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Derrida, Caputo, and David Walk Into a Psalm

February 13, 2013
Joel Robine/Agence France Presse-Getty Images, via NY Times

Joel Robine/Agence France Presse-Getty Images

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Psalm 51:2

The heading of Psalm 51 gives its setting: “When the prophet Nathan came to [David] after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” The Hebrew text is more explicit in its description of David’s adulterous act in the Psalm heading. David had had sex with another man’s wife—and then had him killed in battle.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida could have found himself at home in this Psalm. Derrida might point out that for David to follow up his sins with a plea for God to “wash away all [his] iniquity” is to ask the impossible. (For Derrida, as John Caputo puts it, the impossible is “something that exceeds the horizon of foreseeability and expectation.”)

In this sense David asks for the impossible. The affair with Bathsheba was sordid enough, but he also called Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back from battle to sleep with her in the hopes that no one would know David made her pregnant. When this plan failed, David oversaw military orders that sent Uriah to an unjust death. How audacious is David to ask for forgiveness from these sins that so “displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27)? Doesn’t David make an impossible request?

Caputo, in a somewhat Christianizing read of Derrida, writes, “[H]ope is truly hope when it has been pushed up against the impossible and everything looks hopeless.” All must have looked hopeless to David, who wrote, “My sin is always before me” (51:3). Yet he held out hope in God, praying, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (51:12).

With God the impossible is possible. We can be forgiven for even the unspeakable sins of our past. Some Psalms later David writes, “Praise the Lord, my soul… who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” (103:3).

Don’t we often feel “pushed up against the impossible”? Don’t we sometimes look at our sins, only to see that “everything looks hopeless”? And yet, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (103:12).

God exceeds the foreseeable. He transcends our expectations. He does not visit upon us the punishment that our sins deserve. David’s impossible request for forgiveness is possible, because God is the God of the impossible.

The above is a reflection I wrote for the Gordon College Lenten Devotional, “The Hope Before Us.” You can access a pdf of the whole devotional here.

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