David, Bathsheba, & Nathan
Last week we celebrated the Feast of Mary Magdalene. And I talked about how striking it is that almost no women get to tell their own story in the Bible. And not only do they not get to tell their own story, but their perspective is just never represented. They are truly powerless—at the mercy of the men around them within the story and in the telling of the story. This morning we just heard a doozy, a story of the use and abuse of power, and of another silenced woman.
The way the story is told in the Bible it is a story about David-handsome King—a biblical legend. Slayer of Goliath. Brilliant military strategist. Not too shabby city planner-see Jerusalem. He successfully united the Northern and Southern kingdoms into one Israel, and he wrote some fairly fabulous psalms. He was God’s chosen, anointed one. And, as we heard in the story today, he was also abusive, coercive, and corrupt in his use of power.
Here’s how the story plays out. One day David, despite the continued threat from Israel’s enemy the Ammonites, decides he no longer needs to go out and engage in fighting. So, his army engaged in battle, he hangs out at the palace, lying around on the sofa all day. One day David, bored, wanders around the palace and sees Bathsheba, the wife of his loyal soldier Uriah the Hittite, taking a bath. The way the story is usually told, depicted in art, Bathsheba is a seductress. Shamefully bathing on the roof, trying to lure the King in with her feminine wiles. I mean, what was she doing bathing on the roof, the hussy? But the text never says she was bathing on the roof. The text says that David was wandering around on the roof, spying on her. Bathsheba was in the process, according to the Hebrew, of taking her monthly ritual cleansing bath, somewhere else in the palace. So it is likely that the last thing on her mind was seducing the King. But, she was definitely on David’s mind, and note carefully the language here, “as soon as he saw her he had to have her.” So, despite the fact that he had several wives and a bunch of concubines, he “sent for her”. David sees, wants, takes. A string of power verbs. Why? Because he can. Because he is the King and he has all the power. This is exactly what the prophets had warned Israel about earlier- warning them they really did not need a king, they had God. The prophets knew that kings—even generally good kings-are dangerous. They knew that kings eventually give in to the temptation of their own power, and they overstep. They take what is not theirs to take. And so David “takes” Bathsheba. We have no idea how she felt—her horror, sense of powerlessness, terror. And none of that was of any interest whatsoever to the Biblical writer. But however she felt about it, before long Bathsheba sends back word that she is pregnant. And everyone knows Uriah has been away at battle for a long time.
First David decides he is going to try and cover the whole thing up. So he tries to set up a romantic weekend for Uriah and Bathsheba. But Uriah he refused to come home until the battle was over. Further, Uriah reminded David that he had taken the soldier’s vow of celibacy until after the battle was done. This faithfulness and loyalty irritated David no end, so he decided on a deadly change of plans. He told Uriah’s commander that Uriah should be sent to the forefront of the battle, then the commander should order the rest of the troops to withdraw, leaving Uriah alone, on the front lines. And so it was done. Uriah was killed. And David, adding murderer to his list of sins, took Bathsheba as his wife. And she soon gave birth to a son. But the Lord was not pleased by what David had done and soon God was up in David’s face in the person of Nathan. And, even after Nathan the prophet ropes David into seeing his own sin, condemning himself, David still gets exactly what he wanted. Uriah is dead and Bathsheba is now one of his wives. And Bathsheba? She never gets to utter a word in the whole story.
By all rights David should have been condemned. He had broken at least 3 of the 10 Commandments one right after the other, he had confessed and he had sentenced himself to die. But, according to the story, God had another thing in mind. “The Lord has put away your sin” Nathan told him. “You shall not die.” Good news for David. Quickly followed by the awful news, that the child born to Bathsheba, David’s son, would die—because in conceiving him David had utterly scorned the Lord. This is really hard to hear—hard to take. That a child should die for a parent’s sin. And my heart breaks for Bathsheba, abused by David, then further wounded by the death of her child. This doesn’t square with my understanding of God and I sure as heck don’t have any explanation for this. It is just one of those tough, tough texts.
And I will tell you that the story gets even harder. Because David’s children by his other wives are watching as this sordid tale unfolds. And they are learning. As Anna Carter Florence writes, “they all know what happened. Dad wanted and took, because he could-and he got away with it. And we might as well cue the ominous music, because there’s a predatory precedent on the loose now, and the ones who are the most susceptible and vulnerable to it are David’s family.”
And before long, in another string of awful verbs, David’s son Amnon, “fell in love” with his beautiful sister, David’s daughter, Tamar. And soon Amnon is obsessed with Tamar-making himself ill over her. So ill that everyone in the palace can see it—including his father David. And anyone with sense can see this is not heading in a good direction. Amnon confesses to one of his friends how he feels, one of his wilier friends. This friend, wanting to suck up to a future king, sets up a scheme to get Tamar into Amnon’s bedroom. A plan that involves David being the one to send Tamar to Amnon’s room. Which, tragically, despite all the warning signs, David does. To do otherwise he’d have to look at himself in an agonizingly clear mirror. And that would reveal all his terrible verbs from the previous chapters with Bathsheba, the ones Amnon has been studying and fantasizing about—and now is asking his father to collude in. Take. Pretend. Send. Come on, Dad; you know what I want. So David blows it again. Sends Tamar to Amnon. It could have gone differently, but David would have had to do something even harder than confessing his sin to the prophet Nathan. He would have had to turn his gaze on his own actions and admit how they’ve shaped his own children. And that would take the courage of a mighty king.
So the tragic story of Bathsheba, Uriah, and David, ends up with the next generation decimated as well. Amnon rapes Tamar. And a few chapters later, David’s sons are dead, and Tamar disappears from the story. And that’s where the story ends: a royal mess. We’re left wondering what might have gone differently if the father had punished or the younger son had spoken up; perhaps a measure of integrity could have been restored to the kingdom, with justice for Tamar. It would have required deeply painful speech and action, much harder than David’s atonement for his sins of two chapters ago, because now we’re talking about the atonement of an entire family. But it could have happened. And it didn’t.
So, where do we go with the story now? What is the point? Are we supposed to imitate David, the great king or not? I don’t think there is a simple point. Except to illustrate the profound damage we can do to each other when we deceive ourselves, when we lack the courage to tell the truth to ourselves and to each other. Perhaps the point is also that God hangs in there with us when we are making a total disaster of our lives and of those around us.
And perhaps more than anything else, the point is not about David, Bathsheba, Uriah, Amnon, or Tamar. Because, as Anna Carter Florence points out, Scripture is a script that is already written and published but our lives are not. You and I are narratives, works, still in progress. So asking of the stories in the Bible how things might have gone differently is also asking how our lives might have gone, might go differently. When we enter the verbs in Bathsheba’s story, in Tamar’s story, the verbs that are chosen as well as the ones that could have been but weren’t—we see ourselves in them. We see the painful messes we can make of life. But we don’t suffer them alone. We can claim the strength of standing together. We can claim the courage of planting our feet. And we can claim the freedom of imagining new endings—where things might go differently, so life can flourish. This is an act of imagination, truth telling, and hope. It is an act of the Spirit- an act in which we can engage because we are borne up, urged on, and guided by the God of justice and love. The God of truth telling—who knows the truth of each of us, yet still loves us. The God who sees who we are and who we can be, and who loves us all the way there.