Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

David: Father

May 5, 2018

This is the sixth in a series on the life of David and David’s Son. 

The crisis began not with a spectacular crime—with adultery, or embezzlement, or child abuse–but with a failing everybody can relate to. David didn’t want to go to work.

In those days a king’s primary responsibility was leading the army. David was not only a skilled fighter, he had always been an eager one. From the days when he jumped at the chance to take on Goliath, he had been fearless and ready to fight. But not now. Springtime was the usual time for armies to take the field, but on this occasion David stayed home. He sent Joab, his top general, into battle with the Ammonites, and remained in Jerusalem.

Perhaps he was depressed. He had accomplished everything he set out to do. He had outlasted Saul, he had defeated the Philistines, he had united the tribes, he had built a palace in Jerusalem. The adrenaline rush was over. David had no more mountains to climb. God had turned down his bid to build a temple. Perhaps his future looked like a dull gray haze, more of the same, forever.

Then, on a sleepless night, walking on the roof, he saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. She was the wife of one of his bravest fighters, Uriah, who just happened to be on the battlefield, where David should be. David sent for Bathsheba, they spent the night. It’s doubtful whether Bathsheba had any choice when the king summoned her to his bedroom. Later she sent a message: “I am pregnant.”

That did pose a problem, though not a very big one. In the ancient world, women were disposable, and kings were the ultimate disposers. David had plenty of women. During the seven years he spent in Hebron during the civil war, he had six sons by six different wives. When he settled in Jerusalem he added more wives and concubines, so many and so inconsequential they are not even considered worth naming. (2 Samuel 4:13) It’s very unlikely that anybody would have questioned David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The servants knew all about it, of course, and others probably did too. Nobody said a word. Men do this kind of thing, and you don’t question royalty.

Even the pregnancy could be bluffed through. If you read your European royal history you know that there are lots of affairs and lots of illicit babies, but somehow they all get stuffed in cracks. Nobody seems to notice. Royal life goes on. I presume David could have let Uriah figure out what to do with a wife who gave birth to a child that didn’t look like him. He wouldn’t, if he were wise, mention it to the king.

David evidently couldn’t quite imagine facing down Uriah that way, however. Maybe his own self-image as a righteous man wouldn’t let him take that route. He preferred to try to hide what he had done. He set out to deceive Uriah by inviting him home for a visit from the front. That way, Uriah would sleep with his wife and, when the baby came, could never be sure it wasn’t his.

It turned out that Uriah was too loyal to go home to his wife; he felt that soldiers shouldn’t do that when a war was on. David, perplexed by a man with more honor than he, was thrust into a much worse coverup. He arranged with Joab to send Uriah forward into an exposed position on the battlefield, and then suddenly withdraw behind him. The plan worked. Uriah was killed. The correspondence between David and Joab is extremely cold blooded. “David told the messenger [who brought word of Uriah’s death], ‘Say this to Joab: “Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.” Say this to encourage Joab.’” (2 Samuel 11:25)

Who is this cold fish? Is this the same man who wrote psalms proclaiming his personal integrity before God? Is this the same passionate man who refused to kill Saul, who proclaimed his love for Jonathan?

He waited for Bathsheba’s mourning period to be over, and then brought her to the palace to bear his son. Still nobody said a word to him, though surely many talked about it behind the scenes. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

When nobody would talk to David, God did, sending Nathan the prophet.


Nathan was a brave man. Without a shred of human support he strode into David’s court. Nathan told a story about a poor man with a beloved pet lamb, and a rich man who took that lamb to feed it to a guest, though he had plenty of lambs of his own. The story caught David’s attention. He burned with anger, telling Nathan that such a man deserved to die, “because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Nathan cried out, “You are the man!” He spoke God’s message to David: after all God had given him, he “despised the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes.” Since he had killed Uriah, “the sword will never depart from your house.” Furthermore, someone close to David, within his own household, would steal his wives and sleep with them in public. “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.” (2 Samuel 12:12)

It is terrible and humiliating to be caught in the act. It is even worse to be confronted in public, without prior warning. Take all 100 members of the U.S. Senate, consider any President you care to, add any governor or corporate CEO, and ask yourself how they would respond. I can assure you, they would fight back like a tiger. Nobody gets to that powerful position by humbly accepting blame.

As king, David could have Nathan killed, or at least thrown out on his ear. He did not. He said for all to hear, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

It may have been the greatest moment of David’s life. Nathan immediately responded, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”

Die! I wonder whether the proper legal consequences had even crossed David’s mind. People in power inevitably think themselves above all that.

Nathan did not suggest that forgiveness would obliterate all consequences. David would not die, but the baby born out of his unfaithfulness would.

When the baby fell ill, David acted as though his own life was at stake. “He pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.” (2 Samuel 12:16-17) The death of any child is a heartbreak as deep as a well, but something more is involved here. David has realized the depth of what he has done. Probably he thinks, I wish it were me who would die. It should be me. An innocent child is suffering and dying for David’s sins.

At the end of a week, the child dies. To everyone’s surprise, David takes the news calmly. He gets up and goes about his business. He comforts his wife Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant again, and gives birth to Solomon. David goes back to his job, joining the army and successfully attacking the Ammonites. The story is not really over, though. In fact, it has barely begun.


Monarchies have problems with sons. It is all too common for princes to develop bad character, probably because the children of prominent men grow up spoiled. This was a problem in Israel even before the monarchy. Levi had bad sons. Samuel had bad sons. Saul, amazingly, had at least one very good son, Jonathan. David’s sons, unfortunately, reverted to the norm.

King’s sons are naturally rivals. Only one of them can inherit the crown, and it is far from unknown for the leading candidate to kill off his siblings before they get a chance to kill him. This rivalry is exaggerated in a polygamous household. The mothers are also rivals with each other, vying for the king’s attention. Each mother wants her son to prosper.

David’s oldest son Amnon fell in love with his half-sister, Tamar. The Bible describes it as a classic infatuation, with Amnon making himself sick with frustration. Eventually, with the connivance of his cousin and with David’s naïve assistance, Amnon lured Tamar into his bedroom and raped her. Afterwards he experienced a classic emotional reversal, becoming repulsed by her. He threw Tamar out of his quarters while she was weeping and in distress. She went to live with her brother Absalom, David’s third son.

David was furious, but he did nothing. It’s the first sign that he is paralyzed by his own guilt. David understands what lust can do: it led him to adultery with Bathsheba and then to murder. How can he condemn his son for doing less?

Absalom had no such ambivalence. He stewed on his hatred for his brother. Eventually he lured Amnon to an out-of-town party, and there, when Amnon was tipsy, he murdered him. Afterward he skipped town to go live with his mother’s family in Geshur, a tiny kingdom east of the Sea of Galilee. Absalom was in exile there for three years, during which David mourned for him every day.

Did David mourn because he saw his own failings being played out in his son? Did he perversely identify with Absalom? Emotions are hard to read but Joab characteristically took a pragmatic approach. He saw that David wanted his son back. He got a woman to tell David a story—shades of Nathan—about her two sons. One had killed the other; she feared that in retribution her only remaining son would also be killed. When David said he would take care of it, she applied the case to him. Hadn’t he banished his own son?

David recognized Joab’s hand in the woman’s manipulation, but he was—as Joab knew—eager to be manipulated. He told Joab to bring Absalom home. His only punishment would be that David would not see him. This posed as a punishment for Absalom. In reality, David was punishing himself. He was the one who longed to see his son. He remained tormented by his own failings, and so refused to treat himself to a reunion.

After two years, Absalom grew impatient. He called Joab to see him, but Joab did not come. He called a second time, with no answer. Characteristically, he set Joab’s field on fire. That got Joab to come. “Why have I come from Geshur?” Absalom asked. “It would be better for me if I were still there. I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.” Absalom had yet to show the slightest hint of repentance. In his mind, Amnon got what he deserved.

When Joab told this to David, he invited Absalom to the palace and embraced him. All was forgiven.

I have asked myself how I would feel toward my son if he murdered his older brother. I find that I can’t begin to imagine it. It’s an unthinkable horror. Compound that with a deep, grinding guilt for your own act of murder, and you get paralysis. That is how it affected David. He didn’t know what he should do to Absalom, so he did nothing.


Absalom was a conniver, obsessed with his own good looks and the weight of his hair (2 Samuel 14:26), proud to move around in a chariot with fifty men running ahead of him (15:1). Now accepted back in the king’s court, he became a politician, talking in a friendly way to everybody, and denigrating his father’s administration. In the nature of things people complain about their government and imagine how much better it could be. Perhaps David was depressed and out of sight while Absalom made himself visible. Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” (2 Samuel 15:6)

After four years of this, Absalom went off to Hebron, where David had first reigned. There he sprang his conspiracy to kill his father and take over the government.

When David heard about it, he acted decisively—depressingly so. A messenger brought word that “the hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” (2 Samuel 15:13)  David, who had been a hero in Israel since he was a young man, who had always been confident in battle, immediately wanted to flee Jerusalem. He felt sure that if Absalom caught them, they would all be killed. He had no faith in his ability to win a battle against a son who had never led an army.

It seems likely to me that David was still lost in regret. He had failed as a parent. The son he had mooned over all those years now sought to kill him. You can’t fail any more dramatically. He could trace it all the way back to his murder of Uriah. He should have died then. Perhaps he wanted to die now.

But not quite. David still had enough energy to run away.

Second Samuel’s detailed description of David leaving Jerusalem is among the saddest scenes in the Bible. I’ve never heard a sermon on it, and it’s certainly not taught in Sunday school. Nevertheless, it is utterly compelling in its grief and passive regret.

It begins with David pausing on the outskirts of Jerusalem to review his troops. We learn here that during his sojourn in Gath, when David fought as a mercenary for the Philistines, he gained the loyalty of 600 Philistine soldiers. They had abandoned their homeland to follow him. David now tries to send them home. “You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going?”

The men from Gath refused to go home, so David let them follow him, accompanied by their families.

“The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by…. David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up.” (2 Samuel 15:23,30)

A man named Shimei, from Saul’s clan, turned up. “He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David’s right and left. As he cursed, Shimei said, ‘Got out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!’”

One of David’s generals, Abishai, wanted to put an end to it. But David stopped him from killing Shimei. “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.”

“So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted.” (2 Samuel 16:5-14)

Only one scene in the Bible approximates this one: Jesus carrying his cross out of Jerusalem to Golgotha. He too was barefoot, and surrounded by weeping people. He too was mocked and cursed, making no attempt to defend himself. The son of David followed David’s footsteps, a king rejected by his subjects. Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, following in David’s line.

In both cases, the king of Israel suffers, is rejected, and faces death at the hand of his own children.

The difference, of course, was that David was punished for what he had done. He carried his own sins. Jesus made that slow march of tears carrying the sins of the world. He was punished for what we have done.


David was not abandoned. People came out of the woodwork to help him, including several non-Israelite neighbors who brought food and bedding and pots. (2 Samuel 17:27-29) David had loyalists left behind in Jerusalem, too, who worked to undermine Absalom. David’s army remained steadfast. He organized them into three units—the first sign that he was emerging from his emotional paralysis—and was ready to lead, but his fighters insisted he stay behind the lines. “Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us.” (2 Samuel 18:3)

So David stood at the city gate while the army marched out. He should have been encouraging them to fight bravely, but he couldn’t help himself: he told his commanders to treat Absalom gently. The whole army heard it. He was emerging from his depression, and acting like a king, but his heart was still preoccupied with his beloved, murderous son.

The battle was joined in a forest, and soon spread over the entire countryside, with great casualties. Famously, Absalom was undone by his hair. Riding under the branches of an oak, he got his locked tangled in its branches and ended up hanging in the air while his mule kept going. When Joab was told that Absalom was dangling he did not hesitate. Joab took three javelins and plunged them into Absalom’s heart. That was the end of Absalom; his army melted away when they realized their leader was dead.

The good news reached David, but he didn’t seem to care about victory; all he wanted to know was the fate of his son. No one wanted to tell him. Finally, when he learned that Absalom was dead, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33)

“If only I had died instead of you!” David may be thinking of the battle just concluded, wishing that his army had been overrun and he had been killed, leaving Absalom alive to become king.

Or perhaps his memory is casting back to his sin with Uriah. If he had died for his sins then, as he deserved, none of this tragedy would ever have begun.

In reality, his death would not have cleaned up the mess he had made. That is the fantasy many suicides entertain: If I were gone everybody would be better off. But Israel without David as its chief would have been pathetic and vulnerable, as it was under Saul. His sons would have fought just as murderously. David is saying he would gladly give up his own life to prevent these horrible outcomes. But his death would merely change one set of horrible outcomes for another. No one can sacrifice his life to redeem the world. It doesn’t work that way.

David’s public display of emotion disgraces his army. There ought to have been great celebration in David’s camp at the astonishing military turnaround. Instead, “the victory that day was turned into mourning, because on that day the troops heard it said, ‘The king is grieving for his son.’ The men stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle. The king covered his face and cried aloud, ‘O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 19:2-4)

Joab read David the riot act, telling him he was humiliating the men who had saved his life. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall.” (2 Samuel 19:6-7)

David heard Joab and remembered his duty. He got up and sat in the gateway to review the army. Soon David went back to Jerusalem, setting the administration back in order. He lived the rest of his long life without further rebellion.


What can we make of this long, detailed account of David as father? Three sons ultimately died, while the nation and its king suffered incalculable sadness and disruption. It is a story without a happy ending and without a clear rationale for its telling.

I have heard people interpret these stories seeking wisdom about parenting—concluding that parents should not have favorites, and that parents should discipline their children. True as those lessons are, they don’t get at the deeper meaning of these events, which surely center on David’s failings as a man and the way in which regret clouded his vision. He failed as a parent because he failed as a man and as a king.

A letdown after great effort and great success is very human. If David was depressed and didn’t want to go to work, he is not the first or the last to feel that way. Then he faced a moment of testing. He saw a beautiful woman and tried to self-medicate with sex. From there a cascade of decisions led him to murder, and from murder to moral paralysis, and from paralysis to self-pity and almost to the destruction of his kingdom.

In this study of David I’ve tried to draw out qualities that link David to David’s son Jesus. In this case, however, there do not seem to be any. Jesus was sinless, and furthermore he had no children. David’s problems of sin and regret and paralysis, his failings as a father were not Jesus’s.

Only one aspect of fatherhood does link the two men: their procession out of Jerusalem, weeping, barefoot, taunted, cursed. Both David and Jesus could accurately be called “Man of Sorrows.” That procession is an emblem of the sorrow of our world.

In both cases, the problem of sorrows is rooted in the problem of sin. Sin causes David’s self-destruction and deterioration—his own sin. Sin also causes Jesus’s—the world’s sin. Jesus as well as David might well have said, in grief: “If only I could die instead of you.”

Jesus did.

The Smartphone Generation

August 11, 2017

If you have anything to do with people teen-aged or younger, you should read Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generationby Jean M. Twenge.

When I told my son Chase about it (he has two little boys), he asked whether it was another of those old-fogey articles about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

“Kinda,” I said. The thing is, it seems genuinely scholarly, full of cautionary statistics and studies. (I’d love to read a critique from other social scientists. Knowing The Atlantic, where it was published, I’m sure we’ll get one.)

Twenge says that she has studied generational change for decades, and usually the changes are subtle and gradual. In this case, she says the changes are mountainous and dramatic. She makes the point that the post-millennials are the first generation native to smartphones. They have never known anything else. Smartphones are not an addition to their reality, they are part of reality.

She offers a lot of detailed info, and I won’t try to summarize it. I will say that there is a very strong correlation between smartphone use and depression. The more kids use smartphones, the more likely they are to be unhappy. Of course, suicide goes with that. The post-millennials are also much more prone to rely on their parents, Twenge says (which may look very positive to those parents), but are slower to grow up and much less independent than previous generations. They have fewer friends, much less social interaction in person, and are often lonely. Rather than going to the mall or the skating rink like previous generations, they stay in their room with their phones.

Most young parents I know are trying to limit screen time for their kids. Alarm bells go off when they see how addictive devices are for kids at a very young age. Even if they’re not exactly sure what the harm is, it’s not hard to guess that this can’t be good. Twenge’s article will fill in the background, and make the matter much more urgent.

How Much Drive is Enough? How Much Drive Is Too Much?

March 19, 2015

Last week I saw two excellent movies on back to back evenings: Whiplash, and McFarland, USA. They could not be more different. McFarland is a terrifically warm, feel-good movie, and you’re never in doubt that you’re headed for a happy ending. Whiplash makes you nervous from beginning to end, and you’re not sure of its direction even when it’s over. It’s the most intellectually stimulating movie I’ve seen in a long time, something nobody would say about McFarland.

Yet both movies probe the same question: how much motivation do you need to succeed in life, and is there a point where it’s self-destructive?

McFarland is about a small central valley picker town, and a group of Mexican kids dragged out of themselves by the semi-desperate leadership of a failed football coach who is reduced to cross-country. The kids aren’t sure there’s any future for them, apart from the same farm labor their parents do. Cross-country helps them find their competitive spirit. They are used to hard work, and when they are motivated toward a goal, great things are accomplished. They win the state title.

The message is: those kids need something to motivate them. A loser coach and a loser sport do the trick. Yeah, it’s a sports movie. I loved it. (It doesn’t hurt that all my kids ran cross-country.)

Incidentally, in my county some anonymous donors have been buying tickets for local kids, a nice gesture meant, I assume, to motivate them. (Maybe it’s a cross-country coach.)

Whiplash is about a middle-class kid with lots going for him. He has a loving father and a caring girlfriend, and he’s been admitted to the best music school in America. But he’s fiercely competitive—he practices drums until his hands bleed—and he’s eaten alive by an abusive teacher who’s trying to produce the next Charley Parker. The kid knows that Charley Parker died in drug-induced squalor, but he buys the program—he’ll happily die in his own snot if he reaches jazz nirvana and plays on that level. His teacher eggs him on, torments him, verbally and physically abuses him. Through much of the movie you feel sorry for the kid, and you hope the teacher gets what’s coming to him, but in the end you realize that the kid is drawn to the teacher like a moth to a flame. He wants success so much that he invites abuse—anything for motivation.

(Incidentally, when I asked my son the Olympic rower about the movie, he said that the teacher didn’t seem that bad to him. Which says something about Olympic training, I think.)

I think everybody would agree that we need motivation. Inspiring teachers and coaches and parents supply it. And abusive ones, too. How much is enough? How much is too much? This is a constant question in parenting—especially since, in the modern era, teachers and coaches have little opportunity for abuse. But parents? Lots of wiggle room. Will we be Tiger parents? Or will we be affirming parents? Will we raise ultra-successful neurotics? Or will we raise happy slackers?

I never had an abusive boss or teacher, my parents were of the hands-off, encouraging type who thought I did just fine, and I think I turned out okay. I’m not exactly a slacker. However, I’m not very driven, either, at least compared to some whom I know well. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have accomplished more with a more driven approach. It wasn’t naturally in me, but maybe it could have been pounded into me. Whiplash suggests that without somebody to pound it into you, you’ll never be the next Charley Parker. Maybe so. Do you want to be?