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“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.””
Thus reads one of the most dramatic attacks on imperial power that we read of in the entirety of the Bible. Nathan the Prophet is railing against the anointed king of Israel – David – in a way that would normally be considered both inappropriate and dangerous for a person in his position. Even so, the faithful king, who had up to this point been extremely unfaithful, is suitably chastened by the words of Uriah and he repents.
The larger dialogue is quite gripping too, I think – beginning, as it does, with Nathan’s parable about the two farmers – one rich and one poor – where the rich guy pillages the flock of the poor guy in order to feed a guest. This is Nathan’s very clever way of getting around King David’s defenses. Rather than confronting him with his crime head-on, Nathan tells David a story that gets him emotionally on-side before revealing that his story is, in fact, a story about him (David), where the king is the villain!
The story is also a good example of the importance of understanding parables in context. If you don’t know the story of David and Bathsheba, and how David had slept with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then tried to cover up his role in the pregnancy by trying to get her husband to sleep with her, all of which ultimately led to the murder of the uncooperative husband who, strangely perhaps, chose death over sleeping with his wife. If you don’t know the broader story, the parable won’t make much sense, and perhaps that’s true of other parables too – that we need to understand all of them in context if we are going to understand them at all.
Even so, what makes this passage so memorable is not the academic insights it yields concerning the interpretation of parables. It’s the gut-wrenching nature of the confrontation between the prophet and the king, where David is forced to face squarely what he has done, and where he is given the choice of continuing to behave like an oriental despot by violently silencing his accuser or of accepting responsibility for his actions and turning back to the real power behind the throne in obedience and faith.
Happily, David chooses the latter alternative. Even so, the story doesn’t then resolve into a happy ending. David will be punished nonetheless, but not directly. David will be punished indirectly, through the rape and degradation of his wives and through the death of his soon- to-be-born child, all of which seems extraordinarily unfair on the women and on the child. Even so, there is one line in this story that has always rankled me here even more than the apparent injustices meted out against those who were surely not responsible for David’s transgressions, and that’s the statement made by David himself at the conclusion of this passage: “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”” (2 Samuel 12:13)
That line always bothered from the first time I read it many, many years ago.
“I have sinned against the Lord” says David. Fair enough, but isn’t that something of an understatement, and doesn’t that rather miserably fail to grasp the full extent of your criminal responsibility? David might indeed have sinned against God, but didn’t he also sin against Bathsheba – the woman whom he raped – and against Uriah – the man whom he murdered?
At the risk of offending anyone who feels impelled to champion the powerless at this point, I want to recognise that questions can be raised concerning the innocence of Bathsheba in her dalliance with David, and even over the possible complicity of Uriah in his own death.
That may sound ridiculous at first, but I read a rather good book recently – ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes – removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible’ – that focused on the importance of understanding the culture and context in which these Biblical stories take place. The author (Randolph Richards) spent most of his life working as a missionary in remote parts of Indonesia, and he spent some time focusing on this story of David and Bathsheba as he sees it as an archetypal example of where our failure to understand the cultural context leads us to misunderstand the narrative as a whole.
Richards suggests that the story of David and Bathsheba is not a simple tale of royal rape and murder, any more than it is a story of modern-day romance. There would have been no way that Bathsheba, bathing in the nude on her rooftop, would not have been acutely aware that she could be seen clearly from the rooftop of the palace. Nor could she have been unaware of the king’s presence on the rooftop, as he would have been accompanied by a sizeable entourage.
Moreover, Bathsheba’s presence in the royal bed-chamber would never have been a secret between the two adults (whether consenting or non-consenting). Every member of the palace staff would have been fully aware of what was going on, and it is likely too that Uriah would have heard about what had happened long before he returned from the battlefield.
Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, would have been fully aware of what the king was playing at when he encouraged his soldier-on-leave to go home and relax with his wife. He would have recognised straight away that the king was giving him an opportunity to resolve a delicate situation. Uriah’s refusal to play along though makes us wonder what he was playing at. Was it really Uriah’s integrity that stopped him from going along with the king’s plan or was the man hoping to play the king for some greater gain? Was Uriah perhaps looking for money or for some privileged position in the royal household, or was he just stupid?
By saying all this I don’t mean to sanitize the behavior of David, nor suggest that he was not a rapist and a murderer. I’m simply suggesting that all the players in this drama are players.
Having said this, even if no one is completely innocent in this story, that doesn’t really make anybody less guilty either. Whether we think David is guilty of rape, murder, or simply property-theft as the parable suggests, there is no question that David has sinned grievously. And I don’t think that the fact that he is depicted as having sinned against God really makes his victimization of both Bathsheba and Uriah any less serious.
“I have sinned against the LORD.”, says David. “Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, he says again in Psalm 51 (verse 4).
Does this mean that Bathsheba and Uriah have been forgotten in the reckoning on David’s transgressions? On the contrary, what I think it means is that the violation of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are things that God takes very personally. To violate them is to sin directly against God!
It has taken me a while to come to this understanding. Initially, when I read this passage, it did seem to me that both David and the prophet Nathan were trivializing David’s crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba by seeing the whole thing as a religious issue. I now see it the other way around – that every crime that we commit against our sisters and brothers in the human family is something that God takes very personally. Conversely, I see too that, from a Biblical perspective, there really is only one sin – idolatry.
If that seems like a crazy or overly-pious thing to say, perhaps that’s because you, like me, have been used to dividing the world into two – distinguishing what is religious from what is secular, the spiritual from the scientific. In reality there is just one world, and every false thing we do in this world is a form of idolatry.
Moses gave us ten commandments, you will remember. Jesus reduced the ten to two – the love of God and neighbour, – but it was Saint Augustine who reduced the two to one – “love, and do what you want”. There was wisdom, I think, in Augustine’s reductionism, for it is true that you cannot love God, whom you cannot see, and not love your brother or sister who you can see (1 John 4:20). In practice, the one does resolve into the other.
Likewise, with idolatry – love’s opposite. To worship the idols is to pursue an abusive and obsessive lifestyle, and to pursue and abusive and obsessive lifestyle is a form of idolatry.
I personally grow more and more convinced that this world is being overtaken by the worship of Molech – the ancient God of the Ammonites. This is the God cited in the Hebrew Bible, most often associated with child sacrifice.
I don’t like to point fingers at other countries and other peoples, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the USA, simply because of its size and power, has led the way in the worship of Molech since I’ve been alive. I am not an expert in these sorts of things and I’m happy to be corrected, but I haven’t seen any other country in the last generation that has so consistently sacrificed its children on the altar of war.
I remember hearing an excellent speaker reflecting on the election of Donald Trump at the last US Presidential elections. The speaker held up an iPhone and said “if you become CEO of Apple Corp you might change the colour of these things and you might fiddle with the markets a little but you’ve still got to sell these things because it’s what you do and your existence depends on those sales. Likewise, if you take over as CEO of USA Corp., you’ve got to make war because your economy depends on it!”
If you’re President of the USA, you have to sell weapons and you have to use weapons, and you might decide to downscale military intervention in one part of the world, but you’ll soon have to upscale it somewhere else because you can’t survive except by killing people! You have an economy based on death. If that’s not the worship of Molech, I don’t know what is!
I hope my American friends aren’t taking too great an offence at this because I love the American people and I love the country, and I’m hoping that they’re going to let me back in there the next time I try to visit, though I appreciate that getting into the USA is far from automatic for me now due to the number of recent trips I’ve made to both Iran and Syria.
At any rate, my point is not to target one country and its people, but to recognise the subtle way in which idolatry can overtake an entire culture and country, even when churches and other religious organisations are booming!
You’ll never see a more overtly Christian country than the USA, but this doesn’t mean much, for this was always the way it worked for the prophets as well. When a prophet like Amos or Hosea or Jeremiah went about railing against the people of Israel and telling them that they had abandoned the God of their fathers and were worshipping idols, this didn’t mean that the
people had closed down their synagogues and replaced them with pagan temples with great stone statues in the middle. On the contrary, the orthodox religious system was often booming, and the Bible was being read and hymns were being sung and prayers were being said. It took God’s prophets to come along and say ‘this isn’t Yahweh, the God of your fathers, you’re worshipping. This is Baal’!
If you know your Hebrew Bible, you’re familiar with the term ‘Baal’. It was a generic term, literally just meaning ‘lord’. Accordingly, it was a word that could be applied quite legitimately to worship of the God of Israel, and in the prophecies of Hosea there’s a fair degree of wordplay concerning God’s role as ‘baal’ or ‘lord’. The point is, of course, that it’s never just been about words and names. It has always been about the big picture.
What form of idolatry do we practice in this country? Are we as devoted to Molech as our American cousins? Perhaps not. I suspect that our devotion in this country is focused more on the regular Baals of the Canaanite pantheon.
If you’ve seen images of the Baals of the Ancient Near East, as dug up by archeologists, you know that they are generally depictions of bulls or other animals associated with fertility, often boasting radically oversized genitals. Baal worship hence becomes associated with the divinizing of sex, though the greater goal was always productivity and abundance. Worship of the Baals, in other words, was the spiritualizing of the thirst for sex and money.
“Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, says King David (Psalm 51:4)
To see David’s failure as a spiritual issue is in no way to minimise the serious nature of the crimes committed against both Uriah and Bathsheba. It is though to recognise that this story is more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting your sex drives get the better of you. It’s an illustration of what happens when an individual and a country loses its focus.
“‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength’ This is the great and first commandment” (Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 22)
This isn’t just a rule that we are supposed to work at, along with the nine that follow. This is about how we orientate our lives as individuals, and it’s about how we orientate ourselves as a community and how we orientate ourselves as a country.
As we’ve noted numerous times in recent months, Australia was the first country in the world to sign on to the ‘Charter of Compassion’ (in 2010) which extolls the central importance of compassion in our common life. When though we look at our country’s recent treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, what we see is not simply the result of poor policy-making, any more than it is the work of a small group of particularly misguided and morally- compromised politicians. It is rather symptomatic of a country that has lots its focus and forgotten the centrality of compassion, and gone chasing after the Baals instead!
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” (Joshua 24:15). These were the words of Joshua to the people of Israel, challenging them to regain their focus as a community.
This is the big question. This is always the big question confronting us all, every day, as individuals and as a community and as a country – which God will we serve? Behind every sin and failure, great and small, behind every war and death in custody, this is the question.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served… or the gods of the Amorites… But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”