Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
When I hear the Advent and Christmas liturgy rejoicing in naming Jesus as son of David and claiming for him David's family heritage, I always ache a little. Because when you look at family realities--rather than at military and political realities, at which David excelled--there could hardly be a more poignant symbol of "adopting trouble" than being born into "the house and family of David."
In many ways, David was a magnificent man: generous, loyal, affectionate, gifted and full of life. He was a comradely freedom fighter, an ardent religious believer, and a dedicated if increasingly confused king. But David was a shatteringly unsuccessful father. He was terrible at bringing up boys. And if I'm counting the lists in 2 Samuel correctly, he had seventeen sons, so his lack of fatherly prudence was, well, magnified.
It's not that he didn't care. Far from being a cold father, David seems to have been insanely indulgent with his grown-up sons. O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son! That famous lament of David was over a handsome traitor-son who had schemed against him, lied to him and then died fighting him for the throne. David's raw uncontrollable grief shocked and enraged his own officers, who had just risked their lives trying to undo the damage Absalom had unleashed on the country.
In a similar vein, the story of Amnon (in 2 Samuel 13), David's firstborn who entrapped his half-sister Tamar, then raped her, then threw her out into a ruined future is a chronicle of gross male self-indulgence and of a spoiled child. David's response to all this is inexcusable: When King David heard of [the rape], he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. The king, anointed to be responsible for justice, refuses to do justice, blinded as he is by a doting favouritism. That leaves justice to be done by stealth and violence, in a way that presages a whole future of bloody intrigue.
What a change from David's original condition! When we first meet David, in the beautifully crafted text of 1 Samuel 16, he's a model son in a hardworking sheep-ranching family in the rough hills of Judea. He's gutsy and spirited, but he's also obedient, disciplined, profoundly responsive to urgent adult concerns. So how do we leap to the elitism and self-indulgence of the royal family in Jerusalem a few decades later?
The story of David's failures as a father seems to me a classic study of the results of "social sin"--the sin that's in structures, as they say. Times of social change are always hard on parents as such; when the rules of society are changing, everybody gets confused, and it becomes harder to persuade rambunctious young people to act in an orderly, civilized way. But the transition from Israel's "Covenant economy" to full-fledged kingship involved more than just social change. It was a time when an egalitarian social ideal was despaired of and rejected. The people were unable to trust that the God of the Covenant would assure their survival under the social conditions that God had revealed as being proper to the Covenant. So, in the generation before David came of age, the people had to choose a king and thus be "like the other nations."
With kingship, non-Covenant expectations and economic structures moved to the centre of the people's life. Kings were supposed to be magnificent; therefore gross economic inequality was taken for granted. Kings, in the only models then available, had harems, not only to express sexual prowess but also (see Solomon!) to forge political alliances. And so David ended up with seventeen sons, not young hands on a sheep ranch in rough country but princelings in a capital city.
Seventeen princes is definitely too many, especially when each one is thought to need his own mule (the Israelite equivalent of a red Corvette) and his own retinue. David himself had, emphatically, not been brought up like that. But the novelty of a "court" and of the dynastic idea seems to have dazzled the second king of Israel. Far from sending the kids back to the family ranch to learn responsibility and discipline, he let them live an alienated, luxurious life as princelings, segregated from the simple experience of need and from the demanding joys of being needed. How could the spirit of the Covenant--at least the Covenant as we meet it in Exodus and Leviticus--survive such a life?
It didn't survive, according to the texts. David's family life disintegrated into turmoil, scheming, distrust and contradictory ambitions. Which is exactly the situation God agreed to enter, in mercy and vulnerability, when Jesus the Christ took flesh "in the house and family of David."
© 1997 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld