In 1951 the movie David and Bathsheba starred Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. It was an epic movie, filled with intrigue and romance, all star cast and glitzy sets and costumes. Throughout the movie, according to an Internet site about the movie, King David wore a Star of David on all his clothes. Since David lived around 1,000 BCE and the Star of David wasn’t created until about 300 CE or 1300 years later, there is a problem. I was only six that year so I probably didn’t see the movie. However, a few years later I did get the comic book, or now it would be called a graphic novel. Even as a grade school kid I knew the comic book got the last frame wrong. In it Bathsheba and David are kneeling in prayer with a beam of light from heaven shining upon them and they are praying, “Our Father who art in heaven. . .” Again, about 1,000 years too soon since it was Jesus who taught his followers this prayer. There have been other fiction writings of these two. Fiction writers usually have an agenda—entertainment, making money or garnering fame, making a societal or political statement. For instance M*A*S*H the movie and TV program about the Korean War also made a statement about the Vietnam War. Very often in these stories women have small parts; their role is to support the main characters, the men. Having an agenda, expanding on the story beyond absolute truth, women having supporting roles—all are part of the Bible as well, including today’s story.
Bathsheba—temptress or victim? She was married to Uriah, a well thought of, very capable officer and warrior in David’s army an army that was often at war. We all know this part of the story (that’s why I selected the I King’s reading). The later one we don’t hear that one often. David saw her bathing on her rooftop and fell madly in lust with her. He had his servants bring her to the palace and she ended up pregnant. All she says in this story is “I am pregnant.” She has no other voice. Uriah was brought back home from the war so that he could “visit” his wife and the child would be considered his. Uriah was too noble—he felt that if his soldiers were not given this break, he shouldn’t take it either and he refused to go into the house. He slept at the entrance of the king’s house with the other servants. No amount of persuading would do—so David sent him back to the front with a message to the commander saying “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” (II Sam. 11:15) Uriah, according to the story, was too honest to read the message so he didn’t know the plan. Uriah was killed. God was displeased with David and said the child would die. The baby boy was born, lived for a week during which time David fasted, and prayed. Once the baby died he showered, ate and went about his business, though he did console his wife Bathsheba. When questioned about his behavior he says in II Sam. 12:21, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and the child may live. But now he is dead, why would I fast? Can I bring him back again?” Besides Solomon, they had three more sons. They may have had daughters but usually the daughters aren’t named in the Bible.
Temptress or victim? Let’s look more closely at both of these characters because for there to be a temptress or a victim there has to be two people. I’ve discovered that there are numerous takes on David and Bathsheba in scholarly texts. Scholars and authors are still struggling with these two characters. Here are some examples.
In a book called Criminals of the Bible Mark Jones, a criminal justice professor at East Carolina University, includes David and lists his crimes as adultery—one of the Ten Commandments—and conspiracy to commit murder.
Here’s another take. Miriam Therese Winter in her book WomanWitness tells the story very differently: Bathsheba was bathing, guards broke into her home, carried her off to the king’s home, David raped her, she got pregnant, Uriah, her highly respected and ethical husband, was murdered at David’s order, and she was forced to live as one of many wives and concubines in a place filled with violence and intrigue.
Even in today’s text there are those who say her actions are that of a strong woman actively seeking the throne for her son. I see it more as her doing what Nathan asks her to do. In the next chapter Adonijah asks Bathsheba to ask Solomon for one of his concubines, which she does. Solomon kills Adonijah for this request because it was seen as a bid for the throne. Did Bathsheba know he’d do this, or was she a person who just did what others asked her to do? Jane Schaberg, the author Doug introduced us to, says, “she is so colorless, passive and pathetic a figure that she is nearly anonymous.” I would argue that she is also a survivor.
One more piece to ponder: the Matthew texts that started us on the journey with these four wonder women. It is a genealogy starting with Adam and ending with Joseph, Mary’s husband. Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar; Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, (we don’t know if this Rahab is the same as the one in Joshua since this is the only scripture where this connection is made); Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth; David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. The wife of Uriah does not even have her own name. Jane Schaberg suggests that that is intentional—it stresses her adultery, which by law meant death to both people. If a man takes another man’s wife both will be killed. You see, the affront was to the husband. I read it a little differently, for David was the one with the power and he took another man’s wife. I hope it’s a scold against David and other men of great power who abuse that power in the way David did.
Temptress of Victim? You, like many others throughout all time, can draw your own conclusions. Thanks to the challenge of preaching this sermon I’m leaning towards victim—that Bathsheba was violated, her life was changed and she had little if any say in the direction it went. Others can disagree and say that she knew what she was doing all along and manipulated poor King David. In the long run it really doesn’t matter. What matters is this question: how much progress have we made in the last 3,000 years that this type of violence, this kind of abuse of power, doesn’t exist anymore?
Some steps, but not very far. For example, if it could be proven that if a president intentionally sent a soldier into battle to be killed the president would be immune from civil liability because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which is founded on the ancient principle that the king can do no wrong. Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandals have shown that the office does not guarantee against criminal prosecution.
The king can do no wrong. How many men throughout history have set themselves up as king? Immediately our thoughts go to powerful men, rich powerful men. But I would suggest that in many homes throughout history even the poorest of men have set themselves up as the king and have exerted their power within the family with various means of coercion, all violent. And yes, for those of you mumbling what about the women, according to the Huffington Post, 85% of intimate partner abuse is committed by men and 15% by women. Whoever commits such an act is wrong.
Yes, there has been some progress. Women can vote, but it hasn’t even been 100 years. Yes, women can control their own finances but it’s only been around 50 years that we gained control over our own finances. We still don’t have equal pay and the glass ceiling is firmly in place. And abuse still happens. There’s great concern about sex trafficking especially during the Super Bowl. Super Bowl Sunday, every year, is the day with the most reported intimate partner abuse. And I haven’t mentioned some of the more subtle kinds of violence.
Doug mentioned Re-Imagining. I’m working with a group of younger women at Plymouth who are planning a conference called “Re-Imagining a World Without Violence.” The first conference took place in 1993 and in the strong backlash the conservative arms of the mainline denominations accused the planner, the speakers, and the attendees of heresy, goddess worship and anything they could think of. People lost their jobs—even the husband of a woman who attended. We kept doing our thing for the next ten years when we’d only planned on doing the one conference. We have reincorporated. I was explaining this to the younger women because they needed to know the history. One of them replied, “that’s violence,” and I agree. We need to include in the conference a workshop on violence perpetrated by the church. I was at a MARCH meeting—ecumenical group working against racism—and one of them kept talking about the violence in capitalism. I’ve invited that group to put in a proposal for a workshop on the violence in capitalism. The sanctuary movement is about overcoming violence, particularly as families deal with the deportations. Violence can be subtle.
Here’s the question I believe we should be asking. What does God want? What has Jesus taught us about what God wants? What is the spirit of God leading us, challenging us, imploring us to do?
The God I worship wants peace and harmony for all the people of the world regardless of religion, regardless of politics or beliefs, regardless of gender, LGBTQI, age, abilities. All people, everyone. God grieves at every abuse of power, at every victimization. Jesus lived that kind of life, working within his culture, within his time, to overcome violence and was killed for his actions by powerful people who didn’t like what he was saying. And many people have followed in his footsteps living a faithful life and some have died because of it. The spirit of God residing in each of us, living and loving through us, needs our help, needs our actions.
I picture it this way. The world God wants for us is amazing and beautiful and between that beauty and us is a pile of sludge. All the evil, violence, and greed in the world. We are the ones who have to remove that pile and we have to keep at it because it’s added to all the time. Not any one of us can do it alone. Everyone has a part of it to get rid of and it takes all of us. It includes, as was named during the prayer time, praying for those we don’t like.
It takes men and women fighting against this abuse of power, this violence, and because the most powerful are usually men, it will take men standing up to the abusers. I greatly admire those of you who have known an abuser and have called them on their behavior, have supported the abused even sometime to the point of providing safety. And we all need to be answering God’s call to faithfulness to rid the world of violence against anyone. If you are a victim of violence I hope you will seek help. If you are an abuser, I hope you will seek help.
It is complicated, just as the story of Bathsheba and David is complicated. Temptress or victim? Even if she was a temptress a righteous and faithful man would have turned and walked away.