Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
July 29, 2018
Reflections on Bathsheba
2 Samuel 11: 1-15 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; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3 David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5 The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
6 So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9 But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10 When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” 11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths;[a] and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” 12 Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13 David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
Let it be known: the Lectionary, as it is written, ends the Scripture right there. You are supposed to preach right after David has sent a man carrying the letter that will insure his own death. And so today, we have expanded the Scripture a little in order to give us a place to preach from.
In the Christian Bible, David’s name is mentioned over a thousand times. David’s name is second only to Jesus Christ in the total number of Biblical mentions. I have been preaching this summer on David, and so we’ve heard a lot about him. And as is the case when one figure is widely known and powerful, we can, without even noticing it, read even condemning stories to their advantage. We can, without even noticing it, jump through elaborate interpretive hoops to justify behavior that has no justification. And I’m sorry to say that this is one of those stories to which it seems there are too many topical references.
So today we are starting the narrative with two other names in the story, and ones I am guessing are less well-known. What is the story of Bathsheba and of Nathan? Bathsheba is depicted in most of western art without her clothes on. Artists naturally found this moment when David spotted her bathing, which was part of her ritual requirement, and they adopted David’s gaze, perhaps just to get a chance to paint a naked lady. And so the image we have in our head of Bathsheba is scandalous. But this is not the only time that Bathsheba appears in Scripture. When the question of succession comes after David, Bathsheba wields power, Bathsheba helps to bring her son Solomon to the throne, even though he is the younger son. Bathsheba herself is presented sitting on a throne beside him as she receives requests from nobles and princes. Bathsheba is one of four women named in the lineage of Jesus: the wife of Uriah and the mother of Solomon.
I say this because I want you to remember that Bathsheba’s story doesn’t end here and because I find it easier to look at difficult things when I know that’s not how it ends. But what we hear in this story is that Bathsheba, a married woman, existed in a body and the powerful man saw. There is no indication in this passage that David and Bathsheba were star-crossed lovers, whatever the novelizations might have you believe. They don’t share poetic words. There are other stories in the Bible that show people falling in love, their hearts soaring, their souls bound together, and there are other parts, even in the book of Samuel, that do so. But that’s not what we see here. There are other parts in the book of Samuel that read as apologies for David, justifying his actions and saying that he is not to blame, even when it seems a little suspicious that all of the other potential heirs for the throne happen to die while David is there.
This story, however, doesn’t try to justify David; this story seems to pick out the plainest verbs it can find. Bathsheba’s only actions in this story, after David spots her, are showing up to the palace and coming home. In this story, Bathsheba has voiced only two words in Hebrew: “I’m pregnant.” The story doesn’t say whether Bathsheba said “yes” or “no” in some ways, because no question is implied. She was spotted, collected by the guards to come before the king, the highest power in the land, who we learn holds her husband’s life and body in his hands, and clearly holds her own. And you can argue about the decree of brutality, but she was here under threat with the powers of the kingdom behind them and I can see no space for her to say “no.” In this story, Bathsheba is a victim of David’s abuse of power. She becomes pregnant and when her husband is called back to sleep with her to cover over David’s crime, when he will not her husband is killed. And then Bathsheba is made to marry the man who wronged her and the child she will bear dies. And yet, after all of this, we will still paint Bathsheba without her clothes on. After all this, we make her an object of shame and of lust, implying that she was bathing at a powerful man. We paint her in a way that makes it seem that she somehow deserves the terrible things that befall her.
And so for me, no. I do not want to minimize the pain Bathsheba bore, the trauma inflicted and the profound exploitation, abuse and violence of a powerful king. But I also refuse to let this moment be the only one Bathsheba is defined by, for she is not the worst thing that is happened to her. Bathsheba does not deserve to be treated like this. And so I do not remember Bathsheba as artists do, her body caught in David’s gaze. I remember Bathsheba fully clothed in grace. Bathsheba, whose voice shapes the future of empires and the fate of God’s people. Bathsheba, who has the power to speak and sit in a place of honor, for Bathsheba’s story does not end here with wailing and tears, for she was as ever a child of God, worthy of love, clothed in the goodness of God that no shame of this world can touch. Amen.
2 Samuel 11: 26-12:10, 13
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.
13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan’s words have power, and they are most likely the powers that get his head cut off. Nathan is the prophet for the king who has done profound wrong, sin and evil, and now Nathan has to figure out what to do. Looking at history as his guide, his options are terrible. At this time in Israel there is a king and the king has a prophet to tell them the will of God. And sometimes these prophets tell the king exactly what the king wants to hear, which is a good way to stay in power, to stay with a paycheck and be excoriated by scriptures for the history of that time. There are countless scriptures where they look back on prophets with disdain who promised peace, peace, where there was no peace. Sometimes the prophets, instead, tell the truth, tell the truth a king does not want to hear, most likely of the upcoming doom, destruction and judgment. This often leads to a rather short life for the prophet. There is a reason that Jesus would later lament, as he enters Jerusalem, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophet and stones those who are sent to it.”
So here you are, Nathan, before a king who has profoundly abused his power. He has abused a woman and sentenced an innocent man to his death to cover his own offense. What do you do? The thing that would make the most sense would be to stay silent, to say that kings will be kings, to say that this is how business is done, to find some sort of terrible justification or just not look too closely or dig too deep. The other option would be to come in swinging, to tell it like it is, upbraid him up one side and down the other and expect that the king will likely lose his temper and you will likely lose your head. So what does Nathan do? He starts by the relationship he has with David: he starts with a story that calls upon David’s sense of justice. It’s easiest to affirm justice when you are railing about how someone else has done something bad. So this is what Nathan does: Nathan comes and tells a story about how there are two men, a rich one who has everything and a poor one who only has one little ewe lamb that is much beloved and sits at the table. And so, when a traveler comes to town, what happens but the rich man takes the little ewe lamb of the poor one and cooks it for dinner. David is incensed and has big ideas of what he will do to this terrible person until Nathan turns around and says to the king, in the fabulous line, “You are the man.” This is brilliant and profoundly brave. Aside from the fact that Nathan is apparently comparing Bathsheba to a lamb that is cooked, Nathan is calling David back to a sense of moral reality. Nathan starts with David’s sense of justice and affirms it, even until David finds that moment when it turns and he finds that he himself has done something wrong. It is a really hard thing to tell the truth to someone you know and are invested in. It can feel like the only way to keep a relationship is to carefully avoid talking about the one thing that keeps taking up more and more space in the room. It is very hard to tell your Aunt that you love that the thing she just said smacks of a bit of racism. It is a very hard thing to say to an employer that a practice they have been doing for years is unethical. It is even a very hard thing to tell a friend that they’re being a jerk. They will rarely receive such news with thanks and gratitude.
But here’s the thing that is important and hard, that if you are in relationship with anyone that the relationship cannot exist without truth. They aren’t in opposition to say that being in a relationship and truth are actually the only way you can stay, that relationship can give you the space where truth can be heard in a different way and not be discounted and that once a truth has been told and is sitting there, lying on the table in all of its ugliness, then there’s a chance that in relationship you can say, “Okay, but what comes next?”
With David and Nathan we are talking about sins as big as rape and murder, so we’re not just going to magically make things disappear. But this is how it would start: with someone in power recognizing that they’ve done something wrong and feeling a sense of guilt and of shame. That is a place where something could start. David was a king and his words had power; he did not need to lift a sword to make someone do something. He just needed to ask and request and write a letter and yet, because of his power, each of these words held a threat. He held within those words the power to control someone’s body, someone’s life and someone’s death. Because power doesn’t look like power; it doesn’t always end with “or else,” and it doesn’t need to. But Nathan’s words have power, too. Nathan’s words have the power to name the humanity of one who has been demeaned. Nathan’s words have the power to call to account one who seems beyond any power of this world. Nathan’s words have the power to use the authority he has been given to remind of God’s justice, to return to the pains of God’s people. Nathan’s words have the power to call someone back to the justice that God has already laid on their hearts and expand to the reaches of their compassion. Nathan’s words have the power to bring the one who has wronged to recognize the wrong in their actions, which isn’t the end but in a world that is cruel and callous, using its energies only to justify and defend, to build up their own towers of self righteousness, even such a tiny start and acknowledgement from the person that they have guilt. Even that feels like a relief.
We are here because we are voices that have power. We are here because God has laid upon our hearts a compassion for this world, a justice and a truth. In your life your voice matters to those around you. May we have the courage to have the conversations that need to be had. May we have the courage to name for ourselves the places where we have fallen short of God’s mercy and justice. May we have the courage to name those places where God is calling us to use our voices of power for those who have none. May God’s justice, truth, love and mercy be with us all. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2018. All rights reserved.