Seventh in the series, Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: Psalm 14
Second Lesson: 2 Samuel 11:1-15
Rev. Scott Dickison
Over these past weeks in the summer months we’ve been following the story of David under the title, Holy, Broken Hallelujah. We now find ourselves at the part of the story when things break.
In the final stanza of his remarkable poem, Exile, the late Poet Laureate of the United States, Donald Hall, who passed just last month, writes these words:
Exiled by years, by death no dream conceals,
By worlds that must remain unvisited,
And by the wounds that growing never heals,
We are as solitary as the dead,
Wanting to king it in that perfect land
We make and understand.
And in this world whose pattern is unmade,
Phases of splintered light and shapeless sand,
We shatter through our motions and evade
Whatever hand might reach and touch our hand.
Exile, in this sense, for Hall, is more than a physical threat—of being cast out from one’s home. This exile is a kind of loneliness we choose for ourselves. How we’re always looking for something more for ourselves. How we separate ourselves from what and whom we love. And our world then turns in on itself and we become “as solitary as the dead,” as he puts it, wanting to be “king” of our little world, evading “whatever hand might reach out to touch our hand.
Did you notice, in hearing this story of David’s fall, of his abuse of power with Bathsheba and his manipulation and ultimately his murder of Uriah, that he never once leaves his house?Our narrator desperately wants us to know this. Hear it again:
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle(though not David, it would see,!), David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch (presumably just starting his day) and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someoneto inquire about the woman…David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. Then she returnedto her house.
And it would continue this way: David there in his palace, sending troops out to battle, sending for people to come to him, sending messages to the frontlines—back and forth these various others would go while he remains there, never leaving his house, locked away inside, turning further and further in on himself, in a kind of self-imposed exile—king of his perfect land, as solitary as the dead. And in a sense he was.
There is no life in his actions. You can hear it in how it’s all described—so cold, so emotionless, so transactional. David sees, he sends. She comes to him, he lay with her, she returned homes. David sees and wants and then he takes—this is literally what is says when he send messengers to retrieve her: “he sent messengers and hetook her.” Samuel had warned the people when they begged for a king that a king would take what he wanted, and this has proven to be true. It wouldn’t end. As always seems to be the case, the cover-up is even worse. David goes to great lengths to hide his crime, in the end, sacrificing many lives on the battlefield so Uriah’s death would not seem so forced. No loss of life was to great for David to keep his image clean.
This is the blinding effect of power.
Power has a way of blinding us to the needs of others. It reduces our neighbors to something less than our neighbors—did you notice how Bathsheba and her husband Uriah must have lived close enough to David for him to see her? They were literally his neighbors. But power has a way of distancing us from the people around us, to where we stop seeing them as neighbors and see them as something else.
And what’s so dangerous about power is that most of us don’t know when we have it. Most of us don’t feel powerful most of the time, and yet we have power. As it came up in the dust-up recently about the Bibb County budget, most of us have the power not to worry if the buses run or not. We have cars. Most of us have the power not to worry about Child Services not being open—our kids are taken care of. Most of us don’t have to worry if libraries are open or not—we have Amazon for our books, and air conditioning and bathrooms anywhere we would want them. This may not seem like much, but it’s a power. I heard it put a while back that libraries are about the only place left in our communities where you’re welcome without the expectation of buying something. Virtually nowhere else is this permitted. Perhaps not even in some churches. Some weeks ago after we’d had one of those flash thunderstorms come through one afternoon, I asked Mr. Mitchell, who spends many of his nights under the awning outside our office, where he had gone during the storm. “The library up on the corner,” he told me.
And I know these things seem so small when held up against this story of David, but its still power. A soft power, so natural to us we don’t even feel it until we allow ourselves to have it pointed out by others without it—this power to not ever have to leave your own house, your own world, your own experience.
In the end, David succumbed to the temptation not of a bathing, beautiful woman, but to the temptation of power to so distance himself from others that he could no longer tell right from wrong. Truth, when removed from community, from relationship, often is confused with desire.
But there’s more going on in this story that we must name.
This story, without question, points to universal struggles: the drug of power, the blinding dangers of desire and temptation, the snowball effect of sin and self-protection.But this story also points to something specific that has been brought more into light through recently through revelations of the depth of abuse and subjugation of women in virtually every industry, not the least of which the church—which is the vulnerability of women in the face of powerful men.
For much of the history of interpretation of this passage, Bethsheba has been presented, at worst, as a willing, opportunistic accomplice to David, and at best as simply a prop in his story. Or perhaps as a “type:” she is the female form, the object of male desire, the temptation in the face of which David was rendered helpless.
But we know better. Bathsheba may be symbol, but if she is, she represents the untold women who have found themselves vulnerable in the face of male power. We must also call into question the authors of this story in scripture—no doubt all male—because as they tell it, Bathsheba is little more than a prop, or a type. As we noted at the beginning of this series weeks ago with the story of Hannah, it’s a feature consistent in the biblical record that women are treated as little more than footnotes in the story of men.The exceptions to this—Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary, prove the rule.
Only once is she, Bathsheba, addressed by her name, and even then it’s, Bathsheba, “daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” defined by the men to whom she belongs. Otherwise Bathsheba is simply referred to as “the woman,” or “the wife of Uriah”—even after Uriah is dead, Bathsheba is called “the wife of Uriah,” certainly to drive home David’s scandal in taking her as his wife, but even so, Bathsheba still is not her own. Bathsheba speaks once in this story, saying all of three words: I am pregnant. Confined to speak to what only women can do.
Some have argued Bathsheba was a consenting partner in this indiscretion, but we know better now that consent is complicated, especially when there are these kinds of power dynamics. We’ve been coming more to terms with this as a culture recently. Stories of women suffering the terrible effects of this power in the work place, in the church. We’ve seen it on college campuses, where close to 1 in 4 women experience some form of sexual assault.We’ve even seen it on a larger scale with the overdue reassessing of the nature of consent when it came to then President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky so many years ago. What does consent look like between the leader of the free world and a 22-year-old intern?
What we’re learning—or at least what many of us are learning, myself included, that others have know for sometime—is the extent to which women have been vulnerable and subject to male power. And even the ways culture has protected this power in so many insidious ways: victim shaming, stigmas, protecting some twisted notion of the greater good: what’s best for the institution.
And for many men—myself included at times, I’ll confess—becoming aware of this has been uncomfortable. It’s so easy, and even tempting, to feel in some way threatened and react as if these unfortunate truths were some kind of attack—but this is the dangerous thing about power: to have it pointed out feels like you're the one under assault when the opposite is true. It’s a kind of exile, to be so distanced from reality and the sufferings of others.
So what do we do?
What hope are we left with in this story, and even in our own moment? What hope does our faith offer us? Confession—this is a start, and we’ll get there next week when Nathan confronts the king. As for what we do as a society, in our churches, that is entirely up to us.
But until then, we remember the opposite of exile is home—it’s return. The opposite of distance is nearness.
We remember at the beating heart of our faith is table, with plenty of chairs, where—in God’s great imagination, we cannot help but sit equally around it, seeing each other face to face. A meal we serve each other as it’s passed down from hand to hand. A meal we share, as ever, not simply to remember that evening so long ago, but in the hopes that something more of it might be found in us here and now.
Donald Hall, “Exile," from White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006
Robert Alter points this out powerfully in his remarkable translation and commentary, notes 256