David and Bathsheba

I’m preaching about David and Bathsheba on Sunday.  So are a lot of other preachers around the world.  That’s because 2 Samuel 11 is the Old Testament reading this week in something called the Revised Common Lectionary (explaining what that is would require at least another blogpost), and many preachers around the world use the lectionary to guide them in selecting scripture on which to base their sermons each week.

By this point in the week I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the David and Bathsheba story, and I’m pretty sure I understand what’s going on.  It’s a sad and tawdry tale.

Much of what I read this week I already knew, which is often the case when I preach about familiar portions of scripture.  But I did come across a couple of new insights.

One is that the sexual encounter with Bathsheba is often portrayed as a romantic interlude – in other words, consensual – when in reality the story suggests something very different.  David sent for her, slept with her, and then sent her back home.

This is not the language of romance.  It’s the language of power.

It’s true that David marries Bathsheba after having her husband murdered, but the circumstances surrounding their first meeting do not sound like a fairytale romance. Instead, the David we meet in this story is bored and full of himself. I’m thinking that maybe God should have allowed him to build the Temple, as he wanted, because without a project like that David has way too much time on his hands.

Maybe my original understanding of this story was shaped by influences other than the actual words of scripture.  For example, the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, staring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, certainly made the relationship seem beautiful and sensual, as sensual as films in that era were allowed to be.

The story, as the Bible tells it, however, suggests something very different.  I’ll need a day or two to process this new information.

The other new insight into this story comes from Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and writer.  In his wonderful book about the David story, Leap Over A Wall, Peterson argues that David will forever be linked with two names – Goliath and Bathsheba.

Though these two are different in so many ways, they are nevertheless similar, says Peterson, in that each one was something of a test for David.  They reveal David’s heart.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about David and Goliath, and I lifted up David’s courage as a model for us.  I suggested that we too aim higher, work harder, and trust God more.  In this other story David is calculating and cruel. So, what’s the message?

That we should copy the behavior we see earlier in David’s life and avoid the sad mess that his life becomes later on?  Sure, but I’m guessing there’s more here.  I’m starting to see that David was powerful in both stories, but in the story of Bathsheba that use of power was distorted.  It was used for David’s own gratification.  It was abused, used casually, thoughtlessly.

This is the exciting part of the week for me, as I squeeze as much of the spiritual wisdom as I can out of the words of scripture.  I know I’ll get there.  I (almost) always do.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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