Note: The national WELCA organization suggests that Bold Women’s Sunday be observed on the last Sunday in February. Due to local circumstances at our congregation, we observed it today, February 8, instead.
2 Samuel 11-12; 1 Kings 1, Matthew 1:1-6
I mentioned to some of you this week that, as I was looking for a picture of Bathsheba to put on the bulletin cover, almost everything that came up on a Google search was of the opening scene of the story, with Bathsheba bathing naked and a lecherous David looking at her from his rooftop. I had to really look for a picture of her with her clothes on so that we could keep worship today at least at a PG rating! But to me, it’s really sad that, in artwork, all that Bathsheba is remembered for is taking a bath in view of the palace roof, causing King David to see her and to send messengers to bring her to him. If that’s all there really was to this woman, then she wouldn’t have been mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, and I wouldn’t have picked her story for Bold Women’s Sunday. There’s more to her story than taking a bath and attracting the notice of the king. We also hear that she is a wife and a mother who mourns for her husband, Uriah, and for her child who has died, a mother who knows how to use the power she has to fight for her child, Solomon, who became king after David, and a woman who merits a mention, along with three other unusually bold women, in Jesus’ family tree. So, let’s examine Bathsheba’s story in more detail and see what God would like us to learn from her.
We should begin with the encounter between David and Bathsheba that began it all. We don’t know why Bathsheba was bathing in a place where David could see her. David was on the roof of his palace, but the text does not say that Bathsheba was on a roof. She could have been in a courtyard that she thought was secluded, and she didn’t think to look up and notice that anyone was on the roof. She was a married woman, and since the text says that she did mourn for her husband Uriah after he was killed, I’m willing to bet that she was not displaying herself on purpose. David, instead of being at the battlefield with his troops as he should have been, is wandering around his rooftop, happens to look down, and sees the beautiful Bathsheba purifying herself. He is smitten—but not with love; this is lust. He finds out who Bathsheba is, that her husband is away at the battlefield, and sends messengers to get her.
The next question that the text presents us with is: was Bathsheba a willing participant? Or was David guilty of rape? Different authors have written different fictional accounts of this story, using their imaginations to fill in details that are not there. Surprisingly enough, several female authors present this as a situation where Bathsheba knew it was wrong, but was attracted to David and was lonely because her husband was away, participated in the act willingly enough, but then felt extremely guilty about it afterward. I can’t exactly fault these authors for this portrayal, because they’re trying to make Bathsheba relatable to modern-day women who may have been tempted, at some point in their lives, into having an extra-marital affair. After exploring this text some more and meditating on this, though, I don’t think that is a good way to imagine this encounter, and here’s why: there is a power differential here. David is the king. He has a lot more power than Bathsheba. How could Bathsheba have ever said no to him? Bathsheba was a survivor, and she knew that saying no to a king would have meant death, or perhaps bad repercussions for her husband, who was in David’s army. She had no choice. In his novel, The Book of God, author Walter Wangerin describes Bathsheba sobbing as she submits to David’s will, the only author writing about this story who I’ve found that portrays the encounter in this way.
I think the message that we can take from this part of the story today, therefore, is about how men and women relate to one another. There is never an excuse for rape. Many women who have been raped never come forward to tell their story because they’re afraid of not being believed. They may be asked what they were wearing, and told that their clothing choice indicated that they “were asking for it”. They may be asked how much they had to drink, and then told that if they were that drunk, they should have expected something like this to happen. And so they live with that shame, thinking that the rape was somehow their fault. When David saw Bathsheba purifying herself, he should have looked away and gone to find one of his many wives and concubines. Men who truly have respect for women will control themselves. And, if they are in a position of power, they will not abuse that power to force a woman to submit. For those women who have been raped and sexually assaulted, there are resources available to help find both justice and healing. There is no shame, and if you need someone to listen to you and believe you, please know that I am a safe person to talk to.
We have heard the aftermath of the story: Bathsheba becomes pregnant and sends a message to David, which in itself is a bold move on her part, as she is demanding that David take responsibility for what he has done. David tries to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, so that he can say the baby is actually Uriah’s, but Uriah refuses, and David has him killed, making it look like the fortunes of war. Bathsheba mourns for Uriah—even though Uriah may not have been around very much since he was one of David’s fighting men, Bathsheba loves him. David then takes Bathsheba as another wife and she bears a son. But God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David, and although David admits his sin, the child born from this union still dies. The only hint we get that Bathsheba was distressed about this is when we read, “Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba,” and she eventually gave birth to another son, named Solomon. Even though her first son was born of a forced union, she still loved her son and grieved his death, just as any mother would grieve. Such heartache for Bathsheba in such a short amount of time! Who wouldn’t grieve after being taken by the king, becoming pregnant, finding out her husband has been killed, getting remarried right away, giving birth, and then losing that baby. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. Bathsheba seems to have found a measure of peace, though, since her second child with David was named Solomon—coming from the Hebrew word, “Shalom,” meaning “peace”.
I wonder, though, if Bathsheba missed her life before she became one of David’s wives. I wonder if she ever truly loved David, or if she continued to mourn for her husband, Uriah. In the story of David’s continued reign over the kingdom of Israel, we don’t hear about Bathsheba again until David has become old and ill, and the question is raised of who will succeed David on the throne of Israel. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, is setting himself up as the next king, when Nathan—yes, the same Nathan who confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba—and Bathsheba herself concoct a plan to get David to name Solomon as the next king. They remind David of the promise he made to Bathsheba that Solomon would be king after him—and this is the first time in the story that such a promise is mentioned, so we have to wonder if it really happened, or if Nathan and Bathsheba made it up. David, however, acknowledges the promise and officially names Solomon as his successor, displacing his oldest son, Adonijah. Bathsheba is now no longer a victim of David’s lust, she is now no longer just another one of David’s wives, but instead has risen to power as the queen mother, with a great deal of influence over her son, the new king, Solomon.
This is part of the reason, finally, that Bathsheba is included with three other notable women from the Old Testament in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, our Savior. These four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, in their own ways, boldly took the initiative in their individual situations, and God used their actions to continue the earthly family into which his son, Jesus, would be born. The story of Bathsheba, and of the other women named in Matthew’s genealogy, shows us once again that God does not always work his will through the good religious folks. God chooses to come to earth as one of us: born into a family that includes, among others, a woman who was notorious for being an adulteress, whether it was her fault or not. If you notice, Matthew does not even use the name “Bathsheba,” instead choosing to call her Uriah’s wife, as if to remind his readers that before she became the queen mother, she was grafted into David’s line by adultery. And yet, Jesus still chooses to be born into this scandalous woman’s line.
And this, finally, is the good news for us. Jesus does not demand that we become perfect before we come to him. He was born of an earthly family that included murderers, adulterers, and thieves. Bathsheba and the other women in his family tree were women who schemed for power, who plotted for their children to rule when that right should have belonged to others, who lived by the philosophy that states, “A man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.” Jesus came into his family with no demand that they clean up their act first, but with love and forgiveness. And he offers that same love and forgiveness to us, and that love and forgiveness is what transforms us to want to be better. Let us never think that a person is beyond hope and will never change. Let us instead embrace everyone we meet with the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, let us invite them to come and see Jesus. And may we never forget that God may just work his amazing will through someone that we might never have expected. Amen.