Thinking Anglicans

O Clavis David : O Key of David

‘O key of David!’ starts today’s antiphon: David, the second King of Israel, but the man whose name became synonymous with all forms of kingship and rule in Israel and Judah.

He is an extraordinary choice for the position of legendary revered ruler. It is sometimes suggested that he is indeed simply a figure of legend. Generally speaking, however, legendary kings are a good deal more noble and less flawed than David. The astonishing thing about the David narratives is their pictures of a fatally flawed but very vivid man. His beautiful lament for Jonathan, so beloved by those who want Biblical gay role models, should not blind us to the fact that Jonathan is killed as David makes his move on the throne. Jonathan is uncomfortably close to being the sacrifice made by his friend and lover in order to gain power. Indeed, too many of those whom David loves end up dead, particularly his sons. One of the most splendid narratives from the ancient world, the ‘succession narrative’, charts the closing years of David. His seduction of Bathsheba led to the skilful elimination (was she scheming?) of all plausible heirs to David except the son he has with her, Solomon. The narrative includes perhaps the most moving of all Biblical laments, that of David over Absalom: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ But only a fool could have believed that the action against Absalom was likely to end any other way – and David was no fool. This extraordinarily believable picture of a passionate man who keeps a very clear and calculating mind strikes me as so totally removed from hagiography as to be very believable.

History or fiction (and David’s period is far removed from the Victorians of whom I know something) the fact remains that this great king is consciously and deliberately presented as a flawed figure. Perhaps it is his very passions which make him such an attractive figure. Perhaps in the often grubby reality of life we are closer to God than we are in those noble moments when we are blinded by our illusions. For sometimes we come to believe that our aspirations actually reflect the daily reality of our lives; that we are the kindly, thoughtful, people we seek to be. If we are more honest, there is often a tangled mess of demands made on us, selfishness and loving response, a darkness of misunderstandings, naked greed and those loving actions which (like David’s desire to keep his power and save Absalom’s life) were never going to work out. There is a terrible reality about David’s mixed desires and ambitions which make him seem astonishingly contemporary.

In that sense, today’s antiphon seems to fit him well – and in fitting him, to fit all those of us who know too well our flawed and dark passions, our divided loyalties and the complexities of our lives. It promises the rescue (by ‘great David’s greater son’) of those in darkness, trapped and ignorant of the paths to escape.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Rosemary Hannah

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Rosemary HannahSimon DawsonJCFGrandmère Mimi Recent comment authors
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Grandmère Mimi
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The meditations on the O Antiphons are lovely, although they sometimes make me squirm, and rightly so.

Simon Dawson
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Rosemary, You say that the picture of David given to us by the Bible is that of a flawed and passionate man “totally removed from hagiography”, This is given as evidence that the narratives of David might be “believable”, which I take to mean historically true. But isn’t there another type of narrative to consider – myth. The Homeric myths of Achilles and Odysseus are about flawed and passionate men. And I would put into the same category the stories of King Arthur. Interestingly the Homeric and Arthurian myths are about people (or, at least, events) that may have actually… Read more »

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

‘It is not my period’ as every historian says to cop-out. But Ulysses is a stock figure – a sub type of wily trickster who is sometimes tricked. Achilles is a far more fabulous and less nuanced figure than David – Arthur is closer, though less interesting. Actually I think Lancelot du Lac would be a better comparison. I am not sure there is any real distinction between myth and fiction when it comes to getting in touch with vivid characters – is Elizabeth Bennet mythical or fictional? If you found yourself on a train with Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict,… Read more »

JCF
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JCF

Am enjoying this conversation, Simon and Rosemary: thanks—and Merry Christmas!

Simon Dawson
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Simon Dawson

Rosemary,

You described “the very real figure of David (whether real in a fictional or a historic sense)” and that captures it for me perfectly.

In some spheres of life, truth is not built on whether it actually happened. And fiction (or myth) can be real.

Thank you.

Simon.

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

I think that is true – nevertheless, my best sober judgement, not as an expert in the field but as one who has read something about it, and who works in areas with some similarities, my sober judgement would be that the succession narrative is propaganda designed to explain, or explain away, facts which the listeners knew to be true. But as you say, illumination from the stories does not depend on if, and how far, they are historical.

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

The other difference between heroic literature and the David stories of course is that the Succession Narrative clearly has two strands. The first is an account of a passionate man in search of power. The second is a whitewash of this search for power. A whitewash that does not quite succeed – and in this the story is unlike the others. One has to imagine a creator of fiction who is interested in creating and maintaining this. It is not impossible (bloke A creates heroic myth, later chap B undermines heroic myth) Not impossible, but unlikely.