There were a few poignant breakthroughs this week, carving a way through the stalemate in regards to gender and power. But, rather than amplify the news, I thought I would point to a story from within the Bible. You may wonder how the Bible relates to silenced women. In today’s world, where power effectively silences those who tell of the “other” side of our celebrities and leaders, the voice of one character, Bathsheba, speaks loudly. It brings hope – not only to Bathsheba, but, also, ultimately to David as well. The psalmist and powerful King cannot do as he pleases; like all of us, he is answerable to God. This is the message I spoke on Sunday at St George’s Anglican Church, Paddington in the diocese of Sydney, with the redaction of a personal story I would rather not have up online yet. My hope is that it brings comfort to those who are, like Bathsheba, the supporting actors in the stories of our churches, our institutions and our world.
Thank you for the introduction, and for hosting me at your church. I was made aware that last week, the Reverend Dr Geoff Broughton started with a Sesame street analogy of Greek letters, outlining God’s faithfulness to us. It is more than slightly intimidating that you as a congregation are able to keep up with such analysis. This congregation is obviously adept at tracking with scholars. Perhaps for some of you it may be scholarship by osmosis. Nevertheless you are the smartest church I’ve ever met.
Although I’m also a scholar, my studies and methods are ethnographic, meaning that over the years I have attuned myself to the voices and testimonies of Christians in contemporary times. Many of the people I study are marginalized in some ways, but also gifted contributors to society in others. I listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians, to people with disability, and to Pentecostals in developing nations such as Malaysia. Their stories similarly attest to the faithfulness of Christ, but in everyday rather than ancient languages.
And this brings us to today’s reading of 2 Sam 11:1-15, and an ancient voice that still speaks from the biblical text. This woman brings insights into the experiences of the marginalized and forgotten. Her name is Bathsheba, and she has been the muse of many artists and musicians.
When you hear this name do you think, as Rembrandt did, of a beautiful woman, naked? With the graceful and sensuous curve of her hips exposed, with water being poured over her feet by a servant? Or do you think of an actress draped in reams of fabric, standing over Gregory Peck taunting him, “…David, the beloved of David”?
Bathsheba is a cultural icon of desire, inciting the imagination. Noting this, David and Diana Garland state,
“Artists and interpreters over the centuries have turned this particular woman into a painted sex kitten who bewitched a divinely chosen king. They accuse her of deliberately choosing to bathe in a place where she knew she could be seen … They imagine her coquettishly parading around naked to catch the king’s eye”
I wonder – do you suspect Bathsheba knew she was being watched from the Palace roof, as she undertook her customary Jewish cleansing ritual? Do you consider her an exhibitionist? Or, naïvely unaware of her rooftop observer?
Whether she knows she has captured David’s gaze is neither here nor there for the biblical author. We are given what we need in order to understand the significance of her voice within David’s life, and the larger biblical story. And with what is written, we must summarize it this way: the story of Bathsheba is a story of control and domination.
Interestingly, when David enquires after her, Bathsheba is designated by her relationships – to both her father, and her husband. The word ‘bat’ means daughter … She was the beloved daughter of David’s most faithful citizens, and, crucially, she was Uriah’s wife. But David has seen her, and now he has decided, he must possess her.
It is a story of willful disobedience to God, silenced voices, and gender power imbalances. It is a story of violence. And in this, it relates to our context today. Control, domination and violence are well known to many Australians. 1 in three Australian women (and many men also) have experienced violence from the hands of their loved ones. Two women are killed each week in our nation – and a woman is hospitalized every three hours. The Luke Batty foundation states that 95% of reported incidents are committed by men – against women, children and other vulnerable people. But here, Bathsheba’s story is not the stereotypical one of poverty, alcohol and screaming, but of riches, celebrity, power and deeply calculated violence – far more insidious. She is summoned by the King, and, and she is kidnapped from her life as she has known it.
You may have heard a famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This quote suggests that evil is outside of good people, and must be resisted by them at all costs.
But from our study into previous biblical passages, we know David was a good man… this is the first time we begin to have doubts.
We know that God chose and anointed him as Israel’s King. He was deemed more suitable than Saul, who was corrupted. David, in comparison, was exemplary. He displayed the pastoral qualities God Himself affirmed later in Jesus, The Good Shepherd. And he is (generally) respectful of women. For instance, having been refused his rightful promised bride in 1 Sam 18, he provides three hundred foreskins to effectively buy Saul’s youngest daughter Micah, who loves him. He treats the prophetic and intelligent Abigail with great dignity in 1 Samuel 25, marrying and providing for her after Nabal’s death.
He treats his family and his enemies alike – he trecats them well – in situation after situation he displays commitment, skill, integrity, and humility – refusing to retaliate, but leaving retribution to the Lord. It is only in 2 Sam 9 that David seeks to do kindness to Saul’s descendents, and Mephibosheth is granted an honorary place at David’s table.
But through Bathsheba’s eyes we can see a different David. We see a King neglecting his responsibilities as the army marches out to war without him. We see a King who rests by day, and who walks upon the roof at eventide. We see him, the King, call a woman to his bedroom who cannot by law or by culture resist his advances. Then, this King plays out a terrible, and elaborate strategy to cover over his sins. He calls Uriah to the palace. But No. Uriah does not lie with his wife to cover the King’s action.
We know that the Davids of this world may maintain their innocence as long as a code of silence exists. Had Uriah returned to his wife, perhaps David’s indiscretions would be left unnoticed. If, after the flowing wine, Uriah had snuck down to his house, all would be made ‘well’. Or would it? Does Uriah know of the little life that grows in Bathsheba’s belly?
Eventually, this results in the murder of a faithful soldier and servant – written in David’s own hand, as in blood. Not only Uriah, but a company of men die. Can David be considered good any longer?
I think about Bathsheba, hearing the news that Uriah had been sent into the front lines of the battle. And of the continuing story, in which the life of the child is taken. Although the bible states that following the child’s death David comforted his wife, it uses it as a euphemism – resulting in Solomon. But I doubt that her replacement husband could have comforted away her deep sadness. Later, Bathsheba’s father and grandfather stand against Solomon’s rule. Perhaps she has lost everyone and everything of her former life.
I wonder whether words ever passed between them about the death of Uriah. Perhaps not. But the event was a symbol – one of David’s power. Far, far worse that a husband’s life could be destroyed so easily – it could also be easily replaced, as if nothing had ever happened. This news likely instilled a fear that did not disappear. It spoke a clear message of who was the lead actor in this story – and who was simply a side character, left to revolve around the anger and desires of the other.
… Yes, the King did marry her. But only to maintain the perception of his righteousness. Only because Uriah was now gone. Bathsheba was brought into the palace, not because she was desirable to David, but because her pregnant shape testified to his indiscretions.
In fact, there is little room for Bathsheba in the story. She is silenced, almost completely. The power of the King extends to its fullest extent – even over her body. Ultimately, her body was the very thing that resulted in her husband’s death. The significance of her body is reiterated throughout the story – it is her body that is admired, her body that is used, and her body that bears the King’s child. Her only words in the story are that fateful announcement, “I am pregnant”.
Many women in our society walk around wishing they could again be actors. That they could undo the ugly strength of dominating power. But it will not be denied – it breaks and it replaces and does not shed a tear.
The difficulty is that violence is internalized, and thus becomes a cycle, often without end. This is why we struggle to delineate clear victims. We blur the lines on who is complicit, and who is innocent. Men do use their power to dominate, we say. But, we add quickly, women do use their bodies to manipulate.
The truth is that we are all scarred by the evil that is within us, even those we consider good men.
The story doesn’t end here, as I’m sure you know. God sees David’s secret sins. And he is held to account. And, thinking of the broken memories that Bathsheba must have held in her heart, this brings me to the cross. I think of the broken body of Jesus, and its powerful message of self-giving power. And I see a new path winding forward through dominating control.
Because slowly, we do begin to see restoration. The biblical text does not announce that Bathsheba “got over” her pain. No, it states instead that she grieved. And perhaps she never stopped doing so. Perhaps she continued to dream of Uriah. But it does tell us that Solomon, her son became the eventual King. And in Matthew 1:6, she is listed as an ancestor of Jesus. God wove Bathsheba’s story into the solution he provides for all humanity.
Strangely, this is an honor that David also lays claim to. And here is the complexity and the simplicity of what God offers us. An end to the cycle.
I will finish with a portion of David’s Miserere, psalm 51, which David wrote after his offenses were found out. It is a picture of the extreme faithfulness of God, and it declares his power. It provides the image of a redeeming Saviour, who does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103), but yet does judge our actions. There is nothing that escapes his watchful gaze.
In pointing to redemption, I am not asserting that the Christian narrative condones rape, or violence or the mistreatment of women. It does not.
For some, this psalm, may seem to be the song of yet another powerful man relinquishing responsibilities. But from our perspective of the New Testament covenant, I see within the song-lines God Himself standing between David and Bathsheba. I see Jesus holding out nailed scarred hands that show men such as David the consequence of their decisions and manipulations, and simultaneously offer Bathshebas the comfort that has been lost through the actions of others.
The Bathshebas of this world do not suffer alone – and they must be told that God held the marks of the sins waged against them on His very body. For he knows what it feels like to receive taunts and blows, and a piercing pain to the side. The Bathshebas of the world must hear that their very, very real suffering is shared by God, who also takes the punishment of men such as David upon Himself that our relationships may now be reconciled.
And so, in this way, good men, who are the sinners and the Davids of this world, may pray:
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your loving-kindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight (Psalm 51: 1-4 NKJV)
There is no doubt that God intends to call David to account on behalf of his misuse of the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized. He hears the voices David has silenced. And so, Bathsheba’s story is an encouragement to oppressed and oppressor alike that there is indeed an end to this cycle of violence.