The David Story 8: A Royal Judgment
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2012. This is the eighth sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David.
Ephesians 4: 1-16 2 Samuel 11:26-12:14
The Story of David that runs through the Book of Samuel is truly “one of the most astounding pieces of literature to come down to us from the ancient world.” It has been a gift and a challenge to give this story our sustained attention this summer.
When we left off last week, it appeared that David would get away with his rape of Bathsheba and the betrayal and murder of her husband Uriah. This is not the harp playing little shepherd who sang soothing songs for his king, or the confident youth who slew Goliath so that all may know there is a God in Israel. No, at this point in the story Israel’s greatest king, to whom God has given an unconditional blessing, has murdered his faithful soldier Uriah to cover up David’s rape of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. And in our reading today, the outrage of Yahweh, Israel’s God, is heard through the judgment of the prophet Nathan. Listen for the word of God – for the people of God.
[read 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12: 14]
If last week’s text was difficult, this one is equally full of difficulty. For example, without even using her name the author describes how Bathsheba mourns her husband, joins David’s harem, and bears him a son. Overlooked, still, are Bathsheba’s feelings about what has taken place, though we may be grateful that Nathan compares David’s action toward her to a murder. And what are we to make of David’s harem – marriages not of love and affection but of political calculation, the spoils of victory and royal privilege? Nathan alludes to David’s wives as like the “very many flock and herds” of a rich man. Is this to be taken as appropriate for that historical time and place or as another example of David’s power over others? A further difficulty lies in the purported punishment (or curse) David receives: “these very wives will be taken from David and given to a neighbor who will lie with them,” not in the secret as David did, but in the plain light of day. In the long struggle to establish a legitimate heir to David’s throne, these wives and concubines would become pawns of male power. It does not help me, much, to know that for the scribe who wrote these words many years later these were historical facts, that they had already taken place, because in this story they are presented as God’s speech – “I will do this” says the God of Israel, “so that all may see.” Where is the Old Testament God who protects the widow, the orphan, the marginal and the foreigner, the woman and child?
And what is more, while we might share God’s moral outrage at David, we cannot (in the end) fully identify with it. Sure, David’s actions are clearly named and brought out into light. But God is not just outraged at rape and murder but deeply hurt by David’s betrayal. Listen:
I anointed you
I rescued you
I gave you;
I gave you
Your masters house,
your masters wives,
even the houses of Israel and Judah,
and if that had been too little
I would have added as much more.
God had used the divine voice to bless David and his house for generations to come, but now God speaks like a jilted lover, wounded by David’s shifting desires. “The sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken HER, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, to be your wife.”
This is the God who said to the prophet Samuel when Israel first desired a king, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me as their king, just as they have done since the day I brought them out of Egypt. Listen to them, but warn them, and show them the ways of the king who will reign over them” (1 Samuel 8). When God met David, did God suddenly forget the warning about the ways of kings? We’ve been collecting hints about David’s character all along – week after week in sermon after sermon we have been growing wary of David’s use God as his patron in his rise to power, elimination of his enemies and consolidation of his throne. And we were astounded at God’s bestowing an unconditional blessing on David’s house. David’s taking of Bathsheba reveals God to be a spurned spouse and David an unfaithful husband in a match made entirely in heaven. It seems as though God has played the fool, blind in his (or her) love for David and only now seeing the truth.
Difficult texts, indeed.
But most difficult of all is that David is forgiven.
Today is International Forgiveness Day. International Forgiveness Day was founded in 1996 to spread a message of the healing power of forgiveness throughout the world and to proclaim the simple but profound truth that “without forgiveness there is no future.” Sponsored by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance, this day is used to promote stories of peace pursued through forgiveness, the development of practices of forgiveness in our lives and communities, sharing research on the relationship between forgiveness and creativity, happiness, confidence, joy and hope, and its negative relationship with stress, depression, and illness. The Forgiveness Alliance brings a particular focus on the importance of forgiveness for the elderly, youth, and the drug and alcohol dependent.
For example, International Forgiveness Day founder Bob Plath notes that 18 veterans a day commit suicide; they suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, and cannot forgive themselves despite all that has been done to them.
In the fall of 1996 Noelle and I were helping lead a interfaith peacemaking retreat for youth on Long Island. With other pastors and rabbis, we had brought select members of our youth groups together for a three day experience of faith sharing and community projects as we sought to understand what it meant to pursue peace and study war no more. What fascinated us was a distinction we began making between forgiveness and reconciliation. Christians tend to describe forgiveness as an act of the heart, both the letting go of the hurts we hold and letting go of another’s guilt. Only when we have forgiven another can we pursue reconciliation – finding a way to live together in restored relationship. But a rabbi on the trip insisted that Judaism places a priority on reconciliation – finding a way to go on despite our continued hurt, anger, and resentment. Forgiveness, in the sense of healing of our wounds, may never come, though it is to be pursued. The idea that forgiveness may be a process is important.
Think for a moment about what else was going on in 1996:
– Archbishop Desmond Tutu was overseeing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, trying to find a way forward for a nation deeply wounded by a history of racism, violence, and oppression but with a need now to share power.
– The international community was interested in how Tutsis and Hutus would learn to live together after 800,000 people had been massacred in the East African Country of Rwanda. The killing took place over approximately 100 days, but two million Hutus participants in the genocide continued to live and die in refugee camps in Zaire and Uganda. Neighbor had seen neighbor commit unspeakable acts – but the numbers of guilty made a full accounting nearly impossible, and they continued to see one another in their villages. How to go on?
Today we could point to how some victims and perpetrators in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war are developing truth-telling and forgiveness ceremonies in order to build sustainable peace at a grass-roots level, and to similar efforts much needed in South Sudan, and soon in Syria. We should also remember those who lost family members on September 11, 2001 and who responded to the US declaration of war with “Not in My Name”, the many who testify that capital punishment does not give them a sense of peace, and those who simply have learned to relinquish the power of past injury.
If we look at how hard it is for us to forgive even a petty insult and move on with our lives, we see how very difficult it is to forgive when situations are complex, bathed in violence and tangled in history.
We may be mute with astonishment at how people who have been so terribly hurt by others are able to forgive. How? It feels both impossible and laudable but also impossible because it feels so unfair. It can sometimes feel like forgiving a perpetrator is to do a gross injustice to the person who has been victimized. But we don’t offer forgiveness because it is deserved. We offer forgiveness because it is needed. It is needed by all of us. It is needed especially by those who have committed grievous wrongs; by those condemned by our world as “monsters,” “evil,” or “inhuman.” It is hard enough to forgive a friend or a beloved family member who has wronged us. How much harder then is it to forgive an enemy.
What does it mean to say we forgive? Does it mean that we forget? And what about the injury that’s been done to another or to us?
In our text, David repents. “I have sinned,” David says, even though he never says “I’m sorry” to those he has injured, especially Bathsheba. We must wonder what she felt and thought. Was she angry? Did she struggle to forgive David herself? What does forgiveness mean in a context where one person, here King David, has absolute power over Bathsheba who is now part of his harem?
Our text is profoundly unhelpful. For whether Bathsheba forgives David is not a concern of the text at all. That may seem strange to us, but there it is. Perhaps it is that very disparity in power between David and Bathsheba, and his continued power over her, that places this idea off the table.
What the text is concerned with is whether David’s rape of Bathsheba will remove God’s favor from David – and by extension, the people Israel. Nathan the prophet declares that God has forgiven David and that David (and hence his lineage) will not die.
But perhaps the most disturbing of all is that Nathan declares that because David scorned God, the child of Bathsheba and David will die. God will take the life of this child.
We do not have time this morning to explore this terrifying and troubling prediction. But as we wrestle with this we should remember that forgiveness does not erase what has happened. Nor can forgiveness necessarily halt the many pathways of violence or destruction that have been opened up by sin. What forgiveness does do, is hold out the possibility for change. For through forgiveness God frees us and we free each other from the necessity of repeating our same sins over and over. Forgiveness is like a startling clap amidst silence. It awakens us to new possibilities. It awakens us to our own power. It awakens us to our own responsibility.
What will David do with the forgiveness that God has offered him? What has he learned? What will he now do differently?
These are not only questions for David but also questions for us.
There is an expression, “Go to David and learn how to repent.” In fact, the words of Psalm 51 which we used as a responsive prayer of confession this morning are attributed to David at just this moment when he is confronted by God’s prophet. For some of us, a word of forgiveness is like water in a desert. If we do not hear it and receive it, we will surely die. We don’t get forgiveness because we deserve it. But because God knows we need it.
This morning, no matter who you are, where you have been or what you have done, God loves you and forgives you. That is not the end of the journey but the beginning. Let that forgiveness begin to work within you, to change you. Sometimes it is possible to repair what we have broken by our sin. Let this forgiveness to help you reach out to repair that which may be repaired. And for those things that cannot be repaired, let God’s forgiveness work in you that you may take responsibility for your life moving forward, doing what it is possible to do to live in peace and justice with your neighbor.
As we sing our hymn, “Come and fill our hearts with your peace” I want you to sink yourself into this refrain. Allow the words to wash over you, move through you, and emerge from you. Let this hymn be a prayer, a prayer fulfilled in the singing, that as members and as the body of Christ, we may become Christ’s peace in our hurting world.
 In the words of Robert Alter, “the Story of David is probably the greatest single narrative presentation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses of the body and spirit, the eventual sad decay of the flesh. It also provides the most unflinching insight into the cruel processes of history and into human behavior warped by the pursuit of power. And nowhere is the Bible’s astringent narrative economy, its ability to define characters and etch revelatory [revealing] dialogue in a few telling strokes, more brilliantly [accomplished] deployed.” Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1999). p. ix.
 Note that EVEN GOD is portrayed by the authors as a CHARACTER in the story. God is not above the story. But just like the writers shape David, they also shape God.