YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 17 and July 23)
2 Samuel 11:1-15
Last weekís lectionary reading left David secure in Jerusalem and aware that God had established a covenant with him and his descendants. David responded to this in a seemingly humble manner. He begins his prayer in 2 Sam 7:18-29 with the words: ĎWho am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?í The chapters following 2 Samuel 7, leading up to todayís reading, spell out the great victories of David over the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites and Arameans (2 Sam 8 and 10), and record Davidís kindness to Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan of the house of Saul (2 Samuel 9). This latter action, while portrayed as one of compassion nevertheless allowed David to keep the legitimate heir of the house of Saul firmly under his control. In any case, in terms of the story line, David is presented in a very positive light in these chapters, both militarily and as a man of good will. The claim of David to kingship in place of Saul and his house is underlined further when we note that in 2 Samuel 8 David met and defeated the same enemies as Saul had encountered in 1 Sam 14:47-48. While Saul had had some success over them they nevertheless remained on the scene only to be ultimately defeated by David.
We need to remember that there is likely a world of difference between what is recorded in this story of David and what might have happened in the Ďreal worldí. There is a huge gap between the assertions about David in this story (and later those about Solomon) and the almost total absence of corroborating evidence from any non-biblical source. We have to reckon that the status of David within the Old Testament is the construct of later editors who have theological points to make within their own context through such stories. Even within the story itself there are hints that a more complex set of events might be referred to. The story suggests that a constant state of warfare existed between Israel and its neighbours. In places the text itself suggests that intermarriages and other contracts and arrangements helped to ensure peaceful co-existence on occasion. For example, while the conquest of Ammon (2 Samuel 10) resulted from the harsh treatment of Israelís ambassadors by king Nahash, the text states that the father of Nahash had treated David well prior to David being anointed king. A subsequent report in 2 Sam 17:27ff says that the son of Nahash also offered David hospitality during the rebellion of Absalom.
Having heard about Davidís military victories and personal kindness it is a shock to read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. Here we have a tale that illustrates the worst kind of exercise of lust and power. The introduction to the story is meant to startle. Following Davidís victories we are surprised to hear that in the spring when kings go out to battle he remains in his capital, Jerusalem (2 Sam 11:1-2). There is no little irony in the text when it says that even while Davidís army was besieging the Ammonite city, Rabbah, David himself is locked in his city where destruction of a different kind looms.
When we are told David spies Bathsheba bathing further hints at the inappropriateness of the actions he is about to take are given. Even as he enquires who this beautiful woman is, he is told, in typical fashion in that context, that she is the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah (v. 3). She is noted not just by her name but by her relationship to two other men. Moreover, as David brings Bathsheba to his bed reference is made by the editor to her purifying herself (v. 4). This suggests that she was not yet free for sexual relations with any man let alone this stranger. All David does at the beginning of this chapter spells out the inappropriateness of his actions. With this gross abuse of power, there is also a sense of foreboding that disaster is unfolding.
One verse changes the direction of the story, v. 5. What was an abuse of power which may never have been discovered by others now becomes a public issue when Bathsheba notifies David that she is pregnant. The position of David also seems to change at this point in the story. The king, who used his power to take Bathsheba for his own pleasure, now shrinks to one who has to scheme and plot in secret in order to cover up his actions. David is now curiously at the mercy of a man who has little power and on one occasion is even drunk (v. 13). David cannot even control this on that occasion. The disaster anticipated in Davidís inappropriate actions at the start of the story is now manifest. The great military strategist cannot plan a simple, personal subterfuge. David has become a comic character. In the midst of all this other points are made. First, it is clear that there is deceptiveness in power, especially in relation to its abuse. Secondly, in the behaviour of Uriah the Hittite (a foreigner to boot) we see one who is loyal not only to his king but to the religious aspects of war. He refuses sexual intercourse with his wife while he is on campaign and denies himself the other comforts of his own house while his fellow warriors are in the field. Uriahís actions and motives cry out in comparison to Davidís. This man can deny himself what is inappropriate for him even when legal arrangements (his marriage to Bathsheba) would allow it otherwise. In contrast we have a king who could not deny himself even when his action was inappropriate on all grounds. Finally, David makes a fateful decision to have Joab, his general, set Uriah at the forefront of the battle Ďso that he will be killedí (v. 15). Murder is the solution to Davidís dilemma. Although todayís reading ends here, the narrative goes on to tell how this final plan of Davidís worked (vv. 16-25).
A word could be said about Bathsheba, although she is not given any words in the story. What her hopes were when she informed David of her pregnancy are not made known. Maybe she trusted him to act in her favour in some way. Perhaps she had no idea what would happen to her husband. Maybe she felt being pregnant to the king might give her power. We cannot know and we should not build any conclusions on her silence nor make judgment on her behaviour. Bathsheba does gain a speaking part in the story when we get to 1 Kings 1 and 2. She plots there herself for a throne for another son she will have by David, Solomon, even though his older half-brother, Adonijah, is the rightful heir. After that, Bathsheba fades from view.
This story reveals a dark side to king Davidís story, and to David himself. We will hear Godís response to Davidís actions in next weekís reading. For the moment, we note that the writers of 2 Samuel see this episode as a low point in Davidís reign. From now on in 2 Samuel we will hear of the family troubles David has to bear, mainly as his sons contest the right to succeed their father on the throne. This episode with Bathsheba is seen as the reason for later difficulties.
The picture of David in the Books of Samuel may seem a far cry from the pious individual with whom tradition has associated the psalms. It is also a far cry from the picture of David as rewritten by the authors of Chronicles. And it is certainly far from what we might imagine an individual to be like who becomes a model for later messianic figures. Yet there is a point here about the way God deals with us. We will see in detail how God responds to Davidís actions in the story next week. For the moment though we understand that, in spite of what is revealed about David in this story, God can still call such individuals and work his ways in the world through them. That is not to deny their culpability and accountability. That will be explored next week. But it is to see that the promise of God to David about his descendants in 2 Sam 7:14-15 will never be negated even in light of their iniquity. Such is grist for the mill of any preacher. Tied in with this is a solid dose of material on the seduction of and abuse of power. Expounding on the story itself without trying to moralize should be enough for any congregation.
Return to OT Lectionary Reading