A Contemptible King
Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
July 25, 2021
Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:1–15
Content Warning: As we move through the scriptural saga of David, poet, musician, shepherd made unlikely king, today we hear a story we would perhaps wish was not a part of the narrative arc, which is why so many ignore this segment when choosing to remember the great King David. The 15 verses I am about to read include sexual violation, abhorrent abuse of power, intentional manipulation and deceit, and a plot to murder . . . all at the hands of King David. This was a difficult sermon to construct, and it will likely be a difficult sermon to hear. As I bemoaned my frustration with this text and with David in a conversation with friends this week, my beloved commented: apparently, this is not to be the feel-good sermon of the summer. This is indeed true. I also want to offer a disclaimer that the content of the scripture passage and subsequent message may be triggering for anyone who has suffered sexual trauma or been the victim of violence. As people of faith we must confront abuse even when it is a part of our holy legacy, our sacred writings. With some trepidation and a lot of humility, I offer you these verses from 2 Samuel, chapter 11:
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
Let us pray:
Holy One, where are you in the midst of this text of terror? Reveal yourself to us, and speak to us a word of hope as we grapple with the actions of one held in your high esteem. Amen.
This week I wrapped up a book study on Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church, by Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund. Sarah is known by many of you as she served Plymouth some years ago as one of our Lilly ministers for Outreach. Sarah frames this book around the self-empowerment and healing found in the courage to tell our own story and how, in the telling of our stories, we offer the gift of transformation to others who may find encouragement within their own lives due to the revelations of another’s experience. I am so grateful to those who gathered with me these past Thursday mornings as they boldly offered pieces of their stories. We marveled together in the grace-filled way Sarah relates her experience with mental illness in her family as well as the success and the failings of the church along the way. Part of our conversations centered in Plymouth’s offerings for mental health ministry and our great need to bring people together for support and sustenance as each of us walks our individual narratives of life, faith and health. Some wonderful ideas brewed within each conversation, and I look forward to helping bring some of those ideas to life as we as a spiritual community seek ways to be open, inclusive, caring, and comforting to all.
While there is tremendous gift in the telling of our own stories, what happens when our story gets told for us, and our point of view is inaccurate or non-existent? Suddenly who we are is scrutinized unfairly, and grave assumptions made that too often damage rather than exult. As I wrestled with the scripture text this week, not so silently lamenting that I had drawn the short straw in the preaching schedule, the prevalent feeling brewing in me has been anger . . . anger at all the excuses and justification we have made for and about David, and the blatant discounting of Bathsheba and Uriah, who were pawns in David’s dangerous, unscrupulous game.
The story of Bathsheba, Uriah, and David is one of arrogant and violent abuse of power—reminiscent of too many contemporary examples in which accountability is scarce. David’s actions are contemptible: in a time when kings went to battle with their troops, David stays in the luxury of his palace. Following an afternoon nap he spies on Bathsheba, who is following the rules of her tradition and taking a purifying bath following menstruation. David inquires as to who this woman is, and even after learning she is the wife of one of his army commanders, he insists on having Bathsheba “brought” to him so he can have sex with her. She becomes pregnant and David develops a plot to bring Uriah home from battle so Uriah could sleep with his wife, thus covering up David’s paternity. Granting Uriah some R&R doesn’t work: Uriah won’t leave his soldiers to enjoy the comforts of his home or his wife’s bed. So David plies Uriah with alcohol, again trying to coerce him into going home and “washing his feet”—a biblical euphemism for sex—and, even under heavy alcohol influence, Uriah remains loyal to his soldiers and camps out with them. David, desperate and despicable, instructs his general Joab to place Uriah on the front lines of battle, ensuring Uriah’s death. And while our scripture text ends before we know what happens next, I will tell you now that David’s evil plan works, and Uriah is killed.
Theological and artistic interpreters have often looked for ways to soften David’s guilt. This has been achieved by various strategies: shifting the blame to Bathsheba as a seductress; suggesting that there were mitigating circumstances for David’s actions; romanticizing the narrative as a great love story; offering up David as just a good ol’ boy who predictably succumbed to temptation. As early as 1951 Hollywood took its turn with this text by producing the movie David and Bathsheba with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward.
Why do we do this? Why do we add our own narrative so as to co-opt the words on the page that only illuminate David’s abuse of power, potential rape or at the very least sexual coercion, a disregard of responsibility and a plot to murder? Yes, this is the same man who is described in the book of Acts as “a man after God’s own heart.” Scholars and other reputable biblical writers have justified this particular chapter in David’s story by discounting it completely or suggesting that its meaning is that God has great purpose for even those who are deeply flawed and that these atrocious acts do not define David’s true character. Really? Isn’t that what we still do when someone with political or societal power does something heinous? Rather than hold them accountable, we look the other way, we ignore the truth, and we make excuses for the abominable behavior, disqualifying the abuse from one’s effectiveness in office or other powerful roles. If anything, this text calls us to take a hard look at David, confront his sin, and stop blaming the victims! The writer of this text attaches no blame to Bathsheba, we have done that. We have been taught that the fall of David is Bathsheba’s fault, just as history has always blamed the woman for sexual harassment and violence: She was seductive in her bathing, she wore suggestive clothing, she shouldn’t take his attention and advances so seriously, can’t she take a joke . . . he was just trying to flatter her, it was so long ago, I am sure he learned from his mistakes . . . boys will be boys . . . if we are still using any of those adages to let David or anyone off the hook we need to stop it. Just stop it.
I was appalled this week as I listened to a podcast I have come to trust and appreciate on the revised common lectionary when the two male preachers guffawed over David’s inability to control his lust for Bathsheba. “It was that second look at a beautiful woman,” one of the commenters said, “that got David into a whole lot of hot water.” And then they both laughed. Is it really easier to laugh in the face of violence than confront it? “Many who read this text, like David, have the luxury of ignoring their privileged position in the world and the ways that we commodify and objectify people.” At this moment in time those of us of dominant culture are being called and challenged to check our privilege, to be incredibly mindful of the ways we have received what we do not deserve because of the color of our skin. This privilege has allowed the continued mistreatment of people of color. And this privilege extends to our historical legacy of excusing the sins of powerful white men, especially around sexual violence, power, and greed. If we are to be pursuers of justice, we must hold one another accountable so as to stop making excuses, stop being silent, and start believing that the abuse of power is a deadly sin. While there is something to be said for the biblical canon, including this chapter of David’s story, it is, as one commentator wrote, told “with the power of understatement.” The reality of David’s sin lies in these verses. But we have to be willing to acknowledge it and dwell with David’s reality before rushing to make excuses for his behavior, or commending him to God for forgiveness.
When I approach a scripture passage for preaching, I always ask these two questions: “Where is God in this text?” and “What is the good news here?” And sometimes, like with today’s pericope, those questions keep me awake at night. David is in complete control in this scripture—nothing is left to chance. This David is contemptuous and unremorseful. This story is one of abuse of both person and power. Where is God in the midst of this text? Not with David, for the God in whom I believe would not align with nor condone the rape of a woman or the murder of an innocent man. God is with Bathsheba and Uriah, suffering with them as they are both manipulated and harmed. This may provide little comfort to us as we grapple with God’s lack of intervention and inability to prevent the course of violence. Yet in our most vulnerable moments, when we acknowledge that God grieves when we grieve, that presence can be our saving grace. Bathsheba did not hide her pregnancy from David; she confronted him with the consequence of his actions. Uriah remained loyal to his troops in spite of the King’s coercion . . . these are godly attributes worth lifting up in this difficult story.
What about the good news? I struggle to find any in this story. Lessons from this story include that of accountability—when one is not held accountable it often leads to greater deceits and deepens complicity that will harm others. From this text we are called to stop blaming victims and to develop better ways to protect our communities against abuses of power and acts of violence. None of this feels like good news. Rather it is a calling out of our own behaviors, our own excuses, our need for reparation for contemptible acts. This chapter of David’s monarchy is also a reminder to tend carefully to those who have been violated at the hands of another, and I do apologize if any of my words today have caused pain to those who have lived through unimaginable trauma. As a community of faith, we must provide respite and comfort so as to be re-builders of trust and create opportunities for healing love to work its repairing power. The seed of good news in the tragedy of these verses is that it is not the end of the story—for David or for us. Next week, DeWayne preaches on what happens next, on the holy hard work of repair David and we must experience if there is any possibility of redemption. Today, David’s actions sit heavy upon our hearts, clamoring us to no longer ignore the sin. May God gentle us in this knowledge, and then, may God encourage us in our own redeeming.
Timothy L. Adkins-Jones, “Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15,” Working Preacher, July 25, 2021 (accessed August 9, 2021).