Last week, we read the beginning of one of the most tragic stories in the Bible - the real big blunder of otherwise supposedly impeccable King David. On our drive home, and even again at bedtime that day, my daughter kept saying, “Mom, the first reading today was so sad. Why is it even in the Bible?”. This was the first time she heard the story; but her empathetic response reminded me that even those of us who are more familiar with it were probably thinking the same -- and we hadn’t even read a half of the tragic events that were set in motion by David’s mistake. This made me think that since we’re reading the second half today, I should no longer avoid the story, but rather try to see why it deserves a place in our canon.
David flourished at an interesting time in history. C. 1000 BC, this was right on the cusp of the Bronze and Iron ages; the dark age in fact, sometimes referred to as the Late Bronze Age collapse, which saw the catastrophic fall of many previously powerful societies. Perhaps, this allowed Israel to emerge as a kingdom briefly to be reckoned with on the Near Eastern political arena. David did, in fact, achieve considerable success in establishing his small empire by unifying the12 tribes of Israel, defeating the Philistines, and annexing both the coastal regions and the neighboring kingdoms to the East.
But remember, the historical books of the Bible are the compilation of various sources by several editors, which hold in tension two theological assumptions: 1) the Messiah was to descend from the monarchical line; and yet 2) that Israel would have been better off without any human kings. The anti-monarchical skepticism that persisted through the centuries was first expressed in the words of the prophet Samuel, who said that the kings would only “take” from his people; take their riches, servants, and as it is most relevant to this story, wives (Sam 8:5). And yet, ironically, the ultimate consequence of David’s ill-fated decisions was the birth of Solomon -- the one whose name means “peace”, whom God allowed to glorify him by building the Jerusalem Temple, who established the religion of Judaism, in whose time the kingdom reached its brief peak, and whose mother Bathsheba is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ himself. Out of great tragedy - the birth of the Messiah. So... David. A divinely chosen hero, or a monster so corrupted by his power and prosperity as to consider other people dispensable?
At the start of this story of his spiritual downfall, he already had 3 wives. In addition, one of his unification strategies was to amass a harem of concubines from various tribes of Israel; all strangers to each other, vying for power for their children, for whom David had no clear plan of succession. I doubt that these women had much respect for him (remember Michal, whose story I told you in connection with that of Goliath?). And I suspect, neither did his troops, for here we find David in his Jerusalem home, as opposed to the front lines with his army as soon as the spring afforded the first chance to move after the months of inactivity imposed by the winter weather. What a contrast with Uriah, who (a foreigner!) was one of his best and most loyal fighters. It is assumed that David considered this campaign insignificant enough that his presence wasn’t required. This may be so. And Michal may have been his wife first before he stole her from her husband. But every small wrong choice, even the one we can easily explain away, has the potential to precipitate a moral, and consequently, spiritual decline. Every time we act without integrity in situations where we think it doesn’t matter predisposes us to do so in important aspects of life. David’s carelessness with the lives of women with whom he connected his life morphed into his carelessness of calling as a leader, which then spiraled into lack of concern for human life itself. Uriah was murdered, and Bathsheba would have been stoned if the affair wasn’t a threat to David's own reputation. None of this would have happened if he wasn’t still home, unable to sleep, perhaps, because his consciousness was speaking to him.
I want to get one thing straight. Many shameful attempts have been made to portray Bathsheba at best, as a willing participant, and worst of all, as a scheming seductress who manipulated David and later flourished as the queen-mother, in order to secure the right of succession for her son. No. In any relationship characterized by a power imbalance there cannot be true consent. Both Jean Vanier and Ravi Zacharias must have known this all too well. Bathsheba was, indeed, a victim: separated from husband by war, taken advantage of by her king, widowed and taken into a harem of hostile competitors jostling for power, lost a baby, and immersed in all the violence that took place in the king’s family. Yet, a strong woman, with God’s help, she made the best of what was a really bad situation.
I have been part of certain evangelical circles long enough to notice the full extent of damage that the notion of female “modesty” inflicts in those traditions, and I suspect in other religions as well. This kind of teaching places the entire weight of the burden of “purity” on the shoulders of women and girls, and undermines men as the agents of their own will, as illustrated quite vividly also by a well-known chapter of Genesis. BUT, the opposite is made very clear here, thanks to the parable told by the courageous prophet Nathan. There’s no way anyone could see it as the little ewe’s fault that she got served up as dinner; taken away from a loving owner whose only possession she was, by a man who was already rich beyond imagination. David reacted harshly to the story. We all do, when we recognize our own shortcomings in others, and our anger at ourselves finds expression as indignation. Only the words, “you are the man”, finally wake up David to the awareness of a lifetime of inebriation with success.
He went on to write three psalms describing the time when his sin stood as a barrier between him and God (32, 38 and 51). Then God forgave him, he forgave himself and went on to write many psalms of praise. But, the evil in his family predicted by Nathan still manifested; 2 Sam 13-18 describes it all, which we will thankfully skip in our readings this summer. Note that none of it was directly inflicted on him by God, but resulted from the loss of trust in his character and leadership. Except for the death of his newborn baby, which I think wasn’t caused by God, but only interpreted by the writer of 2 Samuel as to show the unbelievers that God did not approve of David’s sin, probably in the same way that we tend to search for reasons for our own suffering.
To summarize: 1) integrity takes a lot of work, and every action could be pivotal for growth or decline, 2) success has the potential to corrupt, and 3) forgiveness does not imply lack of consequences. It takes a lifetime of discernment to know when to be Nathan for others and speak up (especially for those who cannot speak for themselves), and when to be generous with those whose failures are all too similar to ours. And most importantly, those of us who have been taken advantage of by the people in power -- and this can take many forms other than the Me Too situations -- should know that they are not to blame, that God and people still see them as worthy of a renewed future, and that they can find strength in faith to rise up for their own sake, as well as for the glory of God.