DAVID AND BATHSHEBA
II Samuel 11:1-5,14-15,24 & 12:1-7 Psalm 14(VU735 John 6:1-21
July 30, 2006 by Tad Mitsui
There are some stories in the Bible which are not suitable for children; and this is one of them. It’s a story of adultery and murder. A woman is bathing nude on a rooftop, a man sees this and takes her to bed and makes her pregnant. The man was completely infatuated and wanted her so badly that he arranged her husband to be killed. How do you read a Biblical story like that? Especially the man in question is the most admired king of Israel, David. There are two different interpretations. One makes the woman a seducer, a temptress who used sex as a way of becoming a queen. The other interpretation makes David a bad one, who committed adultery and murder. In this case, the woman, Bathsheba becomes a victim of a forced sex by a man who abused power to satisfy his illicit desire. I take the second one. However, I believe that the story is not so much about adultery as it is 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. I don’t think this was the case. In fact, Bathsheba was bathing according to the law. A woman was supposed to take a ritual bath on the eighth day of menstruation, according to the book of Leviticus. Bathsheba was going through a religious act. No one was supposed to see it. But of course except the king, whose palace is higher than ordinary people’s homes.
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 modesty even when they are naked.
If anybody was a culprit in this story, 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 after her 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 one hundred years ago, for a king to take women other than his own wife 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 Europe became Christian, 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 weddings, was carried on even in the last century in Europe. The Opera, "Marriage of Figaro", or the story of the famous "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. David was getting old. He could no longer lead an army; that’s why he was back home in Jerusalem. He was aware that he was losing power. It is common knowledge that sex crimes are committed by people who 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. 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.
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. 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 God, he exercised his power only to care for 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.