Psalm 3 and Agora

For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied Psalm 3. A superscription applies this Psalm to David’s flight from Absalom, a story that we encounter in II Samuel 13-19. Many scholars believe, however, that this superscription was added later than the Psalm’s actual composition, meaning that, originally, Psalm 3 had nothing to do with David’s flight from Absalom (or even David, necessarily). Some hold that this was a battle Psalm, in which Israelite soldiers asked God for protection and victory. And, indeed, we see overlap between this Psalm and battle phrases that occur elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., “Arise O LORD” in Psalm 3:7 calls to mind Numbers 10:35, which concerns battle).

But I enjoyed some of the applications of Psalm 3 to David’s flight from Absalom. In the medieval work, Midrash on the Psalms, Psalm 3:3 is put into the mouths of David’s enemies, Doeg and Ahithophel. According to this interpretation, Doeg and Ahithophel are saying that God will not deliver David because David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Uriah. The midrashist says that, indeed, God agrees with the view of Doeg and Ahithophel that God will not deliver an adulterer, for Leviticus 20:10 states that an adulterer shall be put to death. But God is still David’s shield on account of the merits of his ancestors.

This passage appeals to me, and yet it also rubs me the wrong way. I like its concept of grace: we deserve death, and yet we can still be assured of God’s love for us, as well as God’s grace. I know that I am far from being a good Christian. On what basis can I be assured that God will take care of me, even though there may be Christians who would assert that God would have nothing to do with a backslider like me? I trust in God’s love and grace, which are not based on my performance.

But “cheap grace” means that God gives a free pass to Christians to be jerks and yet to have God’s approval, just because they belong to God. That’s what rubs me the wrong way.

I was thinking some about these issues last night as I watched the movie, Agora. Agora is about Hypatia of Alexandria, a female philosopher who lived in fourth century C.E. Alexandria, a city in Egypt. Hypatia was murdered by fanatical Christians, who were incited by the Christian leader, Cyril of Alexandria.

Fourth century Alexandria was a place of strife among pagans, Christians, and Jews, who attacked and killed one another. The Christians believed that God was on their side because they were God’s people, the ones who accepted the Son of God. The pagans thought that the gods were on their side, and that they were upholding the honor of their gods when they confronted the Christians, who defiled the gods’ statues. The movie depicts the Jews as fairly tolerant, for the Jews only attack the Christians after they were attacked first, and they urge the Christians to remember that Jesus was a Jew. But the Jews, too, believe that they are God’s chosen people.

In the movie, Hypatia of Alexandria tries to rise above the partisanship. She speaks out in opposition when the pagans are about to slaughter the Christians, or when her father is about to whip a Christian slave; but she also opposes Cyril’s incitement of Christians against the Jews. Her former pupil, Orestes, also tries to put the well-being of all of the citizens of Alexandria above the partisan factions, even after he converts to Christianity to gain political power. In real life, Orestes probably wasn’t a pupil of Hypatia, but, as prefect, he did seek to form bonds with the pagans and the Jews, which angered Cyril.

Which is more important: being a part of the right faction? Or pursuing peace, as Hypatia and Orestes did?

In a poignant scene in the movie, two Christians are having a conversation about Jesus and forgiveness. One is Davus, the former slave of Hypatia. (Davus did not exist in real life.) The other is Ammonius. Davus says that perhaps the Christians should forgive the Jews for recently killing a group of Christians, just as Jesus forgave the Jews on the cross. Ammonius responds that Jesus was God, whereas the Christians are mere humans. Another Christian rebukes Davus for comparing himself to Jesus.

I’ve often criticized Christianity for imposing standards on people that are too high: for requiring us to like others, when we as human beings will naturally have resentments; for telling us that we cannot lust, when sexual desire is a part of who we are; etc. When people throw “What would Jesus do?” in my face, my response is “I’m not Jesus—I’m just an imperfect human being!” But the maxim of “nobody’s perfect” should never become an excuse for us to hurt somebody else. I cannot be perfect, but I hope that my religion will encourage me to become more loving, compassionate, and forgiving. There should be standards.

So I have problems with the notion that God punishes one group’s sins, while he doesn’t take another group’s sins as seriously. Is that what Psalm 3 is saying? Psalm 3 appears to be saying that God will punish the Psalmist’s enemies. We’d all like to think that God will punish our enemies, but our enemies are people, too. I shouldn’t hope that God will hurt those who dislike me, for there are people who may curse me because they feel that I dislike them. And yet, it’s understandable that David wanted for God to weaken those who were trying to kill him. But David himself killed someone. Did he get a free pass because he was one of God’s favorites? Of course, God punished him, and so he didn’t get a completely free pass. But God was on David’s side. Was this because David was one of God’s favorites, or because he was repentant, or for another reason?

Personally, I hope to get to the point where I don’t see life as “us versus them,” as if God takes sides. I hope to be more like Hypatia and Orestes, who affirmed the value of all of humanity, or Davus, who drew from his faith tradition to become more forgiving, not less so.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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