Last week Eric Trump, son of President Trump, tweeted “I truly hate disloyal people.” Of course, the internet immediately reminded him that his own father had been disloyal to each of his three wives, including Eric’s mother. We may shake our heads at such blindness and betrayal. It’s the sort of banal family drama that might make for a Lifetime Movie of the week, but when it comes to betrayal, the Trumps are really small potatoes when compared to Ahithophel. Ahithophel betrayed his friend David, and it was really bad. Much worse than the Trumps.
Most readers of The Episcopal Café probably know quite a lot about King David. He’s in the line of succession, as the royalists say, a forbearer of Jesus. In his sin with Bathsheba, and his many other sins which we’ll not enumerate, David was tender-hearted and he repented, and he went on to have a nice long reign as king.
You may not know much about Ahithophel, though. Christians who know about him at all probably know that he was a wise counsellor to King David, but in the end he betrayed David and sided with Absalom in what is often described as a coup attempt. Later Ahithophel hanged himself. He has gone down in history as a turn-coat of the worst sort. Sometimes he is even compared to Judas who betrayed Jesus and who also hanged himself. But, as you may suspect, there’s more to Ahithophel than that.
Though his name means Son of Foolishness, Ahithophel was actually very wise. He was sort of an oracle. David did everything Ahithophel told him to do, and there are some stories about how Ahithophel got David out of a jam or two. For example, one time, when David was building the temple, he dug too deep and accidentally released all the waters of the world. It was really a bad situation. Ahithophel came through, though, and told David just what to do and all was well. That’s the story anyway.
But, here’s the thing about Ahithophel: He didn’t accept his wisdom with grace and humility. And he couldn’t let things go. He had some grudges. After years of steaming silently, his wisdom turned to bitterness and betrayal. Eventually, when he couldn’t kill David, the object of his hatred, he killed himself.
Think about that for awhile…
When he couldn’t kill the object of his hatred, he killed himself.
So, why was Ahithophel so angry with David? Well, he had a pretty good reason. You see, Ahithophel was Bathsheba’s grandfather. Ah, the plot thickens, doesn’t it? While he was serving David as a privy counsellor, David got his granddaughter pregnant, broke up her home, and had her husband killed in battle. It really does make the Trumps look like the Cleavers.
But, Ahithophel was not just an advisor, he was also David’s good friend — At least he pretended to be. In Psalm 55 David said that Ahithophel was “A man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet council together, and walked unto the house of God in company”.
Maybe Ahithophel believed he was truly David’s friend. He may not have been plotting revenge all that time. But, when the opportunity came, he was all too ready to exact vengeance. That’s what unchecked bitterness can do. It can render the wisest of us foolish. It can make you turn on a friend. Because, really, only a friend can betray you. Strangers don’t betray you.
Almost anyone who has been in church for awhile can tell you a story of betrayal, of shocking ruthlessness, most often from the clergy themselves. Just this week we learned about even more sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy. I think every Christian was stunned to their core by these revelations. They are an incalculable betrayal of the institution which is sworn to protect the weak, and vulnerable. Yet, there it is.
When David heard of Ahithophel’s betrayal he prayed for God to kill him. And that is a prayer which is always answered sooner or later. As my grandmother used to say, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” But, it goes to the point that betrayal begets betrayal, violence results in more violence, private violence becomes public revenge. Remember that Ammon’s rape of Tamar was done in private, Absalom’s revenge was public. David’s cruelty towards Absalom after Ammon’s murder was private, but Absalom’s revenge in burning Joab’s fields and going to war with his father was public. Every time an actor in this long and complicated story behaved with violence, privately or publicly, there was just more violence.
So, we wonder, what in the name of God happened to these priests to cause them to betray the children in such a way? How will these children, many of them now adults, get their revenge? And how many more times will this cycle repeat?
There’s really no wrong, no “sin,” in justice-seeking. It’s good and holy work. It’s the violence, the vindication, that’s the problem.
Justice on our own terms isn’t justice at all, it’s just revenge.
Justice has it’s beginning and its ending in the bread of love.
Like Absalom who avenged the rape of his sister, Tamar, Ahithophel was simply doing his justice by avenging the rape of Bathsheba. It seemed like the right thing to do. His so-called betrayal was his just revenge. In betraying David, Ahithophel was saying that it was not OK to dishonour his family, it was not OK to kill his grandson-in-law, and he is right! None of that is OK. But, like Absalom he could have chosen a different path. We will never know what would have happened if Ahithophel had chosen to confront David, to keep it real, and to demand real justice for Bathsheba. He didn’t chose that path. He chose public revenge instead of justice.
In the same way, we will never know what would have happened if the Catholic bishops had chosen to confront predator priests, to be honest about the abuse, and to demand justice for their victims. They didn’t chose that path. They chose the private violence of cover-up and denial.
And, closer to home, what about the violence the church has done to you and to me? Seriously, name one person who has been active in church for any length of time who has not been betrayed in some way. For all the beautiful music, the wonder, and majesty, for all the considerable comfort and good that our church does, it is also horrible.
The good news is that the cycles of violence and betrayal that are our history can end. Somehow we have to find a way to heed wisdom’s call to:
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
You and I can stop the endless cycles of violence in our churches, our homes, and businesses, in all our lives by choosing a different path, by eating and sharing the bread of love and the cup of divine friendship.
If it seems like I am saying a lot of the same things as last week, I am.
We can either keep seething about power-abuse, racism, sexism, and all manner of favouritism and insouciance, silently resenting the spiritual violence that afflicts us, or we can chose a different path. I don’t know what that path may be for you. Maybe you should confront and deal openly with abuse, maybe you need to keep quiet like Tamar and wait to see what justice will be brought on your behalf, maybe something else. Honestly, I can’t even answer that question for myself right now. But, what we have learned from Ahtithophel, and Absalom, and David too, is that simply enduring, seething, or seeking our own version of “justice” results in more violence.
There is a way of love. God help us to find it.
Linda McMillan is still in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Looking for the way of love and hoping to find it.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You can read about Eric Trump’s tweet here. It’s in Newsweek. It’s political. Skip it if you’re not into that.
You can get a copy of The Didache here. Only .99 and available for your ereader. Didache means Teaching. Sometimes it is called The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles. Very short. If you’re a Christian you should probably read it.
Ahtithophel is sometimes spelled Achitophel. FYI.
The comparison of Ahtithophel with Judas doesn’t really hold. I think this because Judas came to a horrible end by his own hand and that is all we know. But, the Bible gives us another detail about the death of Ahtithophel. It says that he hanged himself and was buried with his ancestors. Being buried with your ancestors adds a sheen of respectability, not shame.
2 Samuel 6:23… Ahtithophel was like an oracle.
Psalm 55… This is what David said about Ahtithophel after the betrayal. David continued to honour Ahtithophel because Ahtithophel had taught him Torah. It is said that anyone who teaches you even one letter of Torah is worthy of honour. It is said that Ahtithophel only taught David two things: The importance of having a study partner, and to walk into the house of God with a right spirit. Even two small teachings from a good teacher will bear fruit and lead to greater and greater insights. But, Ahtithophel is revealed to be a poor teacher because these two things are the only things David ever learned from him. They did not grow into greater insight.
2 Samuel 12… Nathan made a prophecy that because of his sin the sword would never leave David’s house. It strikes me as very clever of the writer to have this carried out by Bathsheba’s grandfather. A nice literary touch, I think.
2 Samuel 17… When he realised that the rebellion (?) was going to fail he went home and got his affairs in order and hanged himself.