Tuesday, October 25, 2022

ReMember: David's Regret

In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab, along with his servants and all the Israelites, and they destroyed the Ammonites, attacking the city of Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone and inquired about the woman. The report came back: “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers to take her. When she came to him, he had sex with her. (Now she had been purifying herself after her monthly period.) Then she returned home. The woman conceived and sent word to David.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”

David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”

“You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. I gave your master’s house to you, and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.

“This is what the Lord says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.” --2 Samuel 11:1-5, 12:1-12 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Three in one. Three in one women in our culture today will be sexually assaulted. And though the numbers are not good for men either and I do not want to negate the very real experience of boys and men who also experience sexual assault, it is women and girls who are, too often, disbelieved in our world today.

This is not a text that I want to preach today. It is not a text that I even wanted to read today. Because this is a text about rape and an attempt by the perpetrator to cover up and escape from consequences of his actions. But, more than this, it is the story of what happens to leaders - and to us - when we forget our place in the order of creation. In God’s order of creation.

As today’s story opens, there is an immediate foreshadowing of the horror of things to come. “In the spring,” we read. “In the spring, when kings go off to war…David remained in Jerusalem.” David has become, as Robert Alter writes, a “sedentary king.” Lazy, not fulfilling his obligations or responsibilities as king, sending others to do his work. This is hinted at in verse 2 of our text that tells us that David - in the evening - gets out of bed. A traditional siesta would begin shortly after the noontime meal. This means that David has been in bed for hours before he finally gets up in the cooler evening to stroll on the palace roof - a building placed high on the hill so that the king could look out over all Jerusalem. The only other example we have in scripture of a king walking on the roof of his palace is that of Nebuchadnezzar who, while on the roof, proclaims, “Look at Babylon! I built this great city. It is my palace.” 

The monarchy under David has become lazy. Arrogant. Institutionalized. This story will be the pivot point in David’s life. The downhill slide will begin here.

As David is walking on his roof he sees a woman bathing on her roof, part of the rite of cleansing herself after her period - a ritual commanded in Leviticus. This is a woman who is following ritual law. A woman whom we later learn is named Bathsheba. It is unusual that she would be named. Only nine percent of the personal names in the Hebrew Bible belong to women. Yet, not only is she named, but her ancestral family is named, as well as that of her husband’s. Perhaps this is, as theologian Wil Gafney writes, an attempt to identify her as a “good” woman - as coming from a “good” family, so that she doesn’t become identified in the way women who are raped are identified by their “character” - by what they were or weren’t wearing, or by what they were or weren’t doing. There are many preachers - too many preachers today - who still accuse Bathsheba of being a seductress. Even when the text does not say this. Even when it is clear that she has no agency here. David - from a position of power - sends for her. And takes her. In every sense of the word.

Soon we learn that she is pregnant. We know the child belongs to David because of that earlier tidbit of information about her ritual bathing. It is then that David enters into a manipulative and murderous plot to arrange for the killing of her husband Uriah on the front lines of battle. With Uriah out of the way, David is free to marry Bathsheba, pregnant with his child, to save his reputation. To simply add her to the other women he has collected along the way.

Then, just as David has sent so many others to do his work, God sends someone - the prophet Nathan - to do God’s work. Not in the manipulative way David has used his messengers to perpetuate evil, but through a human messenger to carry a message of conscience. Through the use of a parable.

Robert Alter writes that the poetic construction of this parable spoken by Nathan would have been immediately apparent to anyone native to ancient Hebrew culture - that David himself should have known that this was a parable and not a true story. Yet, he is so caught up in his arrogance, so blinded by his guilty conscience, that he immediately demands justice for the poor man - the one less powerful who has been harmed by the one with power. It is only when Nathan confronts David about the many layers of his sin and its consequences, that David repents and acknowledges his sin. Only against God. Not, though, against Uriah. Nor Bathsheba. Nor their unnamed, infant child who will die because of his sin. David’s repentance seems somehow lacking here. 

Later, though, David will acknowledge his deep sense of regret and shame and anguish in Psalm 51, which we used as the basis for our confession this morning. In it, he will plead for God to be merciful, to blot out his sin, to wash him, to clean him, to teach him, to purge him, to make him listen and to create in him a clean heart. To restore and sustain him.

It may seem odd that we end these seven weeks of remembering with such a story of pain and regret. Yet, as for David, Psalm 51 speaks to the deepest fear of our human hearts - that we might, because of our own actions or mis-actions, completely divorce ourselves from God’s love. That we might blot ourselves out of God’s own memory.

Yet, for us - as for David - divorce is not possible. The remembrance of the depth of harm we do to ourselves, to others, to the world, ignites in God an even greater remembrance of God’s love and forgiveness. For us. God’s memory of love for sinners is so much greater than God’s memory for harm. 

David did not lead a sinless life after this episode. But he - as we so often do - returned again and again to God, begging to be remembered - not for what we have done, but for who God is.

Even when we, like David, remember with regret, God remembers us with grace. This is always the end of the story. Thanks be to God! 


Preached October 23, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Pentecost 20
Readings: 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 12:1-12; Psalm 51 


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