Several things collided this week to create a sermon. One was the ever-wise Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writing about David and Bathsheba. (If you don’t read her work, you should. Stop reading this and go read Dr. Gafney. Just go.)
Ok, I am assuming if you’re reading this then you’ve already read what Dr. Gafney wrote.
The other was that I realized I have never preached on David and Bathsheba. Never. And that, I realized, cannot stand. Not in this age of #metoo and #churchtoo and all the other hashtags we are faced with. Despite my discomfort (there are KIDS in the congregation! Can I put a trigger warning in the bulletin? etc) I knew I needed to talk about this story.
Sure enough, so many people came up to me afterwards to thank me for preaching on it. Not that I made the story palatable (it’s still not; it’s still a horrid story) but I think we forget as preachers how confusing it can be to hear some of these readings in the pews, and then have the most bizarre things skipped right over like they never happened. So we can talk about bread for the 45th time.
Talk about the confusing bits. Lean into the troubling parts. If it bothers you, I will bet money that it bothers someone in the pews.
Here’s what I said–and please note–the exegesis here is all Dr. Gafney.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
July 29, 2018
Proper 11, Ordinary Time, Year B
2 Samuel 11:1-15
I find it curious sometimes at the stories we tell children. When I was growing up, we had this VHS tape of cartoon bible stories: One was Noah’s ark, and one was David and Goliath. The animation wasn’t fantastic—I am too old to have been the target of Veggie Tales. But what I remember is that both stories had some really horrific scenes of death and destruction. Noah’s ark had a whole lot of people drowning in a flood. And David murders Goliath in a pretty bloody way, and it’s fairly graphic.
Yet these are stories for children! And if you look at the Bible stories marketed for kids—those are the central ones! I think it’s for marketing purposes, perhaps, or perhaps the people doing the marketing haven’t actually read them—and all they see is—on the one hand, a lot of cute furry animals, and on the other, a heroic kid with sheep.
But truth be told, the Bible has some really awful, not at all G-rated stories in it. One of which we get today. And I decided to preach about it because I think that facing that which makes us uncomfortable is often better than ignoring it, or glossing over it, and that this is doubly true when it comes to our faith. Because the Bible often has these horrible things in it because our world also has horrible things in it, and it is only in facing them squarely that we can figure out where God is in all this mess.
To that end—just what is going on with David and Bathsheba?
The last time we saw him, David was really just a kid, fleeing from Saul, the king who quickly fell from grace. Now, he’s the king of all Israel in his own right, with all the power in the world, waging war on other kingdoms, and feeling so secure he sends his army off to battle without him! In every way, David has the power. And Bathsheba does not.
It is that power differential that it is vital to keep your eyes on here. Yes, there are folk songs about this story—yes, the text gets pretty metaphorical about what exactly is happening. But in the end it is important to remember that one of these people is literally the most powerful person in the world, and the other is not. So choice—even the illusion of choice—does not exist for Bathsheba.
Bathsheba, though—-she’s a bit of an enigma. And here’s what I mean. Like the folk songs written trying to romanticize what is definitely not romantic (looking at you, Leonard Cohen), there has been a lot of art trying to make Bathsheba into a scarlet woman—a woman who basically got what was coming to her. She gets the Mary Magdalene treatment in Western art—“Here is a woman, we know she’s not the Virgin Mother, ergo she must be a direct path to hell.”) But whoever wrote this text took pains to do a couple of things on her behalf. For one, she gets a name—which is incredibly rare for a woman in the Biblical narrative, let alone for her father to also be named. The fact that her father is named is probably an assertion that she came from a “good” family. Her family was known enough for her father’s name to be relevant to the story.
For another, she is depicted as adhering faithfully to the Jewish laws of purification, which was a big deal. Bathsheba was doing what she was supposed to—she was following the law. Meanwhile the first thing we are told in this story is that in the time kings rode forth with their armies—this king was instead lounging around breaking one of the ten commandments.
Then breaking a few more of them.
Bathsheba is doing what she is supposed to. In the world of the text, she is vindicated.
David, on the other hand, is very, very wrong.
David takes by force a woman who cannot and does not consent, and forces her to bear his child. And when Bathsheba’s husband refuses to cover his tracks, David has him killed. We have words for those acts in this world.
We are used to hearing this story as David’s story—as an illustration of how even a great king can make horrible mistakes—but as Bathsheba’s story, it’s even worse.
Make this story about David, and there’s an easy-enough-light to see at the end of the tunnel. David is still king, and though he’s in trouble, God preserves his life, and still speaks with him.
Bathsheba, though? Where’s the redemption for her? Where’s God’s presence for her?
This is one of those stories where we need to be careful how we read it, we need to be careful not to make it too spiritualized—because as horrible as it is, it is also not unfamiliar. We are living in a cultural moment where more and more of these stories are being told, where it is becoming evident that for a long, long time, many in positions of power have felt free to behave just as David did. And the Bathshebas in those real-life stories were left to disappear into the shadows without names or voices. From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, to Bill Cosby, we’ve watched the famous and beloved figures admit to some really horrible treatment of those less powerful than they.
In ways large and small, the story of David and Bathsheba continues to play itself out in our world, before our eyes, and so it is vital that we, as people of faith, figure out what we are called to do in response. What is our response to be, to the Bathshebas in our time? To those misused and abandoned by those in power? What is our response to be to the Davids of the world?
The story goes on, after our lectionary cuts it short. What we see this week is David’s sin—what we don’t see is Bathsheba’s victory. You see, after all this horribleness happens to her, and she ends up with a dead husband and kidnapped and living in the palace, she has this baby. And Nathan, the prophet, calls David out by name, and accuses him in front of EVERYONE for his actions towards Bathsheba. Nathan and Bathsheba sort of team up, from then on, and despite Solomon’s lowly status, they contrive to have him rule Israel, instead of the first-born. And when Solomon takes the throne, he establishes a special role for his mother, as the queen mother, and insists that the kingdom honor her as they would a queen.
The trauma still happened, of course. She still suffered greatly. and what David did should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. And yet, though Nathan’s intervention, through God’s grace, in a way, Bathsheba was vindicated in a powerful way. David’s hubris and pride caused his downfall, but God lifted up this wronged woman, and in the end, gave her a form of justice over the most powerful man in the world.
Because in the end, God does not care about how powerful anyone is. God doesn’t care how rich anyone is, or how polite, or how outwardly moral. God cares about how we treat one another. And when we mistreat each other, then God is there to lift up the victims, to comfort the survivors, to assure them that even when justice and redemption seem impossible this side of heaven, that God hears the cry of the oppressed. God hears the cry of the downtrodden. God heard Bathsheba, God hears those who cry out today, and we as the church need to do likewise. We must be like Nathan, ready to come to the aid of the victimized, however unpopular it might be.
The presence of stories like this on in the Bible does not mean that God condones what happens here—the presence of this story in the Bible means that God gives us a job when tragedies like this one occur in our time. It means that God urges us to be ready to side with the Bathshebas of the world, and ready to stand with the Nathans. God calls us to give voice to the voiceless, to give support to those who have been pushed aside; to be the Nathans of the world. And when we live into that role, no one need fear David’s power any more.