a king will bring.
Now all this may seem irrelevant to the story of David, which nominally begins some eight chapters later. But though the conventions are somewhat different from those of literature two and one-half millennia later, what we find in the account of Eli and Samuel foreshadows David’s career. David must either follow in the path of these earlier Judges or he must set out in a new direction. Unless he is shown to somehow hit and hold a higher pitch in his relationship to God than any of those who came before him, he may stand preeminent among the biblical heroes but still degenerate. If his career parallels those of Eli and Samuel, it will probably begin with the miraculous and descend to a much lesser and darker ending, the depths of which are emphasized by his immediate successors’ failings.
Before we find out what pattern David will follow, Saul is anointed king over Israel. While David is of the tribe of Judah, Saul is of the tribe of Benjamin. While David is first described as a ruddy shepherd boy, the last in his family, Saul is described as six and one-half feet tall, one of the handsomest and most physically impressive men in Israel. Saul is a man of tremendous energy and personal initiative, rashly trying to be king on his own strength. David is contemplative, capable of decisive action, but given to meditation and poetic praise of the Lord. He looks to the Lord for protection rather than to himself.
Unlike Eli and Samuel, Saul goes downhill quickly instead of slowly. What little faith he has melts away, and at the end he is given to the advice of necromancers and clairvoyants rather than to the prophetic word of God.
When in chapter 16, we finally meet David as a shepherd boy whom God has told Samuel to anoint as the new king of Israel, we have had two potential models for this life displayed to us; the model of the strong but imperfect Judges in Eli and Samuel and the model of the weak, rash, God-indifferent king in Saul. As patterned narrative, the Book of Samuel raises the question of whether David will follow either of these models. What is certain from the accounts of all three of his predecessors is that inner relationship to God, not external circumstances, will define the essential nature of David’s career.
As shepherd boy, David’s life is full of comedic success, killing lions and bears and being anointed God’s true king for Israel. Later, as courtier, he soothes his savage master with song and escapes his javelin with a quick sidestep. As a warrior, he rejects armor and defeats the greatest hero of the Philistines with a faith-aimed pebble. Still later, David is the loyal guerilla, refusing to kill God’s anointed king, instead cutting the hem from his robe and stealing the javelin from his side as evidence that David has no desire to harm Saul. Finally, he is the outlawed expatriate, living amid the enemy while serving the military interests of Israel.
From the liberal standpoint, all or most of these successes are inserted by myth-makers in the Davidic court while the later, darker story is provided by jealous members of the priestly party. Another way of looking at it is to say that the early pattern has meaning: Success is from the Lord; no good will He withhold from those who walk uprightly (cf. Ps. 84). David is God’s anointed not only in being chosen but also in putting his total reliance on God. With God fighting his battles, David cannot lose. In short, survival depends on God’s choice and on people putting faith in God. These conditions having been met, survival is ensured, not because people exert themselves but because God exerts himself on their behalf. This should not seem, of course, to assert that God is a lackey to human whims. David is chosen because he is a “man after God’s own heart.” David puts his faith in God by wanting what God wants. God fights David’s battles because David has made God’s battles his.
Saul’s death on Mount Gilboa ironically introduces a new, darker period in David’s life. Saul’s death comes virtually at the middle of the Book of Samuel and provides a convenient place to divide the scrolls and the modern two Books of Samuel. Perhaps the darker phase of David’s career provides an even better justification for the same division. David comes to power and quickly establishes his kingdom. There will be many more military victories in David’s life, but from this point on, they take on a decreased significance except when they involve David’s murder of Uriah and Absalom’s rebellion. In both cases, the military victory or defeat is insignificant compared to other issues.
The high point of David’s career comes quickly. Having united and enlarged his kingdom at the expense of enemies on every side, made himself comfortable in a newly-won capital and brought the ark itself to Jerusalem, David looks around for something more to do.
What he sees is more a reflection of the inner man than of external reality, for he sees that God does not have a splendid house like David’s own, but that the ark remains in temporary quarters. David offers to build a magnificent house for his God’s sanctuary. For the purposes of David’s own story, it matters little that the temple was not commanded and that when it was constructed, it ushered in a new, darker period of Israelite history, a period of rival temples and fixed fortifications subject to siege by the unbeliever nations around about, a period ended by the destruction of that very temple. As far as David’s story is concerned, David’s offer shows mainly a naiveté in a man after God’s own heart, a man who wants to please God and, even as a great king himself, wants to allow God to dictate what pleases Him.
God’s response through the prophet Nathan is to forbid David to build the temple. Instead, God promises David an everlasting kingdom ruled by one of his descendants. In some senses, David’s story ends at this point, entering eternity. The rest of the Bible is that eternity played out up to the present age of grace, ushered in by the appearing of that Greater Son of David and His conquest of Sin and Death at the cross Everything that happens to David after this point is to some extent anticlimactic, as are all temporal circumstances and even all inner shortcomings from a biblical perspective, a man having been found faithful and pleasing unto God.
In a more prosaic sense, David’s career enters its third, most sombre comedic phase. The first phase is a light, tremendously improbably (from a secular perspective) physical comedy which asserts the conditions under which human beings can survive even persistent persecution and the dangers of a physically hostile world. The second is a sublime, internal and eternally significant comedy of a man walking beside his God and finding acceptance by Him through his faith. The second stage is fruition comedy, emphasizing the same conditions on survival as the first but showing that God does not only preserve through trial, He also blesses with a superabundant life. The third phase is a dark comedy, the comedy of sinful man in this sinful world, sustained by a God who does not desert his promises.
David is not presented as sinless up to this time, but he has tried hard to stay in tune with God, and he has acted positively in accordance with his faith in God. The same might be said for Eli and Samuel until their later years. In the third period, however, worldly success gained through faith begins to distract David from his close walk with God. David’s eye strays to a nearby roof, and he turns his back on his God to take Bathsheba as his mistress.
The consequences follow immediately. David, caught in his sin by Bathsheba’s pregnancy, tries to cover things up. When that fails, he has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed, adding murder to adultery. But God is not through with David—more precisely, God has not deserted David, though David has turned his back on God. God sends Nathan to reprove David and sends the grace for David to see the point. David repents and turns back to God, the fifty-first Psalm being the enduring memorial of his repentance. David is once again in fellowship with his God.
Fellowship with God does not, however, exempt David from consequences. This too follows the pattern of Eli and Samuel. Bathsheba’s child dies despite David’s fervent prayers. And later, one of his many sons rapes one of his many daughters, sexual sin visiting the sexual sinner. David as king has a divine responsibility to execute justice, a justice he himself has escaped perhaps the reason why he finds it impossible to inflict justice on his son. David’s refusal leads to the rapist’s murder by another of the king’s sons, Absalom. Again, the king refuses to execute justice; And through dark and unpredictable channels, this refusal leads to Absalom’s revolt and the temporary exile of David himself. David’s last years become darkly shaded exploits to save his kingdom, a kingdom that by God’s promise he cannot lose, but that he can only keep at the cost of Absalom’s death and family intrigue to the end.
David finds his last years bitter. But the worst crisis of his life has passed long ago when Nathan confronted him with his adultery and murder. Had David refused to turn then, his career would be tragic. It is instead sombre comedy, demonstrating survival at the expense of real and long-lasting costs. There is no attempt to conceal the consequences of sin, no attempt to pretend that David does not feel these consequences or that he can return to his originally light, comedic innocence. But throughout this period, David struggles within the Will of God, not against it. He has found forgiveness, he has found atonement, he has found fellowship with his God. He survives to an old age despite repeated plots against his life. His kingdom is eternally established, and he is confident of eternal relationship to God.
Thus, in the Book of Samuel, far from seeing a comedic pattern that breaks into two mutually contradictory accounts, we see a single complex comedic pattern in three phases that accords with everything included in the Book of Samuel before David’s entrance in chapter 16. It can be argued that the darkened aspects of David’s later career are literarily necessary to accord with the pattern and message of the opening chapters. Indeed, for David’s life to remain unbrokenly light and supernaturally victorious would contrast his career with all the leading biblical characters from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses through all the later kings. To argue, therefore, that courtly influences have mixed with priestly influences in a self-contradictory account of David cannot be supported from a comedic perspective.
It is much simpler and, I propose, far more reasonable to argue that the consistent pattern is there because there is a consistent message represented. The patterning finally is an assertion that human beings, however nobly or truly they start out, are by nature inconstant. Inconstancy is the ultimate threat to human survival because sooner or later people turn from God and open themselves to annihilation. This is the making of tragedy rather than comedy except that God intervenes and lifts up those who have put their imperfect faith in Him. He does this even as He destroys those who seem strong but have never given themselves to God or partaken of His ultimate strength. Those who are God’s are the inheritors in a personal sense of His general promises made to Israel. He will never leave or forsake them. They may sin, and their sin will have consequences, perhaps devastating ones. Nevertheless, they share a fellowship with God that is grounded not in their finitude and inconstancy but in His infinitude and eternal constancy. And thus, they are inheritors of an eternal life.
Ultimately, the Old Testament pattern surrounding David remains incomplete without a prophetic virtual future in which the dark comedy again turns light and the imperfections of David and of all God’s people are finally obliterated. This virtual future comes from the prophetic promise of a Messiah who will provide final and complete atonement with God. To make such an atonement, the Messiah will have to be a final sacrifice on the altar of God, the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world, the suffering servant of Isaiah. He will also prove himself to be Israel’s rightful king, the Greater Son promised to David, sitting on an everlasting throne, proclaimed “Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6, King James Version).
With this added Messianic assertion, the story of David returns to victorious, fruition comedy, though it is comedy that has moved through the darkest stages of sin and death. The comedy is all the more powerful in coming so close to tragedy for the human race. As Paul describes it from a Judeo-Christian perspective in Romans, it is a comedy that convinces us that “neither death, nor life, no angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:38b-39a).