But somehow this story has been cleansed and sanitized. David is forever the scrappy kid who defeated the giant. Or the heroic King, prominent in the family line from the patriarchs to Jesus. But I have never been able to read this story without feeling enraged. Frankly, it’s very difficult for me to write this sermon - this paragraph - without using foul language and calling David some very un-family-friendly names.
When I was 15, I sat in a crowded service taxi in Amman Jordan - like a taxi but with a route like a bus. Up to four people squished into the back seat. My mom was on my left and a probably thirty-something man was on my right. And while we drove, the man’s hand began to sneak up my leg under the coat I carried. From my knee slowly inching further up. I clenched my legs. I froze. When our stop came I bolted out after my mom. I didn’t ever tell her. Or anyone. For a really long time.
Every woman has a story something like this. Or worse. Bathsheba’s story is much, much worse.
Stories of consent and the violation of consent have been front and center in these weeks, in this past year or more. Listening the Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony a couple weeks ago and seeing the man who took his privilege and power for granted from the time he was a teen, be essentially given a pass.
Consent can be broken down to three words: Ask, Listen, Respect. Dr Ford’s encounter and others would have gone quite differently had Brett followed through on those. But our interactions, consent is not only about bodies and touching and hugging and kissing, although autonomy over our own bodies is very basic - including hugs and kisses even from beloved family members. Children are beginning to learn this on flip charts in school. Ask for consent, listen to the answer and respect the answer you receive. When you want to borrow your friend’s ruler. When you want to sit by someone in the cafeteria When want to move your neighbor’s backpack because it’s in the way.
I am still learning this. I could put my finger on a couple of things I did this week where if I had followed these rules I would not have harmed a relationship or had to apologize for something later.
Maybe you’ve heard or seen the tea analogy. There’s a very cute YouTube video that elaborates on how consent works in an ‘amorous’ encounter:
Do you want some tea?
Yes, I love having tea with you.
Okay! I’ll make you some tea.
Hmm - I don’t think I want tea any more. Maybe just water.
What I don’t say: NO YOU HAVE TO DRINK TEA! YOU LOOK REALLY THIRSTY FOR TEA!
What I do say: Let me get you that water. I’ll put this tea away - or maybe I’ll drink it myself. I do not get annoyed or upset because you decided you’re just not into tea right now.
Just because you had tea last week, doesn’t mean you want tea now. And an unconscious person definitely cannot drink tea and you should make sure that person is safe, not pour tea in their mouth.
So, okay. It may be inappropriate for me to layer today’s cultural context and understandings onto the world of ancient Israel. The culture of David and Bathsheba is not the same as the culture we live in now, difficult as it is for me to remember this as I put myself in Bathsheba’s place. With Saul and then David becoming king, power has been centralized in Israel. Kingdoms and political power are established and maintained through marriage - through brokering with powerful fathers for marriageable daughters. David has at least 3 wives to this point in his king-ship.
The greater the hierarchy, the more likely it is to be centralized in men - here in one man - and the less power that women have, the further toward the bottom they fall. Unlike in the era of the judges in Israel's history (over which we’ve taken a giant leap in this year of the narrative lectionary), which was more chaotic, but in which charismatic leaders rose to the fore, allowing rulers like Deborah, or Jael to have status.
You can see this even in the evolution of the church - in the early church women led and were apostles but then the church began to be established. In the early days of Anabaptism, there were women who prophesied and preached but that fell away, even in a relatively flat hierarchy. We’ve only just kinda/sorta begun to change this in the church.
But let’s think about this story just in term of the ten commandments and the covenant relationship that we’ve been hearing from the beginning of September. Even by standards of his time, David is a [insert bad word here - I really couldn't think of something bad enough that was church-appropriate to say.] He completely misuses his power in summoning and assaulting Bathsheba. Then, without a second thought, continues to use his position to give his actions legitimacy including ensuring the death of a prominent leader in his ranks.
Even if, as was true in that context, that Bathsheba is described in her relationship to her father Eliam, and wife of Uriah. Essentially property. Even then, in his context of a covenant relationship dictated by the gift of a law to give guidance to God’s people - we heard it reiterated by Joshua last week - David believes himself above it. It is his belief that blessing equals him being able to do what he wants: shirk his duty, covet, take, adulterate, murder. How many commandments is that?
The way much of history has told and retold this story is twofold - both problematic and both evident Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ You know the one...maybe most famously by Jeff Buckley. David is a hapless romantic; a baffled king composing hallelujah, overthrown by moonlight and beauty. In my opinion, those don’t equal consent or negate assault. In fact, I think the intense, “well-meaning,” bumblers are most often given a pass because dogged pursuit - even if rebuffed - is read as romantic when from a woman’s perspective it’s just short of stalking.
And second Bathsheba is a sultry, seductress. Bathing in the open as a lure and - the Cohen’s ballad - tying the overcome David to the kitchen chair. In fact the text is basically neutral about Bathsheba in both emotion and intent. It was David strolling on the roof after his nap - presumably giving him a view into somewhere private where Bathsheba was bathing. And with a power such as he has, she has no course to refuse him when she is summoned. Dave sees something he wants and takes it.
A colleague in ministry, Amy Yoder McLaughlin, a pastor in Pennsylvania shared a sermon she wrote about this story. She says:
The lack of humanity with which David treated Bathsheba, and the lack of humanity with which we have been told this story it is a symptom of a spiritual illness. It’s a narcissism that that insists on telling the story from the perspective of the powerful. It’s a narcissism that desires to be in David’s place, that wants to satisfy our own needs, rather that being present to the pain of others. This is the same narcissism that limits even the vision of the writers of the Hebrew scripture, who cannot manage–despite their gifted writing skills–to give this woman a voice.There is so much of Bathsheba left out of story in verse 4 and 5 alone: So David sent messengers to fetch 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. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’ Even her name is left out of these verses - and much of the story: the women, Uriah’s wife or ‘she’.
Is there any good news? I see it Nathan. Prophets for the win. Nathan’s whole job is telling David, “You are trash and you are acting like a garbage human.” I mean, he doesn’t say it quite like that. But he does pass along God’s message: “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” (A pretty tame way of saying that God is not about cheating and killing and lying and abuse.) In fact everything David has done flies in the face of the covenant relationship God has established with Israel.
I don’t love the parable that Nathan comes up with: a poor man’s darling pet lamb taken by the rich man, who ‘was loathe to take one of his own flock or herd’ to be a meal for guest. This parable is still about the property of men. But it is a parable that David could understand. He was a shepherd after all.
And contextually, it is very convicting. “You are the man!” proclaims Nathan. And David finally understands - at least to a degree - what he has done. He understands that he has violated, if not Bathsheba’s consent, (i’m not convinced he ever would have believed that she has anything to say about it) certainly his relationship with Uriah. Because has he asked, listened, and respected with Uriah - an indecent proposal type of situation? - he knows he would have heard - What? Dude! No!
There is zero about this story that says ideal situation and the consequences for David’s misdeeds fall most harshly on Bathsheba who is in the bind of having to marry the person who took advantage of her. It is her only recourse, her husband is dead and she is pregnant with another man’s child. There is no option, as there might be today to strike out on her own.
The child she bears as a result dies shortly after his birth, and David’s idea of comforting her is to sleep with her again. Maybe being given the opportunity to bear another child is in fact comfort to Bathsheba. But this man is no saint - I’ve said how much I was to call him bad names - his house falling into shambles, his relationships crumbling around him.
So what? What’s the takeaway? What are we to do with the heaviness of yet another grim story of power gone wrong?
I’m going to start with you, men: Be Nathan. Actually be better than Nathan, because I’m pretty sure he still saw women as the property of men not as full humans. Be the one who calls out, who notices, who cuts off the manslainers and redirects conversation, who notices and amplifies the voices of women. Be the one who interrupts ‘locker room talk’ with “Stop degrading women. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Just stop it.” And do not do this expecting pats on the back. Do it because “The thing he did displeased the Lord.” Do it because is your job, because you are human and so are women.
Women and non-binary folk, if you are Bathsheba, I am sorry. If you have had an experience like Bathsheba’s I hope that you are able to speak it into an ear that will listen and believe. For those of us who identify female or non-binary, it’s complicated. Because we too have power and privilege that we can misuse because we haven’t realized. I said it before: I’m still figuring out the ways I misuse my power - as a pastor, as a parent, as a white person in a neighborhood where there are many people of color
Ijeoma Oluo, who is a woman of color who speaks and writes on race and privilege talks in her book So You Want to Talk about Race about the complications of her own privilege - as a black women she says, she still has the privileges of being able-bodied, light-skinned, educated and informed and now, having a public platform.
The good news is in hearing Bathsheba’s #MeToo, in hearing all the awful stories of the Bible, is in also hearing - and being - the prophet’s voice. It is understanding that God’s desire is not for destruction but for care. A Nathan to my 15-year-old self might have noticed and said, “Get your hands off of her. Don’t ever touch a woman in that way again.” These narratives from the Hebrew Bible are hard. May we both be and hear the prophet in the stories we experience. Amen.