Our two readings today are both very well known. The story of David and Bathsheba has captured the imagination of generation after generation of believer – both Jew and Christian. Psalm 51, often thought to have been written by David after he was confronted about his behaviour by the prophet Nathan has been used to express penitence for generations and generations. Every Friday those who use the set prayers in the Catholic and Anglican traditions will recite this Psalm as a prayer of confession. We have a story of sin, confrontation (in the next chapter than we had read today) and repentance. However, I’m not at all convinced that we fully understand this story or what’s going on.
[ask] what is David’s sin? Was Bathsheba guilty of anything?
I think David raped Bathsheba. Let that sink in for a minute. The great king, David, who stabilised the newly founded monarchy, expanded Israel’s borders, wrote, or so it’s thought, Psalms still used in churches now, raped Bathsheba. This might be shocking as we don’t always realise what rape is. We think of rape as being when a man grasp a woman on the street and rapes her, using violence or threats of violence but rape happens in many ways.
David was the second king of Israel. Since Israel settled in the Promised Land it had been a loose confederation of tribes united by a single history and faith. When external threats came along God raised up judges – military leaders – to defend the people. The Jewish people at this point understood themselves to be a monarchy with God as the king – after all he’d delivered them from slavery and had led them and fed them in the Wilderness. Now, having settled in the Land and having seen the nations around them had kings and were strong the people wanted a king of their own. They clamoured for a king and their religious leader, Samuel, eventually anointed Saul as their first king. Saul didn’t work out well – he was mentally unstable and Samuel orchestrated the beginnings of a coup by anointing David as king. David was popular – he’d defeated the Philistine hero Goliath, had a very deep relationship with Jonathan, the heir to the throne, which angered Saul and so was married off to Saul’s daughter Michal. Saul still remained jealous of David and a small civil war ensured with, at one point, David taking refuge with the hated Philistines. After Saul’s death – and Jonathan was conveniently killed in battle too, David seized the throne. His marriage to Michal didn’t seem to go well as she criticised his religious zeal.
So we have a king on the throne, a country recovering from civil war and now united around David’s rule, the religious establishment now centred in Jerusalem next to the royal palace and blessing the new order. David has been shown, already, to be scheming and not entirely trustworthy and then, one day, he sees Bathsheba bathing. We don’t know if he’d gone looking but he summons Bathsheba to his bed.
No grabbing her on the street, no overt threats of violence but there was no need. He was the king. What kings want they get. How could she have said no? Her husband was a foreigner – and an officer in David’s army. He would have been at risk if she’d told him – as the story says his ignorance didn’t save him either. David’s authority, position and power combine to ensure he gets what he wants. Bathsheba had few choices; maybe she made the best of it, but she didn’t freely choose to have sexual relations with David. Rape is the word we use for when sex is forced on another without consent.
David makes Bathsheba pregnant and tries to get Uriah to take some time off and so sleep with his wife so the child can be passed off as his, Uriah, being honourable doesn’t do this when he should be at war for the king. Consequently, David arranges for Uriah to die in battle. The prophet Nathan, in the passage after today’s admonishes David and, to his credit, David repents. Nathan tells David that God will punish him; David assumes the child’s death was the punishment but, many years later his son, Absolom, tries, himself, to take the throne and sleeps with 10 of David’s concubines – so David learns what it is to be cuckholded. David and Bathsheba have another son, Solomon who succeeds to the throne and she has the last laugh as Queen Mother.
It’s a sorry tale of lust, deceit, murder repentance and trying to make the best of the situation people find themselves in. Sounds a lot like real life.
So What Can We Learn from This?
I think there are three things we can learn from this passage and from the Psalm often thought of as David’s response to his sin.
Rape isn’t just what we think it is
First, rape isn’t always what we think it is. We know that sex without consent is rape but when we think of it we think of the stranger danger on the streets – yet most sexual assault happens in the home with people who are known and often loved by the victim. Men still use their power to manipulate, deny choices and gain what they want from women. Domestic abuse is still rife in our society – just as it was all those years ago in David’s time. We don’t hear Bathsheba’s voice in today’s passage – years later in the narrative we hear her as she plays with the power behind the throne in the interests of her son. But the victims voices aren’t heard very often these days for fear of further abuse, further violence and for fear of disbelief. It is only through the silence being broken and the victims speaking truth that things will change.
Checks and balances
Secondly, the powerful need checks and balances to call them to account. In the absolute monarchy that was ancient Israel there were few checks to David’s power – insurrection, invasion or the prophets. Now we have democratic processes, an judiciary supposed to be independent and the chance, every few years, to kick the current lot out of power and bring in another lot. These things matter. One of the worrying things in contemporary society is the erosion of these checks and balances in Europe and America due to the rise of populist politicians and parties. Nathan couldn’t stop David raping Bathsheba and murdering her husband but he would call down God’s judgement and he announced the punishment to come. We need to jealously guard the systems and structures in our society and our churches where truth can be spoken to power, where there are checks and balances so that untrammelled authority doesn’t lord it over us.
And finally there is the realisation that repentance, no matter how heartfelt, needs to be about actions not just words. The words of Psalm 51 are beautiful and are sung or said weekly in monastic communities across the world, and have been used be people in private prayer for millennia. They sum up well how David might have felt; how we all feel when we repent but words aren’t enough. The eloquent words didn’t heal Bathsheba or give her Uriah back. Repentance is a good first step but we must also make amends; the abuser must give himself up to the police to ensure justice. When we do things wrong we need to put right, as far as possible, what we’ve done – not just tell God we’re sorry and hope that everything will be ok. Telling God is important and God’s loving kindness gives us the strength to turn our lives around – but turning our lives around means taking responsibility and putting things right. If I robbed the bank, I could tell God I was sorry – no doubt from my luxury yacht in the Med – but unless I turn myself in and give the money back my words are cheap; God isn’t interested in cheap grace.
Will you pray with me?
God of justice, you hear the cry of the victim,
tend the tears of the oppressed,
and rage against the abuser,
open our eyes to see things as they really are,
strengthen our will to tell the truth to power,
and, when we sin,
give us the grace to turn our lives around
not just with words, but with actions. Amen.