Psalm 51 as a Critique of David—An Intertextual Reading with 2 Samuel 12

Three weeks ago I posted about some of my essays that had just been published. One of these was an essay entitled: “A Psalm against David? A Canonical Reading of Psalm 51 as a Critique of David’s Inadequate Repentance in 2 Samuel 12.”

It is published as chapter 2 in Explorations in Interdisciplinary Reading: Theological, Exegetical, and Reception-Historical Perspectives, ed. by Robbie F. Castleman, Darian R. Lockett, and Stephen O. Presley (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017), 26–45.

At the time I didn’t have a copy of the published essay to post.

The essay is now ready, and may be downloaded here, for those who are interested.

Below is an explanation of what I was trying to accomplish in the essay, adapted from my previous posts on the subject (including one I wrote when I was about to present it at a conference).

The Argument of the Essay

I’ve always prized Psalm 51 as an amazing articulation of the meaning of repentance; and it is a favorite and valued psalm for many Christians.

Although the superscription links it to David’s confrontation by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 over his adultery with Bathsheba, I had the sense that the traditional reading of this psalm as David’s prayer of confession did not fit the actual story in 2 Samuel. This came from teaching both the psalm and the Samuel narrative over many years (in different courses).

I therefore decided to read Psalm 51 carefully in light of the narrative of David’s sin and confession to see what I could come up with.

Since psalms superscriptions are not original to the psalms, but inserted by later editors (I give evidence for this in the essay), I propose that we take the superscription to Psalm 51 as a (divinely inspired) lectionary suggestion for reading the psalm together with the 2 Samuel narrative.

The result of doing this, I argue, is that the psalm ends up functioning as a critique of David’s superficial “repentance” in 2 Samuel 12.

My essay, therefore, challenges the naive, idealistic reading of the figure of David often found in the evangelical church (but then anyone who reads 1-2 Samuel with their eyes open would be disabused of this ideal picture anyway).

The essay is, most fundamentally, my attempt to take the authority of Scripture seriously (regarding both Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 as divinely inspired), with eyes wide open to the complexity of this divinely inspired Scripture, asking what the implications might be for Christians reading these texts.

Happy reading!

 

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On Genesis, Job, and Psalms—Five Recent Essays Published

Five essays I’ve been working on for a while have recently been (or are about to be) published.

I wrote this essay last year for oral presentation at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies and then again at the Society of Biblical Literature. I conceived it as an introductory exploration of the phenomenon of vigorous prayer in the Bible, which grounds research I am currently doing for a book on lament vis-à-vis Abraham and Job. You can download the essay by clicking on its title (or here).

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  • “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97.

This essay was written specifically for this collection, at the invitation of the editors. It was the first piece I ever wrote trying to relate the Bible to human evolution. I presented it at a conference in Spring 2015, which led to my becoming a Theological Fellow with BioLogos, writing blog posts for them, and giving a number of related presentations on the Bible and evolution. My approach both in this essay and in the subsequent blogs and presentations on the subject has been to listen to the Bible first, then explore how this might help us understand what scientists are telling us about human evolution.

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For a long time I had been mulling over my sense that most interpreters were misreading God’s response to Job’s complaints; instead of reprimanding Job for daring to question him, I understood God second speech as encouraging him (while his first speech functioned to critique his assumptions and enlarge his vision). So, some years ago I worked up my ideas into a paper that I presented at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies; this led to my being asked to give this paper as the Peter C. Craigie memorial lecture at the University of Calgary. Then I put it away for a while, but reworked it for presentation last year in a Biblical Studies Seminar at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, Australia. It is now published in their journal with the other papers from the Seminar.  You can download the essay by clicking on its title (or here).

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I’ve always prized Psalm 51 as an amazing articulation of the meaning of repentance. But like the Job paper (above), I had the sense that the traditional reading of this psalm as David’s prayer of confession did not fit the actual story in 2 Samuel 11–12. So I tried out my ideas on the topic a few years back at the Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society and then at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. I revised the paper for presentation in 2015 in the “Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, and the Theological Disciplines” Research Group of the Institute for Biblical Research. It is published in a volume of collected papers that have been presented in this research group over the last few years.

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This essay is an exposition of the story of the Garden of Eden, to show how it grounds the dignity of work and the equality of men and women in God’s original intentions for human life. Yet God’s intentions in both cases have been distorted by human sin (and our sinful perspective often leads to our misreading of this story). The essay was commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Roberts Wesleyan College and the title of the volume comes from the name of the newspaper (The Earnest Christian) published by B. T. Roberts, the founder of the College and of the Free Methodist Church. The essays also function as an earnest of the heritage of the College and of B. T. Roberts’s vision of socially embodied Christianity (he was an evangelical egalitarian back in the nineteenth century and wrote a booklet in 1891 advocating the ordination of women). Although the anniversary of the College was last year, the volume of essays is being published this summer.

The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job—Exploring Genesis 22 in Mirfield

This is the fourth installment about my journey through the UK.

After leaving Durham, I visited friends (David and Ruth Hanson) in Leeds overnight, then David drove me to the College of the Resurrection in nearby Mirfield to speak on the same topic I had presented on in Durham—Genesis 22.

The College of the Resurrection is an Anglo-Catholic seminary attached to a monastery in Mirfield. There I was hosted by Dorothea Bertschmann, tutorial fellow in New Testament at the College.

Those organizing the event decided to give my talk on Genesis 22 the same title as the book I am currently working on, “The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job,” even though most of the talk was focused on Abraham, with only a bit on Job at the end.

I met some great people at the College of the Resurrection. Besides Prof. Bertschmann, I had a good chat with Steffan Mathais, a senior student (who already had a PhD in Old Testament) currently studying for the pastoral ministry.

Below is Steffan’s account of my talk on Genesis 22 (written for the community’s newsletter). He starts with a Rabbinic quote about how to study Scripture, and why it is worth studying.


Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it. – Rabbi Bag Ben Bag, Pirke Avos, 5:22

One of the great ironies of biblical scholarship is that often those who have given their lives to study of the bible are at best bored, and at worst irritated, by the texts they spend their days with. By contrast there was an infectiousness of Prof J. Richard Middleton’s excitement and playfulness, in his lecture The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job, delivered to the college on the 27th April, in conjunction with SIIBS, the Mirfield Centre, and St Hild’s College.

Prof Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, New York State. The body of his lecture focused around the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. While central in the imagination of Judaism and Christianity – and Islam – Middleton initially explored some of the ethical ambiguities of the narrative, before pointing out some of the interesting quirks of the story, notably the breakdown of relationship between Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, who henceforth in Genesis are said to live in different parts of the land.

Middleton asked if, perhaps, the text is more complex than our traditional reading, that Abraham was tested to see if he was willing to kill his son to submit to God. Through a close reading of the Hebrew (and without giving any surprises away to those who wish to read his next book on the subject!) Middleton read the story as a test of a very different kind: that God required Abraham to argue back, to say no, to be so sure of the mercy of God that he could wrestle with him. And in the end Abraham failed the test, remaining silent where those such as Job could not, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant carried them through.

Middleton’s reading was surprisingly compelling for one so provocative, but even more compelling was a reading of an old text which brought it alive again; which rather than ironing over the difficulties understood the creative tensions at play – the gaps, the lacunae, the ambiguities – and saw the scriptures as something to be enjoyed, to be wrestled with and poured over, not to be compartmentalised and ‘solved.’ Through his reading Middleton – partly through his study of Jewish exegesis – embraced the advice of Rabbis of old to always make the scriptures always new: ‘turn it and turn it again, for all is in it.’

~Steffan Mathais


I shared three meals with faculty and students at the College of the Resurrection, as well as gathering for coffee, drinks, and conversation. I also participated in a eucharistic liturgy led by the principal of the College, Fr Peter Allan.

All in all, it was quite wonderful to share worship, meals, camaraderie, and theological reflection with the members of this unique community of ecclesial learning.

My next post recounts my time in Leeds, with the Thinking Faith Network.