Sermon for Sunday, August 2, 2015, by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector
Last week we heard the story of how David took Bathsheba. I spoke about how this is not a story of “another good man brought down by an evil seductress.” This is not the reason for the story’s telling, and it is not an interpretation supported by the text. Recall that the story starts out by telling us that it is Springtime, the time when kings go to war, and David has sent his men off while he lounges about at home being a couch potato. This is not honorable, and if he had been where he was supposed to be none of all this would have happened.
David then proceeds to violate about five commandments. He knows Bathsheba is not only someone else’s wife, but the wife AND the daughter of men who were among “the Thirty,” the small group of men who have been loyal to him since before he was king. He lies, he deceives, and he has Uriah – definitely the better man in all of this – murdered. And he ends up looking like the good guy by marrying Uriah’s widow, making a queen out of her, and taking a child others think is the son of another man as his own.
So in today’s lesson David is rightly called to account by the prophet Nathan. This is what prophets are for in the Old Testament: they speak truth to power. David is repentant, as the story tells it. In my experience it is rare to see a person in a position of power admitting they did something wrong. We’re more likely to hear words like “If I did anything wrong I apologize.” But there are no conditional, limpid half-apologies here. David says “I have sinned against the Lord,” and we are given to understand that he means it.
But more is coming, a lot more. Things are about to get a whole lot worse. This is the point when there is a decided shift and David’s fortunes turn south. He is no longer able to control his family, and things go from bad to worse, some of which we do not read on Sunday morning. His son Amnon will brutally rape David’s daughter, Amnon’s half-sister, Tamar. David is angry about this but does nothing. Amnon will later be murdered for this by David and Bathsheba’s son Absolom. Absolom himself will turn traitor against David, and will be killed in battle. David will be grief-stricken: “Absolom, Absolom, my son, my son!” We hear nothing of Bathsheba’s grief. Bathsheba will later come back into focus as she secures from David her son Solomon’s succession to the throne in lieu of David’s older son Adonijah. And of course, this house of David divided against itself prefigures the future division of the David’s kingdom, which will eventually become The Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and each will later fall to a conquering nation.
But what of Bathsheba? I am bothered. I am bothered by the historical depiction of her as a seductress – or worse – despite the lack of support for this from the text. I am bothered by the way she is treated as an object and a commodity, even by Nathan. I am bothered by her silence, that she’s given no voice except the words “I am pregnant.” She is not even named in today’s reading, and she is turned into a ewe lamb, livestock. (Now Jesus is the lamb of God so perhaps she is in good company there.) And, we understand that Nathan has to speak in code so David will not detect where Nathan is going and will be caught in his own game. I get that. And this story has a reason for its telling: the future Davidic line, the parentage of the good, wise King Solomon (who will also have his problems) and the foreshadowing of the decline of the Davidic Kingdom.
Traces of Bathsheba
And through it all, the story of God’s faithfulness to this very flawed man. But what of Bathsheba? Voiceless, exploited, her life snatched out from under her, her good husband murdered. All of this set off when two men from the palace appear with the message “the king wants to see you.” She has no choice, of course. Even in the narrative she’s a passing, fleeting character, who serves a function. She passes like a shadow in and out of the frame, while the principal characters, the ones about whom the story is told — David, Nathan, Solomon, Absolom, — speak and act and take and go to war and kill and have all the agency, even in the telling of the story. It’s all about them. But whose story is it?
These stories of God at work in history are not just about the people in power. There are traces of the powerless, the voiceless, the unnamed, the ones who do not speak. We need to be attuned to their story too, even when we have to fill in some the blanks, which we try to do faithfully and attentively. When we read scripture, first we read the story, what is being told, its context, historical and social, and so forth. Then we go a step further: we read through the text – what is the larger story? We see a larger frame. We seek to understand the metaphor and the work of the spirit. And, we read it devotionally. What does this story say to me? what catches me? what gives me pause? This can happen – often does happen – with texts we’ve heard over and over again. We suddenly hear something we hadn’t noticed before. Those are theholy spaces, the spaces to pay attention to. A word, or a silence.
There are traces of Bathsheba. There are whispers of her in other places in scripture. So we might see her as an invitation to pay attention to those shadowy figures that are often silent, often powerless, who fade in and out of our frame of awareness, in scripture and in our lives. One trace is through Bathsheba and David’s son, Solomon. In a couple of weeks we’ll hear that when Solomon is made King, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says to him: “Ask what I should give you.” (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon asks for wisdom to govern God’s people, (v.9), and he is clear what this is. It is not political savvy but “having understanding to discern what is right” and reverence for God that leads the wise to walk in God’s ways. “God gave Solomon very great wisdom,” scripture tells us. (1 Kings 4:29.) Solomon is associated with the peak of the Golden Age of the United Kingdom of Israel, and is the ascribed author of several wisdom texts, including Proverbs, although it is more likely that Proverbs was written later, in honor of Solomon. In Proverbs 31, we read:
“An oracle that his mother taught him: . . .
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:1, 8-9).
This is wisdom, come to him from his mother: speak out for those who cannot speak. But there is a later, specific reference to Bathsheba. It is in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, which begins with the genealogy of Jesus. In these “begats” there are 5 women mentioned in the long list: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and 4 women from the Old Testament: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and, it says “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” (Mt. 1:3-6). Interesting that, again, Bathsheba is clearly identified but not named. What the text does say is that she is the mother of the wise King Solomon, and the wife of a good, loyal man, a servant of the king, Uriah. Robbed of her life, her husband, and her reputation, voiceless, given a bad rap down through the generations, she takes her place as an ancestor of Jesus. She has a place in the family of God.
Sometimes more by what it doesn’t say than what it says, and more by who it casts in shadow than who it reveals, Scripture invites us to see who is voiceless and invisible in our own lives. Who is on the edges, in the shadows, calling our attention while we are busy doing other things, off on our own agendas? In the stories we hear, on the nightly news or on the internet or wherever, whose voices are we hearing, and whose voices are silenced? Stories are usually narrated from perspectives of power or privilege. Where is the other story? In our encounters with people, how can we listen each other into speech? And where do we need to be listened into speech?
Who is Bathsheba? An ancestor of our Lord Jesus, and a member of the family of God. Through the particular we see the universal. Everyone matters to God. As Bathsheba is brought into the family of God, so are all the voiceless, all the silenced, all the abused, all the powerless, gathered up into Jesus, from the beginning. Jesus names them and pulls them into his story, reminding all of us that they are part of the family of God. As followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. AMEN