David and Bathsheba: a story for our time

Proper 12 B: 2 Samuel 11.1-15.

One reason I love the Scriptures is that they never duck away from the fact that there’s real evil in the world, including in those whom we think of as the best and the brightest. And that thought brings me to our reading for this morning. It’s a story about King David, who is generally regarded as a hero. We all the know the tale of him slaying the mighty warrior Goliath—a classic tale of the underdog pulling it off, the weak outwitting the powerful. David goes on to become in tradition Israel’s greatest ruler. Centuries later, Matthew in his gospel, in what are actually the opening words of the entire New Testament, will call Jesus “son of David”— that is, a true heir to the royalty of Israel, the ideal king—even before he calls him “son of Abraham”—that is, a true Israelite, a true Jew. (Jesus himself, to be sure, raised questions about the appropriateness of calling God’s Messiah “son of David”—see Mark 12.35-27— but that’s another story.) So David is a hero. But David is certainly not a perfect human being, not even close, and the Bible makes no bones about that, either. 

In our Old Testament reading for last week, we heard about God’s promise to David. It began with David settled and secure in his kingship, but aware of the irony that “I live in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent” (2 Sam. 7.2). Therefore David proposed to build “a house” for the LORD—that is, a temple. At first Nathan the prophet approved of this

“Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.’” (7.3).

But that night God’s word came to Nathan, and he was sent back to David with a very different message of which the heart was this: David had proposed to build a “house” for God. That was not going to happen—for two reasons. First, because God hadn’t asked for it (7.6-7) and second, because it was God (not, by implication, David) who would uphold both David and God’s people. What was going to happen was this: that God would build a “house” for David (2 Sam. 7.11).

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and                                                                                           he shall be a son to me.” (2 Sam. 7.12-14a)

Here was an extraordinary promise. God has made a commitment to the family of David that is much like God’s commitment to Israel: which is to say, the family of David will never be forgotten or forsaken by God. That doesn’t mean, of course, that individual members of the family can do what they like. Like Israel itself, the Davidic king is still subject to God’s laws. Nowhere is it suggested that he may ignore the commandments given at Sinai. On the contrary, when individual kings ignore God’s justice and commit iniquity, in other words, when they screw up, they will be punished—even David himself. So God’s word of promise concludes with a solemn and no doubt necessary warning:   

“When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.” (7.14b)

Nevertheless, come what may, God will remain faithful to the house of David:

“I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (7.15-16)

Now if you are reading this note with last Sunday’s lectionary reading in front of you, you will notice that I have actually gone beyond the place where the reading stopped. These last words, the words of warning, were omitted, so that our reading ended simply with the promise, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”—without the warning. We may well wonder, Why? It can hardly be an accident. Our compilers actually had to end the reading in the middle of a verse in order to achieve it, so they surely meant it. Was it a policy to shield us from the thought that David would ever do anything wrong? If so, it was sadly mistaken, because David DOES do something wrong, and big time. And we hear about it in the reading for this Sunday. 

David and Bathsheba! It’s a story that’s been romanticised over time into a great love story: and the classic 1957 film David and Bathsheba, with Rita Hayworth and Gregory Peck in the title roles, played right along with that. But the Bible is much blunter than Hollywood, and we can forget all about “romance” if we are going to be faithful to the actual Biblical story as we hear it told this morning.  

It begins, says the writer of 2 Samuel, “In the spring of the year” (11.1a). Well, that sounds romantic enough doesn’t it? Stagione d’amore—the season of love. “Sweet lovers love the Spring”—that’s what Shakespeare said, isn’t it? No wonder David and Bathsheba fell in love! Who can blame them?

But “seasons of love” aren’t what our author is talking about, as he at once makes clear. “In the spring of the year,” he says, “the time when kings go out to battle”— that’s what he is talking about. In the ancient world springtime, with the whole summer ahead, was the obvious time for a king who had military targets in view to begin a campaign. And David has several such targets: the Ammonites need subduing, and so does the city of Rabbah. Except that David, now that he is the great king in Jerusalem, with absolute power, and the beloved of God, no longer has to see to such things himself.  

“David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” (11.1b)

Does David then stay at home because he’s burdened with affairs of state? Apparently not, or not too much. One surely is right to hear a note of irony in our author’s voice as he continues, “It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch”—a lengthy siesta! That, it appears, is the “affair of state” that’s been occupying David the king today. And now he takes a stroll, “and walking about on the roof of the king’s house, it happened that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful” (11.2). 

What happens then? A lot! We notice that in every significant verb that follows it is David—strong, powerful, secure David—who is the doer, the mover, the actor, the shaker, no one else. And what is it he does? First—

“David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’” (11.3)

Uriah the Hittite is a soldier in Israel’s army, fighting Israel’s battles. And he isn’t just any soldier. We read elsewhere that he is actually one of David’s elite—“the Thirty”—the most trusted and valiant (2 Sam. 23.39). So what does David do? He’s a man of action still, just as he was in the days when he led a tiny warrior band against heavy odds—except that now it’s all for himself: which brings us to the next significant verbs:

“So David sent messengers and took her (וַיִּקָּחֶהָ). And she came to him and he lay with her.” (11.4a)

And that’s it. To call it “stark” is almost an understatement. There’s no conversation. No hint even of mutual attraction. David is Mr Big, and what Mr Big wants he takes. This is not romance It’s not even illicit romance like in the Rita Hayworth and Gregory Peck movie. It’s just lust: “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame” as Shakespeare put it.

“Then she returned to her house.” (11.4c) 

Well, of course she does. When it’s over, the girl can be sent home. Job done. Mission accomplished: “before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream”—just as Shakespeare said. All is under control.

But there are some things even Mr Big can’t control. There was a warning note, actually, and our storyteller mentioned it, although David was at the time too full of what he wanted (the “joy proposed”) to consider it. The warning note was, “now she was purifying herself after her period” (11.4b). Of course the ancients knew just as well as we do that that was the time when intercourse was most likely to lead to conception.

So now we finally get three verbs of which the woman is very clearly the subject:

“The woman conceived. And she sent, and she told David, ‘I’m pregnant.’” (11.5)

Now that’s a problem. That’s something not even Mr Big can control. 

But David is still the man of action, and he acts swiftly:

“So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going.” (11.6-7) 

Prettily he plays the good commander, interested in the welfare of his troops!

“Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’” (11.8a)

—an expression almost certainly carrying a sexual innuendo. So— 

“Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.” (11.8b) 

All will be well. Uriah will sleep with Bathsheba. No one will know whose the baby it is, since fortunately we haven’t yet invented DNA testing, and David will be off the hook.

“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.” (11.9)

That was something David hadn’t bargained for. 

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?” 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.” 

That ought to have struck David to the heart! And the fact that it doesn’t shows just how much he has changed from the man we heard about last week in 2 Samuel 7—the man who wanted to build a Temple for the God of Israel! Do you remember what David said then?—almost exactly what Uriah is saying now. “See now,” he said, “I’m living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent”—that seemed to him a terrible thing. But that was then. And this is now. And now it’s only loyal Uriah who thinks like that. David now seems quite happy not only to be in his house of cedar while the Ark is in the fields of battle, he’s also happy to take a the wife of another man while he’s doing it, and that a man to whom he is bound by vows of fealty and honour as his liege lord. 

But David isn’t yet out of options. 

“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, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk.” (11.12-13a)

Surely Uriah will be unable now to resist the thought of going in to his beautiful wife? But Uriah is dutiful, drunk or sober—

“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.” (11.13b)

We assume David’s spies tell him this. And now, surely, he is out of options? Well, he isn’t. He has one more card to play, and none of the trivial considerations that might cause lesser men to hesitate—such as loyalty or decency or God’s prohibition of murder—are going to stop him from playing it.

“In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 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.’” (11.14-15) 

It’s a death warrant. This is something of a pivotal moment in 2 Samuel. David has gone from hero to villain, from defender of his people to oppressor, from king to tyrant. He’s become exactly the king about whom the prophet Samuel warned when he counselled Israel against having a king at all: a king who “will take [יִקָּח]” whatever he wants (1 Sam. 8.11-17). And God help anyone who even unwittingly stands in his way. 

At this point the reading appointed for us by the lectionary ends—as it seems to me, in the middle of the story. Perhaps that’s because the lectionary compliers wished to spare us the full implications of what David had done? I don’t know. At any rate, I do know that the author of 2 Samuel had no such scruples, and since our loyalty to holy Scripture must exceed even our loyalty to the framers the lectionary, neither will I.

Briefly, what follows is that Joab, obedient hatchet man that he is, gets the job done. He orchestrates a deliberately foolish military manoeuvre that leaves Uriah exposed and vulnerable, and Uriah is killed, along with several other of David’s servants—other faithful soldiers who are also doing their duty by their king. So Bathsheba isn’t the only woman in Israel who is left a widow by that day’s work. But what of it? David’s secret is safe. “Let not this thing displease you,” is his word to his hatchet man when the news arrives (11.25a). What would it matter if an entire platoon were lost? David’s image has been preserved. “The sword devours now one and now another,” he tells Joab by way of comfort (11.25b). And of course that’s true. War is like that. 

But this wasn’t war, was it? It was murder.

The widowed Bathsheba is allowed the seven brief days’ of mourning for her husband that are customary. Then without further delay or preamble, “David sent and took her to his house and she became his wife” (11.27). The Hebrew is blunt, even abrupt: “וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד וַיַּאַסְפָהּ”. We might even translate, “he sent and collected her”—she’s property, previous owner deceased, therefore assigned to the crown. That’s the brutal fact.

I began these notes by saying that one reason I value the Scriptures is because they face the fact that there’s evil in the world. David in this morning’s reading is one with every tyrant and dictator there’s ever been.“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If the author of 2 Samuel hears those words now in heaven, he surely nods and says, “Yes. That’s just what I was saying!” 

The American writer Robert Stone during his brief days in Vietnam during the Vietnam War became aware of an expression  repeatedly used as people talked about the latest element in the horror and devastation that surrounded them. In time they’d come to a point in the conversation where nothing more could be said. So they simply said, “There it is.”, and stopped. But what was the “it”? Thomas Powers suggests “it” was “The thing about which nothing can be done.” I think Powers is right. And people like the person David has become are the ones who give that “nothing” its power. And they don’t even mean to do it. They intend nothing more than to get whatever they want, or to achieve whatever they think should be achieved. And they simply don’t have time to concern themselves about who or what might be hurt in the process.

Stone, of course, wrote about a universe from which (in his view) God was notably absent. The author of 2 Samuel does not. “Let not this thing displease you!” says David to Job. He clearly intends it to be the last word. “Press your attack on the city and overthrow it,” he adds (11.25). In other words, “There are more important things to worry about than the death of Uriah the Hittite. All that’s water under the bridge.” Our author, however, has a different word: “the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.”  That’s all. It’s only a hint. It doesn’t mean that the LORD will intervene directly at this point in the story. But then, the LORD won’t intervene directly even when Jesus the son of God hangs dying upon the cross. The LORD won’t intervene at Auschwitz or Hiroshima or any of the other countless acts of brutality and horror that litter human history. What the hint does mean, however, is that what we have just heard is neither the end of the story nor all that there is to say about it (even though the Davids of this world would like it to be). Our author himself will go on to describe a prophetic confrontation over the affair between David and God’s prophet Nathan. We shall hear about that in our Old Testament reading next week, in what’s surely one of the most powerful pieces of dramatic prose ever written (12.1-25). In the mean time, “The thing that David had done displeased the LORD”. So, yes, there is more to say and no, death will not have the last word. But death has been allowed a word—cold, cynical, worldly wise and brutal—and that, for what it is worth, is what we have just heard.

Christopher Bryan