2 Samuel 11.1-15
Sunday 25 July, 2021
Unimaginable abundance ©Suzanne Grimmett
When we come to the day when we are celebrating the completion of the work on the roof, I will begin by saying that the story of King David walking around on his own roof and espying the beautiful, bathing Bathsheba was not the roof story I was hoping for! In fact, hope may be in short supply after hearing the narrative of David’s misdeeds. Throughout the church’s history, attempts have been made with this text to sanitise either the whole story or reclaim David’s reputation by pointing to his later repentance… or even to lay the blame at Bathsheba’s door by suggesting some kind of seduction. We may want a heroic Bible figure to believe in, but sometimes we confuse hope with positive thinking, and don’t notice when truth is demolished and justice ill-served in the interests of creating a narrative more acceptable to our culture or to those in power.
The stories we tell ourselves matter, and the texts we hold sacred matter even more. They matter not just for the way we understand the past, but also for the way we project that past on to the present and future. Our imagination and vision for the future is reduced or expanded by the stories we tell.
So let us consider this story as it is told, but also pay attention to what is hidden. There is no justification for interpreting the David and Bathsheba encounter as a consensual sexual relationship, making ridiculous the labelling of this story as adulterous. The text may record Bathsheba coming to the King when summoned, but it takes little insight to see that Bathsheba is not likely to have done this with any willingness. Maybe she has acted to preserve dignity in walking out with the soldiers rather than be dragged from her home, but when a king sends his messengers with an order, orders tend to be obeyed. The power dynamic here cannot be ignored: David is using his power for self-gratification because he can. This is not a seduction but sex without consent using all the advantage of positional power. Rape is ever a crime of the abuse of power.
The last part of the text only reveals further the violence of the abuse of power. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is a Hittite. Although there is much obscured and unclear in the history of the Hittites, they were a people who remained in the land of Canaan after the Israelites arrival and served or were pressed into the service of the army of Israel. They become, particularly under Solomon’s reign, a colonised people. In some ways, the opening line of today’s text says it all; “in the Spring of the year when the kings go out to battle..” What we are seeing here is a fulfilment of Samuel’s prophecy of the war mongering and enslavement that would occur if Israel were given a king like other nations. In 1 Samuel the prophet stated in warning;
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them…to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands…. and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots…..
Uriah was likely drafted as a foreign mercenary in David’s army but is revealed as behaving more in line with the standards of God’s covenantal people. Rather ironically, it is Uriah’s faithful commitment to the service of Israel that means David’s less violent attempts to cover over his own guilt fail. Being outdone by the man’s integrity in refusing to go back to the comforts and companionship of his home, David’s consequent orders result in the murder of Uriah.
If you are appalled, then this text has done its work. In a strange way our horror is a sign of respect to this text- it is when we try to manipulate a narrative like this into something more palatable that we fail to honour it. Next week we will hear the divine response through the prophet Nathan, but for today we are left with the violence of kings. The imagination of the people in desiring a king was limited by what they had seen occur in other nations, and they failed to trust to the prophetic imagination of the God who called them away from the colonising and acquisitive violence of empire. With empire, you take what you want and there is always more to conquer and greater wealth to accumulate. Meanwhile, the voices of the poor or powerless are silenced. The victim blaming of Bathsheba over two millennia is an example of the power of narrative when it is told by those in power. The modern day #MeToo movement is one of those moments in history when the dominant narrative is challenged and those who have been abused and violated are given a voice.
When such colonising impulses are exposed, there is the opportunity for us to be seized by an alternative vision…a more compelling narrative offering a more abundant life. This is an imagination which we see personified in Jesus the Christ, the one who lays a table for the multitudes who are weary and hungry, defying the naysayers around him who continued to be ambassadors of what was lacking or impossible. Is it possible to believe in a God of abundance who would attend to the needs of the least and not have recourse to the forces of dominance and violence? Is it too much to believe that the Spirit could meet the poor and the lost with love and mercy, and that this could be the most powerful force in the universe? Certainly the disciples and the crowds enjoying the loaves and fishes on the hillside seemed to miss entirely the significance of the subversive meal they had shared. At first the disciples question the effort being worth the tiny amount every person would end up receiving even if they had impossible financial resources- but the story makes it clear that not only is there enough, but there is an abundance spilling over from the leftovers. Jesus shows them that what they have received is a free gift and yet the response of the people is to try to seize the giver by force to make of him the king they choose. Fear of scarcity and a desire to return to the systems of dominant power they understand makes the people turn away from the vision of peace and abundance that Jesus has just enacted on the hillside.
Can we believe that our ways of seizing and holding power are not the only way? Could we imagine a world where all life is honoured, our most intimate relationships are characterised by respect and love and every human being is treated with dignity and justice? We may well look at the suffering and conflict in the world, and indeed even at the stories of our own lives and struggle to believe that this is possible. We may end up reducing our expectations to fit something that we believe could be attainable, and wonder perhaps, like the disciples, if it is all worth the effort given that our best may not be enough. At this point we need to hear the voice of the Spirit who has spoken for millennia against the reductionist agenda of self-reliant human systems. For this reason, we need to acknowledge the failures of human power and look to the God who overturns the power of empire and shows us the way of freedom. The church too, needs to humbly recognise that while by ourselves we cannot overcome all that degrades and dehumanises, the holy power that dwells in us and amongst us is present whenever and wherever we act in faith.
Our powers of imagination may well be limited by the woundings in our life or our shared history. It is therefore the greatest and most courageous prayer of all to ask God to prompt us beyond our own best dreams to the abundance of God’s liberation. We are asked to awaken to stories of sorrow and injustice not so we are weighed down by guilt, but so that the dream of God’s justice may burst into life in our communities.
We cannot face the sorrows and abuses of this world alone, nor address the injustices of the past by an effort of individual will. For the Church to be the Church, we need to be characterised as a people seized by the prophetic imagination of God. We are explorers of what has never been before, invited in hope to build a new dwelling of justice and peace. What we build here will only last if we have the courage to pray that we may “be rooted and grounded in love, opening our hearts that Christ will dwell there by faith…and in this love that surpasses all knowledge, be filled with the utter fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3) Only then can the new day dawn. Only then may the sufferings and colonising violence of the world be reversed by the one who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.