By Riley Manning
Along with Noah, Jonah, and Samson, King David ranks high in the scriptural canon of heroes children first learn about in the Bible.
While the most memorable plot points in David’s story may concern a slingshot and a giant, or a woman bathing on a rooftop, the overarching lessons to be gleaned reveal much about the nature of God’s relationship with man, and his favoritism toward David and the nation of Israel.
Furthermore, it may hold a mirror up to our own nation and its own long-held sense of exceptionalism as one nation, under God.
A City on a Hill
God makes a covenant with David in chapter 7 of II Samuel, saying “[David] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
David responds with praise for Israel, “the one nation on Earth God went out to redeem as people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people.”
These verses may sound reminiscent of our own nation, said Marc Perler, of Tupelo’s Temple of B’Nai Israel.
“Americans feel like we have a legacy because we’ve been blessed with so much,” he said. “We are certainly a country founded on great principles. But what justifiable entitlement do we have just because we were born here?”
Later in the story of David, the king sends Uriah the Hittite to die in battle, so David can marry his wife, Bathsheba. But even still, God favors David.
It would certainly seem, said Ole Miss religion professor James Bos, that a double standard is at play.
“Exceptionalism implies the ‘we’ as superior, and the ‘they’ as inferior,” Bos said. “And the concept has consequences. Saul told David he had to kill 200 men before he could marry Saul’s daughter. That’s 200 human lives.”
In the book of Joshua, Bos added, an entire population is exterminated because they are not aligned with the central group. Similarly, detractors of American exceptionalism argue the concept is a mere disguise for imperialism. Nineteenth-century Americans entertained the belief they were destined to expand west throughout the continent. This rhetoric of manifest destiny was used to justify the Mexican-American War.
Furthermore, it may be argued the atrocities of exceptionalist ideas – slavery, Abu Ghraib, etc. – have so flawed the nation’s character that it is impossible to point to as an example of righteousness to anyone.
On the other hand, early puritans believed America was inherently different because it was founded on a set of principles, rather than a certain lineage or race. As the American Revolution played out, it convinced many theologians God had indeed ordained America for some special purpose.
Thus the central problem, Bos said, is whether exceptionalism is inherited, genetic, unlosable, or is it earned by living out the values it claims?
“It’s hard to have exceptionalism without the unexceptional,” Bos said. “The issue is how are the ‘unexceptional’ treated.”
Perfect leaders, perfect expectations
The catch, Perler said, is the Davidic covenant was not simply a free pass. In his promise to David, God says, “I will be [David’s] father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men.”
Thus, Bos said, evidence of God’s approval was interpreted through whether or not Israel was victorious or defeated in battle.
“You have to understand the story of David wasn’t written like a newspaper story,” Bos said. “It was added to over the time, by people with an agenda. The Bathsheba story was added some time after the rest by a sect of Jews who were against the idea of a king at all. These instances of David exhibiting un-kingly behavior were meant to discredit him, to show people he was just as human as everyone else.”
In 586 B.C., he said, David’s kingdom was overrun by the Babylonians, putting an end to his dynasty. With the temple of Yaweh leveled, Jews began to rethink what exactly the favor of God looked like.
“Many texts from that time show consideration of true spiritual development, instead of physical things like crops or battles, as being evidence of God’s blessing,” he said.
For Perler, unconditional exceptionalism can only be sustained for so long. Righteousness, he said, must be earned by each new generation.
“The command to be a light unto nations is a tall order,” he said. “I think the story of King David is a story of what happens when ‘perfect’ leaders don’t meet our ‘perfect’ expectations. Instead of being strong ourselves, we elevate people to pedestals to do all the work, and that power corrupts.”
Though America is plentiful in its wealth, population, and geography, true character, Perler said, can never be summed up in numbers. Our nation’s plight may not be a destitution of resources, but a moral, cultural destitution.
“The question we should pose to ourselves is the same question we might apply to David,” he said. “Can we look at ourselves in the mirror, and say we have fulfilled our potential, our destiny in God’s grace? Or have we become corrupt under the weight of our abundance?”