This sermon was delivered at Lombard Mennnonite Church on Sunday July 24th. Listen here.
Over the course of this sermon series, we have heard stories of women who were courageous, women who were faithful, women who were leaders, women who resisted domination and witnessed to forms of social life outside patriarchy. Then we come to 2 Samuel 11 and 12, and the story of Bathsheba, a text that tells us very little about Bathsheba’s character or personality. This text, like so much of the Old Testament, is instead obsessed with David. David, David, David. And I have to admit, I come to the text with a serious anti-David bias. A good deal of this bias has nothing to do with David the person, but David the legend, David the way in which power, ambition, and violence have all come to be seen as allowed or even approved by God. Many modern readings of David go something like this: David was a man after God’s own heart, who happened to enslave, rape, and otherwise dominate and manipulate the world around him, but after all, who among us is without these kinds of flaws. Strangely, all the evil that David did comes to reinforce his greatness, His sin makes him relatable, and when presented as a story of heroic overcoming, grows his legend all the more. This kind of interpretation can lead us to think that as long as one’s inner, mystical, heart orientation is towards God, then how one actually lives in the world is of secondary importance.
This is why when Franklin Graham and others have suggested that Donald Trump reminded them of King David, I agreed and understood that as one more reason not to vote for Trump. In fact, I imagine if King David had a convention, the themes might have been something like “Make Israel Safe Again,” “Make Israel Work Again,” “Make Israel One Again,” “Make Israel First Again,” But don’t worry, this morning’s sermon is not about Trump, and I hope it’s not about David, either. I want us to read this text with attention to the conflict that we find between the kind of power embodied in David, which uses and abuses, kills and covers up, and the countertestimony made possible by a God concerned with the person of Bathsheba.
It starts with the kings going out to war. David is a king, like other kings. David sees a woman bathing, and inquires about her. The information returns to David that she is the granddaughter of one of his chief counselors, the daughter of one of his great warriors. And she is married to Uriah the Hittite, who is currently putting his own life on the line for the king. One might wonder here, what could David have learned about her that might have prevented this saga from going any further. It does not seem to really matter to David who she is. The next few sentences can be difficult to read, with verbs that are decisive and forceful without any gloss of affection, any hint of a relationship or love here. Like other kings, David takes what he wants. Neither David nor the text are interested in her speech, until she says three explosive words that derail David. She says “I am pregnant.”
This new life becomes a threat to David, and to the throne, and so he begins the cover up immediately. Maybe if the baby is seen as Uriah’s, he will be in the clear, so he sends for Uriah and tells him to go home and “wash his feet.” Uriah responds by showing David the kind of loyalty that David must not even recognize at this point, and so David persists, offering food and drink. At this point, Uriah may be clueless, or he may be suspicious, but he won’t be tempted to break custom by enjoying pleasures while the rest of his comrades are out in the field.
When it turns out that there is an inexplicable difference between Uriah’s desires and David’s, Uriah has to go. At this point David does not even mind the loss of other soldiers in his quest to suppress the truth born by this inconvenient life in Bathsheba’s womb, and tells his commander Joab to make it look like just another casualty of war. When the deed is done, and Uriah is dead, along with an unspecified number of David’s servants, David sends word back to Joab in case he is feeling squeamish. David says “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another.” To complete the ruse, he again takes Bathsheba and she gives birth.
In these first 25 verses, we hear a story of intrigue and deceit and violence that might just as easily have come from Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome, or Game of Thrones. This is in some ways a fulfillment of 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel demanded of Yahweh, and of Samuel, “a king to govern us like all the other nations.” Yahweh took this demand as a rejection. Israel had been called out to be a people unlike any other nation, a people that would witness to the character of the one who sustained and formed them. But that kind of life is not easy. There are always threats from without and within, and at the end of the day, as is so often the case, security took priority over faithfulness.
Yahweh gives the people what they want, but not without telling them what they are going to get: Starting in verse 11, of chapter 8: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.16 He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle[b] and your asses, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”
David’s reign is the result of Israel’s rejection of Yahweh. How could a people who had found their identity in the paradigmatic event of Exodus liberation, agree explicitly to become slaves again? If you go back and read that, you will find Bathsheba. But, as in the story we are reading today, her concerns are drowned out by the overwhelming desire of the people, driven by fear and scarcity and greed, and all these desires as exemplified in David. Here we can understand that the problem of David is not a character flaw. Not that he is without these flaws, but he represents a current in Israel’s history for which fear, and the desire for accumulation and security have become so powerful that they have displaced the rule of Yahweh. This is the God who has always chosen the lowly, the God whom Hagar, another woman mistreated by a biblical patriarch, called “El Roi,” the God who sees. And now the man who is to represent this God is preying upon the lowly, and covering it up. What he cannot handle at this moment is a God who sees Bathsheba, and sees her differently than David sees her.
At the end of the chapter there is one line that changes the whole story. It says “the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord.” We are reminded that there is another reality outside the one which the king has tried to establish as the only reality. This witness comes through a word of judgment.
I hope it has become clear at this point, that the text does not say “the thing Bathsheba had done was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Bathsheba is not judged here. She may have been a role model, she may have been just a normal human being, trying to live in a world that devalued her. The point that I find in the text here is not that Bathsheba is exceptional, but that Yahweh sees her, like Yahweh always sees those who are oppressed. And because Yahweh sees people who are oppressed, he also sees the agents of their oppression. So in the same way that God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, Nathan is sent to David.
Nathan comes, as many prophets do, with a story. It’s a story about Bathsheba, and about Uriah, and about the evil which David has done, but it’s not as direct as it may seem. First, David seems to see it not as a parable, but as the narration of actual events. And then there is the question, is Uriah the poor man and Bathsheba the lamb, or is Bathsheba the poor man and Uriah the lamb? Regardless, David sees injustice and is furious, declaring a death sentence on the rich man, and of course Nathan drops the hammer with another explosive phrase: “you are the man.”
I began this sermon by sharing a few ways of reading David that I don’t find particularly helpful, and here I have to add one more. David is not acting alone. The evil that he does, he does on behalf of the people, who have been so captivated by the narratives of scarcity and security and empire that they think the only way to survive the world is to dominate it. That David embodies this drive, this domination, can not be reduced to a judgment of his own character or moral fortitude. In fact, when Nathan confronts him, he does repent. But only after Yahweh confronts him and presents him with the case of Bathsheba.
David is “the man,” but in a final accounting I don’t think the story is about David. It is only by paying attention to Bathsheba and the other victims, that we can understand the story.
I thought about this story this past week, as police violence continues to dominate headlines, and we marked the one year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death in police custody. And it struck me, how our reading of Bathsheba might affect our reading of the current story we are in. For some, the primary concern in this story is the moral character or the intentions of police. Perhaps though, this story is only discernable by paying attention first to the Sandra Blands, the Rekia Boyds, the Aiyana-Stanley Joneses. And while the easy move might be to heap all of our criticism on the people directly engaged in violence, perhaps the way we are reading the story of Bathsheba today casts a much wider net, and asks us, how many victims are we willing to sacrifice in pursuit of security, in pursuit of stability, in pursuit of peace.
The violence that David took for granted destroyed his family. Bathsheba’s suffering does not end with the death of her husband – her son also dies for the sins of the King. The truth is, this story is not about David. I wish it were. I would like the story of the great leader who cleans up his act and restores peace and justice to the land. But that’s not the story we have. This story is not about David’s overcoming. It’s about Bathsheba’s. She is the one who has to live with the pain and the trauma, and somehow she does. This story does not valorize suffering for its own sake. As womanist theologians have been telling us, “martyrdom is overrated.” Instead Bathsheba stays alive.
She stays alive, so that in 1 Kings 1, she is there to fight for her son Solomon. This time, Nathan, the prophet of God, enlists her help, and sends her to confront the king. Bathsheba is a victim, but she is not just a victim. Bathsheba is the only person in this story who I think can give us any hope, because despite all that she has suffered, in the end her perseverance and Yahweh’s intervention on her behalf, force us to recognize her. We all know how Jesus is begotten of the Davidic line that runs through Solomon. The genealogy in Matthew 1, however, reminds us that the history cannot be reduced to David begat Solomon who begat Rehoboam, and on to Jesus. Instead, the text includes a reminder of Bathsheba’s place, and it does so in a strange and subversive way. It refers to her as “the wife of Uriah.” Now, we can certainly read this as evidence of a cultural context in which women are known only by the men in their life. However, the text persists in calling her this after Uriah is dead, and after David has taken her. This genealogy is like the ultimate homage to David, and yet here is this serd which breaks up the hegemony, and reveals a truer story. Her marriage to Uriah was part of her identity, which David violated and attempted to erase. Perhaps in calling her the wife of Uriah the text is paradoxically remembering her as a unique, storied person and not simply the object of David’s desire. Jesus is not just of the line of David, but of the line of Bathsheba. So today, when we tell the story of David and Bathsheba, we do so like Nathan telling the parable of the rich man and the poor man, but with the reminder that if we are honest, we are not really Nathan, we are not just a plot device serving as God’s appointed representative. No, we are most often the people, whose appetites and desire for security require victims, who are untroubled when the sword devours one as well as another. Against this version of reality, the word of God confronts us with Bathsheba’s story, and compels us to consider those who are bruised by our iniquities. We say her name, and we look upon the ones that we continue to pierce.