“In the spring of the year, when kings go out to battle…” began the liturgist at worship last Sunday. My ears perked up: I know this story well. We studied it in healthy boundaries and sexual ethics classes at my former and current churches. In the season when kings go out to battle, David stayed home. With no real work to do, he entertained himself by sexually violating and impregnating one of his subjects. To cover the pregnancy, the king ordered Bathsheba’s husband home from battle, but Uriah refused to sleep with his wife. So David staged his murder and claimed Bathsheba as his own.
I know this story well. Preachers often use it to show that even when we mess up, God still loves us. But Pastor Scott’s sermon – I now saw in the worship bulletin – was called “Silenced and Marginalized.” Was he really going to preach the truth? Not only about David’s sin, but about Bathsheba’s wound? Would Pastor Scott acknowledge how women suffered then and now, even in the church, because leaders abuse their power? I dared not let myself hope. I prepared myself to hear the usual script.
Then Pastor Scott got up to preach. Normally he launches right into his text, but this time he began with prayer. I could hear the trepidation in his voice as he asked for God’s guidance. He seemed to feel he was setting a risky course. I began to realize that this might be the moment I never thought would come: when a pastor openly called out the church’s abuse of power not only against individual victims of sexual offenses but against all women, simply because of our gender. Would he name the way that leaders abuse their power against – predominantly – women? Would he call out the church’s complicity in silencing the victims of abuse? Most important, would he acknowledge the bleeding wound in our hearts and souls?
Pastor Scott began by praising two women — both seminarians — who had preached during his two-week absence. “The Christian Church has not looked kindly upon women beyond Sunday School teaching, baking cookies for memorial receptions, and heading out to mission fields,” he admitted. “Too often women have been given a resounding ‘NO’ when it comes to preaching or serving on the altar. Or worse still, they have been used — or abused, marginalized and objectified by the more powerful men who for too long have controlled the ecclesiastical structure for their own benefit. I include myself in that oft-forgotten privilege.”
Tears began to flow. This was real. I pulled out my handkerchief, but I wasn’t about to leave. Nothing could have pulled me away from this message. Here’s the sermon that rocked my world.
No, this is not going to be one of those “feel good” sermons where you leave church feeling so much better than when you arrived. Sometimes reality is not that polite. Even a casual reading of the lesson from 2 Samuel will not allow it. This is one of those dark passages in the Bible that we rarely read and frankly ought to be ashamed of. There is no good news here. Any attempt to twist the message to make “Good King David” look – well, good – is a mistake. But if we really name what is going on here, we just might learn something about David, about ourselves, and about how not to live.
It’s hard to miss what is going on here. Like many charismatic leaders, David became a victim of his own success. He was riding a very powerful wave. Following the miserable two-year tenure of King Saul, David had begun to unite the people by centralizing his power – which he felt came directly from God – in Jerusalem. The people believed in him completely. They put their trust in him. He was seen as the king who could do no wrong. He was God’s representative. And David began to believe his own press. He actually believed that he was doing God’s will in every decision and in every act.
The problem was, despite his being divinely appointed and inspired by God, he was human. And the funny thing about us humans: we are rarely satisfied with what we have. We always want more.
And so that fateful night. David’s men were away fighting foreign threats to “God’s kingdom” (where he himself should have been, but he elected to stay home) when he spied a beautiful woman — Bathsheba — bathing nearby. He inquired about her and learned that she was the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Now David already had seven wives, but evidently that wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He wanted this “delight to his eyes,” Bathsheba, despite the fact that she was married to one of his officers who was out in the field fighting on his behalf.
So he sent guards to “take” her. They brought her to him.
And David raped her.
Now, the scriptures do not say that specifically, and scholars have long debated whether this was rape. But if it’s not rape, what do we call it? It was certainly not a consensual relationship. It could never be. The guards did not have the power to say “no” to the king. Bathsheba certainly did not have the power to say “no.” David had all the power, and he abused it to get what he wanted. So I think it’s high time we name it what it is.
But the story gets even darker. When Bathsheba informs David with the only words she is given in this passage, “I am pregnant,” he summons Uriah home expecting that he will sleep with his wife and the child will be mistaken as his. But Uriah makes David look even worse when he will not sleep with his wife while engaged in battle despite David’s attempt to get him drunk.
So David sends Uriah back to the front lines carrying his death orders in his own hands! Astonishing – what one will do when one has the power to do whatever one wants.
It’s difficult for us to look at stories like this because, I know, for many of us in this room, we know all too well the plight of Bathsheba. And the memories are painful: the inability to speak; the shame involved; the fear that “no one would ever believe me if I did speak my truth”; and the false notion that many have erroneously adopted that “it was all my fault.”
At this point Pastor Scott stopped and looked out at the congregation. “Many in this congregation, mostly women, have suffered this fate. I know this story may be painful to hear, and all I can say is, I’m sorry.” These compassionate words opened a dam. My tears began to flow faster.
Pastor Scott continued:
This is not just an occurrence that happened several thousand years ago. This is happening every day, and it is critical for the church to name it and be willing to help those who fall victim to such atrocities as they begin to reclaim their voice and seek the healing they so desperately need.
It’s no wonder Bathsheba says next to nothing in this story. Think, for a moment, of the position she is in. Who would believe her? She was a throwaway in King David’s harem and he had deployed the perfect cover-up. No one would ever know or believe he could do such a thing…
This story, if it is ever addressed, is almost always told from the perspective of David, but I want us to come at it today from that of Bathsheba. Doing so requires going beyond the text to some degree because it is not much interested in Bathsheba’s feelings, does not identify the rape as a crime or sin against her and shows no word from God directly to her or through any intermediary.
Professor Wil Gafney of the Brite Divinity School states, “In the aftermath of the rape, the text says that Bathsheba purified herself after her ‘uncleanness.’ Many translations render this as ‘after her period,’ which is a possibility accounting for the ease of conception as she would be fertile then. But any vaginal discharge, [including] the act of intercourse, also required the bathing ritual before which a woman was ‘taboo,’ a better translation than the traditional ‘unclean.’ Read in this light, Bathsheba does what many rape victims do; she washes as much of the rape off of herself as she can. Both text and culture support this.”
Bathsheba is forced to live in the house of David, to lie repeatedly with her rapist and to eventually have more children with him. The one she bore as a result of this rape dies. But later, one is born named Solomon. Bathsheba and [the prophet] Nathan work together to get Solomon on the throne. In Bathsheba’s last appearance in the scriptures, Solomon installs her on a throne at his right-hand side, gets up off of his throne and bows down before her.
Saying these words, Pastor Scott stepped down from the chancel, turned toward an imaginary Bathsheba on the chancel steps, and – as if he were Solomon – bent low to honor this woman who had suffered so much. He stepped back into the pulpit and continued.
This text is an important supplement to Bathsheba’s rape narrative in 2 Samuel 11 because she survives the rape of David and thrives in spite of what it — and he — has done to her. Not all women are so lucky. And neither does this in any way make up for the emotional and psychological damage she incurred.
So our story is a powerful challenge: perhaps a painful reminder to many, but, I hope, a wake-up call to most. We cannot turn our backs on those who can so easily be objectified in our culture — those who have been marginalized, those who have lost their voice at the hands of the powerful, the privileged, the ones who appear to be in control.
But we also must be aware of how easy it is to justify our own wrong-doing, how easy it is to rationalize our use and, at times, abuse of power based on our privileged position in society. It begins with honest personal reflection and recognition and confession of our complicity in such a system of dominance by the privileged. It’s important to sit with the passage and really name it for what it is, and to recognize it as a piece of our Judeo-Christian history and a part of our story today.
So I invite you to let these words from Samuel stir in your soul this week. Listen to what God wants and needs to reveal in you as we seek to be faithful in our following as people of integrity, justice, compassion and peace.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 26, 2015 by the Rev. Dr. Scott Landis at Mission Hills United Church of Christ, San Diego. As soon as the link is available, I’ll be listening to it again. I’ll share the link here.