Sunday, June 6, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - 2 Kings 23:1
John 23:1-11

And there had been no king like him before him that turned to the Lord with all his heart

and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did

any king like him arise after him. . . . In his days Pharaoh-necho king of Egypt went up

against the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates: and king Josiah went against him; and

he was killed at Megiddo, when he had seen him. And his servants carried him in a chariot

dead, from Megiddo, and brought him to Jerusalem and buried him in his own sepulcher.

II Kings 23:25, 29f.

The first book of Kings opens with the story of David's death and the turmoil that

accompanied the accession of Solomon. In the twelfth chapter, following on the death of

Solomon, we find the northern tribes refusing to accept Solomon's son, Rehoboam, as king;

and from then on we are told about what is commonly called "the divided kingdom." It is a

difficult story to follow, since the narrative regularly shifts back and forth between

Judah in the south and Israel in the north, but there is a clear and recurrent theme.

There are good kings, bad kings, and terrible kings. Good kings centralize sacrificial

worship at the temple in Jerusalem, and bad kings permit or even encourage it elsewhere.

Terrible kings actually encourage the worship of other gods.

When we turn to the books of the prophets, we get different views, sometimes very

different. Most of them are more concerned with justice than with ritual, and focus on the

oppression of the poor. Jeremiah even stands on the temple steps and lashes out at the

people for trusting that coming to the temple will offset their violation of the ethical

requirements of the Ten Commandments.

There are touches of this concern in the books of Kings. We do have the story of Elijah

confronting Ahab for having Naboth killed in order to gain possession of his vineyard, for

example, but this is the exception rather than the rule. There is a regular pattern of

narration. At the accession of each new king, there is a brief evaluation, a kind of

overview. In Ahab's case, we are told that he "did evil in the sight of the Lord more than

all the kings that preceded him." The next three verses tell of his marrying the daughter

of a Sidonian king, worshipping Baal, building an altar to Baal in Samaria, and making a

grove. There is no mention whatever of any ethical issues such as murder of any political

or military policies that might have been against the Lord's will.

On the other side of the ledger, a contemporary king of the Judah gets good marks.

"Jehoshaphat . . . walked in all the ways of Asa his father; he did not turn aside from

doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord: however, the high places were not taken

away, and the people still made offerings and burned incense in the high places." That is

the whole summary on which his reign is evaluated. Then we are given a single further

fact, that he made peace with the king of Israel, and then we are referred to the royal

annals for "all the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, the might he displayed, and the wars

he waged." There follow some intriguing but cryptic statements about Edom and about trade

by sea, and then we move on to the next king.

It is clearly the intent of the narrative to teach that the welfare of these two kingdoms

depends on their exclusive loyalty to the temple in Jerusalem. The main trouble with this

agenda is that the facts do not seem to cooperate with it. Josiah provides perhaps the

clearest but by no means the only example. He set in motion and oversaw the most complete

reform of worship ever. At his command, there was a public covenant involving a major

restoration of the temple, destruction of the high places and of any number of other

altars, execution of some non-Jerusalem priests and rehabilitation of others, all adding

up to the establishment of the temple in Jerusalem as the only place in the country where

legitimate sacrifices could be made. This is how he more than any king before him or after

him "turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might,"

and his reward was to be killed in battle, fighting for Assyria against Egypt in what had

been the kingdom of Israel but was now an Assyrian province.

The explanation of this is that "the Lord did not relent from the fierceness of his great

wrath . . . against Judah because of all the provocations of Manasseh," Josiah's

grandfather. In keeping with the statement in the Ten Commandments, it does seem that the

sins of the fathers are here being visited on the children. Ezekiel would be wrong when he

argued that the son who repented would not suffer for the sins of his father. The proverb

he rejected, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on

edge," remained appropriate.

It is characteristic of the Bible, I would suggest, that if we take it whole instead of

simply focusing on our favorite passages, it presents us with more dilemmas than it

solves. It this respect, it is very much like life; and the particular dilemma exemplified

by Josiah is still with us. Rabbi Kushner wrote a best-seller wrestling with the question

of why bad things happen to good people. As individuals, we find ourselves drifting toward

the thought that if something bad happens to us, it must be because we deserve it.

If we stop and think, though, we have to realize that things cannot be that simple. If

nothing happened to us that we did not deserve, we would have no moral responsibility. To

put it bluntly, if there could be no injustice, there could be no unjust acts. If I

succeeded in hurting someone else, it would be because that individual deserved to be

hurt. Are the sins of the parents visited on the children? If not, then why work at being

good parents? This, to me, points to a real risk in one of the forms of the doctrine of

reincarnation. If everything that happens to me can be accounted for as a response to what

I myself did in a previous life, then my only obligation is to myself. I cannot really

mistreat others, because nothing can happen to them that is not the result of their own


"Every least movement of a person's life," wrote Swedenborg, "has a continuous series of

consequences to eternity" (Arcana Coelestia 38543). Our decisions do matter. Our treatment

of our children does matter. In one particularly striking passage, Swedenborg tells of

angels looking through his eyes and seeing earthly parents urging their children into

fights with each other. The angels are horrified, and exclaim that by doing this the

parents will snuff our all the mutual love and all innocence that children receive from

the Lord and will lead them into hatred and vengefulness, thereby deliberately shutting

their own children out of heaven, where there is nothing but mutual love (Heaven and Hell

344). It is becoming increasingly clear that abused children tend to be come abusive

adults. They have been taught the language of violence from the cradle. It has become

their native tongue, so to speak, to the extent that they scarcely know any other. They

will teach it to their children, and the sins of the fathers will quite literally be

visited on the children to the third and fourth generation.

To pursue this image a little further, we could say that this language barrier does cut

them off from heavenly society here and now. They simply do not understand the language of

mutual understanding and affection. They do not know how to speak it or how to hear it.

It makes no sense to them. Perhaps instead of thinking of different languages, we might

think of different forms of the same language and imagine ourselves watching deaf people

signing to each other. We would know that something was being communicated, but in a

medium to which we had no access. Similarly, we cannot hear what the abuser is trying to

communicate by violent physical contact, and that individual cannot see, or feel, what we

are trying to communicate verbally.

To move to a less extreme example, it is entirely possible for well-meaning parents to do

real harm to their children by trying to hold them to standards which cannot be met. I

think of one individual who at the age of about forty was in tears over the memory that

"Nothing I did was ever good enough." Surely there have also been parents who have erred

in the other direction and out of a resolve not to dominate their children have failed to

give them any sense of solid values. Or again, one of our daughters was appalled to

discover, when she went away to school, how many of her classmates dreaded going home at

vacation time. There was apparently no history or fear of physical abuse, but the

emotional scars were awfully real.

To return to our text, this may suffice as support for one side of the dilemma presented

by Josiah's righteousness and untimely, violent death. If love toward the neighbor is to

make any sense at all, if we need to concern ourselves with anything but the kind of karma

we are accumulating for ourselves, then we have to believe that we can do real harm as

well as real good to each other. We have to believe that both justice and injustice are


Perhaps this need is what underlies the classical dualism known as manicheanism, which

teaches that God and Satan are coeternal and virtually coequal. Our own theology insists,

though, that this is not the case. It insists that there is one omnipotent deity who is

infinite love and wisdom. In its doctrines concerning life after death, it insists that

ultimately justice does prevail for every individual, that no one is condemned for the

sins of parents or saved by their virtues.

It does this by maintaining that far more is happening than we are capable of observing.

There is a spiritual dimension to our lives here and now. It may be easiest to get at what

this involves if we return to the image of language. On the spiritual level, on the level

of our eternal welfare, it is not a matter of what language we speak but of what we are

trying to say. However grotesque the forms of expression and no matter how much pain they

may cause, if the individual is trying in this way to reach out and make human contact,

that matters supremely.

Let us be clear. It does not lessen the immediate and direct harm that is being done by

the violence. It does not make that violence legitimate. The outward effects are and

remain profoundly unjust; and every possible effort must be made to prevent the recurrence

of such violence. However, the inward effects are another matter. If at some conscious

level the individual is choosing to dominate and taking delight in the suffering of

others, the inward effects are profoundly destructive. If, on the other hand, there is on

some conscious level an effort to overcome fear and break out of isolation, the inward

effects are very different, and there are grounds for hope. This intent, this effort, can

be the basis for learning a new and less violent language.

Again, let us be clear. However strongly we insist on the reality of the harm that is

being done, we must not let that lead us into automatic condemnation of the perpetrator.

We must remind ourselves as forcefully as need be that there is a level of thought and

feeling that we cannot see. It is especially hidden from us when someone speaks a language

that is so alien to us, so particularly at such times we need the doctrine that the Lord

is present and at work within that individual. There is a justice being carried out beyond

the reach of our senses. The choices we cannot see are having their effects.

The narrative of the books of Kings, then, undertakes an impossible task when it tries to

maintain that justice is always done on the literal level. The facts cannot be made to

fit. Ezekiel's passionate argument to the contrary notwithstanding, on every level that we

can perceive, harm is done where no harm is deserved and children suffer for the sins of

their parents. Only when we are granted the humility to realize how much lies beyond our

ken does the other side of the dilemma begin not only to make sense but to gather import.

Only then can we truly believe what our own inner experience suggests--that our souls are

indeed safe in the care of the Lord.


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