Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 25th of Seventh Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: II Samuel 11:1-15, NRSV:
1 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; 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.”
Pieter Pietersz Lastman. King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,1611.
Good morning, Friends!
Today we’re continuing with a series on the story of David, from First and Second Samuel. And today I need to apologize, for with the way I’ve fit this short series into the summer preaching schedule, we’re not going to get a very expansive view of his life. The last time, we reviewed the very beginning of his story, when he is anointed by the prophet Samuel—and today I’ve catapulted us into the middle of Second Samuel, and the middle of David’s kingship. We’ve skipped the entirety of the struggle of Saul, the previous king, to retain the throne in the face of David’s anointing—in the face of David being chosen by God; we’ve skipped David’s famous defeat of Goliath; his eventual ascension, and his bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem; we know nothing of his relationships with Michal, Jonathan, and Abigail, to name just a few of the other folks in the story. So this is a very compressed and limited view of his story. There’s much more to him, and if you have the time, it’s worthwhile to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with the intervening parts of I & II Samuel.
Now, as I said last time, David is a deeply flawed character. I can't say that strongly enough, just in case you were wondering. We are not meant to draw the lesson, “go and do likewise” from almost any part of his story. And today's passage is perhaps the clearest demonstration of this; today's is a doozy.
The passage begins “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel” to besiege the Ammonites (v1). In the spring of the year, the rains are ending, the roads are drying up—it's time for more war. It's almost as if a biologist (or, if you remember “Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom”, it's almost as if Marlin Perkins) is describing the natural behavior of some organism: “In the spring, Israelite kings go forth to battle, as they have always done since time immemorial...” The natural behavior of the king is to wage war. Although we note that David himself does not go out; instead he entrusts the job to his general Joab. This is a fairly new thing for him. Previously, David has been the one at the front of the battle lines, but not this spring.
Of course, in the natural world, springtime is also the time for mating, and that is where the story turns next: David sees Bathsheba, sees her beauty, and takes her.
What should we say about Bathsheba here? In the history of Christian interpretation of this story, there have been some who have painted Bathsheba as the temptress, as the one who forces David into sin by exposing her nakedness to him. But there's really no justification for that interpretation. We note that the story tells us nothing like that. In fact, the narrator spends almost no time on what's going on inside Bathsheba’s head, at least in this part of the story. We learn more about her later, but here it's easy to read things into her character, because we haven't been told much about her other than her name, and that she is beautiful.
But we can observe a few things: first, she's bathing, probably on the roof of her house or in the inner court. Houses in that time were often built around an open space in the middle that was open to the sky. The roof was also a place where you could go to get some degree of privacy. No one but the king, who is up high in his palace, would have been able to see her. It would have been entirely safe for her to do this and in fact it was routine, especially in a time when most of the men are out on the battlefield, in the spring.
Second, her bath is likely a part of a ritual purification. Later in the passage, it says that when she comes to David—when he commands her to come—she was “purifying herself after her period” (v4). So we can conclude that she observes the Law. Unlike David, she is keeping the covenant. She's following the rules.
And again, we don't hear much from her so we don't know much about what's going on inside her head. Most of her agency in this part of the story is in three words in English, “I am pregnant” (v5). That is the sum total of her message to David. It is to the point, and direct; she does not begin “O King, I am pregnant”; she does not do any of the flattery that we often hear in an address to a powerful person. It's simply a matter of the fact, and the implication is, perhaps, “Now what?”
Then we have to consider: if anyone else other than the king had behaved towards her in this way, would we not consider her a rape victim? The sin of David is often characterized as adultery, but I think there's more to it—well, there is more to it.
Once she tells him that she is pregnant, David contrives to have Uriah become the father by various subterfuges. He calls Uriah back from the front on the pretext of wanting to hear how the battle is going. He encourages Uriah to sleep in his own house, with Bathsheba. Uriah, by the way, is the ideal soldier here—he says, “why should I go to my comfortable house and enjoy the presence of my wife and all the comforts of home, when the Ark of the Covenant, and the general and all of the generals’ soldiers are in tents?” So that doesn't work. David then gets him drunk, but that doesn't work.
So the next best option, apparently, is to have him killed in battle. David gives orders to Joab to have Uriah put in the thickest part of the fighting. And there's this poignant moment when David hands the instructions to Joab to Uriah (on the front of the bulletin there's a painting which depicts this, if you’ll excuse the very Western European rendering); but—that man is receiving his own death sentence to carry it to his commanding officer, not knowing what he conveys. If you read the rest of chapter 15, you'll see that this subterfuge is effective; messengers from the front later confirm to David that Uriah has fallen in battle.
I said before that the sin of David here is often characterized as adultery, when in fact it's more like rape. But that's not the only thing that's going on here, and the question for me is, which of these sins do we consider the worst?
Walter Brueggemann, the Hebrew Bible scholar, points out that David has violated at least three of the Ten Commandments here: covetousness, adultery, and murder. When we think of this story, which comes first to our minds? Do we think of David and Bathsheba, or do we think of David and Uriah? Do we think of the rape, or the murder, first?
Our culture has differential attitudes towards sex and violence; I think we see that in (how we read) this passage. One question is, which is harder for us to explain to children? I was pretty nervous when Addie and Flynn were still in the room because I wasn't sure if their parents knew that we were going to do this passage today. (To a parent: I tried to give you guys a warning, but I'm not sure if if you heard...) So we have differential attitudes, and oftentimes it's the sex that upsets us more when the violence, I think, is even worse.
There's a saying. “it's not the crime, it's the cover-up.” I think this originated in the Watergate era, in regard to President Nixon's efforts to conceal his involvement in the break-in. That part of what the President did became much more significant in the investigations and in the impeachment hearings that followed, than the first part of the Watergate affair. There's the feeling that it might have been better to come clean, rather than expend so much energy in denying and obscuring. (As fellow Quakers, I think we can all say it would have been better for Richard Nixon to come clean.)
So is David's cover-up worse than what comes before? Some commentators point out that when Joab puts David's order into effect, he sends others to fight alongside Uriah in the most perilous part of the siege of Rabbah. He couldn't just send Uriah himself; he would have had to send other soldiers—that's what a good general does. So more of David's own soldiers die than just Uriah because of what David has done. From that perspective, yes, the cover-up seems much worse than the crime.
And it seems nuts that David would even work so hard to conceal his deed here—after all, he's the king. Can the king not take whatever the king wants? Isn't this exactly what the prophet Samuel warns the people of Israel about at the outset, when this whole business of kingship gets started?
Remember that Samuel is God's representative on the scene in the first part of David's story; he is the one who anoints David king after Saul is displeasing to God, or so the story goes. Prior to Saul, the Biblical narrative tells us that Israel had prophets and judges, but never a king. This is based on theological insistence that Israel's God was also Israel's king. They did not need a human ruler because of the close relationship—the covenant—between the people and their God.
But in First Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and say, “we want to be like the other nations! Give us a king to rule over us.” Samuel prays, and God basically says to him, “Well, they've quit listening to me, so why should they listen to you? Nevertheless, if this is what they want, tell them what they're in for.” So Samuel turns to the people and says, “Okay. But here's what you're going to get if you want a king: The king will take your sons for soldiers. The king will take your daughters for servants. The king will take your lands and your harvests. The king will take just about anything the king wants. And that will be within his right because that's how kingship works.” And still the people say, “We want to be like the other nations! Give us a king to rule over us!”
So they get a king, and that's where we find ourselves with first Saul, and then David.
Where does this story leave us? In just about every respect, David has become the king that Samuel the Prophet warned of. So I think of him at this point in the narrative as really symbolic of his empire—he is more than simply a sinful man, a man whose appetites he can't control, or whose appetites lead him to actions that are lamentable.
I think the story speaks to our present condition at least in what it tells us about the urge to take. Our consumer economy is predicated on constant new acquisition. All the ads seem to say, “You've already got one, but why not get a new one?” “If four is good, five or ten must be better!” “Get that new thing!”
What do consumers do? We take.
That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem; some of what we take we need. And when we shop, we're getting something off the shelf that doesn't belong to anyone else (well, I mean, it belongs to the store, but we’re going to pay for it, right?) We’re not grabbing something out of someone else’s hands, depriving them of something precious and unique, the way that David did when he took Bathsheba.
Nevertheless, in today's global economy, as consumers we have increasing access to a wide variety of shiny products whose ingredients come from all over the world, and we really can't tell from where or under what conditions. In that context, there are things that have been taken from others to benefit us. We buy clothes made in sweatshops by workers whose wages have been stolen. We buy cell phones produced with metals from Africa, some of which are mined by armies who use the proceeds to finance war and repression. We buy cosmetics made with palm oil from plantations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, planted on land taken from subsistence farmers.
And increasingly, we’re aware that our story as a nation is in part a history of taking. Africans taken from their native lands and enslaved for generations. Land and livelihoods taken from Native Americans, which, as we've been reminded just recently, included children being taken from their families into the residential school system, where their language and culture, and in some cases, their lives, were taken. As a meeting, we've committed ourselves to knowing this history better and to using that knowledge as a basis for action. Let's keep our eyes on that goal.
Now, clearly, our responsibility is not the same as David's responsibility. We did not make our history, but our history has made us. We did not weave the web, but we are nonetheless enmeshed in it. So none of us is individually responsible as David was. But we are collectively responsible… what we are collectively responsible for, primarily, is to respond together to the difficult realities of our present moment and not to deny them, or attempt to cover them up. And as I’ve said before, part of our collective responsibility is to hear and to heed prophetic voices when they speak in our midst, rather than shutting out or silencing them, so that we might see the way to repentance and repair. This coming Sunday, we'll see how David responded to a prophetic voice when he was called to account, in the next chapter of Second Samuel.
For now, let's focus on what we are hearing from God as we reflect on this part of the story. Let's wait in quiet, listening for the prophetic voice of the inward Christ.
Pieter Pietersz Lastman. King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,1611. Public Domain.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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