Going to Meet Their Maker
Parashat Vay’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26; Haftarah, 1 Kings 2:1–12
Dr. Patrice Fischer, Ohr Chadash, Clearwater, FL
This week’s Torah and haftarah passages show two important deathbed scenes. In Genesis 47–50 we see Jacob’s pivotal interaction with Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, then his individual, personalized blessing for each of his sons and their descendants.
In the haftarah we see another deathbed scene: David giving his last instructions to just one person, his son Solomon. Instead of dealing out many blessings and good wishes for the future of all his sons and their descendants down through history, David talks alone to Solomon, one of his many sons, and advises him how to deal individually with potential enemies.
We might be forgiven if we see David’s final advice to Solomon as akin to a scene in a novel about the Mob:
Dying Don: Don’t forget what Tommy Two-Eyes did to me when I was holed up in Jersey—he killed my two best lieutenants when they didn’t do nothing wrong. You know how I want you to take care of him.
Son: Right, Pop.
Dying Don: Also, I really like Freddie the Frog because he stood up for me when your own brother turned on me. Remember to treat his family with respect and be sure that they are taken care of . . . in a good way, I mean.
Son: [sniff] Got it, Pop. Good things for the Frog’s family—we won’t forget.
Dying Don: As far as that jerk, Jerry Jump-back, I told him that I would never off him, but you’re not me, if you catch my drift. Never, never trust him.
Son: Won’t trust him, I promise, Pop.
Why are the two deathbed scenes in Scripture so intrinsically different from each other? Jacob seems to be the person acting as the magnanimous king remembering his loved ones, whereas David, the actual king, sounds like Dying Don: these personal details about unforgotten grudges are his most important legacy; his past is more real to him than the nation’s future.
To be fair, this is not the picture we see in 1 Chronicles. The Chronicler is well-understood as the apologist for the crown in general and David in particular. His portrait of David shows him praising and encouraging Solomon along the way, recognizing that Solomon is David’s, and God’s, chosen heir starting in 1 Chronicles 22. There the Chronicler explains to the public why David himself cannot build the Temple, but leaves it instead to Solomon. It’s in this chapter that we see the scene we might have been expecting to see—David affirms Solomon, who at this time is still quite young, and tells him that building the Temple will be Solomon’s job. Then follows a reverent section where David asks Solomon to dedicate himself to the Lord, encourages him, and tells him that the chief craftsmen and builders know already that Solomon is their boss, and that he can trust them.
This passage in 1 Chronicles 22 is more like Jacob’s deathbed scene in Genesis than the deathbed scene in 1 Kings, and the scene is repeated (renewed) in 1 Chronicles 29, right before David’s death. In contrast, Solomon does not even appear in the text of Samuel until he is there at David’s deathbed in 1 Kings.
There is another overlap between Jacob’s story and the haftarah—the mention of a specific town where significant encounters took place: Machanaim, meaning “Two Camps.” This site on the east side of the Jordan River, across from the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, is named by Jacob as he is returning home, right before he meets with Esau, his brother in Genesis 32.
In David’s life story, Machaniam is the same place where those following Saul’s house in the struggle for the throne of the nation set up a “government in exile,” led by Avner (2 Sam 2:8–12). Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth was crowned king there by Avner and others loyal to Saul’s family. (He reigned as king for only two years, while David’s army was busy shoring up his support to be king, based in Hebron.) In the haftarah passage, David mentions the day when he was “on his way to Machanaim” when Shimei curses David, calls him a murderer and claims that he has no right to rule because the rule rightly belonged to Saul’s family (1 Kings 2:8; cf. 2 Sam 16:5–14). Shimei continues on that the Lord has handed the kingdom over to Absalom because David is “a man of blood.”
It’s not difficult to understand why this incident lasted in David’s mind. It would have been terribly wounding to David to be reminded of his son Absalom and the costly civil war to take David’s throne, and also of the men he killed while trying to ascend to that throne.
So, with our haftarah this week we remember two great men and the scenes of their dying wishes. With Jacob, his thoughts are about his sons and their future endeavors to make their family into a great nation. With David, his thoughts are concerning making the scales of justice balance so that his family will be able to rule this great nation based on the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Perhaps the two are not so unalike after all.