Friday, May 15, 2009

1 Chronicles 21: Framing Satan

In 2 Samuel 24, God--to quote the esteemed rabbinical scholar Chris Isaak--does a bad bad thing. Out of the blue, he "incites" David--his bestest favoritest king of all time--to take a census of the Israelite people. This census, however, is quickly characterized as a sinful undertaking (probably because counting the people implies keeping tabs on God's covenantal promise to make them numerous), and God decides to punish David for the "sin" He commands the king to commit. This whole episode seems vaguely akin to a father lending his 13 year-old son the car after cutting the break lines. But God's not done yet.

In what seems nothing less than a sadistic little cat-and-mouse game, the Lord offers David his choice of punishments: either there will be seven years of famine, three months of harassment by foreign rulers, or three days of plague. David picks the last, probably because simple arithmetic tells him that three days is shorter than seven years. (The king was obviously a college math major.)

Okay, so that's not actually his reasoning; his rationale seems both savvy and naive: "let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great" (2 Samuel 24: 14). A hopeful little argument, but the Lord will have none of it. God, intent upon showing just how "great" his mercy actually is, promptly slaughters 70,000 Israelites by pestilence.

Though this seems an unconscionably violent act, it does help prove one of the Hebrew Bible's lasting messages: this God will not be put in a leash, nor will He be kept in a pretty plexiglass case on the mantle next to your Paul Konerko-autographed baseball. God explodes from the text with violent force; He is simultaneously beautiful and irrepressible, sublime and bloodthirsty. He will walk with you in the cool of the evening and then kill your children at night. He is a God to be loved and feared--in a very real way.

Nonetheless, many are uncomfortable around such a God; even other Biblical authors are uneasy with this rambunctious--and there's an understatement if I ever wrote one--Lord, who compels the sin that he genocidally punishes. Hence, when the author of 1 Chronicles retells this same tale, he (or she) makes a crucial change.

Chronicles is Biblical rehistory--a later, second version of the rise and fall of the Israelites, from Adam to the destruction of Judah. However, as rabbis and scholars have noted for literally thousands of years, there are many significant discrepancies between the two tales. And only some of the Chronicler's motivations in changing the earlier stories are clear. (Though many mark these differences as weaknesses of the Biblical text, I tend to disagree. The compilers of the Tanakh understood that there could be different versions of events, and they would not force their history--nor their God--to conform to a single narrative. What sane boldness.)

But our author's motivation in changing the story of David's census seems crystal clear: he needs to get God off the hook. Thus, when the Chronicler revisits the king about to make his count, he audaciously (and arbitrarily?) changes the identity of the "inciter": "Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel" (1 Chronicles 21: 1). Presumably unable to stomach a God capable of such diabolical villainy, our author calls in an understudy, Satan, and when all's said and done (and killed), we can all feel better with God in heaven punishing the unjust and Satan on earth tempting the weak.

But is this Satan as master tempter, or mere scapegoat? Granted, I might be once again guilty of understatement if I call Satan a patsy. But as I've tried to explain in previous posts, it's equally wrong to characterize the Hebrew Bible's Satan as the leather-winged, horn-headed, raw umber master of all evil. Satan loosely translates as "the Adversary," and he's more like a prosecuting attorney in other books like Job.

And once again, I'm not sure if in 1 Chronicles he's even that. For my money, he's just the fall guy--the shmoe wheeled in from offstage to make us forget God's deadly shenanigans in 2 Samuel. (For the record, I'm going to cast Joe Pesci as Satan in the film version, though I'm not expecting the 1 Chronicles the movie to be a summer blockbuster; maybe we'll find a cult market in DVD sales.) But I digress, and let's get right down to the point of this post: I think the frame is on!

So if only for a moment, can't we have a little sympathy for the devil?

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