A sermon by Jaylene Johnson
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The last time I had the privilege of preaching, the text dealt with sexual immorality. Tonight, “adultery” and murder-lovely, light topics for summer study and contemplation! However, I’m glad to keep the series from Samuel going while Jamie is away, and while this story is challenging, perhaps it reflects back something of our selves worth examining.
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Over the past several weeks, I’ve been watching the extended version of LOTR with my nephew and niece. Tolkien is very clear in the theme that power corrupts, even the most stalwart heart. It also tempts and deceives, and weakens us if it draws us into isolation rather than community and service. Thomas Traherne affirms this in Landscapes of Glory, writing: “We infinitely wrong ourselves by laziness and isolation” This, to me, is the starting point for the message tonight and, I would venture to say, where David’s decline as a ruler begins.
“It was the time of year when kings go to war.” (2 Samuel 11:1) Yet, David was at his palace in Jerusalem. He had sent all of Israel – all of his warriors and able-bodied men, except some servants, into battle; his friends and comrades – people who had served alongside him through his entire military career, and even before he came to rule. They were fighting; he was in bed. Verse two of our text tells us he rose from his bed in the late afternoon. This is the stereotypical musician! Perhaps the harp-playing “jam” session got a little crazy the night before! This David is a sharp contrast to the David we have encountered to this point, full of vigor, killing lions with his bare hands, bravely facing Goliath, skilled soldier, respected leader, surrounded by loyal men and winning campaigns, dancing in the wide open in praise of God, surrounded by the throngs of his community. While it is understandable that even the greatest leaders need to take sabbatical leave sometimes, the author makes it clear that this was not the season for rest. There is no legitimate reason for David to be staying back, and it would have been expected that he would be on the field. This is the first hint at a David who is beginning to stumble, using his power inappropriately.
So, David, rising from his bed in the late afternoon, is out on his rooftop terrace. This terrace would have overlooked the entire city of Jerusalem. It is from this vantage point that he sees Bathsheba “bathing”.
“David and Bathsheba”, the 1951 Hollywood movie version of this story, offers a ridiculous and inaccurate depiction. A young and perfectly made-up Rita Hayworth fluffs her hair, while being attended by African American servants behind a folding screen, while Gregory Peck, as David, lets his gaze linger, having just had a marital spat with his wife Mical. The only true piece here is David’s lingering gaze. It’s a fallacy to think that humans don’t appreciate a beautiful body, even to the point of arousal – but there is always a choice, and David, stumbling a little further, looks long enough to spark full-blown lust. He inquires about her. Though she is the daughter of a noble family and the wife of Uriah, a loyal captain from his army, whom David likely knew, or at least knew of, he sends messengers to “take” her, and she comes to David.
The movie goes on to depict Bathsheba as a sexually neglected wife who is “rescued” from her loveless marriage by David, whom she has loved from afar.
Artists have also had an interesting take on Bathsheba, notably Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba at Her Bath”. In the painting she is holding a letter, presumably from David, and perhaps implying some sort of “moral dilemma” for Bathsheba (Sluijter and van Rijn). 15th century artist, Jean Bourdichon’s “Bathsheba Bathing” depicts her as an unabashed seductress (www.getty.edu). In fact, over the centuries, Bathsheba has been a controversial figure in art and in biblical study, with many blaming her, at least in part, for the adulterous affair with the king.
I would suggest that this stems from a need to absolve David, or at least “cut him some slack”. David, our beloved David, writer of beautiful Psalms and “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) – we don’t like to believe that those we admire, our heros, are capable of dark deeds, and we prove it time and again. The teller of this story, however, does not give him any excuse, and nowhere in scripture is Bathsheba credited with his sin. In fact, the last verse of our text states God’s displeasure with what David did, with no mention of Bathsheba’s role in it.
Here’s the thing: “bathing” in Bathsheba’s case was “ceremonial cleansing”, something required of women by the Law, after her monthly period. It’s unlikely that she was completely naked, but rather covered in some way, and sponging herself. This would have taken place at an acceptable location for such cleansing, probably in her family’s private courtyard. She very likely would have thought that David would be away with the men, as kings were, weakening the argument that she somehow knew he might or would see her from his rooftop. When she was “summoned”, what choice did she have? Did a woman, even if married, disobey her king? When she was before him, did she have the option to say no to sex? Even if the sex was “consensual”, this was not sex between equals, and in the way that we now understand this dynamic, we could say David assaulted her. Additionally, There is no indication that he wanted an ongoing relationship with her. He looked, he lusted, he took her, he discarded her – because he could. Who could stop him? David had isolated himself in his position of power, his mind not upon that which it should have been, which was leading his army. One might even say his idleness left him weak to temptation and sin. We are seeing a David that is hardly recognizable from the David we have come to know. He drew Bathsheba into his sin by having sex with her, and his sin will continue to grow, drawing more people into this tragic story.
When he finds out that Bathsheba is pregnant, that what he has done in darkness will come to light, he manipulates and schemes. He sends for Uriah under the pretense that he needs him to report on the war effort, a task generally assigned to an errand boy. Given Uriah’s status and rank, this was a feeble ploy, and one that would, in the least, “raise eyebrows”. One commentary I read suggested Uriah knew what had happened; if word had made its way to him, it could be why, even at David’s urging to go home and “wash his feet”, an idiom of the time implying “eat and rest”, and at David’s “gift”, Uriah slept amongst David’s servants at the palace gate (www.bible.org). These servants could verify that he did not return to his wife, leaving David “on the hook”. Spies inform David that Uriah did not go home, so he asks him about it directly. Imagine the tension between the two men, given Uriah’s reply, knowing full-well where David ought to be, and perhaps even what David was up to: Uriah says 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.” (2 Samuel 11:11 NRSV). David, however, remains undaunted, getting Uriah drunk in an attempt to weaken his resolve, but he again stays with David’s other servants. How striking that this Hittite, a non-Jew, demonstrated more righteousness, honour and fealty than the King of Israel, appointed by God.
Shamefully, David has Uriah killed in battle, now drawing his cousin, Joab, the commander of his army, into his sin, causing him to stumble as well. At David’s instruction, Joab put Uriah at the front line where the battle was heaviest and the opposition strongest, then withdrew support. Joab’s report back to David, announcing Uriah’s death, also describes the resulting death of other loyal and faithful soldiers. This was all part of a ploy to make Uriah’s death look like just a part of war. David’s response to this report again demonstrates how very much he has changed as king. He shows no remorse, though these men had served alongside of him and were not his target; they were collateral damage. “Don’t worry about it Joab, people die in battle”. (2 Samuel 11:25) He eventually takes Bathsheba into his own household, as his wife.
The author of first and second Samuel neither entirely idealizes nor entirely vilifies David, but rather tells the story of a very human being, corrupted by power. I wonder if we might examine the way we sometimes idolize or demonize powerful people in our world. Neither is becoming of followers of Jesus. They are fallible human beings, as are we all. Are we not also called into community with them? What does or might it look like? We can certainly pray. Also, David’s “fall”, in my view, did not begin with “adultery”, but rather with his decision to not be where he was called to be. His idleness, and isolation from community and service, made him vulnerable to the sins of selfishness, lust and pride. Furthermore, there is no fixing sin, save the mercy of God. Trying to cover our own sin, as David did, invariably leads to more sin; manipulation, deception, even causing further, devastating harm to others. Finally, though this is a difficult truth, it is possible for us to do things that displease God. “…the thing that David [beloved David] had done, displeased the Lord.” (2 Samuel 11:27) Thankfully, neither David’s story nor our own stories of sin, end with God’s displeasure. God ever seeks to redeem and to restore…But for tonight, at least in David’s case, the story pauses here.