2 Samuel 11:1-15
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.”
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. 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. 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.
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.” 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; 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.
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.”
It’s one of the scariest moments for anyone who’s ever had a kid, or who has even just been around a kid. You’re just sitting there, minding your own business, when this little one who you love beyond the moon and the stars comes up to you and puts a picture they’ve just drawn in your lap, and they ask “Does this look like a dog?” And you look down at the paper, and what you see bears a striking resemblance to a feed sack with some twigs stuck in it, with a little smiley face at one end. So you say “Oh yeah, that’s a beautiful dog!” And the little child says “Oh – I was trying to draw a cow.”
It’s in that moment that the child has learned an important truth for anyone who creates in any way – painting, sculpture, writing, composing music, designing a building, delivering a sermon – whatever – that you, the creator, only own the meaning of whatever you’ve created until you share it with someone else. Then, your reader or listener or audience is going to experience it from their own vantage point, and apply their own meaning to it, which might be something very different from what you’d intended. And in general, that’s OK; that different meaning can be every bit as valid an interpretation as yours.
I think that to some extent, that same concept comes into play a little bit when we try to draw meaning out of today’s First Reading; that we can find some meaning in the story that the original author hadn’t really intended, but from our vantage point, we can see what he hadn’t . But first, let’s look at the passage overall.
The author of this book starts by mentioning kings and kingdoms going to war in the spring, making it sound so casual that it almost seems like the only reason they go to war is the weather is nice and the kings are just bored. The author makes it sound like it’s just the start of the new baseball season. In this story, the author seems less concerned about the fact that King David has attacked a neighboring kingdom than he is by the fact that David himself isn’t even out there fighting the good fight with them – he’s letting other people do all the fighting, while he’s lying around on his couch living the good life.
Part of that good life, at least in David’s eyes, is apparently the right to just take whatever he wants for himself, and in this case what he wants is Bathsheba. No matter that David is already married. He’ll actually end up with numerous wives; it would have been unthinkable that a man, especially a powerful one like a king, would limit himself to just one lover. That wouldn’t be a concept until several hundred years later. No matter that Bathsheba’s already married, too, to Uriah the Hittite – a valued soldier in David’s army yes, but still a commoner, and a foreigner at that. A foreigner was good enough to serve in David’s army, and risk his life for David, but in the end, as we know, David was still going to treat him like garbage.
After David discovered that he’d gotten Bathsheba pregnant, he needed some cover to prevent a scandal. So as we heard, he summoned Uriah back from the battle. He met with him at the King’s residence, then told him to go on home for the night, get a good meal, and enjoy some alone-time with his wife. But Uriah is such a gung ho, oo-rah soldier of David’s that he refuses to do it – even after David tries to get him liquored up and more pliable – saying as long as his troops are engaged in battle, he won’t go home and enjoy privileges that they can’t have. He’ll just spend the night in a corner somewhere here in the palace. Poor Uriah – trusting, naïve, unquestioning Uriah. The author of this story makes it clear that he was a strong supporter, really a true believer in King David. He would have literally taken a bullet for David, or at least, an arrow, and of course, he does. The great minister and writer Frederick Buechner pointed out that based on the way he’s portrayed in the story, Uriah was such a committed, patriotic, straight arrow committed to David that even if someone had told him that David had raped his wife, maybe even if they showed him 8×10 glossy photos of it, he still would have denied it, and stayed solid in his support for David – and if he did believe it, he’d probably say David’s behavior didn’t matter, supporting him was more important – even while David was playing him for a fool.
The central reality of this story is that David used his position of power to take Bathsheba – just as the prophet Samuel had warned the people years before that kings would do. He raped Bathsheba, and when he learned she was pregnant, and he couldn’t manipulate Uriah into giving him some believable cover story for the pregnancy, he used that same power to have Uriah killed so David could have Bathsheba for himself. The story is ugly, and awful, and evil, from start to finish. Honestly, it seems like a miracle that such a negative story about so beloved a biblical character even survived. It makes us wonder what point the author was really trying to make by documenting this story?
Well, to his credit, he seems to be clearly coming out against David’s casual attitude toward putting his army’s lives at risk while he stayed home. And he’s certainly coming out strongly against David raping Bathsheba, and his collusion with general, Joab, to get Uriah killed.
But there still seems to be a blind spot or two in the author’s original intent, which we might be able to fill in. He seems to see the rape of Bathsheba more as a violation of Uriah’s rights – his property rights – than as any big violation of Bathsheba and her own personal human dignity.
From our vantage point, we can look at the picture that the author has created, and we can add our own layers of understanding to it. We can see this story as a strong statement against unnecessary war, and rape, and murder, and the abuse of power; as well as it being a statement against men thinking they can exploit and subjugate women, and demean their dignity, and cheapen the reality of their having been equally created in God’s image.
Bathsheba wasn’t able to say much at the time of this story. But because her tragic story was preserved, she’s been speaking out to the ages ever since, against injustice against women perpetrated by men in positions of power.
And there, in that point, is where I can finally find some good news – some gospel, some grace – in this story. In protecting and allowing this terribly negative story about David to survive, and to speak across time, we can see that God cared about Bathsheba, and all the Bathshebas of the world; that God shows a special preference for them, and for all who are victims, over the powerful, the abusers. the victimizers. Good news that we can have hope, and comfort, that when we find ourselves being victimized and abused by others in positions of power over us, that God is walking our journey with us, and is on our side.
That, to me, is our good news. It’s also a confirmation to us of where, as people of the Kingdom of God, our own priorities need to be, whenever we see others being victimized. This story is our call to be a voice for, to be supporters of, all the Bathshebas of our time, and the Uriahs of our time. This story reminds us that we’ve been called to stand up, and to speak truth to power, wherever the realities of our time have not painted a very pretty picture.
Thanks be to God.