Scripture: 2 Samuel 12:1-9; Psalm 51:1-12
A number of years ago, Shel Silverstein penned a cartoon in The New Yorker depicting two haggard, emaciated men shackled to the wall of a dungeon. Set in the roof far above their heads is a window with iron bars providing no hope of escape. Nevertheless, one man has turned to the other whispering optimistically, “Now, here’s my plan …”
Do you ever feel like this? Do you ever feel like, as much as you may wish to remain optimistic about your ability to change the world, ultimately your ability to make any real or substantive change has been determined by powers far beyond your control that have neither your best interest in mind nor those of people you care about?
The more I observe the world these days, the more I start feeling like we’ve all become convinced that we’re the prisoners in Shel Silverstein’s cartoon, shackled by fate, naively coming up with plans that are hopeless from the start. We seem to have fallen under the illusion that corrupt politicians, governments, and corporations dictate our fate, and fanatical religious groups have the world by the tail. We seem to think that global warming and endless warfare is inevitable, as is conflict between Jews and Muslims and Christians who have forgotten that they worship the same God. We seem to believe that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor is the “new normal” in our country, and that we are destined simply to roll over and accept a bloated welfare state that rewards ambitious corporations at one end and unambitious individuals at the other. We seem resigned to the “fact” that we must imprison more and more of our citizenry, and make the building blocks of strong communities (like marriage) available to fewer and fewer.
If you feel like the world is ruled by powers and principalities that have you chained to a fate you don’t agree with but must accept, then you may want to pay particular attention to this series. The Hebrews were a people whose basic identity was formed when God woke them up to the fact that bondage and slavery is neither part of God’s design for humanity nor its ultimate fate. With God’s help, they threw off their chains and learned to live as a people who lived with far more freedom to shape the world they lived in than we seem to believe we have.
Have times changed so much that the freedoms experienced by the Hebrews are no longer available to us? Or have we simply forgotten the story, and therefore the means, of our freedom. In this series, you can decide for yourself.
We’ll use the metaphor of a “house” that God builds to piece together some of the basic contours of a relationship with God that frees us from our shackles and enables us to shape the world as God intended, not these other powers and principalities. A house has a foundation. A house has pillars and support beams. Paying attention to these basic building blocks – six of which will be revealed in the Old Testament stories we’ll recount over the coming weeks – will likely do more to combat whatever fatalism you may wrestle with than you think. But a word to the wise: if the series “works” as intended, we’ll all be confronted with a question we may not want to ask. That is, “Do we really wish to help erect the house God is building, or have the chains that keep us from joining in the labor become overly comfortable?” As we’ll see, the first mistake is believing that we are as tightly bound to our perceived fate as we think. Continuing to accept our perceived fate only makes the first mistake worse.
Our first story reveals the foundation upon which God’s “house” – or our relationship with God that allows us to live in freedom – is built. Curiously, it’s a story of adultery, murder, and rebuke found in the Book of Second Samuel.
It is springtime, almost exactly one thousand years before the birth of Jesus. The Bible describes spring as the time “when kings go out to battle/” (You know, “not too hot, not too cold …”) King David instructs his army commander, Joab, to lead his army to besiege Rabbah, the capital city of the Ammonites who had long ravaged Israel. David remains behind to govern affairs … and an affair is what he has!
Late one afternoon David is pacing around on the roof of his house. He looks down and spots a beautiful young woman bathing behind the walled courtyard of her home. Smitten by the sight, David sends someone to inquire who she is. Word returns that the woman’s name is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, one of David’s “Thirty” – a group of David’s most valiant warriors. Bathsheba is also the granddaughter of Ahitophel, one of David’s chief advisors. And she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah is one of the soldiers who left with David’s army to besiege Rabbah. Undaunted by Bathsheba’s marital status, David sends messengers to fetch Bathsheba. She comes to his house, and he sleeps with her.
Now, there is no reason to believe that Bathsheba was looking for trouble when she bathed outside. Nor is there evidence to suggest she enticed David once in his house. David spotted Bathsheba when she had simply been performing the Jewish rite of purification after menstruation. And what choice would a woman of Bathsheba’s time have when the king invites her over and makes advances? Power does what it wants with the powerless. It’s an ageless story.
After sleeping with Bathsheba, however, an unforeseen consequence arises. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. David knows that Bathsheba’s husband has been gone long enough that once people discover the pregnancy they’ll figure out the adultery as well. And in Bathsheba’s world, an adulterous woman would be stoned to death.
Seeking to protect Bathsheba – and his reputation – David hatches a plan. Let’s call it Plan A. David sends word to his military commander, Joab, instructing that Uriah be sent back to Jerusalem to give a report of how the battle is going. Upon his arrival, David asks Uriah a few questions and then suggests he go down to his house to “wash his feet” that night before returning to the front in the morning. Once Uriah leaves his presence, David sends the ancient equivalent of a giant FTD package full of flowers, wine, and other romantic treats, hoping to encourage a night that Uriah will long remember – or at least remember long enough not to be surprised when he returns after the war and finds a child in his wife’s arms.
The next morning David is surprised to be told that Uriah did not spent the night with Bathsheba. Rather, he slept out in the cold, on David’s front porch! As a loyal soldier, there was no way Uriah was going to indulge in fun and frivolity while his comrades were camping in the open fields on the battlefront.
Mortified by the failure of Plan A, David quickly develops Plan B. He didn’t become king, after all, by giving up at the first sign of failure. Summoning Uriah once again, David asks him to stay another day – and night. This time, David makes sure Uriah will go down to Bathsheba. He invites Uriah to have dinner with him and makes sure that Uriah is sent home good and drunk.
Again, Uriah sleeps on David’s porch instead. Foiled once more, David makes his first mistake far worse by initiating Plan C. You could call this plan the “nuclear option.”
David sends a sealed message to Joab at Rabbah, delivered by the hand of Uriah. The message instructs Joab to send Uriah to the area of heaviest fighting, then when the battle is fiercest, to pull all his troops back but Uriah, leaving Uriah exposed. And dead.
Plan C works, though not without a high price. In order to accomplish what David wants, Joab has to send his troops in close to the walls of Rabbah – close enough that they are all well within range of the city’s archers. So many Israelite troops are lost that Joab is compelled to send a full report back to David. He knows David will blow a cork over the losses, so he specifically instructs the messenger to add that Uriah the Hittite was one of the casualties.
As the messenger reports the carnage to David, he expects to receive the full weight of David’s fury. He expects to hear David demand to know why such a well-known military blunder as leading troops close to a city’s walls would have been made by such an accomplished officer as Joab. But when the messenger gets to the part about Uriah the Hittite dying, David suddenly grows calm. David sends word back to Joab saying essentially, “There, there. You win some, you lose some.”
With Uriah now out of the picture, David surely figures that the rest of Jerusalem will simply assume that Uriah had taken leave of David’s porch sometime during one of the nights of his Jerusalem visit, and no one would dispute it. He and Bathsheba are home free, or so he thinks.
David didn’t factor the prophet Nathan into his plans. As a member of the Davidic Court and a close confidant of David’s, Nathan probably figured out fairly quickly what had gone on behind closed doors. Certainly the chatter among David’s servants must have been at a fast simmer from the moment he invited a beautiful, young, married woman to dine with him alone in her husband’s absence. The gossip surely boiled over once the servants noticed she didn’t leave until morning. No, inside the walls of David’s house, everyone has been “in the know” for some time. It’s only outside that people are clueless.
Likely, David wouldn’t have much minded the fact that his servants knew of his affair. Nor would he have been troubled by Nathan’s knowledge. After all, what are they going to do if they object? They’re certainly not going to call him on the carpet about it, much less run to the tabloid newspapers. They know their place. They live in a world where power does what it wants with the powerless. That’s fate, isn’t it? In David’s house, those who serve him are every bit as powerless as Bathsheba. So their lips are zipped.
David may have accurately anticipated the silence of his servants, but he certainly did not foresee Nathan’s outburst. Nathan begins calmly enough, telling a story of a rich man who owns plenty of sheep and lambs taking the poor man’s only “ewe lamb” which had been raised “like a daughter.” When a wealthy traveler comes to town, the rich man is loath to take a lamb from his own flock, slaughtering the poor man’s beloved ewe instead to feed his guest.
Nathan has strung out the bait and David takes it. This story of power and its abuse is one Nathan knows will set David’s blood to boiling. It represents the exact opposite of the Hebrew ethic. The rich man is clearly tearing down the “house” that Yahweh is seeking to build with the people – the essential relationship founded upon the basic dignity of all people, dignity which is assured by the Torah which itself was founded upon the principle of freedom from the powers of oppression and bondage. If people like this rich man infect the Hebrew culture, David knows that the “house” they are seeking to build will become a prison in which the powerful become the new Pharaohs.
David blows up. Nathan blows right back at him (to paraphrase): “You want to kill that man? You ARE that man! In taking Bathsheba for your own and killing Uriah, you have become the very thing you hate. Why have you despised the ‘house’ Yahweh is seeking to build with you and our people, knocking out its pillars and walls with such reckless abandon?! You made one mistake, then in your pride and sense of kingly entitlement, you made that first mistake far worse. Uriah is dead. His comrades are dead. And Bathsheba is bereft and ashamed. All because you wanted to taste a little lamb not of your own flock, then didn’t want to get caught with your pants down!”
What gets my head spinning about this story is not its subject matter. The story of adultery and cover up is as old as humanity itself. What I find shocking about the story is not David’s adultery, but Nathan’s reprimand.
In the last thirty years, I have read a lot of literature produced by the ancient world. I have read story after story of the kings and emperors of Greece, Rome, and Babylonia, of Assyria, Sumer and Anatolia – and the mighty pharaohs of Egypt. With these stories as background, I can tell you for certain that if a prophet or any other member of the ruler’s court had read the riot act to his master like Nathan did to David, he would have been killed on the spot (or perhaps tortured first, then killed). In every single case.
Anyone besides a Hebrew rebuking their king in this way would have been killed because, according to every other people in the ancient world, the king was thought to be the absolute representative of the Divine on earth. Thus, when it came to building God’s “house” in any other culture of the ancient world – to constructing the essential relationship between human beings and the divine – the king was the Master Architect, drawing up the blueprints and ordering what walls would be erected where, and for whose benefit.
By contrast, the Hebrews believed Yahweh to be the Master Architect and keeper of the blueprints. The role of the king was merely as construction foreman – powerful to be sure, but only as powerful as his ability to build according to God’s design.
In concrete terms, this meant that Yahweh determined what was just and what was unjust – not the king. Yahweh determined what was righteous and what was not, what held moral value and what did not. If the king tried to rewrite the rules of justice and righteousness, it was the responsibility of every person of faith to stand against him – with the full authority of the Master Architect behind them.
It may sound utterly naïve to believe that a king would pay attention to anyone but himself. But perhaps it is even more naïve to think that God sits idly by when the house being built is turning into a prison. What was David’s response to Nathan’s accusations? Happily for us, he wrote his response down himself. Psalm 51 is attributed to the hand of David following Nathan’s reprimand:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
According to the Bible, David suffered no small amount for mismanaging the construction of God’s house. The child of his adultery would die and there would be strife in his own house the rest of his days. Yet God would also make a “way where there was seemingly no way” through the mess David had created. David would eventually become known as the greatest king who ever lived in Israel. Israel’s wisest king – Solomon – would be born to David and Bathsheba. So would Israel’s Messiah.
If Nathan were alive today and could comment on the modern implications of this story, I think he would say that we have become bewitched into believing that when it comes to making real changes in the world, we must make peace only with the shackles that bind us, and war on everyone and everything else. Our first big mistake is to succumb to the belief that God is no longer the Master Architect of this world and has given over the construction of God’s house to others. The second mistake that makes the first mistake worse is to become aware of the fact that God is still at work in our world, seeking to build a House in which all people can live within freely, and to continue to lend our efforts to building according to a different design.