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Things Taken

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.