Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 55:12-23) transports me to 100 square miles of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, known as the Sutpen Hundred, where all the elements of a Greek tragedy play themselves out. A father-son estrangement motif is at the center of the story, surrounded by sub-themes of incest and fratricide and, of course, the power plays of race and class and sexuality. Thomas Sutpen, the father, is a man with a design on life, and builds his plantation accordingly. His child of promise, Henry, goes off to law school and befriends a man, Charles, who falls in love with Henry’s sister. Henry and Charles go off to war together, and Henry, who is in love with both his sister and his friend, nonetheless helps them move toward matrimony. When Henry’s father, Thomas, reveals that Charles is not only his son, but is part black, the seeds are sown for the dynasty’s downfall. Henry makes his sister a widow before the ceremony can take place on her wedding day, and flees. The fabric of Thomas Sutpen’s design unravels from there. William Faulkner didn’t have to look far in biblical literature to find a descriptive title for his novel, Absalom, Absalom. His novel was true to form to the tragic father-son motif and the unraveling of dynastic power found in the history of Israel’s greatest king.
The story of David’s rise to power in Israel has all the elements of a southern gothic novel. Father-son estrangement, incest, fratricide, and power plays are all there. We read about Absalom and the unraveling of David’s grand design not only in the historical literature, I and II Samuel and the books of the Kings, but it’s the back story of many of the Psalms, including today’s passage. Here David laments the betrayal of one of his close friends and advisers, Ahithophel, who abandoned him to join forces with Absalom in his conspiracy to overthrow David. Absalom, described as being unblemished from the top of his head to the sole of his foot, was as charismatic as he was handsome, and he stole the hearts of the people of Judah, rallying thousands to his cause. When Absalom made his way to the abandoned palace, Ahithophel advised him on the best way to humiliate his father – by taking all of David’s concubines up on the roof and sleeping with them all in a very public display of affection. The story tells us, in a curious note, that Ahithophel’s advice was considered by both David and Solomon to be coming straight from God. But, the story also says that God was determined to bring Absalom to a bad end, and this certainly happened. His long hair got caught in the branches of a tree as he rode to meet David’s men, and he was left there, suspended between heaven and earth. One of David’s generals found him hanging there and plunged three spears into his heart. Soldiers took his body down from the tree and cast him into a pit. The King, who had prayed to the Lord, in this Psalm, for death to take his enemies by surprise, and for God to bring down the wicked into the pit of decay, did not react to the news of Absalom’s fate as if it were an answer to prayer. He cried out, O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son! David’s grief confused Joab, the general who had killed the traitorous son, who had probably heard David singing this Psalm. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you, was all he could say as David wept.
We spend a lot of time in Lent focusing on the suffering of the son of God, the lamb without blemish who was slain. But I wonder if the story of King David can lead us to ponder the Lenten season from the point of view of the father, who loved the world so much that he sent his son to die a cruel death. God certainly must have, like Thomas Sutpen, had a grand design in mind at the beginning of creation. When the perfect paradise began to unravel, though, I wonder what feelings must have swirled around in God’s heart. As the tragic events unfolded, as the son abandoned safe confines to set his face toward Jerusalem, where abuse and torture and death and estrangement from God awaited, what would have been God’s reaction? Was there any confusion in heaven as God forsook Jesus, out of love for the world? Did anyone speak Joab’s words of bewilderment to God, You love those who hate you and hate those who love you? And as Jesus hung there, suspended between heaven and earth, and as a soldier cast a spear into his side, could God have spoken similar words as David, O my son – if only I had died instead of you! Something to ponder during this Lent season, as we live in our own world of unraveling designs and tragic estrangements, and as we pray our prayers for justice to be done.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.