2 Samuel 11:1-14
Whenever I hear someone commending the Bible as a wholesome guide to family values, I think of this story, among others, and I wonder if they have ever actually read the Bible. King David was one of the greatest heroes Israel ever had. He was a fearless fighter, even in his youth, when he faced Goliath without a single piece of armor on and brought him to the ground with a single little smooth stone. He went on to become a brilliant military strategist and city planner. Jerusalem was his idea. It was David who made it the capital of Israel and united the kingdom under his rule. He was artistic too, a musician and, according to tradition, a composer of the Psalms. When David played his lyre, everybody’s headaches went away and smiles stole over their faces. It seems he led a charmed life. He was God’s anointed one, and in the first book of Kings you can read how he went down in history: “David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” (I Kings I 5:5)
Uriah who? Uriah the Hittite. Loyal soldier in David’s army. Unfortunate husband of the beautiful Bathsheba, whom David happened to see bathing one day while he was walking on the roof of his house. He took one look at her and he had to have her. He sent his messengers to bring her to him and before long she sent him back a message of her own. “I am pregnant,’ she told him, and David’s strategical mind went into high gear.
The first thing he tried was a cover-up. If he could get Uriah and Bathsheba to spend a romantic weekend together, Uriah might believe the child was his own. The only problem was that Uriah was out of town fighting a battle and like all other soldiers he was sworn to celibacy until the fight was over. David ordered him back to Jerusalem and told him to go see his wife, but Uriah refused. The same thing happened the next day, so the day after that David invited Uriah to supper and got him drunk, but still Uriah refused to go home to Bathsheba.
Exasperated by Uriah’s loyalty, David changed his strategy. He wrote a letter to Uriah’s commander Joab that said, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
It sounds like something from a Hollywood suspense thriller: a movie starring Matt Daemon or Brad Pitt, or maybe even Sean Connery as a black ops spy , with a title like All the President’s Men or The Bathsheba Affair. Certainly, the rating is at least pushing the limits of R. It’s not the kind of story that Focus on the Family would endorse.
So here’s the question: “Why is such a morally reprehensible story in the ‘Good Book?'”
I think that it is because the Bible is nothing if not true — and by “true” I mean true to real life. David’s story is partly about real life politics can so often have the veneer of people living a charmed life, while behind the scenes there’s a lot of dirty pool being played. Political and military intrigue are part of the human condition, and the Bible is in the business of telling us the truth, not covering things up. We see those stories repeat themselves all the time: from Nixon’s Watergate to Clinton’s Monicagate, to the hubris of even rank and file GI’s when put in charge of, given absolute power over prisoners at places like Abu Grabe, to the ICE agents who rip babies from their parent’s arms because they were told to do so.
But you don’t have to look in the papers to see other parts of this true-to-life drama. David and Bathsheba plays itself out in homes and families we are familiar with. We see it in the disintegration of marriages all the time—he’s seeing another woman, maybe half his age. In the movie, Moonstruck the old wife in an Italian family confronts her cheating husband about his affair at the breakfast table:
“You’re going to die, you know,” she says.
“What are you talking about?” he asks.
“I want you to stop seeing her,” she says.
He stands up and slams his fist down on the table, and you expect him to start tearing the kitchen apart. And then he yells, “OK!” and sits back down.
This story is here, I think, to remind us what happens when we forget that we are not really in control. We do not wield absolute power, no matter how much power our title or our position makes available to us. And power, as Martin Amis reminded Bill Moyers, whether it is military power or the power to charm, whether it is rank within an army or a family structure, whether it is exercised as a head of state of head of a household—power is a blunt instrument.
Talk all you want of precision bombing, there is always collateral damage. Talk all you want of victimless crimes, there is always a consequence. Try to contain the effects of wielding power, but the rippling circles of consequences will always continue to widen. What began as a one-time rendezvous after a two-martini lunch, now involves coworkers down the hall, and then their families, and then your own.
In the end of this Bible story, what the king ordered was exactly what happened. Uriah was killed, Bathsheba mourned him, and when her mourning was over she became David’s wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord and before the baby could make a fist, Nathan the prophet was knocking at the front door of the palace, sent by God to confront the king — and that’s the story for next week!
Tony Campolo says that “power is the antithesis of the Gospel.” But if there is any good news to come out of this story, it is to remind us of what we so often forget, and to make us acutely aware that we are not in control.
If the Bible is right, only God can wield absolute power without blowing everything to pieces, because only God knows the consequences of those actions and can do so without unintended consequences and catastrophic collateral damage.
If we can remember this: if we can remember that the true-to-life story we live in our material world around us involves more than just us and what we want at any given moment, then there is hope for us.
If we remember that we are not really alone on our rooftops, that what we have is not what we’ve wrangled from the world to be used as we see fit, but that everything we have is a gift — then might also see, as we gaze at the beautiful people around us, that they are not objects to be desired, and called and used for our own pleasure or purpose. They are full of hopes and dreams and longings and talents of their own — and we might become more gracious people ourselves.