It’s still Lent, so I’d like to say a word or two about fasting. Fasting traditionally means abstaining from food for a period of time and has been picked up by many as a way of taking a break from something. It could be anything. Dessert, alcohol, TV…etc. I’d like to ask you to consider something a bit different. Fast from your heroes.
Have you ever found yourself rationalizing the behavior of someone you deeply respect? Their shortcomings are overshadowed by their great contribution to your life. Perhaps you would like to model them in some way. Of course there is always the risk that by modeling your life after theirs that you will not only find their success but perhaps you will also stumble into their darkness. I’m not sure this is an avoidable aspect of life, but when mixed with the obligatory acceptance and approval of religion, this danger becomes startlingly present. So, since this is a season of change and reflection, perhaps I might convince you to take a second look at your heroes in a way that may help you grasp that ever elusive “reality”. As an example I’d like to present one of my greatest childhood heroes, King David, from the Hebrew scriptures.
Reading through 1 and 2 Samuel one can find a plethora of stories that would appeal to almost any young mind, perhaps uniquely the young mind of a male child raised within American masculinity. The young boy who grows into a mighty warrior and popular King is quite addicting. It sparks the imagination and can contribute to development in a very real way. For me, many situations I encountered were filtered through a lens which compared my reactions and actions with those of my heroes, especially David, with the goal being more alignment between my reality and the ideal of the narrative. Of course, looking back, this was greatly assisted by the majority of my scriptural intake during childhood coming from picture bibles and movies, none of which, in my opinion, truly display the horror that is sometimes described in such a banal way throughout these stories. Perhaps that does need to be done at some point, though that media would be very difficult to absorb I think.
I’m not saying that the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel doesn’t criticize David. It does. Biblical apologists rightly point out that the Hebrew scriptures have a unique penchant in ancient literature for exposing the dark sides of their heroes. We should learn from them. However, it IS interesting that what the narrators find reprehensible are perhaps small and relatively unimportant compared to what we would find disturbing if we were to have accurate theatrical portrayal of the, often celebrated, acts of David. Let me now bring your attention to a central example that is perhaps the epitome of my point.
In 1 Samuel 27 we find the pre-king David and his company of warriors, for reasons I won’t get into here, going to Achish, king of his notorious enemies, the Philistines, and asking for refuge from the current king of Israel, Saul. This would be a slap in the face to Saul and the king of Gath (philistine capitol) knows it. So he allows David to take possession of a nearby town for his home. To retain the favor of the king and to make a “decent” living, David spends the next year raiding nearby villages and taking all their goods and livestock. He then brings a percentage of these spoils to Achish. David tells Achish that he has been spoiling Israelite villages to get these goods and so Achish is all for it. His enemies are hurt and more riches are brought to him. In reality it is neighboring Canaanite communities that have been feeling the edge of David’s sword. The question is, how does David keep up this ruse?
I would dare say I wouldn’t be able to stomach seeing the reality depicted in a well produced Hollywood film. When David ransacks a village he puts everyone to death. This way there is simply no one left to tell the tale. Some might speculate that perhaps babies could be saved, being unaware and unable to tattle, but let’s give the narrative the benefit of the doubt here and take it for its word. Every man and woman, including children, would have to be executed to prevent word of David’s action from spreading.
Yes the overall narrative criticizes David, but not for this, perhaps for sleeping with another man’s wife and killing him to get away with it, but not this. No prophet comes from the shadows with a clever story to trick David into condemning his own action. Nothing. The narrator, and apparently God, is banal in his description and opinion of these events. Perhaps it is this indifference in the narrative that causes so many to simply gloss over this when they read it.
I don’t highlight this story to simply bring up David’s immoral acts or to ask if we might consider a David as a villain rather than a hero considering the cultural context. After all, at that time, there might very well have been similar canaanite bandits raiding and destroying Israelite towns. In fact this is all highly dependent on the narrative. We don’t know if a “historical” David really did these things. I bring it up because, if we are again to believe the narrative, David had a hero as well, one by which he could measure his own actions. One whom he modeled in his merciless treatment of canaanites.
Joshua. The original conqueror. The two can easily be compared and some scholars even see David as continuing the campaign/pogrom of Joshua during this span of his life and the general Davidic conquest of the kingdom. And so we must be very careful with heroes. Especially religious ones. Like David himself, many, even to this day, still model the conquest of Joshua and the establishment of David-ish kingdom in Israel. Many settlers in the area surrounding modern day Israel and their American religious allies carry on this “grand” tradition and see their lives through the lens of ancient heroes.
So that brings us back to the conundrum. How can we not have heroes? How can we not have models? Are we alone in the sense that we always run the risk of adopting the darkness of the other as well as the light? Perhaps, but perhaps fasting can give perspective and warn us of our own hidden motives created by our unfiltered adoration.
Photo Courtesy of Lou Levit