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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Not a Fairy Tale

Comedian Linda Beatty has a weekly atheist comedy web show called The Bible and Other Fairy Tales, from which we may safely conclude Linda, like many other atheists, has never actually read the Old Testament.

The real Bible is full of people displaying contradictory, often self-defeating behavior. There are few squeaky-clean Cinderella types, and few transparently evil stepsisters. Rarely are its characters utterly and irredeemably wicked. Rarely are they entirely faithful, wise and obedient. They are real, flawed human beings, driven by their passions, often displaying surprising decency or brutal inhumanity within a few paragraphs of each other.

Fairy tales these are not.

Poor Old Joab

So, poor Joab. No, really. If he’d had any idea what a fairy tale was, he might have wished to be in one. To be where the Big Bad Wolf is consistently big and unremittingly bad, not to mention disturbingly lupine. To be where cooking a witch in her own oven is totally legit, since she would happily have done worse to you. In short, to be where the moral lines are a little bit more obvious.

In Joab’s life, they were not. Thus, David’s general (and nephew) takes a lot of flak, both for his ferocity and for his dubious judgment. He took it from David. He takes it from readers of 2 Samuel. And sometimes justifiably: at times Joab appears willing to shed blood at the drop of a hat.

Some of that violence was a necessary consequence of being in charge of Israel’s army. Other episodes were more sordid. Stabbing Abner to death in the gate of the city of Hebron was not among Joab’s finer moments. Neither was advising the king to bring back the murderous prince Absalom from his self-imposed exile.

More Than One Dimension

Still, Joab is no fairy tale general. He is far from one-dimensional. There are times when he demonstrates a level of dispassionate common sense and perspective sorely lacking in King David.

Where Absalom was concerned, it is clear David lacked the necessary emotional distance and self-control to make critical decisions. Absalom rewarded his father for pardoning him by initiating a rebellion and seizing the kingdom. The resulting civil war ended up costing in the neighbourhood of 20,000 Israelite lives, eventually including Absalom’s.

But despite his murderous inclinations, selfishness, vanity, rebellion and ingratitude, Absalom would not have died if David had his way. Incredibly, his affection for his son was undiminished by Absalom’s wicked behaviour. He gave strict instructions to Joab and his other generals to spare the rebel’s life, though the soldiers who fought on Absalom’s behalf were extended no such leniency in battle. Apparently David’s heart was working a lot better than his head at the time. One wonders what exactly he intended to do with Absalom if he were taken alive. To exile him again was to risk another rebellion. To pardon him would be worse. To execute him after the battle was over? Impossible, for David anyway.

Caught Between Bad and Worse

One can only conclude that David had no plan at all, which is a bad place to be when thousands upon thousands of people’s lives depend on your ability to make wise decisions on their behalf.

Joab, on the other hand, saw the problem clearheadedly. He was loyal to the king, but found it impossible to obey his self-indulgent, foolish command to spare the leader of the rebels. At the first opportunity, he defied the king’s order, stabbed Absalom in the heart, threw his body into a pit and buried it under a massive pile of stones.

Good riddance, I say.

Covered With Shame

On the other hand, we have to recognize that Joab defied a direct order and risked the consequences of that defiance. And rather than backing down, he called the king out for his horribly self-involved orders:
“Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, ‘You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters and the lives of your wives and your concubines, because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you. For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you, for today I know that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.’ ”
What can you say? He was exactly right. And David knew it. He followed Joab’s advice and got up and sat in the gate, showing some actual leadership to his loyal troops despite his own weakness.

It’s not a fairy tale ending. It’s not even a happy ending. It is a realistic one.

For Our Instruction

These stories are not written for the amusement of children. They are, in fact, “written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come”.

So what can we learn from David’s failure?
  1. When a leader refuses to lead, he puts his subordinates in an impossible position. This is true in the family. It’s true in the church. A father has an obligation to apply discipline equally to all his children. He cannot pick and choose when and to whom he cares to apply the house rules.

    Joab made a hard judgment call (which, for him, was a bad decision because it involved disobedience), but he made it because the man whose job it was to make that call refused to do it. David put his personal feelings on a pedestal where they didn’t belong, and endangered a nation because of it. Joab saw the danger to both the people and to David, and acted to prevent even greater loss. But he was left making a choice between one kind of evil and another. No leader should deliberately put another person in that position.
  2. Those with great responsibility need to keep their emotions out of their decision-making. For David, this would have been simple: send the troops out to war against Absalom and let the chips fall where they may, just as they did during Ish-bosheth’s rebellion. (Ish-bosheth was conveniently dispatched without David lifting a finger, and thus he was preserved from having to make a decision that might have been politically unwise or against his own inclinations.)

    Acting to prevent our children from experiencing the consequences of their own rebellion is not a favor to our kids. I’m thinking of a couple of situations now in which fathers who were elders in local churches sat with their fellow elders to decide how the church should respond to their own child’s unrepentant misbehavior. If only for the sake of appearances, it would seem wise to abstain from such decisions and let others do their jobs without putting (or appearing to put) our fingers on the scales.
  3. No actions are without consequences, and sometimes those consequences are dire. Twenty thousand dead Israelites were the fallout from David’s indulgence of an inordinate family affection, a passion that he allowed to burn out of control. Mercy is a great thing. It’s a character trait of our Father in Heaven. But his mercy is always in perfect balance with his wisdom and his justice. When tempted to be merciful to the unrepentant, we need to remember that while we have an individual obligation to turn the other cheek when insulted, to turn the cheeks of others without their consent is wickedness. It is godly to “Defend the weak and the fatherless”, not to subject them to the predations of more aggressive would-be leaders. A true leader does not put his own people at risk in order to virtue-signal or indulge his own whims.
Rarely Obvious and Almost Never Easy

Leadership in church and home is a tremendous responsibility, involving decisions to which the answers are rarely obvious and almost never easy, and which have no fairy tale endings — even when you do the right thing. When the Big Bad Wolf is your son-in-law or the Wicked Stepmother is your daughter, there is probably no outcome that will make everyone in your church or your family happy. Those of us in leadership need to do our jobs consistently, biblically and fairly, regardless of the emotional cost and pressures on us.

Those of us who are not burdened with leadership responsibilities need to keep in mind that doing the right thing is not as simple as watching the Big Bad Wolf conveniently incinerate himself on his way down the Third Little Pig’s chimney.

Also, the wolves your elders have to deal with are almost surely related to people who love them as dearly as David did Absalom.

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