Narrative Lectionary Year 1
2 Samuel 11 & 12
Today we make a huge jump from last week, where Joshua addresses the Israelites after they have conquered the Promised Land, to an episode in the life of King David. To get from there to here, the Israelites have gone through an awful lot of history. After Joshua died, the Israelites were ruled for many years by a series of judges. Incidentally, this time period is when the story of Ruth, that we looked at over the summer, took place. Towards the end of this period, a prophet named Samuel arose, and Samuel led the people during his lifetime. But towards the end of Samuel’s life, the people looked at Samuel’s sons and determined that his sons would not be good leaders like Samuel was, and they demanded a king like all the nations around them had. God spoke through Samuel, expressing displeasure with this idea, because God alone should be the people’s king. But, the people kept insisting, and after warning them that a king would do nothing but take the people’s possessions and children for himself, Samuel anointed a man named Saul to be king over the people. Saul wasn’t too bad of a king at first, but after explicitly disobeying a command of the Lord, he fell out of God’s favor. God then sent Samuel to anoint David as king, but David did not fully come into power until after Saul was killed in battle. David then consolidated his power and ruled Israel, and the stories tell us that God loved David very much and blessed him with success.
And so we arrive at today’s story. This is a hard story for us to hear for two reasons. First, here is the king, the man that God has greatly loved and favored, making a colossal mistake that will spell trouble for the rest of the time that he reigns over Israel. And second, it involves a woman who becomes the victim of David’s lust and who doesn’t have many lines to say in this story. She reminds us of all that is going on in our society today with the #MeToo movement, and yet, because the men in this story are more active, and we hear their words and their motivations, Bathsheba’s feelings and motivations remain shrouded in mystery, and we are left to guess how the story would be told from her point of view. But, here are a few things that we can say.
The first thing is this: If you were to do a Google search for pictures of the David and Bathsheba story, you would have a very difficult time finding any that would be less than an “R” rating. I know this because, a couple of years ago when I preached on this text, I had to help my then-secretary find an image for the bulletin cover. Artists over the years have imagined Bathsheba as a temptress, bathing in an area of her courtyard where she knew the king would see her. Many modern authors who have retold this story in prose have portrayed Bathsheba in the same way. But according to Scripture, she was following ritual purity laws and bathing herself after she had been ritually impure. She had no way of knowing that the king would be walking the rooftop of the palace that afternoon. In fact, the first line of the story says that it was spring, the time when kings go out to battle, and yet King David stayed home when his general and his troops were out doing his dirty work. Bathsheba could have been under the impression that the king was out on the battlefield with her husband, Uriah. So I believe that when she went out to bathe that afternoon, she was simply doing what she was supposed to do and had no intention of tempting anyone, much less the king.
Second, here is an idea that I first spoke of several weeks ago when we were talking about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: there is a power differential going on here. In the case of Joseph, Potiphar’s wife held all of the power while Joseph, although he was in the higher ranks of the slaves of the household, was still a slave. In the case of today’s story, David is the king. He has all of the power in this story, while Bathsheba has none. When there is such a power differential, there is really no such thing as consent. Scripture does not record what the conversation was between David and Bathsheba. We don’t know if Bathsheba protested or if she went along with what David wanted. But, just like Joseph those several weeks ago, Bathsheba does not have a choice. If she says no, she risks the king’s wrath, not only against her, but against her husband. If she says yes, she runs a risk, too, and that risk is actually what happens: she becomes pregnant, and her lawful husband is away at the battlefield doing the king’s bidding. So when Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant, she does not know what’s going to happen. Will David protect her? Will David deny that he was the father? Will she be stoned as an adulteress? We can only imagine how frightened Bathsheba must have been.
This is a little bit of how I imagine this story from Bathsheba’s point of view. Now, let’s take a look at it from the point of view of the storyteller, who is focused on David. The first thing that we see David doing wrong comes in a very subtle jab from the storyteller: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him . . . But David remained at Jerusalem.” The storyteller doesn’t tell us why. If this is the time when kings go out to battle, why did David remain at home and send his army out without him? That just looks bad on the face of it. As for the rest of David’s part, when I teach people this story, I like to ask how many commandments David violated in this episode. The first one is coveting: when David saw Bathsheba and when he found out who she was and whose wife she was, he coveted her: that is, he wanted someone who was not his to have. Then, when he commanded her to be brought to him, he broke the commandment against stealing. Then, he committed adultery with her. Then, he tried to deceive Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, which technically is not part of the Ten Commandments, although you could make a case for it coming under the “You shall not bear false witness,” commandment. Then, when David was unable to deceive Uriah, he ordered him back to the front and had him murdered. I count at least five of the Ten Commandments that David violated in one story. All so that he could have one woman for one night and then cover up this bad behavior.
Abuse of power. We are seeing this in the news media now as women are coming forward and telling their stories. Stories of men harassing them and the stories of why they didn’t report it when it first happened. Stories where they were not believed when they did report it, and how they were further harassed because people thought they were deliberately trying to bring their abuser down. We also are seeing this abuse of power as we are hearing the stories about the priests in the Roman Catholic Church who sexually abused children and who got away with it because no one believed it of them and/or because those higher up moved them from parish to parish to cover up their evil behavior. Having power in and of itself is not evil. People who are in positions of power can use their power to bring about great good in society. But, sinfulness is always there, lurking inside each one of us. And sometimes that temptation to use our power to satisfy our own selfish and evil desires gets the better of us, and we fall into sin.
But when that happens, we dare not think that we can cover it up for too long, because it eventually comes to light. God knew about David’s sin, and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with it. What always gets me about Nathan’s conversation with David, besides the sheer brilliance of using a story to get David to condemn himself, is that, while David did great damage to both Bathsheba, Uriah, and himself, David forgot the hurt that he caused his Lord. God’s speech, through the prophet Nathan’s lips, sounds like God is wounded by what David has done: God lists all the things that God has done for David, and, God says, if that hadn’t been enough, God would have given David even more. All that God wanted from David in return was for David to follow the laws that God had laid down, and David couldn’t even do that. But yet, even with this great sin, when David admits what he has done, God offers forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that there won’t still be earthly consequences. Because David has done this, this abuse of power gets played out among his children and David can’t do anything to stop it. But the Lord did forgive David’s sin, and even brought good out of it. David and Bathsheba had a son named Solomon, who grew up to become the wisest king Israel had known. And, if we look in the first chapter of Matthew, we see both David and Bathsheba listed as earthly ancestors of Jesus.
With the abuse of power that is coming to light in so many situations in our society today, it is hard to see forgiveness. And perhaps we have to live in that tension yet for a while, that tension between our faith which says that God forgives sins and our desire for justice, our desire for those who abused their power to suffer the consequences, in some cases long overdue, for their sins. For those who have been abused, it is not healthy to forgive their abuser right away, because they need to heal from their trauma, and healing often means expressing anger, hurt, betrayal, and a whole host of other emotions. And I have to believe that God understands that. Forgiveness should never be forced. Just as forgiveness is a free gift of God, when we forgive one another, it should also be a free gift from us and not forced.
But the good news is this: God forgives us our sins, whatever they are. God stands ready to forgive us when we confess our sins. And even though God is hurt by the things that we do, God continues to reach out to us and love us, calling us to return to God’s welcoming arms. Do you have any sins that are weighing on your heart? Then hear now God’s call: God loves you and invites you to return to that relationship with God by confessing what is on your heart and hearing God’s complete forgiveness of your sins. All of us have experienced this in our lives and know the comfort that comes from hearing of God’s love for us. So let us continue to extend that loving invitation to all of our neighbors, inviting them to hear of God’s love for all of us. Amen.