(2 Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 6, 2002
The second part of the haftarah opens with an account of the divinely appointed monarch’s desire to build a permanent dwelling place for the Ark of the Lord. David makes the following statement to the prophet Nathan: “Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Lord abides in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2) Nathan\’s immediate response to David’s request was affirmative: “Go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.” (verse 3) “But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: ‘Go and say to David: Thus said the Lord: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in?’ \”(verses 4-5) The reason for God’s rejection of David in this matter is not mentioned in this story. However the Tanach (the Hebrew word for Bible) alludes elsewhere to two different reasons. In the book of Kings, King Solomon, David’s son, asserts that: “David my father could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God for wars were about him on every side.” (1 Kings 5:17) A later Biblical tradition offers a different explanation: “David said to Solomon, ‘My son, I wanted to build a house for the name of the Lord, my God, but the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, ‘You shall not build a house for My name for you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight’” (1 Chronicles 22:7-8)
These Biblical accounts raise two significant questions: the first concerns the contradiction found in Nathan’s two responses to David; the second pertains to the explanation of God’s rejection of David’s desire to build the Temple. Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal Bible commentator offers a convincing response to the first question. He asserts that Nathan initially answered David’s request without consulting God. Nathan assumed that David, who also had prophetic ability, was acting with Divine approbation. Only after prophetic consultation did Nathan realize that David was acting on his own.The second question proved more provocative for the rabbinic tradition. Not everyone in the rabbinic tradition found the explanation found in the book of Chronicles satisfactory, as we note in the following midrash: “Though David deserved to build the Temple, the prophet Nathan came to David [in Chronicles, Solomon delivers this message] and said: ‘You shall not build a house unto My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight’ (1 Chronicles 22:8) When David heard this, he was afraid, and he said: ‘Behold I am unfit to build the Temple.’ According to Rabbi Judah ben Illai, the Holy One Blessed be He, said to David: ‘David, do not be afraid. By your life, all the blood you have shed is no different to me than the blood of a deer or a gazelle, of which it is said; ‘The ritually pure and the ritually impure may eat thereof, as of the gazelle and of the deer. Only you shall not eat of the blood; you shall shed it upon the ground as water.’ (Deuteronomy 12;15-16) David then asked God: ‘If this is so, why am I not allowed to build the Temple?’ The Holy One Blessed be He answered: ‘If you build the Temple, alas, it will stand and never be destroyed.’ David replied: ‘But that is as it should be!’ The Holy One Blessed be He, answered: ‘It is revealed and known to Me that the children of Israel will sin, and I will cool My anger by destroying the Temple and thereby save the children of Israel…” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 62:4 – Braude translation)
This midrash, which is apologetic in nature, cannot conceive of David’s behavior as flawed. Rather, David, the founder of the messianic line, would have built the indestructible Temple. This would not have allowed for the destruction of the Temple to serve as a means for atonement for the sins of the Jewish people. Consequently, God could not allow David to build the Temple. What is fascinating about this midrash is the ability of the rabbis to “reinterpret” the Biblical sources in order to contend with their own contemporary theological concerns. Where the book of Chronicles was conscious of the contradictions inherent in having a military leader build the House of God – a sanctuary of peace- the rabbis in this midrash could not imagine that this flaw existed in David. Each generation shapes its heroic figures in its own image and remakes the Biblical stories to meet their contemporary concerns. This is how midrash allows our religious texts to speak to us in each generation. It is a great religious tool but also requires us to be aware of the difference between the plain meaning of the text and what we have imparted to the text. This awareness is basic to religious maturity.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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