Bathsheba & #MeToo: Part 2
11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13B)
Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Last week, we heard about David’s sexual assault against Bathsheba and his conspiracy to murder her husband Uriah, so that he could marry Bathsheba himself.
This is the story of David’s repentance, of his recognition of sin and his decision to seek God’s forgiveness. Remember, the word “repentance” means to “turn around.” It means that we’re going to try to stop sinning and behave differently. In this way, David’s story is a model for us as we repeatedly sin and try (by God’s grace) to turn away from sin toward goodness and love.
However, it’s important for us to remember the centrality of Bathsheba and her experience to this story. You might notice that the text doesn’t mention her by name, referring to her only as “the wife of Uriah.” But even if the authors of this portion of Scripture choose to ignore Bathsheba, we know that she is there. If we keep Bathsheba at the center and don’t neglect her place in it, we’ll find that while David does repent, his repentance (like ours most of the time) is half-hearted and incomplete.
The story opens with Nathan, the prophet, telling King David a story to help him understand what he did wrong. He’s a savvy teacher who tries to help his listener accuse himself. But the problem is that Nathan and David discuss Bathsheba like she is an animal, that is, property to be consumed and disposed of as a man pleases (Ware and Hoad). In the story that the prophet tells, Bathsheba is likened to “one little ewe lamb” owned by a poor man, whereas David is compared to “a rich man who had very many flocks and herds” (12:2-3). David is “wealthy” because, as a king, he literally has multiple wives, and many more concubines with whom he can satisfy his carnal desires. Bathsheba and the other women are not given character arcs or personalities. They aren’t treated like people; they are simply animals, like objects to be owned.
This betrays a deep bias against women, a deeply-rooted sexism in both David and Nathan. Given their cultural context, we can’t expect them to hold modern views of sex and gender relations. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the lenses that David and Nathan wear, the stories they tell, the metaphors they use to imagine marriage and sex between men and women -- they are central to the story. They are part of the reason why David takes advantage of Bathsheba to begin with. David’s sin of sexual assault takes place within a complex web of cultural assumptions and beliefs about men and women. This is a phenomenon that sociologists today call “rape culture,” where sexual violence is considered normal or expected by systematically suppressing the voice and experiences of women.
Here is a prime example of the way that rape culture distorts David and Nathan’s (and often our) theology (i.e. talk about God). Nathan discusses David’s sin as primarily against Uriah and against God. Remember, Nathan’s story ends with David wanting the rich man to pay back the poor man (i.e. Uriah), not to restore the life of the slaughtered lamb (i.e. Bathsheba).
Then, after hearing Nathan’s rebuke, David says, “I have sinned against the LORD” (12:13a). Similarly, Psalm 51 is traditionally interpreted as David’s response to this episode. The Hebrew subtitle to Psalm 51 calls it “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (NRSV). Set in that context, verse 4 is more than a little troubling: “Against you only [LORD] have I sinned.”
David’s sin is indeed against God and God’s Law. That’s the vertical sense of David’s spiritual life. But his sin also has horizontal ramifications; it is quite clearly against Bathsheba, Uriah, and the armies of Israel. Rape culture prevents David and Nathan from even seeing Bathsheba as a whole human person whose feelings matter. They don’t even mention her as an aggrieved party because they don’t consider violence against women to be as important as violence against men (i.e. Uriah’s death). David is unable to even apologize correctly.
Furthermore, Nathan’s oracle declaring David’s sin and punishment continues to objectify and victimize women. “Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun” (12:11). As a punishment, Nathan says that David will lose his wives and his enemy will “lie with” them. The women involved don’t seem to be offered a choice in the matter. Instead they are being passed around as play things. They are used and abused in order to demonstrate the power of the men who take them. Again, rape culture so permeates this story that in Nathan’s mind, even God is fine with violence against women.
With hindsight, we have a different view of God and God’s character. We recognize more clearly and can state more boldly that God is not a man and is not male. God is above and before all gender and sex differences. Genesis teaches us that both men and women are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). God stands with and for all oppressed peoples. God “lifts up the lowly” and “cast[s] down the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:52; BCP, p. 119). But in their own sinful worldviews, David and Nathan can’t understand God’s goodness to men and women. So we must conclude that either God has adapted the message to meet them where they are, or David and Nathan simply misunderstand God’s word.
David’s incomplete repentance goes to show us what we probably already knew: it’s hard for people to change. For all his piety and prayer, David remains a misogynist, a hater and disrespect-er of women, until the day he dies (e.g. David and Abishag in 1 Kings 1:1-4). God can and will change us, most especially in the day of judgment and resurrection, but it’s a slow and painful process.
Last week, I mentioned the names of famous and powerful men who have been publicly outed as sexual offenders against women. Rape culture didn’t die in biblical times. It continues into our own day, as so many women and men can attest. We can and should pray for their forgiveness and for their repentance. But repentance is not easy, and perhaps our expectations for others should be low. Repentance requires us to unlearn old habits, to take off old lenses for viewing the world. It requires us to die to our old selves, and be reborn as a new creation.
Repentance is the Christian life in a nutshell. But it’s also impossible for us to attain perfectly in this life. The journey of Christian repentance is lifelong. That’s why we need to continually come together and speak the truth about our own faults and sins, and seek God’s healing grace. We need to do the hard introspective work of prayer over the course of a lifetime so that God can continue to reveal to us our blind spots. They don’t just go away on their own. They need the Blood of Jesus to wash over them so that we can see them anew.
But thousands of years of experience show us that being a faithful worshipper doesn’t get rid of sin (David is a great example). We actually need to work on it together. Thankfully, God doesn't just give us Bibles and Prayer Books. God gives us one another. God gives us a community of faith to surround and nurture us, to correct and rebuke us, to forgive and renew us. We need to learn from one another in order to overcome the many and various sins that we commit.
I can stand here and preach against the sexism of David and the sexism of our present culture, but, as a man, if I’m not willing to listen to my sisters in Christ and be challenged to change, then I am still part of the problem. Change happens when we let go of our pride and admit that we need each other to grow and to learn. Humility and listening is where is begins. Every body part needs to pay attention to the others in order to live as a healthy and whole Body of Christ now and in the age to come.
But even if we fail in this, as we surely will, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of this text. Just after the Lectionary cuts off the reading, the rest of 2 Samuel 12:13 says, “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die” (emphasis mine).
Even in our imperfections, God is merciful. God forgives even if we cannot or will not repent more fully. Even when, like David, we stay stuck in our old ways of violence and sexism, if we approach God with a broken and contrite heart, God will forgive. And since we are always in need of fixing, thank God for that mercy. Amen.
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/.
"Rape Culture." Marshall University Women's Center. Accessed 5 August 2018. https://www.marshall.edu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/.
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/.