David’s Sin with Bathsheba

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Some evangelicals have compared Donald Trump to the Bible’s King David, pointing out that despite David’s several moral failings, God still referred to him as “a man after my own heart.” So let’s take a look at a scandal that rocked David’s administration and see how he handled it.

From his vantage point on the roof of his palace David saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing nearby. He desired her, and since he was king, he could get what he desired. He sent for her and slept with her. Not long after, she sent word that she was pregnant. Hoping to avoid discovery, David had her husband, Uriah, returned from war. He figured that the war-weary man would be only too glad to spend his leave in the arms of his wife. But Uriah was a man of principle. He vowed not enjoy the pleasures of his wife when his comrades in arms were still suffering on the battlefield. So David plotted to have Uriah killed by the enemy by ordering his general to put Uriah where the fighting was fiercest. Everything goes according to plan, and when David receives news of Uriah’s death, he takes Bathsheba as his own wife.

David appears to have gotten away with adultery and murder.

Nathan the prophet, a position not unlike the free press in our democracy, appears before David with an odd story.

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

What is interesting about this story is that there is nothing in it about adultery or murder. Instead, it is a story about abuse of privilege and power. David is outraged. “The man who did this should die!” Nathan then confronts him with the truth of what he has done. In doing so, he continues to emphasize how David has abused his position to take what he should not have taken.

At this point David had options. He could give commands to silence Nathan and continue to deny and pretend that nothing happened. Just ravings from a fake news site. He could start his own misinformation campaign, smearing Uriah in the alternative press and using his own popularity to suppress dissent. But David does none of these things. Instead he admits everything and repents.

Just here, then, is where I see a difference between David and Donald Trump. David lost his sense of perspective and began to feel that his position as king, his wealth and power, entitled him to whatever he wanted. One could even make a case that his taking of Bathsheba was rape since to resist or even protest against the command of the king was to endanger one’s own life. David’s power was great enough that Bathsheba dare not refuse him. In any case, the narrative lays all the blame on David and none on her. Yet when confronted, he immediately confesses his sin and repents. Will Donald Trump repent? Will he acknowledge having done wrong by abusing his position as President to further enrich himself? Will he repent when proof comes to light of his campaign’s collusion with the Russians to fix the election? Only time will tell, but I do not see it in him. He is not like David after all.

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Grandfather God

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When I saw God
He had a long, white beard
And He’d bring me gifts
At the end of the year
But the big one comes
In the by and by
From the Santa Claus
Up in the sky
—Kurt Kaiser, Tell It Like It Is

How do you see God?

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python tapped into our collective view of God as a grumpy old man in the sky.

I can tell you how Anglo-American culture has depicted him. He’s an old man who lives in the sky surrounded by clouds and shining light. A few apparently see him as a doting grandfather who lets them do whatever they want but who takes a prurient interest in their sex lives. This God has a touch of dementia and sleeps most of the day. He’s kindly and permissive but also passive and weak. He may cheer you on, but he won’t offer any real help beyond time-worn platitudes and old stories about people who never had to deal with all the stress you have to deal with—a mortgage and a gay child and getting the recycling out on time.

We’ve also had the wise-old-man God who is slightly amused by our difficulties. This God looks like Morgan Freeman and treats us with professionalism and excellent customer care. He dresses impeccably and just quietly knows everything. He’s not bad as gods go but still a grandfatherly sort.

More common I think is the grumpy old man who watches you with critical vigilance, waiting for you to slip up. You will often find this God in Christian churches where his sternness helps keep everyone in line. Oh, not that anyone explicitly says that God is an angry grandfather, but when you hear about God’s wrath at sin and the horrible punishments he meted out to his own people, the Jews, it’s not hard to draw your own conclusions. Fortunately, this God is only angry with unbelievers. Believers get a pass because Jesus took their punishment himself. Jesus shields them from God’s wrath.

Strangely enough, Jesus endorses none of these views of God. He taught his disciples not that God was an angry grandfather but that he was a loving father. What if instead of peevish old grump, we saw God as a father in his 30s with young children? What if we imagined him down on all fours giving horsey rides to his kids, then picking them up, tossing them in the air, and catching them? What if God is young and full of life and laughter? What if he delights in his children? What if he longs for his lost children so much that he makes every effort to find them as Jesus says he does in Luke 15? This is the father Jesus tells us about, a father who loves you and delights in you, not a stern taskmaster nor a cruel tyrant nor a nitpicking judge, but a loving, joy-filled, life-affirming father who wants for you all that is best—all the intimacy of a lover, of family and friends that you long for.

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What Infinity Means to Me

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I have a habit of reading no matter where I am or what else I am doing. I read at my computer. I read on my phone. I read while waiting at the doctor’s office. I read in the bathroom. Lately I’ve been reading a book by Stanley Fish called How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Several times he makes the claim that the number of sentences one could write is infinite. This is demonstrably untrue. The number of unique sentences one could write is certainly very large, but no mathematician would ever mistake a very large number for infinity. The fact is you can’t get an infinite collection of things using only finite collections for building blocks. For example, no matter how many molecules remain to be discovered, the total number of possible molecules cannot be infinite because the number of atoms is finite, and molecules are made up of atoms. In the same way, the collection of words is finite, so the collection of sentences (which are made up of words) must also be finite, even if we place no particular limits on the length of the sentences except that they must terminate.

The concept of infinity arises in set theory. A set is a collection of things together with a rule that tells us whether a thing belongs to the set. A set can be an explicit list: {coffee, butter, flour, sugar, tomatoes, eggs}. In this case the rule is: “If the thing is on the list, it is part of the set. Otherwise it is not.” Or a set can be defined by a rule: the set of all cats in the world. To see if something is in this set, we need only answer two questions: 1) Is it a cat? 2) Is it in the world? (We might also need to decide whether “cat” refers only to “small, domestic cats” or also to “big cats” such as lions, tigers, ocelots, pumas, bobcats, cheetahs, or other animals of the cat family, but we could in principle make such a decision ahead of time and use it to determine which things belong to the set and which do not.) One question we could ask about a set is how big it is. How many members does a set have? In the case of my shopping list, we can just count the items in the list and see that there are 6. In the case of cats in the world, we could in principle count the cats, but doing so raises a number of practical considerations. For example, how do we keep from counting the same cat more than once? How do we account for cats that are born or die while we are doing the counting? There may be 600 million small cats in the world. Counting them is going to take some time. Nevertheless, we know that having counted them, the number we obtain will be a natural number. We can say whether it is larger or smaller than the number of people in the world or the number of dogs in the world. We may not know exactly what the number is, but we know that it is a number we could count to if we counted long enough.

One of the things we know about the universe is that it is finite. It’s not hard to see why. If the universe were infinite, then the number of stars would be infinite; the number of galaxies would be infinite; the gravitational pull would be infinite; the light energy produced by all those infinite stars would be infinite. The night sky would be white if by some anomaly in the physics of the universe the earth were still pretty much as it is now. All of our experience of the universe is with finite things. Nothing is infinite. Everything is enumerable—at least in principle.

Infinity is an acknowledgement that some sets have no boundary on the number of elements they can have. However, those sets are themselves ideas only; they do not represent material objects.

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