Eugene H. Peterson is the James Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. This article is chapter 10 of his new book, Leap Over a Wall and appears by permission.
"Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?" Then the King will say, "I'm telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me — you did it to me." – Matthew 25:37-40 (RSV)
The Brook Besor marks an important episode in human history. An event was enacted there that's definitive for people whose family tree goes back to Jesus, a tree of life with roots in David. I've never understood why the Brook Besor doesn't rank along with other definitive place names, such as Bethany, Galilee, Shiloh, Calvary, and Bethel. But that portion of the David story that originates at the Brook Besor keeps being re-enacted among men and women who stay in touch with the God of their everydayness.
Names are important. They identify particular places, specific persons. They save us from the swamps of undifferentiated generality. They protect us from the arid wastelands of abstraction. A name is a lifejacket that keeps us afloat in the ocean of anonymity. What's your name? Where were you born? Where do you live? Who is your God? Names locate and identify. Generalities and abstractions, useful as they are in their own way, are as useless for actual nutrition as the label on a can of refried beans, listing: calories 120, sodium 570mg, carbohydrate 28g, protein 7g — excellent information, but certainly not food for the hungry.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice, and the expression in vain. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates."
The Brook Besor is narrative nutrition: a story that feeds an essential aspect of our God-designed humanity. In a world of disembodied advice it puts our size-seven bone-and-flesh feet on dirt and rock ground. I want to pull the Brook Besor from its undeserved obscurity and put it on our maps — name what we might otherwise miss because we had filed it under some category such as "care," or "charity," or "generosity."
The Wasting of Ziklag
The story begins in disaster. David and his company of six hundred men, off on a military mission with King Achish of Gath, had left their wives and children at Ziklag unprotected. A raiding ban of Amalekites, persistent and long-time enemies of Israel, came down on the village, captured the women and children for slaves, looted the place, and carried off a huge booty, leaving behind them nothing but smoking rubble.
When David's men returned, they were greeted by the rubble and smoke. The six hundred were a volcano of lament that soon turned into anger (lamentation often does) — great anger against David. He was their leader, after all, and shouldn't have left the village unprotected. The anger congealed into a plot to kill him. Grief clouded their minds; anger hardened their hearts. "David ought to be stoned," first uttered as whispered bitterness, quickly turned into a rallying cry, "Let's stone David!" (my paraphrase).
Catastrophe brings out either the best or the worst in us. At Ziklag it first brought out the worst. David had been leading these six hundred men along trails of salvation and providence through the wilderness years, bring beauty and holiness to their notice, leading them into lives of prayer, working the slow transformation from "the distressed, the debtors, and the discontented" into a company of friends and lovers. Two steps forward, one step back — or one step forward, two steps back. Spiritual formation is a slow business. And then this Amalekite disaster wiped out not only their homes and families but every bit of slowly acquired righteousness as well.
But catastrophe brought out the best in David. In the chaos of lamentation, anger, and bitterness, with storm clouds of murder rolling in across the horizon, we come on this wonderful line: "But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God (1 Sam. 30:6). David prayed; David worshipped; David called on his pastor, Abiathar, for counsel. David went deep within himself, met God, and found strength and direction to stride into the way of salvation. As his exterior world collapsed, he returned to the interior, rebuilt his primary identity, recovered his base. The moment of disaster freed him, immediately and amazingly, from the sixteen months of servitude under Achish, and David was dealing with God again — listening intently, obeying boldly. David and Abiathar came out from the place of quietness and counsel and prayer with a plan.
Now there was something to do, a strategy adequate to the disaster. But note the contrast. The company also had a strategy, but it was conceived in bitterness — kill David. There's an enormous amount of outrage in the world that's converted into angry plans of attack and destruction. A great deal of social action and political reform is fuelled by anger; the results are nearly always worse than the conditions that provoked the action. If we're going to do something about what's wrong with the world — the spectrum of wrongs stretches from marital fights to world wars, from disobedient children to destruction of the rain forests — we have to acquire a better base to work from than our anger. David's strategy came out of prayer and counsel. He set out to bring back the lost women and children.
The Sick Egyptian
David's six hundred men were ill-prepared to hunt down the Amalekite marauders. They had just returned from a long march back from the Philistine military front. They were fatigued. They were demoralized by the sack of Ziklag. And they weren't trusting David one bit. David's plan didn't seem at all promising.
But they went. David roused his troops to action and led them on a forced march south. Pushing hard for fifteen miles, they reached the Brook Besor. Two hundred men, a third of David's company, at that point were exhausted and unable to continue. They said, in effect, "We can't go another step. We don't have the strength and we don't have the spirit. We've had it." And so they were left, left at the Brook Besor.
David and his remaining four hundred men crossed the brook and continued deeper into the desolate desert badlands. They weren't finding a trace of the Amalekites. As hour succeeded hour, it looked more and more as if they were on a wild goose chase. And then they came on a sick Egyptian, half dead.
A sick puppy of an Egyptian couldn't have hoped for much in the way of care and compassion from a bunch of tired and vengeful Israelites. But somewhere along the way some of the old good Samaritan habits and desert hospitality that David's company had practised kicked in, and instead of being kicked aside as a bother and encumbrance, the Egyptian was tended to: they gave him water and food — figs and raisins. It turned out that he was servant to one of the Amalekite rulers, but when he became sick he was abandoned — too much trouble to care for — and left behind in the desert to die. The poor wretch had had nothing to eat or drink for three days. David cared for him, fed him, and saved his life.
David knew something about being ill-used in the wilderness and then, in the midst of hardship, being treated generously. Psalm 36 bears all the marks of a wilderness experience, and it contains all the elements that came together for the Egyptian:
- The God-rebel tunes in to sedition –
all ears, eager to sin.
He has no regard for God,
he stands insolent before him.
He has smooth-talked himself
That his evil
will never be noticed.
Words gutter from his mouth
Can't remember when he
did anything decent.
Every time he goes to bed,
he fathers another evil plot.
When he's loose on the streets
He plays with fire
and doesn't care who gets burned.
God's love is meteoric,
his love astronomic,
His purpose titanic,
his verdicts oceanic.
Yet in his largeness
nothing gets lost;
Not a man, not a mouse,
slips through the cracks.
How exquisite your love, O God!
How eager we are to run under your wings,
To eat our fill at the banquet you spread
as you fill our tankards with Eden spring water.
You're a fountain of cascading light,
and you open our eyes to light.
Keep on loving your friends;
do your work in welcoming hearts.
Don't let the bullies kick me around,
the moral midgets slam me down.
Send the upstarts sprawling
flat on their faces in the mud.
What David experienced from God, the Egyptian experienced from David: "Not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks." And then eating his fill at a banquet of water and figs and raisins.
When we're living this life right, this is what happens. We pass on the experience, pass on the God-experience to the people we meet. They experience a piece of what we've experienced in God.
Saved and grateful as a recipient of David's Psalm 36 desert hospitality, the revived Egyptian told them where the Amalekites were. They had been on their way to a victory celebration when the Egyptian slave had fallen sick and been dumped. Knowing exactly where they had been headed, he guided David and his company to the place.
It was now dusk, and the party was in full — swing-eating, drinking, dancing-whooping it up. Amalekites everywhere, feasting on the food and drink they had looted from Ziklag and other towns and villages in this, their latest piracy. They were far from the places they had pillaged and therefore hadn't set a guard. Carousing, they were sitting ducks for David's avengers. Soon they were dead ducks.
The recovery was absolute. Not a wife, not a child was lost. Nothing that had been stolen was missing. Not only that, but they also had the extensive Amalekite boot of flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. David and his men returned with everything and everyone in triumph. The so recently demoralized, grieving, and angry men were now ecstatic. And David, whom hours earlier they had been ready to kill, was honoured and acclaimed as they gave him all the credit, shouting out, Zeh sh'lal David, zeh sh'lal David, "This is David's spoil!" (1 Sam. 30:20).
At the Brook Besor
That sounds like the climax to the story, but it isn't. The climax takes place back at the Brook Besor. As the ecstatically victorious four hundred return to Ziklag, they arrive at the brook where they had left the two hundred. The exhausted two hundred, the two hundred who had had to drop out in mid-pursuit, the two hundred who had been soaking their feet in the brook and feeling left out of the action while the four hundred had been risking the terrors of wilderness and Amalekites. The left-behind two hundred were now up on their feet hugging and kissing their wives and children, delighting in the success that they hadn't been able to help bring about.
But there were mean-spirited men among the four hundred, who bristled at the notion of sharing the victory booty with their weaker brothers. It was enough that they get their wives and children back, but nothing else — not a single piece of Amalekite plunder, not so much as one sheep or goat or heifer.
Just then David stepped in. His intervention is the climax to the story. David intervened at the Brook Besor, and his intervention is pure gospel. David ruled that everybody at the brook that day — the two hundred who had been unable to continue and had been given the undramatic, behind-the-scenes work of watching over the supplies at the brook 1 Sam. 30:24) and the four hundred who had fought for their lives — were equals and would share everything equally: "Everything we have is a gift from God; we share it with all who are saved by God" (1 Sam. 30:23-25).
The ringleaders of the "fairness" policy are called "wicked and base fellows" (1 Sam. 30:22). Strong words, it would seem, for what sounds like common sense and plain justice. Until we remember who these people are and where they are: these are the men of Ziklag with nothing in their backgrounds to be proud of, all of them picked up from a disreputable life and brought, through no merit of their own, into the net of God's providence and salvation. And the Amalekite chase itself? They had started out wanting to kill David, and only through David's prayer with Abiathar and their desert hospitality to the Egyptian had they gotten their families back
Everything they experienced was sheer grace. How could they talk about dividing things up fairly? God was treating them with marvellous and generous grace; David would see to it that they treated one another with marvellous and generous grace.
"Caring is the Greatest Thing"
It's often remarked that David was a passionate man. He threw himself recklessly into whatever was there before him: song, battle, prayer, love, God. What's not as often noticed but is equally true is that he was a compassionate person. His passion was a community affair, compassion. He cared. He cared about others with the same passion with which he came before God.
David doesn't fit a preformed mold. When we enter the story of David, we don't find what our sociologists and psychologists call a "role model," a kind of slot into which we can slide without going through the pain of becoming human ourselves. He worked out firsthand what it meant to be alive before God in the midst of those who were concerned only with staying alive. His care for and sensitivity toward others had nothing to do with conforming to the expectations of others. He didn't bend to the cowardice that we neutralize with our phrase "peer pressure." But for all that, he cared for others. He would have nothing to do with a salvation that was for himself alone. He had no interest in a security gained at the expense of the people with whom he lived. He wasn't out to save his own soul. He was, in a word, compassionate.
"Caring is the greatest thing," said von Hügel. "Christianity taught us to care." A generation later, W.H. Auden brought out his ultimatum: "We must love one another or die."
But we live in an age that has replaced compassion with sentiment. Sentiment is a feeling disconnected from relationship. Sentiment is spilled compassion. It looks like concern; it could develop into compassion, but it never does. Sentiment is the patriotic catch in your throat as the flag goes by — a feeling that never gets connected with the patriotic honesty of paying your income tax. Sentiment is the tears that flow in a sad movie — tears that never get connected with visiting your dying friend. We feel sorry for people; we lament the pain and suffering in the world. But having felt the internal motions of pity, wept a few requisite tears of sorrow, and sent off ten dollars to a charitable appeal, we've exhausted our capacity for care. In this callous, dog-eat-dog world, how sensitive we are! We return to our homes and jobs without knowing the names of the people we've shed tears over, without visiting a single prisoner whose fate we lament, without writing one letter to the lonely over whom our hearts break. And of course we let no strangers into our double-locked homes.
One of the supreme ironies of our age is that the society that has talked and written most about the fulfilment of the self shows the least evidence of it. People obsessed with the cultivation of the self have nothing to show for it but a cult of selfishness. A few generations of economic affluence, political liberation, and religious freedom have flowered into obesity, anxiety, and meanness. Happily, there are numerous exceptions; still, the generalizations are plausible. Our world is splendidly filled with glorious things and a glorious gospel but appallingly diminished in persons who celebrate them with passion and share them with compassion. We're not the first generation to do this. Augustine looked at the world around him and acerbically observed that his parishioners were "more pained if their villa is poor than if their life is bad."
One of the reasons that Christians are dispersed in the world is to recover a life for others and practise a priesthood of all believers — connect with others in an earthy, Davidic compassion so thoroughly that no expert or professional can ever again bluff us into passivity or consumerism.
David at the Brook Besor anticipates Jesus: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly" (Matt. 11:28-30, The Message).
I have a friend who sometimes signs her letters to me, "Yours at the Brook Besor." She's never explained to me what she means, and I've never asked her. What I imagine is that she sees herself as one of the two hundred at the Brook Besor, too tired to go on (she's been living for a long time in Philistine country), feeling consigned to the sidelines because of her lack of stamina, resigned to a marginal status with the people of God but inwardly assured of God's affirmation. And then hearing it again, undeserved and unexpected, the generous Davidic verdict. Brook Besor, indeed.