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Bathsheba: of lambs and shepherds

The next woman in the genealogy of Jesus is not called by name, but rather referred to as “the wife of Uriah.” This is very strange because she was (eventually) the wife of David and the mother of Solomon. Why then is she called the wife of Uriah? Perhaps the answer to that will become clear if we give her her proper name…And that would be…?

Bathsheba! A name that will go down in infamy!

The gospel writer refers to her as the wife of Uriah so that every time the genealogy of Jesus was read out in the early churches, the people would remember the scandalous way the wife of Uriah ended up the wife of David.

One of the most startling things about the pain and tragedy in the story of David and Bathsheba is how easily it could have been avoided. The story opens with the lines: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him… But David remained at Jerusalem.” The story starts out by telling us that David shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He should have been leading his soldiers into battle. But he decided to send everybody else – Joab, his officers, and ALL the men of Israel – while he stayed behind in the comfort and security of his palace in Jerusalem. Maybe David was getting a little soft. Maybe the battles didn’t hold the adventure for him they once did. Maybe he just couldn’t be bothered. Been there, done that. Let someone else do the dirty work for a change. So right from the outset, David is somewhere he shouldn’t ought to be.

One evening, David decides to take a walk on the roof of his palace. People of the Middle East at this time would often go up to their roofs in the evening to take advantage of the cool breezes after the heat of the day.

So, he looks down from his vantage point and what does he see? A beautiful woman taking a bath. (who, it turns out, has the ironic name of Bathsheba.) Now Bathsheba was doing nothing wrong. Observant Jewish women were required by Law to take a bath of purification once a month, and she would have been bathing in an enclosed courtyard which would have afforded her privacy from any direction…except from above. But she wasn’t concerned about that, because all the men in Israel had gone off to war. All but one, and he had the penthouse suite directly above her.

David had a choice. He could have looked away. He could have glanced admiringly in her direction and gone back inside. But no. He asks someone who the woman is and he’s told “This is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Uriah was one of David’s most loyal and valiant warriors, and right then, he was off fighting David’s battles while David was at home ogling his wife. When David heard that she was married, that should have been the end of it. Even the king wasn’t above the Law. But maybe David thought he was, or maybe he thought “Uriah isn’t a Jew. He’s a foreigner. The Law doesn’t apply.”

Whatever he told himself, he sent messengers to get Bathsheba and bring her back to the palace.

I can’t imagine what Bathsheba thought when she arrived at the palace and David explained to her what she was there for, if he bothered to explain anything at all. This was the king, God’s representative on earth, hand-picked by God. David was even called the man after God’s own heart, and here he was suggesting…

Could she have refused? For all we know, she did. There was never an issue of her consent. David didn’t care if Bathsheba consented. She wasn’t being seduced. She wasn’t being courted. She was being used, or a better word would be abused. And David thought he could get away with that because he was king.

Let’s be clear – David didn’t want a relationship with Bathsheba, he didn’t want an affair. He wanted a one night stand, and that’s what he got. And then he sent her home.
And again, that should have been that – a mere dalliance, quickly over, no harm, no foul.

Bathsheba has no voice in this part of her story except right here, at this point, when she sends David a little three word message – I am pregnant. That’s it. Very simply stated. And how David’s heart must have frozen to read it. Oh what to do, what to do??

David didn’t want the baby. He had lots of sons already. And David didn’t want Bathsheba either. He had lots of wives too. But David also didn’t want his indiscretion to become public. If Bathsheba’s pregnancy was discovered, she would be stoned an adulteress. And if she named David as the father, he also should be stoned to death under the Law. Weeeelllll…. I have no doubt Bathsheba would have been executed, but David, the king? Nah. I don’t see that happening. In our first story, about Tamar and Judah, Tamar is being dragged out to be burned because she’s been found out to be pregnant and unwed. But once they discover Judah was the father, he should have been dragged out to be burned right along with her. Did they lay hands on Judah? They did not! When a powerful man is in the picture, loopholes appear as if by magic. In the New Testament, they bring the woman to Jesus who had been caught “in the very act of adultery,” (which I’ve always thought was spectacularly good timing on someone’s part!) Where was the man? Under the Law, both the man and the woman were to be brought to judgement. But there is no man. I’m not an expert on Jewish Law, but I do know you cannot commit adultery by yourself.

However, even if David wasn’t executed, the scandal this would cause would be enormous, that he was suspected of fathering a child by the wife of one of his soldiers? How tawdry! “No,” he figured, “best this not be found out,” and he devises a cover up. He recalls Uriah from the front, and when he arrives at the palace, probably a little bewildered as to what he’s doing there, David asks him, “So, how ya doin’? How’s Joab (the commander on the front lines)? How goes the war?” They have a little chat and then David says, “Why don’t you go home, relax a little?” But Uriah sleeps in the palace in the servants’ quarters. He doesn’t go home. The next morning the king asks him why. And Uriah, the foreigner, says “Your soldiers, my comrades, are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house and enjoy myself? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will do no such thing!” What loyalty! What integrity! What a man.

David wasn’t counting on Uriah’s decency. So he figures if Uriah doesn’t go visit Bathsheba, everyone will know the baby isn’t Uriah’s. And it looks like Uriah will never go visit Bathsheba sober, so he’ll get him drunk. You see how David is sinking lower and lower? He invites Uriah to supper, and he does gets good and drunk, because when the king says he wants to get boozy with you are you going to say no? But once more, Uriah sleeps in the servants’ quarters and doesn’t go down to his house.

The next morning, David thinks, “OK, Plan B didn’t work. Time for Plan C.” And Plan C is fiendish. David gives Uriah a message to give to Joab. He puts a scroll into Uriah’s hand, and Uriah has no idea he’s holding his own death warrant. And David knew he could trust Uriah not to read the scroll. On it, David has written this – “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” When Uriah returns to the battle, he gives the message to Joab, who carries it out without question.
And what did Uriah think when, in the midst of a pitched battle with the enemy, suddenly his comrades pull back, but he has received no order to retreat? He stands and fights on by himself until he is struck down. And Joab sends a message back to David that the deed was done, and David says to the messenger, “Tell Joab, don’t let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one, now the other.” No big deal.

Someone tells Bathsheba her husband is dead and Scripture says she made lamentation for him. She mourned for him. Could it be – she loved him? Did she know David was planning to kill him? Why would David tell her that? Why would David tell her anything?

Scripture says, “When the mourning was over, David sent and brought Bathsheba to his house (again), and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” … and then the Lord sent Nathan to David.

Nathan was the prophet David consulted about building the temple. He was respected and feared as the voice of God. He comes to David, unexpectedly, (always a bad sign) and says he wants to tell him a story.

“Very well prophet, proceed.”

And Nathan says, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children, shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms.

Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep to prepare a meal for the traveler. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the traveller.” End of story.

Who is the lamb in this story?

Well, the lamb is killed, so it must be Uriah. But no, Nathan is very specific that the lamb was a ewe lamb, a female. The lamb is Bathsheba, taken by a powerful man from a weaker but much worthier man, and sacrificed to the powerful man’s appetites, his lust. So, if I’m reading the story correctly, Nathan is saying that David’s sin against Bathsheba was, in the eyes of God, as reprehensible a sin as murder. David is guilty of two murders – Uriah and Bathsheba.

I heard a Franciscan monk preach on this passage, and he brought home a point I hadn’t considered. He said that Nathan knew full well how this story of a baby lamb being stolen and sacrificed would affect David’s shepherd’s heart. Because remember, before David became king, he was a shepherd. And sure enough, David bolts to his feet and cries, “That man deserves to die!” We might think that’s going too far – death for stealing and killing a lamb? But Nathan says, “No, you’re right. That man does deserve to die. And furthermore, you are the man! You took everything away from Bathsheba – you had her taken from her home, you had her husband killed, and you violated her body. And God counts it as serious as murder.”

David hears this and is shocked back into his right mind. He doesn’t deny or try to justify his actions. He says quite simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Well, not just against the Lord, but David is not at the place where he could admit that. Then Nathan replies, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” And a few days later, the child dies.

Did God kill the baby? Is that the way God acts, killing babies for the sins of their parents? To teach them a lesson? Get some sort of revenge on them? The sin was David’s. Why take it out on an innocent child, or on Bathsheba who has already been through hell. She will have to bear the loss of this child too. Does that sound like God?

Personally, I think what happened is that the baby died, and the Scripture writer interpreted that much as we would when something bad happens to someone we don’t like, as God’s righteous judgement on the sinner, in this case, David. The problem with that interpretation is that it doesn’t account for all those people who never seem to suffer any consequences for their sins. “The wicked do prosper,” as Scripture says. No, the baby died, but not as a consequence of David’s sin.

So why did the gospel writer see fit to mention Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah in the genealogy of Jesus? Why bring back Nathan’s story – of an innocent lamb, who was slain, at the whim of power? Now, who does that remind you of? And isn’t that what we call Jesus – the Lamb of God?

Bathsheba was powerless to stand against the will of David. She had no choice; she had no voice. When evil fell upon her, she was made to pay a price she didn’t owe – the loss of her husband, the loss of her baby, the wounding of her body. Bathsheba walked through hell, but she found new life on the other side.

Jesus had the power of God – “Do you not think I could ask my Father and he would send me 12 legions of angels?” – but when evil fell upon him, he refused to use that power, and chose instead to identify himself with the innocent who suffer. He bore the violation of his body, his friends’ betrayal and abandonment, and the popular opinion of others that he was cursed by God. But he too found his way to Easter and new life.

For Bathsheba, new life came in the form of another son whom they named Solomon and who succeeded David on the throne. Solomon had no business succeeding David. He was not first born. In fact, there were half a dozen sons ahead of him. But David had promised Bathsheba that her son would be king. Why did he do that? Maybe he thought “I can’t make up for what I did to her, what I took from her, but this much I can do – Solomon will be king. And when Solomon’s right to the throne is challenged, Bathsheba finds her voice and demands David make good on his promise to her, and he does. Solomon becomes king. Bathsheba refuses to be defined by the past, and walks through deep darkness to transformation and power, from victim to mother of the king. This is the same transformation and power offered to us by Jesus Christ, Son of God, and descendant of Bathsheba, the sacrificial Lamb, Bathsheba, the Transformed.

Let’s bow in prayer…

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