Saturday, June 11, 2016

Oh but I didn't see that the joke was on me

Saul threatening David, by Jusepe Leonardo de Chavier (1605-56). Via Wikimedia Commons.
We've been through this before, although I think this is the highest-ranking person ever to do it, a sitting US Senator (David Perdue, R-GA):
Oh, he was just joking. These guys have incredible senses of humor. Like all the guys with all the bumper stickers and T-shirts and Internet memes saying the same thing I've been seeing here and there for the past seven or eight years. A joke that started the whole world laughing.

There's just a little theological-literary sidelight I'd like to throw on this, which is that all these Christians who regard this as a funny thing to say don't know what they're saying, because of their deep ignorance of the Bible and inability to read critically.

Namely, it doesn't occur to them to ask what the words in the Bible are doing there, or why the poet, said to be David, King, the Sweet Singer of Israel, to Jews the beloved of God and to Christians the prefiguration of Jesus, should be wishing this awful doom on somebody: in the King James language, "Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children...."

Who is the man being cursed this way, and what did he do to rouse the hero, giant-killer and psalm-composer, to this intemperate, hateful rage?

And the oddity of that is matched by an oddity in the structure of the poem, which comes in three parts that don't fit together in an obvious way: (1) five lines in which a speaker complains to the Lord about his (plural) enemies and the terrible things they say about him, in return for his proffered friendship; (2) 14 or 15 lines (it's not clear which section verse 20 belongs to) of furious cursing against just one man, not addressed to God (who is just mentioned in passing, in the third person); and then 11 or 12 lines in the original voice, asking God's help against the enemies, and praising him for saving the poor or needy from their verbal attackers ("those who would condemn").

There's a pretty simple solution to both problems, well known in Jewish tradition, and adopted by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the US in their New Revised Standard Edition of the Bible, which is to regard parts 1 and 3 as in the voice of the psalmist, David, recalling his situation when he was being persecuted by the psychotic King Saul and his minions (say in I Samuel 23); and part 2 as the voice of the enemies, cursing David in the language of Saul's madness, that's why it's so violent. and calling for his death. The text, via Oremus, is laid out below.

Part 1 (in the NRSV translation):
1 Do not be silent, O God of my praise. 2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. 3 They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause. 4 In return for my love they accuse me, even while I make prayer for them. 5 So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.
Part 2 (with the non-canonical addition of "They say" and the quotation marks)
6 They say, "Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser stand on his right. 7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. 8 May his days be few; may another seize his position. 9 May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. 10 May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. 11 May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. 12 May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. 13 May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation. 14 May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord, and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out. 15 Let them be before the Lord continually, and may his memory be cut off from the earth. 16 For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death. 17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him. He did not like blessing; may it be far from him. 18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat, may it soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones. 19 May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself, like a belt that he wears every day."
And part 3:
20 May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life. 21 But you, O Lord my Lord, act on my behalf for your name's sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me. 22 For I am poor and needy, and my heart is pierced within me. 23 I am gone like a shadow at evening; I am shaken off like a locust. 24 My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt. 25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they shake their heads. 26 Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love. 27 Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it. 28 Let them curse, but you will bless. Let my assailants be put to shame; may your servant be glad. 29 May my accusers be clothed with dishonor; may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle. 30 With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. 31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
Thus the singer doesn't directly curse his enemies, but asks God that their curses should recoil on them, as in Proverbs 21:27, "When the godless curse their adversary, they really curse themselves."

Chucklehead Senator Perdue: “Q: Can you describe your experience with outsourcing?” “A: Yeah, I spent most of my career doing that.”. Photo by David Goldman/AP via Salon.
And when Senator Perdue and all his predecessors "pray" for the president, that's what they're really doing, if you're a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim respecter of the Bible, adopting the posture of the enemies of David and of God; as I wrote the first time I tried writing this argument up, four years ago when the "joker" was Speaker Mike O'Neal of the Kansas House of Representatives,
consider how vivid this is if you identify David with Barack Obama--with his wicked and deceitful enemies attacking him without cause, in return for his proffered love and prayer. They want him tried by a wicked man, with an accuser at his right hand (in the Hebrew, the accuser is HaSatan). They want him found guilty and deprived of his office, and they obviously want him dead, however Speaker O'Neal denies it.
In making the prayer joke, Republicans are precisely putting Obama in the place of King David, and themselves in the place of his dishonest and implacable enemies, and if they are as religious as they want us to think, they had better tremble: because as verse 20 says, those curses can redound upon them: May that be the the reward of my accusers.
So watch out, conservatives, if your memory is cut off from the earth, if you pursue the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death, if you clothe yourselves with cursing, cursing could soak into your bodies, like oil into your bones, and it's not going to be pretty.
Perdue's not likely to see another seize his office soon, he's not up for election until 2020. Why don't you-all righteous Christian Georgians recall him, for public Godlessness, clothing himself with cursing, condemned out of his own mouth?

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