King by force

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; 25 July 2021; Proper 12B (RCL); 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21.

To me, the most difficult verse in our Old Testament reading is the first: In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle . . . . Uriah also makes and allusion to the Feast of Booths in his reply to David. Why should he sleep with Bathsheba when all of Israel and Judah are in booths, and the army is in the open field. It seems as if war was at one time a liturgical act in the worship of YHWH.

Samuel had warned the people that a king would conscript their young men into his standing army and would conscript their young women as “perfumers.” Bringing the ark into Jerusalem, David had distribute a portion of meat to all the multitude of Israel, men and women alike, essentially claiming all the women as wives. And, here we see that play out in a memorable vignette. Bathsheba and Uriah stand in for all the people David claims as his own.

In the ancient mythology of kingship, food was plentiful and crops fertile when the king was virile. As any reading of the Psalms will show, success in war was part of that virility, and part of God’s blessing and election of God’s people. The glory of the king (and the sign of God’s blessing) could be measured in the size of his table: the more people he fed, the surer his rule (think of Arthur and the table rond).

John’s account of the feeding of the multitude leaps almost immediately to the idea of kingship: the people want to come and make Jesus king by force, a sort of interesting twist on the story of the people demanding a king in 1 Samuel. John also links the story of the feeding (as do the other Gospels) with Moses in the wilderness. John inverts the order of the stories of the feeding and sea crossing (all other accounts place a sea crossing first, and then a series of miracles and teachings followed by a feeding — though Mark and Matthew place two sets of these stories back-to-back, so it looks like a sea crossing immediately follows a feeding, though it is really connect to a feeding that will follow). The sea crossing/feeding scheme is a clear reference to the Red Sea and manna and connects that story to baptism and eucharist. Paul makes that connection absolutely explicit in the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians.

John seems to be holding up a contrast between Jesus and both Moses and monarch. Jesus is greater than both. Already, the contrast between Moses and monarch would be interesting, and Old Testament writers had used it. In the wilderness, people depended directly on God, and monarchy seemed to be a repudiation of that relationship. The prophets often held up the wilderness period as the “honeymoon” between God and God’s people.

In John’s account of the feeding, Jesus distributes the bread and fish directly to the people without the disciples as intermediaries. Is he critiquing a form of leadership emerging in the rest of the church? In the sea crossing, the disciples have a direct encounter with God in Jesus (when they see him and are terrified, Jesus responds, “I AM” — the divine name). Hopes for a return to a monarchy or even to the desert experience are misdirected. Jesus is now the point of contact between God and God’s people. Jesus has replaced both Temple and Tabernacle.

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