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The Witness Workshop, Part Two: The Classic Example

Posted on Tuesday, September 5, 2006 at 09:03PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments3 Comments

ew cameo.jpg Someplace back there in early Hebrew history, a turning point arrived. It was a turning point, at which the things that a witness customarily did were taken out of the secular court and brought into a new courtroom — the courtroom of the Almighty Judge in our hearts, where He justifies us when we do well and condemns us when we do what is wrong.

Or perhaps that was not how it happened. Perhaps, instead, it was a turning point where what people had been doing all along in any case, by sheer instinct, appealing to one another’s sense of rightness, became illuminated by a new worshipful awareness at the same time that it was transfigured by an infusion of techniques that had developed in the secular courtroom.

What is certain is that we find, in later Hebrew texts, a new usage of the ideas of witness and testimony — a usage now not in the context of trials before secular judges, such as we saw in the story of Susanna and the Elders, but in the context of trials before the seat of divine awareness in the place of one’s own conscience.

And there seems to have been a particular incident that crystallized the transformation. That is what I want to talk about now.

It seems that from a very early date, the Hebrews were quite a conscience-driven people. Circumstances may have had a great deal to do with this. They were a marginal people in the beginning, spread thinly on the edge of the desert; they lacked the dense population and the wealth that would have made systematic, external enforcement of their laws easy and reliable, and yet they lived in circumstances where life could easily be lost and people needed to be ready to aid one another. Appeals to conscience can become very important in such circumstances.

Their neighbors, the Egyptians and Hittites and the little city-states in Canaan, had rulers obsessed with wealth, wars, and women. Their gods moved in lockstep with their rulers’ whims.

But while the city-states in the valleys of Canaan were fighting their bloody little wars, and the armies of the great empires were marching up and down the coastal plain on their way to each others’ homelands, and the rulers and wealthy of those places were trying to find happiness in the high life, the Hebrews, scrabbling for their living on the margin of the habitable land, would look at the Canaanites and Hittites and Egyptians with an outsider’s viewpoint, and see senseless violence, unhealthy obsessions with power and gold and sex, and wretched human relationships.

The Hebrews could hear their own God — and I would say that they heard Him very specifically in the place of conscience — telling them that they had better live in a better way than that.

As they themselves put it, God told them:

You may choose a king to rule over you, if you like; but if you do, he may not multiply horses for himself —

— horses being the assault weapons of the time —

nor shall he multiply gold for himself, or wives.

And this was the start of a testimony. We might call it: servant leadership.

Time went on. The Hebrews conquered cities for their own — they had no peace testimony yet, remember — and decided it was time to choose a king.

They picked a guy named Saul. But Saul was a disappointment, a Nixonian type, plagued with insecurity and jealousy. At the very next divine election, he lost decisively to his opponent, a charismatic young war hero named David.

David, now, looked promising. He had the freshness and joy of a man who had genuinely found the Spirit’s freedom.

He visibly loved the God of righteousness. When, after securing Israel from its enemies, he saw the tabernacle of God coming in triumph to Jerusalem, tradition tells us he threw off his royal robes, and danced for joy before it in the sight of all his people. It was pure innocent happiness for God.

David tried to honor righteousness, too, as befit one who loved such a God. Some of you may recall that he punished those who murdered his enemies, instead of honoring them as was the custom, and that he couldn’t be bought with gold.

So now it seemed the Hebrew experiment was finally on the right track.

But David’s weakness was sex. He entered office with a substantial harem, and yet was never satisfied; he kept on adding to it. At least one of the women he took, Michal, seems to have harbored some lasting resentment at the way she was seized.

And then (the story goes), one day, from his palace roof, David saw Bathsheba, his lieutenant’s wife, bathing. She was lovely. He was smitten. And he committed a series of appalling abuses of power. He had her smuggled into the palace and seduced her.

He made panderers of his servants, debauching their morals along with Bathsheba’s and his own.

Her husband, Uriah the Hittite — a sweet man who loved Israel so dearly, he voluntarily slept outside David’s door at night when the nation was at war — David arranged for this poor guy to be killed in battle, accidentally-on-purpose, in a war as needless and bullying as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

All so that David could have this woman for his own.

Friends, I want to make it clear that cheap feelings of moral superiority are not the point of this exercise.

And yet — what David had done was a very long way from fair play. Was it not?

And with the drawing in of David’s servants, and the slaying of the innocent Uriah, it was becoming something much bigger than David himself.

David’s kingdom was a whole lot smaller than the U.S., and so its ill deeds were smaller-scale, too.

But in truth, just as with George W. Bush’s abuse of his powers of office, in collaboration with the U.S. oil cartel — so with David also:

The wrongful desires of one, or a few, who hold power, lead to the corruption of those who serve them; and those who are corrupted debauch others in turn. And so it spreads, like an oil slick from a broken tanker, until by and bye the whole place is diseased and even other countries suffer.

Friends, how do we speak to a problem such as this? How do we save a society from its leadership?

It’s a good question, isn’t it?

So here is where witness comes into our story, in the person of a fellow named Nathan.

Tradition calls Nathan a prophet. But this probably means only that he was a profoundly religious man, with a gift for handling human relationships. As prophets go, he was small potatoes.

Yet even minor prophets are peculiar folk. Because they understand relationships, people find them canny. But because they are also profoundly religious, they cultivate things like simplicity and integrity and attentiveness to the inward Guide, and lose interest in other things, and so people find them childlike.

Think John Woolman — or Francis of Assisi — or Gandhi. That oxymoronic combination of canniness with childlikeness holds power. It was Nathan’s decision to take the secular courtroom procedure of “appearing as a witness”, “providing testimony”, and adapt it to David’s situation.

Nathan went to David as a witness to a controversy; and he chose to do this in large part because what he knew burdened him with an obligation to testify.

He would have weight as a witness, because he was a man of known integrity.

— And yet, it still wasn’t going to be easy for him, was it? David had just had Uriah killed for being inconvenient. He had total power to do the same to Nathan. Nathan was taking his life in his hands.

David’s pride and guilt would be big problems here. David might feel so guilty about what he’d done, he’d wall off the awareness of what was right, simply because he couldn’t bear to face it. People do do that. Or even if he admitted his fault inwardly, he might still be too proud to answer to others.

Somehow David would have to be induced to side with that of God in his heart, against his own self. And to bring this about, Nathan needed to be artful.

Picture, then, Nathan’s coming to David’s court.

The court was a big timbered hall, crudely decorated. There was a modest crowd of courtiers, soldiers and petitioners. It was all fairly informal, since David was a spontaneous kind of guy: very California. Nathan, being a prophet, fit right in, dressed in a tenth century B.C. equivalent of jeans and work shirt — a man whose simplicity reflected the work he did.

Nathan was an old acquaintance of David. We know David held him in respect, as someone who discerned God’s will much better than most. We also know their relationship was a comfortable one.

So: “Hullo,” says David, sitting up a little straighter; “what brings you here, Nathan?”

“I’ve seen an injustice,” says Nathan, simply. “And I came to talk with you about it, and ask you to do something.”

Now, these words remind David of the ideal he still loved: Israel as a kingdom dedicated to the God who teaches doing right. Nathan’s words enlist David’s vanity — that he can be a problem-solver. They enlist him on the side of what is right.

David pulls himself all the way upright. “Tell me the problem,” he says.

Now Nathan comes right up to David’s seat and crouches close beside it. His action says, I’m going to confide. But his real purpose is to make it private — to avoid putting David’s guilt and pride on the line.

He lowers his voice.

“It happened in one of the towns I keep watch on,” says Nathan truthfully. “It involved two men — one very rich and powerful, much too big for me to handle. And the other poor, destitute really, but very good and kind.

“The rich man had vast flocks and herds.

“The poor man had just one little female lamb that he’d raised as a pet. It had dwelt from birth in his house. He let it eat his own food off his own plate and drink from his own cup, and it lay on his chest to be petted.

“That lamb was what he came home to each night. He had nothing else to look forward to in his barren little hut. It was like a daughter to him.

“Then one day a traveler came to the rich man. And you know our custom, David; when a traveler comes, we remember how we were strangers in Egypt, and we treat him right.

“The rich man was too cheap to take from his own flocks and herds for the feast. So he told his servants: Go, take the poor man’s lamb, and kill it, and cook it for the traveler.

“And they did.”

All this Nathan says, not as someone judging David, but as someone confiding in a judge. Trusting David to hear and understand.

And in that disarming atmosphere, the story pierces David’s heart.

David says to Nathan in a fury, “As Spirit, the God of what is right, lives within me, that rich man will pay for what he did!

“He must die for this. For he did this thing and had no pity. He must be made to repay the poor man fourfold, but then he must die.”

See now how David’s own guilt and pride have been forgotten!

Notice, too, that the only decision points Nathan has given David so far — whether to hear the case, and how to address it — are points where David could naturally be expected to choose the side of righteousness.

This is Nathan’s skill as a witness — limiting David’s choices so that the interchange won’t go awry. He is using this skill to fight for David’s future.

Nathan says, still quietly — and Friends, it is very important that we bear in mind the quietness and gentleness of this confrontation: “David, I must tell you who that rich man is.

luiken nathan  david.jpg“It is you.

“Listen to God in your heart, David. He says: I made you rich. I gave you all of Israel for your flock and your herd. And had that been too little, I’d have given you more!

“But Uriah — poor man, all he had was Bathsheba. His one little lamb in his empty little life.”

And now Nathan waits for David to work it through.

A long pause.

David says to Nathan, “I have gone astray from God within me.” Wonderingly, like a man having a very hard realization.

And then — how could he not? — he begins to weep.

Friends, this was witness rightly done.ew tiny.png

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Reader Comments (3)

Maybe the reason there were no comments, was because peoples' span of attention gave out before they got to the end.

Nevertheless I think it was a noble effort. And thanks for commenting at
http://kwakerskripturestudy.blogspot.com/ (Friendly Scripture Study).
Sep 27, 2006 at 02:51PM | Unregistered Commenterlarry
Perhaps indeed it was because they lost interest. If so, that's the way it goes.

The posting you're commenting on here is a part of my report on what came of my walk from Nebraska to Baltimore Yearly Meeting in Virginia. It's a report I'm providing here because I think I owe it to all the people who helped make the journey possible. Even if they've lost interest, I believe I still owe them the report. It's a matter of being accountable to those around me!
Sep 27, 2006 at 05:47PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hi Marshall-

I just read this, following your lead in the questionnaire. It's a neat story, and your dramatic presentation of it certainly doesn't fall in any interpretational "camp." The point, as I take it, is that the Bible's not just a collection of rules that have to be interpreted based on one approach or another, but also a collection of great stories that anyone can hear and be stirred by.

I've enjoyed reading your answers; thanks again for participating. I'll send a copy of the study when it's written up.


May 21, 2007 at 03:48PM | Unregistered CommenterRobbie McKay

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