David and Bathsheba

Proper 18, August 2, 2015

2 Sam 11:1-15  /  2 Sam 11:26-12:13a

Today’s Old Testament reading is a continuation of the story we began last week, the rather sordid story of King David’s infatuation with Bathsheba, his affair with her, and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah.  I mentioned last week that I had wanted to talk about that story. And someone said to me after church last Sunday that they wondered why we read a story like that in church. So I figured I would take Nathan’s scolding of David as the opportunity to go back and talk about this wonderful story.

And it is a wonderful story.  Chock full of sex, and betrayal, and murder – a regular biblical Game of Thrones!  It is also so wonderfully told, a beautiful example of the fine art of biblical story-telling, where so much is understated, so much left to the imagination, with so many hidden depths and subtle nuances.

Take the very first line of the story of David and Bathsheba: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.”  Wow! What a line! Nothing said directly about the stupid, futile, war-mongering way of kings – but by implication, a line dripping with cynical irony.  Boys will be boys, and in spring kings will have their little war-games. Line like that, you’ve got your price of admission already.

Not that David goes out to battle anymore.  The old warrior has gotten to important for fighting his own battles.  He has people for that now.  And so, while Joab and the army are fighting at Rabbah, David is resting on his couch in the middle of the day back in Jerusalem, and, strolling about on his rooftop looking down over the city, he sees a woman bathing.  The King of Israel as a peeping Tom!  The woman is very beautiful, and David is filled with desire –  and what David wants, David gets. He sends to find out who she is (he has people for that, too) and summons her to his bed.  The next thing we know, familiar story, he hears back from her. She is pregnant. He has gotten her in trouble, as the saying goes.

And then follows a cat and mouse game between David and her husband Uriah, told in brilliant detail.  David summons Uriah back from the front, asks him a few questions about the war, feasts him, and sends him loaded with gifts back to spend the night with his wife.  Uriah sleeps instead with the king’s servants. When David asks him why, he answers as a good soldier: how can I sleep in my home with my wife, when my comrades are camped in the field? David tries again, this time getting him properly drunk. Same thing happens the second night. So David sends him back to the front, carrying his own death warrant in a letter to Joab.  Uriah is betrayed in battle, and slain. Then David takes Bathsheba as his wife.

What is so wonderful about Old Testament storytelling is how much goes unsaid in the telling of the story.  We are not told what any of the characters is thinking or feeling, we just get the bare facts of what is happening, and yet the whole story is charged with emotional drama.

David is the easiest. David we can read like a book.  First his obsessive lust for Bathsheba, the woman he has been spying on.  And then his strange behaviour with Uriah: he is trying to cover up his own transgression, and to pass Bathsheba’s child off as Uriah’s.

Uriah is a more interesting case. Is he merely the victim, the clueless dupe who is betrayed to his death?  Or does he know perfectly well what is going on, and acts with as much dignity as he can in his position of absolute powerlessness and danger.  If that is the case, what incredible courage he is showing by not playing the king’s game, by not taking the easy way out by going back to his beautiful wife and pretending nothing had happened. Is there a subtle dig at David when he says he cannot sleep at home when his comrades are in the field? What does that say about David, who stays at home sleeping with other men’s wives, when his men are in the field?

And what about Bathsheba?  The biggest mystery of all, as she has no voice at all in all this.  What is she thinking and feeling? She is the victim of rape (let’s call it what it is, because there can be no question of consent when the King expresses his will).  Does she tell her husband?  If not, is she trying to spare him?  In any case, if she doesn’t, she ends up conspiring with the king to cover it up.  Later on we meet her seemingly content in her new role as David’s favourite wife, and conspiring effectively to have her son Solomon put on the throne.  Is she innocent victim or ambitious climber? Here again, the Bible doesn’t tell us.  Reading between the lines, perhaps she is both at the same time, and that too is real.

Then we get the second scene in this drama, when Nathan the prophet is sent by God to condemn David for his crimes. Again, we can only guess at how Nathan felt about this commission.  One presumably was taking one’s life into one’s hand to try to call David to account.  Is he the unwilling messenger of the Lord, or is he himself angry at David.  Again, maybe he is both.  And he carries out his delicate and dangerous task with great cunning, catching David in a brilliant moral sting operation.

So, why do we tell such stories in church?  With Nathan, maybe there is a moral. But last week’s story of David and Bathsheba: how is that edifying?

Well, perhaps the Bible tells the story, and we read it in church, simply because it is real, it is truthful.  And that in itself is actually quite amazing.  We are talking about David here, about the great king and national hero of Israel.  Also a great religious hero, in whom so much hope was invested.  And we find him portrayed, not as kings and heroes are generally portrayed, in a whitewashed version of admirable nobility.  He is shown, rather, as a deeply faulted human being.  The point is clear: biblical faith is committed from the beginning to truthfulness about humanity, not to some unrealistic ideal vision.

There is a second reason why stories like this are such a miracle, which we see when we compare these stories with what else was being written at the time.  We should realize that these are very old stories, some of the oldest writing in the Bible.  There are two old books, two old narrative cycles that go back perhaps to the time of Solomon, almost 1000 BC.  This tale of David’s later years is one, and the oldest part of the book of Genesis, telling the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, is another.  Now when we look around the ancient world of the time, we find nothing that is remotely comparable to these stories.  What we find in ancient literature are stories of gods and heros and demons, myths about great cosmic battles that gave rise to the world.  Stories that seem as primitive and foreign to us as an Aztec pyramid.

Only is Israel do we find these stories, so radically different from anything else in its time, stories about real people with complex psychological lives, told with great skill and subtlety. Stories we can recognize, from the distance of 3000 years, as being akin to modern stories about modern people.  What occurs in these old stories is a literary miracle.  And one can only suppose that this literary revolution might well have something to do with the religious revolution that also occurred in Israel: that the Israelites turned their backs on the ancient gods and goddesses of mythology, concerned with the cosmic forces of creation and growth, and conceived instead of a God who was intimately concerned with human lives.  A God whom we can relate to, almost as one person to another.

That is why we tell these stories: precisely because they are not heroic or admirable or noble.  They are real, they are human – and so they bear witness to a God who is concerned with the real and the human, not with fantasies and myths, but with the very human mess that was David’s life, and that sometimes is ours.