I took some time this afternoon to read an entire chapter of Hebrew, which I had not done in quite a while, unfortunately. Things have been busy with speaking, teaching, cancer, music, preaching, hurricane–you get the idea, but each of those is for its own post.
I took the opportunity to read 1 Chronicles 21. This is an important chapter in the argument of my dissertation, which postulates Chronicles as a consensus document mediating Benjaminites and Judahites in the mid- to late Persian period, blah, blah, etc. The chapter is fascinating within the structure of Chronicles as a whole.
But 1 Chr 21 is a striking self-contained narrative in its own right. Two aspects of the chapter jumped out at me today as I read.
First, the theme of confession and penitential prayer is so strong in the book, but perhaps nowhere stronger than in this chapter. David becomes the example par excellence of the penitential sinner. David’s sin is variously understood as mobilization for war, pride in military strength, and/or acting against a Deuteronomic command. But David’s confessions are remarkable. First, he admits his own sin before YHWH (חטאתי מאד); second, after the punishment comes, he wishes that the plague would come upon him and his house rather than on the people, because he alone sinned (ואני־הוא אשׁר־חטאתי).
Second, I have always been intrigued by the nature of YHWH’s threefold punishment options and the reasons for David’s choice. David’s options were: three years of famine, three months of pursuit by enemies, and three days of plague.
When I was a child, sometimes my parents would give me the option of a spanking, writing sentences, or some loss of privilege. I would always choose the spanking, because this was the shortest option. Interestingly, David also chooses the shortest option–though his stated reasoning is different: “Let me fall into YHWH’s hand, for His mercies are very great. But do not let me fall into the hand of man.”
David’s first two options involve YHWH’s passive action against his people: restraining the rain, or permitting enemies to harass David–whereas the third option entailed YHWH’s active attack on his people. Now, philosophically, there might seem to be very little distinction in terms of YHWH’s ultimate responsibility: each of these three would have been punishment from YHWH. We distinguish between sins of omission and commission, but both are sin.
But maybe David knew that YHWH would hesitate to act directly in punishing Israel. David acknowledged that he deserved punishment–but he knew that it would pain YHWH to kill his own people. “On paper,” it shouldn’t have made a difference–but David knew that it would make a difference in YHWH’s heart. It certainly makes a difference in my heart: I would rather put my son “in timeout” than spank him or slap his hand.
Conversely, Lamentations in accusing YHWH distinguishes between his permissive punishment (Lam 1: allowing the Babylonians to invade) and his active attack on Israel (Lam 2: YHWH’s barrage against his people). Lam 2 is even more poignant, because YHWH has taken up arms rather than merely turning a blind eye.
YHWH’s hand is powerful. But his heart is soft toward his people. He is not eager to curse, but he is eager to bless.