June 16, 2009
Sins of the Fathers
A few days ago I was biding some time before an appointment, sipping coffee outside a coffee shop (yes, it was Starbucks) on the corner of First Ave. South and Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square section of Seattle. From where I sat I had a wonderful view of a classic illustration of the sins of the fathers of Seattle back in 1853. Doc Maynard, who owned the property to my south, had oriented his streets by the cardinal points of the compass, while Arthur Denny and Carson Boren, who owned property to my north, ended up orienting their streets according to the shoreline of Elliott Bay. Apparently they tried to work out a solution with Maynard, but it didn’t happen.
The city fathers could not agree on a scheme for connecting their property plats. And it appears that Doc Maynard was the root of the problem. As Denny recalled, “it was found that the doctor, who occasionally stimulated a little, had that day taken enough to cause him to feel that he was not only monarch of all he surveyed, but what Boren and I had surveyed as well.”
Ah, yes, “occasionally stimulated a little.” The result was an awkward meeting of streets along the seam that is now Yesler Way. This cursed hiccup in Seattle’s street grid has been daily negotiated by its citizens for the past 156 years.
I have used this in teaching (in Seattle, of course) as an illustration of structural evil, but also of the inheritance of familial sins. We inherit sin-shaped realities from our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents that are now “just the way it is.” It’s up to us to deal with them, something like Seattle has done. But the residue of these sins remain and continue to affect us. We might still be able to sip our coffee along these fault lines, but we will both wonder at the intransigence of our ancestors and speculate how it might have been otherwise.
Meditating on the sins of the fathers leads me to comment on the recent publication of David Firth’s excellent commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series. The transition is apparent, isn’t it? No? Well, let me explain.
David, the Israelite king, is of course a major player in this pair of books, and for all the blessing bestowed on and virtue displayed in this Israelite ancestor, there is a major fault line that sends its tremor through the latter half of 2 Samuel. That is, of course, David’s great sin involving Uriah and Bathsheba.
As Firth puts it, the individual narratives following 2 Samuel 11 are “like a succession of Russian dolls inserted inside each other, from smallest to largest, each level of the story is understood on its own terms and then integrated into the larger narrative” (Firth, 448). And that larger narrative is “David’s assault on Uriah through Bathsheba,” with its punishment announced through Nathan, and its implementation through violence within David’s family as well as assault on David “as he had assaulted Uriah” (Firth, 449). The effects of sin reverberate through the rest of David’s reign, and Firth’s commentary skillfully points out the development of this story.
Seattle stitched together a solution to the rupture in its city grid, though the scar tissue still remains. It is what it is, and so it will ever be. David repented and accepted Yahweh’s “right to judge and discipline,” though he and others still paid a heavy price. The story in 2 Samuel ends with a devastating pestilence that falls on the entire people. But Yahweh provides a means “by which that punishment’s full effects can be ameliorated” (Firth, 549), an act of sacrifice and worship led by David. Here David is “pointing the way forward for the nation and the kings who will follow, and ultimately to Jesus as the one whose sacrifice truly draws all to himself (John 12:32). Samuel thus closes by reminding us of where it began, but also by pointing beyond itself. For all its perplexity, we can imagine no better ending” (Firth, 549).
This is a commentary that takes you the full distance from fresh translation, through notes on textual issues, explanation of form and structure, verse-by-verse comment on the text and on to biblical-theological explanation. Firth, who lectures in Old Testament at Cliff College in the U.K., is a productive, up-and-coming Old Testament scholar who is sure to make a strong contribution in years to come. He has recently co-edited Interpreting the Psalms and Words and the Word. Look for the volume he has edited with Hugh Williamson—Interpreting Isaiah—in the near future.