David: An (Un)Original Sinner

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David: An (Un)Original Sinner

Delivered in slightly different form as part of the Easter Vigil Service 2015 at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Baltimore

(Accompanying readings from 1 Samuel 18 and 27, 2 Samuel 5, 11 and 12)

David is like us, and we are like David. That’s my thesis.

Last year at this service, I talked about Genesis Chapters 2 and 3, the story of Adam and Eve, and about the two Trees in the story, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and what they tell us about mortality and morality. Father Lawrence pointed out with maybe a touch of asperity that I did not mention Original Sin in my discourse. He was right; I didn’t.

Tomayto, Tomahto

And I didn’t for two reasons: nowhere is Original Sin mentioned in Genesis 2 and 3, and it is only through the work of Catholic theologians much later on that we have the concept of Original Sin, let alone a perception that it is at work in those chapters. Personally, I don’t think it fits there. The story doesn’t tell us enough about the inner lives of Adam and Eve to give us any basis for saying they were being sinful as we would use the word. In fact, it strongly suggests the contrary. Remember, they didn’t know good from evil when they ate the apple. It was the apple that gave them that knowledge. I cannot conceive of ignorant sin. And in any case if Original Sin is real and operates in human history and histories, then it can hardly have started with two individuals named Adam and Eve, who are legend, not history. Well, that’s a dispute for another day, in any case.

You say tomayto and I say tomahto. You say Original Sin, I say human cussedness. In terms of results, at least, if not of causes, we’re talking about the same thing. We humans tend to screw up a lot.

I want to talk tonight about another Bible set of stories that I think do illustrate Original Sin far better: the stories about King David. Now there’s a sinner for you, as we have heard. He commits sins both large and small; accounts of two of them been read to you tonight. On the smaller side, he puts Uriah in harm’s way so he can add Uriah’s wife Bathsheba to his harem. And on the larger side, he seems to be involved in constant wars against the Philistines and others, atrocities from which are recounted in the segment we just heard.

Out, Damned Philistines

Let me clear up a preliminary question: Is the war against the Philistines sinful? I vote yes, and here’s why. The Bible doesn’t exactly tell us who started the fight between the Philistines and the Hebrews. By the time we get to the accounts of David, all we know is they’re at war with each other. But it seems clear at a minimum that in Hebrew myth, the Philistines were around Canaan from before the events of the Book of Exodus. And in Exodus God tells the Hebrews they have a right to displace other aboriginal peoples in Canaan. We have to assume the Philistines were implicitly included among those displaceables.

But for me, the notion of a God telling one people they have a right and a mission to displace another people is unacceptable. I refuse to accept the notion of a God who encourages ethnic cleansing. Whether the Bible says it or not, I don’t believe it really happened. The tale of God sanctioning ethnic cleansing is the kind of story guilty people would tell each other to deaden their awareness that they were dispossessing and killing other human beings.

Why the Hell?

And certainly David isn’t engaged in this struggle for any reason that would seem respectable to us. When it works out better for him to go over to the Philistines, that’s just what he does. Then he goes back to the Hebrews to become their king. There is absolutely no moral compass at work here.

And by the way, this is a story of contemporary significance. The modern word Palestinian is just an updating of the word Philistine. So when Israelis and Palestinians fight over the land, it’s the very same struggle as in the 8th Century BC between the Hebrews and the Philistines. And there are still attempts at mass displacement between neighboring peoples that result in continued warfare.

If we can reject the notion that Yahweh or Allah actually gave divine sanction to this endless war, we have to ask: Why the hell are you fighting? And the answer on each side, then as now, would probably be: Because the other guys are fighting against us. Or Just because fighting wars is what humans do. Neither of these is a satisfactory justification, but the fact that there’s no good one is an important clue to the fact that something both sinful and perennially human is at work. I think we are here, much more than in the story of Adam and Eve, in the presence of what official Catholic doctrine calls Original Sin.


In thinking about this subject, I have largely been guided by and acknowledge my debt to the writings of religious scholar and writer Karen Armstrong, and in particular her recent book Fields of Blood.[1] Although she is a former nun, she is not today what most of us would consider a religious believer. But she is a keen student of the perennial problems of human nature that believers are talking about when they use the term Original Sin. It is a problem she believes every religion has confronted.

Her focus in Fields of Blood is not every kind of sinfulness but specifically the human inclination to warfare, which she finds pretty much universal among human civilizations. But I think her observations will also cover what I’ve called the smaller stuff, like the nasty way David did in Uriah to gain Bathsheba. That kind of behavior is also universal.

She thinks explanations begin with evolution and with the demands of civilization.

Three Brains

As to evolution, she has this to say:

Each of us has not one but three brains that coexist uneasily. In the deepest recess of our gray matter we have an “old brain” that we inherited from the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime 500 million years ago. Intent on their own survival, with absolutely no altruistic pulses, these creatures were solely motivated by mechanisms urging them to feed, fight, flee (when necessary), and reproduce. Those best equipped to compete mercilessly for food, ward off any threat, dominate territory, and seek safety naturally passed along their genes, so these self-centered impulses could only intensify. But sometime after mammals appeared, they evolved what neuroscientists call the limbic system, perhaps about 120 million years ago. Formed over the core brain derived from the reptiles, the limbic system motivated all sorts of new behaviors, including the protection and nurture of young as well as the formation of alliances with other individuals that were invaluable in the struggle to survive. And so, for the first time, sentient beings possessed the capacity to cherish and care for creatures other than themselves….

[We must also consider] the third part of our brain. About twenty thousand years ago, during the Paleolithic Age, human beings evolved a “new brain,” the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers and self-awareness that enable us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions. Humans thus became roughly as they are today, subject to the conflicting impulses of their three distinct brains.[2]

For present purposes, then, evolution has given us minds that have a lot of old stuff going on that will fight against the demands of conscience – as well as new physical structures that for the first time make conscience possible.

Civilization and Its Discontents

And then, turning to what civilization demands, we find that since the dawn of agriculture civilization too demands behavior we should consider sinful. Armstrong focuses first on what we know about ancient Jericho and the violence that an agricultural society invites. She writes:

By the beginning of the ninth millennium BCE, the settlement in the oasis of Jericho in the Jordan valley had a population of three thousand people, which would have been impossible before the advent of agriculture. Jericho was a fortified stronghold protected by a massive wall that must have consumed tens of thousands of hours of manpower to construct. In this arid region, Jericho’s ample food stores would have been a magnet for hungry nomads. Intensified agriculture, therefore, created conditions that could endanger everyone in this wealthy colony and transform arable land into fields of blood…. From the first, it seems, large-scale organized violence was linked … with organized theft.[3]

The progression, then, is that agricultural and later other surpluses begat armed theft and armed resistance. In other words, wealth provokes warfare.

But agriculture also brought worse than fights over food.

Agriculture had also introduced another type of aggression: an institutional or structural violence in which a society compels people to live in wretchedness and subjection that they are unable to better their lot. This systemic oppression, …according to the World Council of Churches, [is] present whenever “resources and powers are unequally distributed, concentrated in the hands of the few, who do not use them to achieve the possible self-realization of all members, but use parts of them for self-satisfaction or for purposes of dominance, oppression, and control of other societies or of the underprivileged in the same society.” Agrarian civilization made this systemic violence a reality for the first time in human history.

Paleolithic communities had probably been egalitarian because hunter-gatherers could not support a privileged class that did not share the hardship and danger of the hunt. Because these small communities lived at near-subsistence level and produced no economic surplus, inequity of wealth was impossible. The tribe could survive only if everybody shared what food they had. Government by coercion was not feasible because all able-bodied males had exactly the same weapons and fighting skills. Anthropologists have noted that modern hunter-gatherer societies are classless, that their economy is “a sort of communism,” and that people are honored for skills and qualities, such as generosity, kindness, and even-temperedness, that benefit the community as a whole. But in societies that produce more than they need, it is possible for a small group to exploit this surplus for its own enrichment, gain a monopoly of violence, and dominate the rest of the population.

As we shall see [says Armstrong] … this systemic violence would prevail in all agrarian civilizations.[4]

The 2% Emerges

And it is not merely that agricultural and later industrial societies create the opportunities for systemic violence. They arguably create the necessity for it. Says Armstrong:

In the empires of the Middle East, China, India, and Europe, which were economically dependent on agriculture, a small elite, comprising not more than 2 percent of the population, with the help of a small band of retainers, systematically robbed the masses of the produce they had grown in order to support their aristocratic lifestyle. Yet, social historians argue, without this iniquitous arrangement, human beings would probably never have advanced beyond subsistence level, because it created a nobility with the leisure to develop the civilized arts and sciences that made progress possible. All premodern civilizations adopted this oppressive system; there seemed to be no alternative.[5]

 Nor is the damage that our social development has done to our nature confined to social inequality; it continues with warfare. Says Armstrong:

Established by force and maintained by military aggression, warfare was essential to the agrarian state. When land and the peasants who farmed it were the chief sources of wealth, territorial conquest was the only way such a kingdom could increase its revenues. Warfare was, therefore, indispensable to any premodern economy. The ruling class had to maintain its control of the peasant villages, defend its arable land against aggressors, conquer more land, and ruthlessly suppress any hint of insubordination…. No state can survive without its soldiers. And once states grew and warfare had become a fact of human life, an even greater force – the military might of empire – often seemed the only way to keep the peace.

So necessary to the rise of states and ultimately empires is military force that historians regard militarism as a mark of civilization. Without disciplined, obedient, and law-abiding armies, human society, it is claimed, would probably have remained at a primitive level or have degenerated into ceaselessly warring hordes.[6]

Moreover these tendencies reinforce each other; the ruling class always benefits from the necessity of warfare. In European history, for instance, medieval protection rackets were the germ of the feudal nobility, who leveraged their power to make war into control of land that had previously been communally-owned and of the citizens who had previously owned it. Historian Daniel Richter has spoken of this feudal innovation as “the bizarre European custom according to which individual warriors were entitled to possess land in perpetuity, pass it on to their lineal descendants in the male line, and force others to do the work of making it productive.”[7]

Sympathy for the David

Of course David comes earlier and elsewhere. But in general principle, it’s the same story. Evolutionary history and the dynamics of every human economy and society show how we get to David, the perpetrator of war crimes and consolidator of privilege in Israel’s first royal house.

Which is not a total condemnation of the man. He lives in a human body with a brain that has been in development for half a billion years and it really, really wants what it wants even if what it wants is a woman married to another man. He is a citizen of a human society where political economy seems to force the development of armies and unjust warfare, and to push members of the ruling class to lead those armies and consolidate riches (including desirable females like Bathsheba) at the top. He is up against the real original sin, real structures in his brain and in society that push him in bad directions.

And we are no more immune to those bad directions than David was. We can’t opt out of our brain or our societies. If we try to escape, like Henry David Thoreau to Walden Pond, or to some kind of commune in the wild, we can be assured we shall take these givens of human nature and society with us. No one stays divorced from the greater society for very long, and no one can shed human nature. If you call the tendencies that society and our brains give us to do the wrong thing Original Sin, then we are all original sinners. Seems that there’s nothing as unoriginal as Original Sin.

There’s more to David’s story, though. Thanks to the newer parts of his brain, he can recognize at least partly the nature of his misdeeds. When Nathan poses the analogy to David that shows he’s just as bad as the man in the story Nathan tells him, David’s neocortex enables him to see the analogy plainly. His conscience then works. He accepts God’s punishment as just, and moves on. Neither he nor Nathan spot the problem with the war-mongering and atrocities. But of course it’s only our gradual development as a race since the 8th Century BC that has really equipped us with the vocabulary to grasp what’s wrong with war.

An Ecumenical Struggle

Armstrong shows we have been working on it as a race, however. It is striking that in every religious tradition, including our own, there are expressions of discomfort with that status quo.

The passage in the Aryan scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, that those of us from outside that tradition are most likely to know,[8] the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, shows Arjuna, a warrior, questioning why he should be drawing his bowstring when the opposing army is full of relatives and friends. Krishna gives him an answer meant to silence the question, effectively that Arjuna is a warrior, and it’s not up to him to question his duty. But Arjuna comes from a world where there have already been yogas and Jains who have questioned the entire ethos of warrior-hood. And effectively the epic sidesteps the question; it does not answer it. But the Bhagavad-Gita clearly shows that the conflicting impulses are there.[9]

In Chinese culture, Kong-fu-tse, whom we know as Confucius, espoused what Armstrong calls an “ideal of equality based on a cultivated perception on our shared humanity,” which “was a radical challenge to the systemic violence of agrarian China.” One can almost hear Confucius pleading for the ascendancy of the modern brain over the lizard brain when he says, in Armstrong’s paraphrase, that a gentleman “could … replace the current greed, violence, and vulgarity and restore dignity and grace to human intercourse, transforming the whole of China.” This “practice” was “difficult, because it required the [gentleman] to dethrone himself from the center of his world”[10] – a concept the lizard brain would never grasp. In various ways, Confucius and his followers tried to moderate the brutality of Chinese warfare. But, as Armstrong notes, neither Confucius nor his followers totally disavowed warfare.

When we get to the Hebrew scriptures, there is nearly open warfare between hawks and doves. There are parts of those scripture that recognize the necessity of treating others humanely, and parts that vehemently reject it. I do not have the time tonight to go into this in detail. But we can compare, as Armstrong does, the hospitality Abraham extends towards foreigners with the kind of intolerance that crops up around the time of Josiah, when the blatant forgery the Book of Deuteronomy is introduced, putting in Moses’ mouth commands for bloodshed to protect a new monotheism. This demand for bloodshed against unbelievers was undergirded by the freshly-minted but backdated (by 600 years or so) First Commandment inserted into the Exodus story, designed to put an end to the kind of polytheism Jews had often practiced up to that point.9

And we could go right on with the contrast between the Sermon on the Mount on the one hand and the Crusades and the Inquisition on the other, between the peaceful and tolerant counsels and the violent and intolerant ones in the Muslim scriptures. All of our religious traditions in one way or another reflect this struggle.

If There’s Hope for David, There’s Hope for Us

As humans we are trapped with minds and societies that demand we act in ways that with at least part of our minds we know are wrong. None of us can surmount those demands entirely; we are all implicated. Sometimes, like David when it came to committing war atrocities, we cannot even see that what we’re doing is wrong. Sometimes like David in the official account, when it came to doing in Uriah to obtain Bathsheba’s hand, we do the wrong thing but then we get it and repent. Often, like David in what probably was the real life history with Uriah and Bathsheba (to the extent David was a historical figure), we know we’re doing the wrong thing even as we’re doing it, but we just can’t help it.

David is like us. If so, then there’s hope that we are like David in being the objects of God’s forgiveness, and the implements of God’s plans notwithstanding. It is worthy of note that Solomon, David’s son, the builder of the Temple, is also Bathsheba’s son by David. God uses adultery and murder to produce a king who manifests God’s glory. David wasn’t going to sin – wasn’t capable of sinning – so much that God withdrew from that relationship with David or his people. So there’s hope for us.

And there’s homework as well. Maybe we believe in this doctrine of Original Sin, maybe the label doesn’t work for us. But we know that, what with our evolutionary history and our place in a militarized society which concentrates wealth and power at the top, it’s guaranteed we won’t always grasp when we’re doing wrong, and that even when we understand what we’re doing wrong, we may not be able to refrain from doing it. It’s our nature not to do the right thing all the time. The challenge, I think, is to be on the lookout for the Nathans in our midst, the ones who tell us when we’re on the wrong track. We have to repent; we have to keep trying to do better. And then, like David, mercifully, we can let God sort it out.


[1] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2015).

[2] Id. at 7.

[3] Id. at 13.

[4] Id. at 13-14.

[5] Id. at 14.

[6] Id. at 14-15.

[7] Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts at Location 476 in Kindle edition (2012). I wrote more about Richter’s ideas in this Big Picture column.

[8] If only because T.S. Eliot referenced it in The Dry Salvages and all we English majors had to learn about it.

[9] Discussed in Armstrong, op.cit., at 71-75.

[10] Id., at 88-90.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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