There are a few passages that I dread seeing in the rotation of the lectionary. This is one of them. It’s an awful story.
The flagrant abuse of power is nothing new – there are no lessons to be learned in that or in the attempted cover-up. We’ve gotten used to the politics of power and self-protection. It’s amazing that the various editors who put together what we have as sacred texts left this one in. David was their golden boy, the King after God’s own heart. His rule was considered the highpoint of Israel’s self rule. And they have documented his manipulations and the consequences of his lust without blinking.
Bathsheba – the woman – is given no dialog. We aren’t able to determine her wishes, her feelings, her options. Mostly, she is called the wife of Uriah, indicating that it is Uriah who has been wronged. And he certainly was. Bathsheba is little more than an object on the storyboard, moved from place to place to illustrate David’s folly.
In his confessional psalm, the golden king declares, “Against you, Lord, you alone, have I sinned.” Well, really? If David is guilty only to God, then it is Bathsheba who bears the guilt of her husband’s and her newborn’s deaths. For centuries, it has been Bathsheba’s fault for being seen. Her fault because she is beautiful. Modern sensibilities are beginning to change that vision, but just barely.
“You are the man!”, Nathan booms (or whispers) – also without blinking. This phrase has a different connotation in our day, but it’s a clever, chilling sting from the mouth of the prophet. Those of us wishing for better justice than God seems interested in, (or at least better than this author, this era, this embedded patrimony, is interested in) applaud the power of his line. “You are the man. You are the one deserving punnishment, because you had no pity!” Here, finally is a hint of vindication for Bathsheba and for her husband, Uriah, for his stalwart, innocent loyalty to king and country. Nathan confronts David, standing up to one who clearly is willing to kill to silence the truth. But Nathan survives – again, focusing the narrative on David, the king after God’s own heart.
David manages to break all of the ten commandments, I think, most of them in this one story – except he keeps coming back to one… the big one, the first one. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and have no other gods before me.’ He rides the rails with that. David’s ego, his position, his power clearly vie for his affection as gods he idolizes. But, faced with the truth, he’s able to see it. And repent. That is the reason we hear his story with such detail and lazer focus. We are to see it all, know how low he has fallen, how angry, disappointed, disgusted God feels about him, and hear David confess.
How hard is it for you to look someone in the eyes whom you have wronged and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. It was my fault.”
Truthfully, honestly, apologizing, one to one, face to face is excruciating. Confession puts so much at stake, makes one so vulnerable… anything can happen. The fear, of course, is that you will be rejected; that the emotional effort of opening your heart will be of no avail. They will turn and walk away, or lash out, or tell everyone, or…. Emotional, verbal honesty is really difficult.
David apologized to God, begged for forgiveness, lay on his face without eating for the seven days his baby lived in case God would relent and let the child live. Don’t focus on that part, it’s not the baby’s story either. It is all about David, not even God. This is not the way God behaves; it is the way David behaved that lead him to reconcile his behavior with his faith, his trust in God’s steadfast goodness.
This scripture is about the courage needed to look at ourselves and assess the damage, to be accountable and honest. I want David to be this open to Bathsheba, but we can only ask so much of a 3000 year old story.
What can you ask of yourself? Are your values, is your self-image, your behavior reconcilable to the standards you hold for other’s behavior? Do you carry an umbrella around hoping to keep God from seeing you, recognizing you in some part of your life? Would you hold up to storytime with Nathan?
Being honest with ourselves, cutting through the layers of self-preservation and pretense we build up over time is a big, grown-up job. But we can’t find freedom from the inner world that torments us, or spills out onto others, if we refuse the challenge. We all need to do it. The cross formed with fragrant christening oil at baptism, traced with water in remembrance, smudged with sticky ashes across our foreheads once a year reminds us that life is to be lived within the circle of that ritual. Affirming, confirming, assessing, confessing – and receiving, believing the forgiveness and new life offered us… that is the shape, the formation of faith in Christ. Faith grows, changes, deepens, doubts, takes wild leaps based on our honesty and integrity and the attention or intention we give it.
I don’t know about David. He’s kind of a lousy example of one being right with God, but so are Jesus’ disciples, and maybe that’s the point. God’s love, charity, benevolence is real and accessible and life changing for all of us who would be lousy examples. Take courage from that and look within and know that God is already there, waiting for an interesting conversation.
And be of good cheer. You already know the worst and can be confident of the ending.