Monday, July 27, 2015

Dancing with David: The Fall

July 26th, 2015                               “The Fall”                             Rev. Heather Jepsen

Summer Sermon Series: Dancing with David

2 Samuel 11

          Our summer sermon series, “Dancing with David” resumes this morning with the Biblical account of David’s affair with Bathsheba.  Although this is a story that you have all heard before, I am willing to bet that you haven’t spent very much time thinking about it.  As believers, we are not very fond of considering the sins of those we deem to be our Biblical heroes.  Following the commentary by Bruce Birch in the New Interpreter’s Bible, I propose that we would rather argue away David’s sin, and thus our own, than to face his evil acts head on.

          The story begins by setting the stage; it is the spring of the year and the time when kings go out into battle.  David’s forces, under the leadership of Joab are out in the field fighting the Ammonites but David the king has remained behind in Jerusalem.  As they say, “idle hands are the devil’s playground” and it won’t be long before David gets himself into trouble.

          While strolling on his roof one afternoon, David spies the lovely Bathsheba taking a bath.  He sends a messenger to find out who this beauty is, only to discover that she is married.  One would hope our hero would now turn away, as this woman belongs to another, but of course that does not happen.  David, seeing another challenge before him, another conquest to be had, decides that regardless of her marital status, this woman is his for the taking.

          Many Bible translations soften the language here, saying that David sent messengers to “get her” but that is not what the Hebrew says.  A truer translation of the Hebrew is that David “sent and took” Bathsheba, and she lay with him.  I’m not going to mince words here, what David does is akin to rape.  He is the king, and Bathsheba has neither the right nor the power to turn down his advances.  David saw her and he took her, using his royal power to satisfy his personal desires.  David is not interested in a relationship with Bathsheba at all, he simply wants to satisfy his sexual needs, and so he sends her straight home after his conquest.

          After some time, Bathsheba realizes that she is with child, and sends word to David telling him that she is pregnant.  This is a big problem for the king as he can now no longer hide his act of lust with her.  The text makes clear when Bathsheba’s last period was to prove that the child could only be David’s.  So, let the scheming begin.

          David’s first plan is to get Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to sleep with her so that the child will appear to be his.  David sends word to the battle field to have Uriah sent back home.  When Uriah arrives at the royal palace he tells David about how things are going out on the field of battle.  David tells Uriah to go to his house and to wash his feet, which is a euphemism for sex.  But Uriah cannot stand the thought of going home at such a time; all the other men are still out on the battle field and so he will abstain from the comforts of home in order to stand in solidarity with them.  David is frustrated and on the second evening he feasts with Uriah and gets him drunk.  Surely the drunken man will wander home and sleep with his wife.  But, Uriah remains true to his battle honor and sleeps at the palace with the servants rather than go home to Bathsheba.

          Thwarted, David sees the need to take drastic measures, namely to have Uriah killed.  He sends Uriah back to the battle field, carrying the very note to the commander Joab stating David’s evil plot.  Uriah is to be put on the front lines in hard battle so he will certainly die.

          Battle ensues and Uriah is indeed killed in action.  Joab sends word to David that the fighters approached the wall and that many were killed.  He fears for the life of the messenger, as David has been known to kill those who bring bad news, and so he tells the messenger to remind David that Uriah has also been killed in case his temper flares.

          When news of the battle reaches David, he shows no signs whatsoever of being upset or even feeling guilty.  He sends word back to Joab saying, “Do not let this matter be evil in your eyes,” (Again our readings soften the translation.)  “For the sword devours now one and now another.”  David is clear that the death of Uriah is to be thought of as nothing more than one more loss on the proud field of battle.

          When Bathsheba hears that Uriah is dead she goes through the proper period of mourning and then becomes one of David’s wives.  She will be his eighth wife to be exact.  As with many women in Biblical times, she really has no choice in the matter, as she is pregnant and could not survive on her own.  She will bear a son and David seems to have literally gotten away with murder until we read the last verse of the chapter.  “But the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  (Again, our readings soften the translation.)

          It is amazing that this story of David’s great sin has survived into the Biblical record.  Since the time that it was written, readers have been uncomfortable with the great evil committed by David.  When David’s story is retold in the book of Chronicles this portion is understandably left out.  Rape and murder are certainly not the acts of a man who was after God’s own heart.  Throughout history in both academics and popular culture, people have attempted to soften David’s sin.

          The most common (and I believe most troubling) way that people try to argue away David’s sin is by scapegoating.  Throughout the ages, Bathsheba has been painted as a seductress and co-conspirator in the fall of David.  In his commentary on the Old Testament, turn of the century scholar Morton Wharton goes as far as saying, “No one of good moral character could have acted as she did in her seduction and conquest of David.  She doubtless exposed herself that the king might be tempted; she willingly came to the palace when she was sent for, and she conspired with David for the murder of her husband.” 

          To scapegoat Bathsheba as the temptress who leads David astray, is a clear attempt to soften David’s guilt.  Even more troubling, commentator Birch points out that “these efforts to make Bathsheba the initiator are unfortunately consistent with a common defense in cases of rape and abuse of women: ‘She asked for it.’  Even our modern translations softening of the verb ‘take’ to make David’s messengers merely ‘get’ Bathsheba shows our unwillingness to face the coercion in David’s action.” 

          When we examine the text, it gives us nothing to go on regarding any guilt on Bathsheba’s part.  Bathsheba is hardly a character outside the object of David’s lust and she is frequently only referred to as “the woman” or “the wife of Uriah” rather than her own name.  She is nothing more than the object of David’s lustful desire until her pregnancy becomes the problem that he must solve through murder.  Furthermore the text makes it clear that it is the actions of David, and David alone, that are seen as evil in the eyes of the Lord.

          Another way we try to avoid David’s guilt is through rationalization.  Some have wondered if Uriah wasn’t an abusive husband and David saved Bathsheba from a horrible relationship.  Some have thought that it was Satan who led David to sin and who should carry part of the blame.  Or perhaps David’s repentance was so great that somehow his sin was absolved.  None of these arguments are supported in the text.

          The final way we try to soften this story is by romanticizing it.  It makes us feel better if we imagine that David and Bathsheba were somehow in love and couldn’t help themselves.  This has been Hollywood’s treatment of the story, as Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward famously told it in David and Bathsheba.  In that film Uriah is a busy soldier who neglects his wife, and David is the lonely king.  Together David and Bathsheba find true love and happiness.  Unfortunately, as much as we love a good romance, the Bible gives us none in its telling of the story.

          As I have stated, all the Bible give us here are the plain facts of rape and murder.  This is the story of the fallen hero, who has done great evil in the eyes of the Lord.  As believers, we struggle with this story, and for good reason, for who wants to see a good man go down.  Birch says, “the difficulty we have in facing the harsh reality of this story is a testimony to the ease with which we excuse our own sin.  But if we can face David’s sin for what it is, we may better face our own.”

          Our newspapers today are full of stories of the powerful succumbing to sinful behavior.  From scandals of bribery, to lies about having affairs, to the culture of sexism that reigns in many of our halls of government, our world is full of examples of those who would use their power and authority to manipulate others.  Many would argue that our world is going downhill, but the ancient story of David shows us that it has always been this way.  If we are willing to truthfully face David’s role in the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, then we will be more inclined to truthfully face our own sinful nature.   

          To face the dark reality of one of our greatest Biblical heroes helps us to face the reality about ourselves.  It is all too easy to argue away our own sin, or the ease in which we attempt to manipulate people and circumstances in order to cover up our wrong doing.  The truth is that we have all sinned.  Thankfully, we have redemption through Jesus Christ, whose lineage can amazingly be traced all the way back to David . . . and Bathsheba.  Amen.


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