Sunday’s sermon: Bathsheba: Woman of Shameful Subjugation

Text used – 2 Samuel 11

We were having technical trouble with our streaming equipment this week, so I recorded an audio version of the sermon instead:

  • Sometimes, there’s the story that we think we know … and then there’s the real story. → perfect e.g. = Pocahontas – a story that we think we know comes from longstanding and inaccurate accounts in history books and, of course, Disney’s starry-eyed, contorted version
    • Real story = much different[1]
      • Name given at birth = Matoaka
      • Father (Wahunsenaca) later became paramount chief of Powhatan Chiefdom (made up of many tribes)
      • Mother (also named Pocahontas) died at birth → father’s love for her mother caused him to use her mother’s name as an endearing nickname for her (name Pocahontas later chooses for herself when she comes of age)
      • Pocahontas = little girl (9 or 10yo) when John Smith (then 27yo) and the English colonists arrived in 1607 (not a grown woman as Disney portrayed her) → so no budding romance
        • Smith was captured by the chief’s brother BUT never threatened to be put to death and then saved by Pocahontas
      • Kidnapped years later by English Capt. Samuel Argall who later claimed he traded her for a copper pot (lie still told by some history books) → held captive for years in or nearby Jamestown
    • Rest of Pocahontas story goes from bad to worse
      • During captivity, Pocahontas gave birth to her own child (with her husband from her own tribe), was forced to give up her 1st child, was raped, became pregnant again, and her husband killed by colonists
      • Married Englishman John Rolfe (forced?) as a way to solidify Rolfe’s relationship with the tribes so they’d teach him how to grow tobacco → Pocahontas never allowed to see her family, 1st child, or father again
      • Eventually taken to England → became token of the “good” relationship between colonists and Native nations (proof that the colonists weren’t mistreating the Native peoples … yeah, right)
      • Planned to travel back to Virginia in 1617 → died suddenly (poisoned?) before she could make that journey → only 20yo when she died
    • Not exactly the “Colors of the Wind” version splashed across the big screen, is it? And yet if you stopped 10 different people on the street and asked them about Pocahontas’ life story, how many would tell you Disney’s version? Or at least the sanitized Euro-American version? Sometimes, there’s the story that we think we know … and then there’s the real story.
      • Today’s story from Scripture = just such a story → Throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of women of the Bible, particularly some of the more unknown women of the Bible. I intentionally picked some stories that I was guessing most people weren’t familiar with – the stories of Tamar and Rahab that we’ve already talked about and the story of Huldah next week, for example – but also the stories of a few women that we may think we know … women who’s stories may be significantly different than what history has proclaimed. And, friends, Bathsheba is just such a woman.
  • Historically Bathsheba has been painted with the brush of a temptress and a femme fatale, someone who seduced King David into a mutual affair → But is that the story that we think we know … or the real story?
    • Much of Bathsheba’s besmirched reputation comes from the opening part of our Scripture reading this morning – text: 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.[2]
      • Countless artists throughout the centuries have depicted this scene with a beautiful Bathsheba shooting coy and seductive glances at a captivated David who stands very nearby
      • Reality = probably significantly different
        • Various sources that make use of historical and cultural norms and architecture at the time point out that Bathsheba was probably bathing in the privacy of a high-walled courtyard which would have been shielded from view except from above → take into account traditional layout of cities at the time = central palace/citadel on the high ground with a city that swept outward and downward from that central point → meant that David, standing on the roof of the palace (literally the highest point around) would have a view like no other … a view that Bathsheba wouldn’t even have thought about.
        • Sarah Bowler, author, editor, Ph.D student in Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (in essay “Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?”): Many who hold to the viewpoint that Bathsheba acted immorally make their case by claiming she bathed in a seductive or immodest manner near the palace. Yet, this idea overlooks several valid points. For instance, the [Hebrew word] “bathing” does not necessarily mean Bathsheba stood outside completely naked. The Hebrew word used here has a variety of meanings, including everything from washing one’s whole body to washing only one’s hands, feet, or face. So, it is possible that Bathsheba washed only part of herself, and David saw a pretty face that he liked and desired to see more. … The point remains that Scripture does not suggest Bathsheba intentionally bathed in David’s view, and even if she had, the choice to sin still belonged to David.[3]
      • More to the point, the way the story is told makes it pretty clear that Bathsheba does not get any power or agency in her own story here. → clear that Bathsheba’s encounter with King David is wholly the result of David’s desires and actions
        • Text: David sent someone and inquired about the woman. … David sent messengers to get her. When she came to him, he slept with her. … Then she returned home.[4] → here is particularly telling in 2 ways
          • FIRST (related to syntax/the way the sentences are structured): sentences are like dominoes → one action initiates the next action initiates the next action → all stem from David’s initial seeing, wanting, and taking
          • Leads to SECOND (word-choice related): Heb. “get” (“David sent messengers to get her”) = acquire, take, keep → This is a transactional word. Our English translation makes this sound like a pleasant, congenial sort of invitation. But the Hebrew makes it clear that this was much coarser than that. Everything about the Hebrew here makes it pretty clear that this encounter between David and Bathsheba wasn’t consensual. Nothing in the text indicates that Bathsheba was forcibly taken to David, but when the king summoned a woman (a woman who was alone because her husband was away with the Israelite army, no less), what choice did she really have? The reality is Bathsheba was powerless to refuse.
      • Moreover, we have to remember who David was. This was David, the cute and plucky shepherd boy who had the guts to take on a giant. This was David, who had the cunning and wits to serve, learn from, escape from, and finally usurp King Saul as he slowly slipped from Israel’s first anointed king to jealous and paranoid madman. This is David, who rallied the Israelite army and led them to one great victory in battle after another. This is David, the golden boy … the golden boy who had already earned his fair share of tarnish by acquiring the wives of several other men. Reputation, after all, is everything.
      • Interestingly, some indication that those whom David sent to learn of Bathsheba’s identity tried gently to dissuade him from further action – text: David sent someone to inquire about the woman. The report came back: “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”[5] → Both of these names should have held meaning for David, meaning enough to deter him from further action with Bathsheba. Should have.
        • Eliam (Bathsheba’s father) was one of David’s best soldiers AND the son of one of David’s key advisors
        • Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband) was one of the men who were part of David’s innermost circle of elite fighters – one of his best warriors
        • So when the messenger identifies David’s potential quarry by both using her familial name and her married name (an abnormality at the time) it is quite possibly a subtle warning. – Sarah Bowler: In modern English it might sound something like this: “Hey, just so you know, Bathsheba is married to Uriah, one of your best soldiers. On, and also, her father is Eliam, another one of your elite warrior. And don’t forget, Eliam’s father Ahithophel is one of your chief advisors.”[6]
    • But David, being full of pride, full of desire, full of hubris, will not be deterred. And after his singular encounter with her, like Pocahontas, Bathsheba’s tale goes from bad to worse.
      • Bathsheba realizes she is pregnant → sends word to David
      • David tries this crazy elaborate scheme to cover up his sin and pass the baby off as Uriah’s own → brings Bathsheba’s husband back from the battle in hopes that he will sleep with Bathsheba and all will be well → But time and again, Uriah refuses to return home to his wife, declaring that while the men he serves with are denied the comforts and pleasures of home and hearth, he will refrain from them as well. In a last-ditch effort, David even gets Uriah drunk in hopes that he will return to his home and his wife, but nothing works. → David eventually sends Uriah back to the battle with secret instructions for his commander, Joab, to put Uriah “at the front of the fiercest battle, and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die”[7] → Joab does this → Uriah is killed in battle à And then, finally freed of this pesky husband, King David is free to act the magnanimous king and take the grieving widow into his household as his own wife.
        • Interesting bit: throughout the rest of the telling of this story, we don’t read Bathsheba’s name once → In fact, the only time her name is uttered is at the very beginning of the story when David’s messenger identifies her to him. Throughout the rest of the narrative, she is simply referred to as “the woman” or “Uriah’s wife” or simply “her.” Indeed, Bathsheba is all but erased from the narrative from the moment of her encounter with King David.
    • Bathsheba’s redemption comes much later – bears 4 more of David’s children including Solomon → And when David is on his deathbed, Bathsheba comes to him and maneuvers him into naming not his oldest son but Solomon as the heir to his throne. Solomon becomes the wisest king of the people of Israel and the one to finally build the magnificent Temple for God.
      • Bathsheba’s final appearance in Scripture – 1 Kgs 2: [King Solomon] stood up to meet [Bathsheba] and bowed low to her. Then he returned to his throne and had a throne set up for the queen mother. She sat at his right. She said, “I have just one small request for you. Don’t refuse me.” The king said to her, “Mother, ask me. I won’t refuse you.”[8] → clear that Bathsheba has risen to a position of respect, a position of authority and influence, literally seated at the right hand of the ruler of a united Israel
  • Bathsheba is a difficult character because in order to walk with her through her story, we have to actively try to forget things we’ve heard and been taught about her in the past. For centuries, the Church (dominated by men and a powerful and ruthless patriarchy) has taught that Bathsheba was the cause of David’s sin. They worked hard to shift the blame from the man of power to the woman who was not only powerless but optionless – a story that repeats itself over and over and over again throughout history time after ugly, painful, shameful time. For centuries, Bathsheba has wrongly and shamefully born the brunt of David’s sin. She has born the weight of his desire. She has born the weight of his subjugation and all that came after. She has born the shame that should have been David’s all along. And her story matters today because she is far from alone.
    • Sarah Bowler: How we interpret biblical narratives affects how we interpret events around us today. When we say phrases such as “David had an affair” or “Bathsheba bathed naked on a roof,” we overlook the fact that Bathsheba was an innocent victim. We may also forget the “modern-day Bathshebas” who exist today. I long for the day when believers eradicate the line of thinking in which the victim shares partial blame for a perpetrator’s sin. One step toward that end is sharing the “true” Bathsheba story.[9] → That is part of where the power of Bathsheba’s true story lies: in the way that it (hopefully) opens us up to the stories and experiences of women who have walked in Bathsheba’s shoes – women who deserve to have their stories heard and believed. Nowhere in this story does God speak harshly of Bathsheba or the part she is forced to play. Nowhere in this story does God condemn Bathsheba … so why would we?
      • Other part of where we find power in Bathsheba’s story = ultimate honor and dignity that Bathsheba finds at the end → She is a woman who has been used and discarded, then retrieved and reused while being relegated to an initial place of questionable honor at best: just one of David’s many wives. And yet, God remains with her, and through her own astute actions and the devotion and respect of her son, Solomon, Bathsheba is finally elevated to a place of honor below no one but the king himself. She may not be fully healed from the traumas she has suffered in her life. She may still be grieving. She may still feel the sting of shame. But she is restored. Amen.

[1] Vincent Schilling. “The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality” from Indian Country Today, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/true-story-pocahontas-historical-myths-versus-sad-reality. Originally posted Sept. 8, 2017, updated Sept. 13, 2018, accessed July 4, 2021.

[2] 2 Sam 11:2.

[3] Sarah Bowler. “Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 81, 83.

[4] 2 Sam 11:3, 4.

[5] 2 Sam 11:3.

[6] Bowler, 87.

[7] 2 Sam 11:15.

[8] 1 Kgs 2:19-20.

[9] Bowler, 83.

 

4 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: Bathsheba: Woman of Shameful Subjugation

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Huldah: Woman of Reproach and Redemption | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  2. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Lydia: Woman of Means and Message | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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