Our Sunday lections are also from the David story, a rare treat that the Daily readings serve to fill in the missing details in the reading cycle of Sunday Eucharists
2 Samuel 11 is the famous story of David and Bathsheba. The familiar story is the tragic turning point of David's monarchy. Before: he was a Man of God (and a Man-for-himself) who had scaled to the heights to become ruler over a kingdom. He formed Israel the nation. God had given him a promise of being a dynasty. After: God's "dream" for His Man and His people are under a curse. The light of a dawning new age is overshadowed by the darkness of dissolution.
The King, we read, stays home and sends another in his place (Joab) to fight the battles (at "the time when kings go out to battle"). The problem starts with that. The rest of the story is David sending others to do his bidding. David is identified as on his couch "late in the day" (never a good sign) when he spies a beauty at her bath. He sends for her (palace staff who no doubt gossip) and beds her. Her role is never spelled out. Helpless victim, willing participant, confused girl ??? Immediately we learn she is pregnant (so time must have passed). So next Uriah is sent back home. (the word 'sent' occurs ten times in the chapter) The King hopes he will visit his wife and provide cover for the pregnancy, instead he sleeps on the floor with the servants of the King. He is honorable and faithful. Did that night include palace gossip where he learned of what happened? Did he discern something amiss? Typical of the Bible, the narrative is too sparse of such details and there is much left to our imagination. In the end, the king's attempt fails so he sends Uriah back to the battle field, carrying his own death sentence in a sealed scroll to Joab. Uriah is put in harms way and dies (with others). A messenger is sent to the king with the the explicit instruction to tell him Uriah is dead. The king takes the wife of Uriah into his house as his wife as quickly as possible. Surely many were able to piece together what had happened.
In Chapter 12, the prophet Nathan appears and tells a parable of a poor man and his lamb and the greedy rich man who stole his sheep. The language echoes the narrative in 11. These are verbal clues which tie them together (and make sense of a rather odd story) and David is outraged and demands justice. He is trapped when Nathan says "you are the man." The message of God can be paraphrased: How could you do this? Look at all I have given you...everything! and I would have given you more! But now your betrayal will bring down hell on you and yours"
[The child of the affair will die. Another son, Amnon, will rape his half-sister, Tamar, and be murdered by her full-brother. That latter son, Absalom will lead a rebellion and also die (we will read that Sunday at Eucharist). The Kingdom will be torn by Civil War. The nation's tenuous unity is only to last through the reign of David's son Solomon (Batheheba's next child). What could have been? Who knows? Like the story of Eden we are told only what is, what comes in the aftermath of the sin.]
David acknowledges his sin. When the baby is sick David does what Uriah had done, lays on the ground all night. He refuses food (as Uriah refused the comfort of his marriage bed). David begs God for the child's life---like countless parents his prayers do not avail. The child dies. The cruel reality of life in a fallen world. David, upon learning of the child's death, refuses to comply with the expected mourning rituals. There is something to learn here, of this man and his dealings with God. His pragmatic response, "will mourning bring the child back?" is worth pondering.
Then we hear of Joab's successes and he sends for the King to come quickly to get credit for the fall of the city. David and Joab will continue to have an ambiguous relationship throughout the narrative. Joab plays a central role in many of the problems for David, yet in other ways he is helpful. Ambiguity, another honest and human dimension of the story.
Sunday we will preach on David, and the texts this week provide some background to the tragic civil war led by Absalom. The Bible does not idealize its heroes. David is portrayed as flawed and imperfect. Whatever else the life of faith means, it is about truth. God saves real men and women-warts and all. Revelation is about life as we live it. The story of David serves as a model to look at nation states, family relationships, and our own personal journey with God.