DAVID AND BATHSHEBA
II Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3:14-21
July 27, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
The story of David and Bathsheba makes me wonder if all the people in the Bible are good people? The answer obviously is "No." This story is so sordid that it makes one wonder, when children are present, if the Bible should be read selectively. The story tells of a woman bathing nude on a rooftop, of adultery, and of a murder. How do you read a Biblical story like that? There have been two popular but contradictory interpretations. One makes the woman a seducer, a temptress who used sex as a way of becoming a queen. It makes King David a victim of an ambitious and conniving woman. The other interpretation makes David an immoral king, who committed adultery and subsequently a murder to eliminate the woman”s husband. Bathsheba becomes a victim of a forced sex by a man who abused power to satisfy his illicit desire. I totally reject the first interpretation. I believe that the second one is much closer to the mark. I believe, however, that the story in the Bible is not so much to warn us about adultery as it is to warn us about the abuse of power.
Let me begin with Bathsheba. A woman was bathing on a roof-top. The first interpretation that I spoke of assumes that she knew that she could be seen from the palace, and she wanted to seduce the king. This sounds like a typical misogynist” excuse to view women as seducers. It is her fault that she was raped. But we must remember that Bathsheba was bathing according to the religious law. A woman was supposed to take a ritual bath on the eighth day of menstruation, according to the book of Leviticus, which defines this purification rite. Bathsheba was going through a religious act, just like baptism.
Also, anyone who has been to tropical countries can easily acknowledge that this interpretation which makes Bathsheba a loose woman is off base. It is not uncommon sight to see people bathing in public in hot countries. They do it in rivers and lakes, as well as in their back yards. They know how to present themselves discreetly to maintain dignity and modesty even when they are naked. We must realize also that our idea about nudity is different from people in other countries. In Europe, topless sunbathing has been a common sight for decades. Even in my life time, I remember the day when the American occupational forces prohibited mixed bathing in the hot springs in Japan. We did not wear bathing suits in the hot springs. Many of us did not understand why mixed bathing was immoral, because such nudity was without sexual overtones; thus it did not present a moral problem.
If anybody was a culprit in this story, surely it must have been King David. According to the law of Moses in Leviticus, it was taboo to even share a roof with a woman who was not completely cleansed after menstruation. David knew why Bathsheba was bathing; every adult woman did it in a particular manner after her monthly period. And yet he sent for her. He knew that he was violating twice the religious law in one act. There is no denial that David did something terribly wrong. But the question is; what kind of wrong did he commit? Of course, adultery is not commendable conduct. But that is not the main point of this particular story. It was how adultery was committed. It was primarily an abuse of power that is being condemned here.
You see, if you consider the accepted practices in those days, and even as late as a hundred years ago, for a king to take women other than his own spouse was usually accepted as a tolerable royal indiscretion. King David married many wives and took many more concubines, according to the II Samuel. Solomon took more than one thousand wives and concubines according to the I Kings. Even after the Christianization of Europe, though the church allowed only one wife, it still closed its eyes on kings taking concubines. Remember Henry VIII? And the practice continued until even more recently. What is known as "le droit du seigneur", where dukes and marquis had the right to take the new brides of their subjects to bed before the rites of marriage, was carried on even in the last century in Europe. The Opera, "Marriage of Figaro", or the story of the famous Scottish hero of the "Braveheart" referred to that barbaric but accepted practice. I am not saying that what David did was acceptable. What I am trying to say is that the kind of thing that David did was nothing extraordinary for the king in those days. So what is the point? For what reason did the Bible take exception and give this story such an important place. What was it trying to tell us?
I believe it is a warning against the abuse of power. No one is allowed to use power in order to exploit other persons for one”s own benefit. You see, this was the first time that David did not go to war. He was getting old. He had a need to feel that he still had some kind of power in ways other than in the battle field. It is common knowledge that sex crimes are committed by people who otherwise feel powerless. For them preying on the weak – women and children – is the only way to feel that they still have power over someone else. The prophet Nathan skilfully gave that message in his story of a poor man”s sheep and a rich man”s greed. You see, our religious tradition has never been comfortable with the idea that any person should wield power over others. We recite "for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever" in the Lord”s Prayer, because we believe, since the time of the Old Testament, that ultimately only God has power. The power any human being holds is given in trust on a certain number of conditions. Power is defined as a force that obliges others to follow one”s will. According to our religious tradition, no one has the birthright to hold power over others, because we believe that we are all children of God, hence we are all equal. Power is given to some people on the condition that they do some of the God”s work. If anyone abuses the God given power for one”s selfish purposes, one is committing a grievous sin.
We must realize how poignant the moral of today”s story is. All of us have power over other people in various ways. As parents over our children, as owners of assets and properties, as holders of offices and positions of many kinds, we all have power to oblige others to do what we want to some extent. Particularly, politicians and business executives have tremendous power to determine the fate of other people. For all of us, the story of David and Bathsheba gives us an important lesson. It is, "Don”t ever use power to exploit others." We must remember Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model of a power figure. Though he was the son of almighty and all powerful God, he exercised his power only to care for and heal others, even though that attitude cost him his own life. That should be the model of a person with power. Not like David who used his power to satisfy his own selfish desire at the cost of another person”s life.