Bathsheba & #MeToo: Part 1 (10th Pentecost, Proper 12B)

“Bathsheba & #MeToo”

By Fr. Guillermo Arboleda

10th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12B) - July 29, 2018

 

 

 

2 Samuel 11:1-15

11:1 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.

2 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. 3 David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 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. 5 The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

6 So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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?” 11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths;[a] 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.” 12 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, 13 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.

14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 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.”

 

Last week, we spoke about the importance of getting to know Israel’s story in order to get to know God. God is revealed to us through Israel’s history and Jesus comes into the world as an Israelite. Well today, we have one of the hardest stories to swallow in Israel’s storied history. It’s the story of King David, who is often remembered as Israel’s greatest king, and his despicable violence and abuse against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah.

 

This passage is often read as David’s story. The way it’s written makes David out to be the main character, even if he is a villain here. But I want us to consider this story more from the perspective of Bathsheba, a wife, a daughter, a victim, and a survivor. We’ll walk through the first five verses one at a time.

 

Before we begin, I want to offer a disclaimer (***trigger warning***). This Bible story is graphic and violent in a number of ways. I’m going to speak frankly about sexual assault and harassment for the sake of understanding this biblical narrative and its implications for us today. If that makes you or your children uncomfortable, I understand and respect that. You may want to excuse yourself until the sermon is finished.

 

11:1 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.

 

David neglects his duties at war. In this cultural context, kings were essentially the commander in chief of the armies. A king who did not lead his armies into battle lost his people’s respect (and sometimes, they lost the throne).

 

From Bathsheba’s point of view, this means that all the men who would normally be responsible for protecting her are away. She might imagine that she is safer because there are fewer able-bodied men around who can harass or hurt her. But she is vulnerable to the one powerful man who stayed behind.

 

2 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 is on his roof and he sees her bathing from the roof. Contrary to popular belief, the text does not say that Bathsheba was bathing on her roof. She may or may not have been on her roof, but David was looking down from his roof and spotted her. David is a peeping Tom who spies on Bathsheba without her permission or knowledge. She is not trying to show herself to anyone.

 

3 David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.”

 

Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah and daughter of Eliam. These are two important officers in David’s government. Uriah is listed as one of his Thirty Mighty Men (2 Sam 23:13,34,39) and Eliam is the son of one of David’s counselors (2 Sam 15:12; 1 Chr 27:33) (Davidson, 86). So he knew this family. He didn’t seem to know Bathsheba but he didn’t let his knowledge of her relationships to his friends stop him from taking what he wanted. Furthermore, David clearly knew Bathsheba was married before he coerced her; the Scripture gives him no plausible deniability.

 

4 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.

 

David sent messengers “and took her” (11:4, KJV), then she came (being compelled and coerced by the king), and he lay with her. Bathsheba is acted upon and not given any agency or autonomy in the text. The only decision she makes is to obey the royal command rather than risk her life by disobeying (as Uriah did later). Once she is taken, there is no one she can appeal to for help or escape; her screams won’t be heard by anyone who would challenge the king in his royal chambers (Davidson, 88).

 

Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson calls this encounter a

“power rape, in which a person in a position of authority abuses that ‘power’ to victimize a subservient and vulnerable person sexually, whether or not the victim appears to give ‘consent.’ David, the king, appointed by God to defend the helpless and vulnerable, becomes a victimizer of the vulnerable” (p. 89).

 

5 The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

 

Bathsheba had already performed ritual purification following her period (see Lev 15:19, 28). This means two things: (1) Bathsheba is righteous and obedient to the Law of Moses; and (2) she had completed a period of menstruation after Uriah had left for war, meaning she was not pregnant by her husband. The pregnancy must be from David’s rape.

 

This leads Bathsheba to panic. She has already been violated and now has to appeal to her rapist for help. Patriarchal society does not lend itself well to women’s voices being heard and trusted. Uriah might blame Bathsheba and accuse her of initiating the affair by seducing the king. For the record, this is the way that most of Jewish and Christian art and cinema has depicted Bathsheba throughout the ages (Sheets).

 

It would be easy for for the king and palace officials to conspire against her. The king could deny that he did it and then her life would be at risk. So Bathsheba is stuck in a catch-22. She has no other earthly authority to appeal to besides this sexually deviant King David.

 

This leads to David’s sinister manipulation of Uriah to cover the whole scandal up, and finally in his conspiracy to murder Uriah through intentionally poor military tactics. The whole thing spirals out of control, as David continues to abuse his power.

 

David’s misdeeds are part of Israel’s story, but they’re part of ours too, as Americans and as a Church. We are reading the Bible with a critical eye so that our community can learn from the history of salvation and work together to prevent rape, assault, harassment, and exploitation in the future.

 

Because David’s behavior isn’t too different from the behavior of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, who pressured younger actresses into sexual relationships by promising to further their Hollywood careers or threatening to damage them. David isn’t too different from the late Roger Ailes, former CEO of Fox News, who allegedly sexually harassed a number of his female employees for decades. David isn’t too different from former President Bill Clinton who used his power, wealth and prestige to seduce a White House intern who was half his age into a sexual relationship with him. (Not to mention all the allegations and evidence of sexual harassment and assault by our current President.)

 

Before the recent swing in public perception that took down Weinstein, Ailes, and others, it was common to blame and shame women when they spoke out about experiences of sexual violence or assault. Like Bathsheba, many women who were victims of sexual violations were accused of being violators. They were called immoral for the immoral behavior of others who suffered no consequences. As the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney explains, “Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped."

 

Thankfully, today there is an increasing awareness of the brutal effects of sexual harassment and assault on its victims and greater respect for the testimony of women who have been abused. Women are gaining the courage to say #MeToo. Due to a recent movement on social media, more and more women feel empowered to speak the truth, to admit, “I have also been harassed or assaulted.” You’re not alone, sister Bathsheba.

 

Even The Episcopal Church is beginning to publicly acknowledge many of the hidden abuses that have gone unspoken for years. One example occurred at our General Convention this summer, when the House of Bishops organized a “Liturgy of Listening” to give voice to victims of abuse and misconduct by church leaders (Mueller).

 

Speaking the truth is a good first step, but we still have a long way to go. What we’re dealing with here are results of the cultural sin of patriarchy, which afflicted Israel and continues to afflict us today. Patriarchy is the set of structures that encourage men to hold positions of power in society, mixed with the belief (whether implicit or explicit) that men are superior to women.

 

David’s abuse of his patriarchal power caused Bathsheba, Uriah, the armies of Israel, and eventually Bathsheba’s infant child to suffer mightily. This cultural and societal sin forms the way we think and the way we see the world. It contributes to individual acts of sin against women, children, and men alike. And even as we become more #woke, more aware of the problems of patriarchy, none of us can truly escape it.

 

But, like every other sin, the solution to this one is repentance. We can’t change the past or control how others abuse their power. We can only look at ourselves as a community of faith and entrust ourselves to God’s mercy. We can ask forgiveness for the ways in which we have participated in the sins of patriarchy, as individuals, as a parish, as a diocese, as a denomination, as the whole Body of Christ… and we trust that our loving, liberating, and life-giving God will change us.

 

We can’t expect to be perfect, but we can try to do a little better than we used to. We can listen to the stories of victims and survivors and change what we can to create a church that doesn’t victimize anyone anymore. May God make it so in us. Amen.

 

 

Bibliography

 

  • BBC News. “Harvey Weinstein timeline: How the scandal unfolded.” BBC News. Published 25 May 2018. Accessed 28 July 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-41594672.

  • Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. “Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15.” Working Preacher. Published 22 July 2018. Accessed 24 July 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3725.

  • Davidson, Richard M. “Did King David Rape Bathsheba? A Case Study in Narrative Theology.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/2 (Autumn 2006): 81–95. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1174&context=jats.

  • Disis, Jill, and Frank Pallotta. “The last year of Roger Ailes’ life was consumed by scandal.” CNN. Published 18 May 2017. Accessed 28 July 2018. https://money.cnn.com/2017/05/18/media/timeline-roger-ailes-last-year/index.html.

  • Duncan-Probe, DeDe. “Bishops give first glance of their response to #MeToo.” Episcopal Café. Published 11 May 2018. Accessed 24 July 2018. https://www.episcopalcafe.com/bishops-give-first-glance-of-their-response-to-metoo/.

  • Gafney, Wilda. “Bathsheba & Black Lives Matter.” WilGafney.com. Published 26 July 2015. Accessed 26 July 2018. http://www.wilgafney.com/2015/07/26/bathsheba-black-lives-matter/.

  • Hogan, Julia Michelle. “‘David’s Women’: A Critical Comparison of Michal, Bathsheba, and Tamar in 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel.” Master’s Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2013.  http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/5118/5/Hogan14MRes.pdf.

  • Moore, Suzanne. “Monica Lewinsky has called out Clinton’s abuse of power. Why haven’t we?” The Guardian. Published 1 March 2018. Accessed 28 July 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/01/monica-lewinsky-bill-clinton-abuse-power.

  • Mueller, Mary Ann. “#MeToo movement hits Episcopal General Convention.” Virtue Online. Published 6 July 2018. Accessed 28 July 2018. http://virtueonline.org/metoo-movement-hits-episcopal-general-convention.

  • Sheets, Daniel. “Bathsheba: A Feminist Approach.” Contemplatives in the World (blog). Published 18 May 2012. Accessed 25 July 2018. http://contemplativesintheworld.blogspot.com/2012/05/bathsheba-feminist-approach.html.

  • Ware, Jordan Haynie, and Luci Hoad. “Episode 48: 2 Samuel 11-12.” Two Feminists Annotate the Bible. Podcast. Published 11 June 2017. Accessed 28 July 2018. https://twofeministsblog.com/2017/06/11/2fab-bible-feminism-david-bathsheba-rape/.

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