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Bathsheba’s Lament

2 Samuel 11 – 12:7a

Our scripture starts today with 2 Samuel 11, verse 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. 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. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 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. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

The story is long so I am going to summarize the next few paragraphs. David decided that the best way to cover up the problem was to bring Bathsheba’s husband Uriah back from the battle; that way the pregnancy could be pinned on Uriah even if the math didn’t quite work. David didn’t count on Uriah being noble. As a soldier whose comrades were still in battle, he refused to go home and lie with his wife. So the next night David got Uriah drunk, thinking that surely his noble intentions would be suppressed by alcohol. Still Uriah did not go home to his wife.

So David sent Uriah back to the front along with a message to the commander Joab: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” Joab did as he was told; however, in order to make sure Uriah died, others died, too. Verse 26 says: “When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 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.”

May God guide our understanding of these words.

Near the end of the book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the Weasley family is gathered around the hospital bed of their son Bill. He was savagely attacked during a battle, leaving him with gashes all over his face. His brother Ron, we are told, “was gazing down into his brother’s face as though he could somehow force him to mend just by staring.”

I feel like that’s what I have done with our lectionary text this week. All week I have stared at it, wanting to mend it, to heal it, wanting to transform it, wanting to give it the ability to heal others. But the power of my gaze is no match for the power of King David.

And neither was Bathsheba. For centuries—millennia, probably—this story has been read as a story about adultery. King David saw Bathsheba naked, lusted after her, had sex with her, then tried to cover up the scandal. I look back at classic commentaries like the Matthew Henry Commentary, which was written in the early 1800s, and I am not surprised by what I find there. The focus is on David’s sin of adultery, with Bathsheba getting some of the blame: “He lay with her, she too easily consenting, because he was a great man.”[1] I expect that from that era. I don’t like it, but I expect it.

Frederick Buechner, a well-respected Christian writer, published a book in 1979 in which he described the relationship by saying “David was carrying on with Bathsheba,” calling it a “scandalous liaison,” and calling Bathsheba a “beautiful but conniving” woman.

But many views have changed since the 1970s. To modern ears, this is not a story of adultery. This is a story of rape. Bathsheba had absolutely no power in this situation. She was a woman—a possession of her husband and a subject of the king. She did not have the power to consent. There is no evidence that she had any choice in the matter. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible says that “David sent messengers to get her,” but a better translation of “get” is “take.” He sent messengers to take her. By force.

David has been described by some scholars as “a collector of women.” Before Bathsheba he already had seven wives, plus servants and slaves and prostitutes with whom “Israelite men could have sex without consequence.”[2] But he wanted Bathsheba, and accustomed as he was to getting everything he wanted, he took her. Because he could. And throughout the centuries, few have acknowledged her pain.

Dr. John C. Holbert, Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, wrote a commentary on this text last year. He quotes the scriptures with his own sarcastic insertions. “When the wife of Uriah … heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him (one can imagine that this time of mourning went on not a second beyond the cultural demand)…. When the mourning was over (it must have been genuinely exhausting to put this front of tears and wailing since the only goal was further lust with the king).”

This commentary was written, not forty years ago, but in July of last year. This esteemed scholar—whom I have often read as I prepare for my sermons—simply does not get it. I will say it again: this was not adultery. This was rape. And we have no reason to believe that Bathsheba was not truly mourning her husband. And then she had to marry her rapist.

I can hear the questions, familiar because of how many times I’ve heard them in news stories. What was she wearing? Oh, she was naked? Well then what did she expect? She was kind of asking for it! How much had she had to drink? And what about her sexual history? How many men had she slept with prior to seducing the king?

I hope you are hearing the echoes of the rape culture in our own society, where a person who is raped is asked questions that are intended to blame the victim, questions that are irrelevant, and would never be asked with a different crime. For the record, I could explain why Bathsheba was naked and how we know this wasn’t out of the ordinary. But I won’t—because that just feeds into the belief that we have the right to ask.

I have stared at this story all week, trying to make to make it mend by the sheer force of my gaze. I want to heal it for the sake of all victims of sexual violence. I want to heal it for all of us because this is our sacred text and we already knew King David was deeply flawed, but he is nonetheless held up as the greatest king in the history of Israel. We are told that Jesus was from the house of David, a descendent of David and Bathsheba. And what do we do with all that? Some would argue that the end justifies the means, or merely that we should focus on the good that ultimately came out of the bad. But I won’t say that because no victim wants to hear it. I’m not saying God doesn’t bring good out of bad, but it never justifies rape. And our society has a huge problem with justifying rape.

I have stared at it, and I cannot make it heal … especially not for Bathsheba. All I can say to her is that I’m sorry you lived in a time when people who had more power than you could take your body and your soul. All I can do is say I’m sorry.

But that’s not all we can do for our daughters and granddaughters. Saying “I’m sorry you live in such a world” is not enough. Nor is that enough to say to our sons and grandsons.

Now, let me pause here to say that females are more often victims of rape and abuse, but men are victims, too. Sexual violence against men is not as common but is hidden even more often than with women. Statistics alone tell me that there are both women and men here today who have been assaulted. To all of you, let me say that I am sorry for your pain. I am sorry these things happened to you. And I’m sorry that worship didn’t come with a “trigger warning” this morning. I don’t know what happened to you, but I can tell you it wasn’t your fault.

But I also know that, statistically speaking, there are people here today who have been perpetrators. I will not undermine your victims’ pain by offering you my forgiveness on their behalf. Forgiveness is a deeply personal matter that takes a great deal of time, and I am not suggesting that anyone here must offer forgiveness prematurely. But I do know that God’s forgiveness is available. And I do know that the majority of perpetrators were also, themselves, victims. So I am sorry for the pain you experienced, pain that led you to hurt others.

But we have to do more than say “I’m sorry.” We have to change the system. We have to change the culture. We have to teach our children that they cannot take what doesn’t belong to them just because they have the power. We have to teach them to respect their own bodies and the bodies of others. We have to teach consent. We have to teach them to take responsibility for their actions, which they cannot do if we are constantly rescuing them from their mistakes or excusing their behavior. We have to stand up to a culture that excuses horrific behavior as “twenty minutes of action.” We have to stand up to power.

And that’s what the prophet Nathan does in the next portion of our story for today. I will pick up the text again at verse 27 and continuing into chapter 12.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 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. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 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. 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.” 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; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

Let’s set aside for a moment that when Nathan confronts King David, he does so with an analogy that equates Bathsheba with livestock. At least it was a beloved sheep, and not a cantankerous old goat. Still, Nathan is the very definition of a prophet—one who speaks truth to power. And he is wise—he speaks it in a way that tricks David into seeing his own sin. David says the man who has done this horrible thing should be forced to repay the debt and then be killed. Nathan says, “You are that man.”

As much as some of us might identify with the victim in the story, the prophet Nathan also forces us to identify with David. “This is the gospel focus: you are the man…. The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never [just] a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never [just] a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done. It’s both easy and common to lose this focus, to let the gospel blur into generalized pronouncements, … religious indignation. That’s what David is doing in this story, listening to his pastor preach a sermon about somebody else and getting all worked up about this someone else’s sin…. That kind of religious response is worthless…. It’s the religion of moral judgmentalism, self-righteous finger-pointing, the religion of accusation and blame.”[3]

Even with this story, we can’t just point the finger. “Most of us don’t rape and murder, but in our own ways we all use people. In our minds we make them less than real, less than whole, so that all they represent to us is either what we want or what we fear. Reduced to objects, we use them as it seems to us they were meant to be used. It seems right to us. Power distorts our vision. It is only with love that we can truly see people, see reality.”[4]

A professor in seminary once said that we need different theories of atonement depending on whether we are a victim or a perpetrator. The perpetrator needs to be told that God offers forgiveness; the victim needs to be told that God offers healing. But I argued then and now that most of us are both. Even as a member of a marginalized community, I still have so much white, middle class privilege that I reek with it. Yes, I am a victim, and I am a survivor, and I am a perpetrator. And I am loved. I am loved into healing. I am loved into forgiveness.

The text says, “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” I seriously hope this is a major understatement. I don’t want the Lord to be displeased. I want the Lord to be furious! But we cannot put our contemporary understandings back onto an ancient text and expect ancient people to operate by our mores and then dismiss the scripture when they don’t. So as much as I want to hurl this story far away from me because I cannot heal it, I know this to be true: The writers of the story may not have recognized it as rape, but God knew. God knew Bathsheba. God knew her heart. God knew that generations would blame her but God did not. God knew, and God wept … just as God weeps today for every person who is a victim of violence. And God weeps for every person who was wounded into committing acts of violence. And God weeps even for unrepentant people who are so far from God’s intention for them that they hurt others without shame. And God weeps for us when we stand silent in the face of injustice of every kind. God knows, and God weeps. So please join me in the Unison Prayer of Response printed in your bulletin.

 

PRAYER OF RESPONSE (Unison)

God, we confess our abuse of power, our blindness to our selfishness and fear. We confess that we sometimes see others not as real people but as projections of our fears and desires. We confess that we are often unaware of the power we wield, the privilege we abuse, the people we hurt. We ask forgiveness, and we pray that you will open our eyes.

God, we acknowledge that we, too, are wounded. We are victims and survivors who bear the scars of evil intentions, thoughtless acts, and careless attitudes. We ask for healing, and for the courage to speak truth to power.

We pray for healing, courage, and grace for victims of violence. We pray for all those who are dehumanized so that others might feel secure. We pray for the healing of our worship of power. We pray for the gifts of humility, honesty, and compassion. We pray for the mending of our world. Amen.[5]

[1] Matthew Henry Commentary on 2 Samuel.

[2] Gafney, Wil. “Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-5.” www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2535

 

[3] Eugene Peterson, as quoted by Scott Hoezee, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12b/?type=old_testament_lectionary

[4] Steve Garnaas Holmes. http://unfoldinglight.net/?p=1359

[5] Ibid with my own additions and edits.

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