Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

On one level it is obvious: this is a story about David’s sin. God knows it.

August 2, 2009

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

On one level it is obvious: this is a story about David’s sin. God knows it.

Nathan knows it. David comes to know it. And, Nathan promises, all Israel will see God’s judgment of it. They do see that judgment, and so do we, if we read the rest of 2 Samuel. How could we forget that this is a story about the sin of David?

Perhaps we forget this fact because it is so hard to imagine. Remember who David is: the singer of psalms, the anointed king, the favored one of God, the hope of Israel, and, in Christian accounts, the defining ancestor of Jesus. Acknowledging the sin of David threatens a whole worldview. It shatters a vision in which saints and sinners can be neatly divided, a vision in which God works through the good actions of good people to establish peace and justice. If David sinned, then the world is not like we thought it was.

Interpreters have found a variety of ways to help us forget David’s sin in 2 Samuel. The other canonical account of David’s reign, in Chronicles, takes the most direct approach. It leaves the story out altogether.  Some less canonical (but perhaps more influential) interpreters have blunted the bite of sin by making this a tragic story of love. David and Bathsheba, the 1951 film starring Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck, seems to say that whatever happened wasn’t really sin, because they really, really needed one another. David was the sensitive, reflective king who just wanted to be loved for who he really was. Bathsheba was the lonely wife of an over-dedicated soldier. They fell in love! Love can’t be wrong, or at least not very wrong. The event is remembered, but not as anything like a sin.

If this second interpretation has flourished in modern times, a third has shaped readings of 2 Samuel in many ages. It remembers the story in a way that attributes the seduction — and so the sin — to Bathsheba. She was bathing on her roof, after all. If the sin must be remembered, and remembered as sin, it can at least be blamed on the woman.

Nathan offers a different interpretation. Nathan’s parable in chapter 12 brings the hard fact of sin to David’s consciousness. Good preaching on that parable will not just comment on it, but do the work it does. It will strip away interpretations that let us forget David’s sin. It will tell the story again in ways that bring home the full significance of that sin.

Such a sermon might begin with the first sentence of the story: “In the spring of that year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab …” (11:1). Good kings go out to battle. But David stays home, preying upon the people rather than serving them (just as Samuel warned in 1 Samuel 8:11-17). Neglecting his day job, David has time for an afternoon stroll on his roof. He sees Bathsheba, who is married to Uriah the Hittite. And then the narrative turns quick and definitive, like the commands of a king: “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her” (11:4). If Bathsheba is not without agency here — she is the subject of “came to him” — her actions are surrounded by David’s kingly power. The text does not tell us how willingly she came. And it does not reflect on the awful complexities of “willing” in response to royal command. But whatever Bathsheba’s responsibility, David’s is clear enough.

Then Bathsheba goes home. That’s it. There is no mention of love, no indication that David has any desire for ongoing relationship. It looks like nothing more than a little kingly prerogative. And then Bathsheba sends a messenger with two words that teach David the limits of his power: “I’m pregnant.”

These words detonate the next explosion in the chain reaction. If David can’t control pregnancy, he can at least control who people think the father is. He sends for Uriah. “Go down to your house and wash your feet,” David tells him. That is: sleep with your wife so you and everyone else will think you are the father of the child who is already on the way. But Uriah won’t go down. David insists. Uriah still won’t go. In a comic escalation that only highlights the horror all around it, David gets Uriah intoxicated. Even when he is drunk, Uriah won’t go down to his house. The contrast is unmistakable: Uriah, a Hittite, refuses the comforts of his own home when the ark and the troops are in the field; but David, the king who should be following that ark and leading those troops, preys upon the homes, bodies, and marriages of his subjects.

David can’t control the actions of a righteous man, but he can have him killed. The chain reaction continues, more frightening than ever: neglecting royal duties leads to adultery leads to lies leads to murder. It is enough to turn the stomach even of a hardened political insider like Joab. David tries to comfort him, saying, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another…” (11:25). Adultery leads to lying leads to murder leads now to calling evil good, or at least inevitable. David would rewrite the law of God. But David does not get the last word. The last word in this chapter is this: “the thing that David did displeased the LORD” (11:27).

Nathan brings that hard, horrible fact home. But the story does not end only in a realization of sin. It says that God even weaves David’s taking of Bathsheba into redemptive purposes. Their first child dies. (Why, God?! Why is there a body count even in stories that end in redemption?) But their second child grows up to be Solomon, builder of the Temple, wise king, and, Christian preachers will remember, ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:6). The redemption of David’s sin therefore involves more than personal salvation for David. By the grace of God, David’s sin is incorporated into the redemption of the world.

Preaching that tells this story in all its fullness will push us beyond the polarities that often order our thinking. It will remember David as murderer, adulterer, and predatory king as well as hero, beloved of God, and singer of psalms. It will break up the stories we tend to tell about others and ourselves, stories in which we are either good enough — not perfect, but good enough — that we have no real need of grace, or so bad that we are beyond the scope of grace. Remembering David’s sin can also push us beyond the poles of cynicism and naivete in our political and institutional lives. The politics of David’s court are brutal. But — often in spite of themselves, and almost always in ways the actors do not fully understand — these power politics are caught up in God’s redeeming work. Remembering this can give vision for action that neither flinches from the morally risky work of politics nor tips over into a “realism” that proceeds as if God had abandoned us to our own devices. Remembering the fullness of this story can help us see all of life as the theater for God’s wily, costly, persistent performance of redemption.1 

1Thanks to Donna Giver Johnston for research assistance and valuable conversations in preparation for this essay.