The Old Testament lesson for Friday’s daily office is a bit of a ramble for it is the middle of a series of stories of uprisings against David.
In the midst of the passage we are introduced to Barzillai, an 80-year-old man.
Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. The king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you in Jerusalem at my side.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king recompense me with such a reward? Please let your servant return, so that I may die in my own town, near the graves of my father and my mother.
~2 Samuel 32-37
I was struck by the idea that we can reach a point in our life that accepting the hospitality of another, even that of a king, is a burden rather than a blessing. Barzillai ends up sending Chimham in his place and David promises: “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you; and all that you desire of me I will do for you.”
At this point in the story, David is on his way to reclaim his throne after being ousted by his son Absalom. Absalom has been killed and his followers defeated.
The passage from the reading is part of a sequence of David repaying followers or redressing wrongs that came out of his flight from Jerusalem. He is trying to reward Barzillai. However, given the unsettled nature of the narrative at this point in the story, it is not surprising that Barzillai might want to stay home rather than go tramping about with a king in David precarious position.
Even setting aside the multiple reasons Barzillai might have for not joining the king at his side, I think there is a time in everyone’s life where the need for hearth and home overrides the need for adventure.
Many times the stories of the bible call out for people to leave home and find a new place in the world. In the Old Testament alone the major patriarchs all end up leaving home, frequently at the direct urging of God or God’s angels.
This is the rare story where someone articulates the value of staying home, not only because he professes that he will be a burden on the king, but because he sees his own end is coming and he wants to die at home “…near the graves of my father and my mother.”
David offers what he sees as a reward to a faithful supporter, but to Barzillai the gift would be too costly. For once in his life, David listens and does not insist on having his own way.
Barzillai is old but not helpless. He has resources and is willing to use them to support the king and help him return to the throne. Barzillai still has the power to take action.
Sometimes it is easy to assume that because someone is a stay-at-home or because they can’t do as much as they used to, that somehow they are completely useless.
I combat that feeling in my own life. My various weird medical issues make it difficult to engage with people, even people in my own household. Even when I ‘get stuff done’ the limitations I face can leave me feeling both useless and hopeless.
So this story helps me. It puts in perspective the idea that anyone is ‘old and useless’. Just because Barzillai wanted to stay home did not mean he was accepting a passive role or that he was waiting around to die.
If Barzillai had not been home to welcome David and his followers and to help feed and shelter them, then David might not have been able to support his forces and win back his kingdom.
By staying home, and using his limited energy strategically, Barzillai paved the way for David’s victory. We don’t all have to be adventurers, sometimes the adventurers come right to our door and need the help of those who stay.
All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
Image: King Barzillai at Jordan from Pinterest