Thursday, September 10, 2009

by J. Brent Bates: Bathsheba's Voice

The story of David and Bathsheba is another episode in the soap opera that is the Old Testament with its drama, deception, passion, and plotting. This is one of those stories where David does just plain wrong and nothing goes right. He abuses his power, sleeps with another man’s wife, lies, and worse, conspires to murder, and then acts like nothing happened, that is until he’s caught. Sounds like the perfect plot for a soap opera to me. Of course, it’s easy to condemn the shenanigans of the actors in the Old Testament soap opera. But it’s always a good idea to try to read sympathetically—after all, these are people’s lives we’re reading about, and not just a script for a television show. So let’s consider David’s perspective, how it might have felt to be David in this story, minding our own business on the rooftop, and then finding ourselves so overwhelmed by emotion that we do something wrong and foolish, and then panic, lie, and get caught in the snowballing consequences of our mistake. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can relate to David and understand what it’s like to get trapped in something where every move we make only makes things worse.
But wait; I think an even more important consideration is how the oppressed victim of the story must have felt. How does this story look from, say, Uriah’s perspective? God condemns David specifically for abusing his power to oppress the poor and powerless Uriah, by taking his wife and then killing him (2 Sam. 12:9). Can you imagine how Uriah must have felt? In actuality, one of the great tragedies of this story is that Uriah is completely clueless. Here he is a loyal soldier off doing his duty for his nation and for his king, and the king himself is betraying him. Unbeknownst to him, while he is off fighting David’s battles, his own wife is sleeping with the king. And Uriah isn’t even allowed the dignity to find out this is happening before David sends him off to the front lines to be killed by the Ammonites. Tragedy and disgrace.
But not so fast. In this story, the oppressed is not so much Uriah as it is Bathsheba, this woman who is often not even called by her own name, but merely “the wife of Uriah.” She is defined by who she is married to; her worth is derivative. Bathsheba is rarely given a voice to speak, but listen we must. Bathsheba has often been vilified as if it were somehow her fault for tempting David. In fact, it is not David who was minding his own business on the roof top, but Bathsheba! And the text does not indicate that she went willingly, because it says “David sent messengers to get her.” Besides, who can say “no” to the king? On top of all this that she suffers, the consequence of David’s sin, we learn later, is that her child dies. Now, how is that fair?
One of the things that this story does is highlight the reality of the oppression of women throughout human history, especially with the complicity of religion and power. Sacred texts have often been used to uphold inequalities, oppression, and even abuse. I was interested to read this week of former president Jimmy Carter who explained that he had officially disaffiliated from the Southern Baptist Convention because of its treatment of women, especially because this was one of the several reasons I left my former tradition. And perhaps we have made many strides forward in our society; we had our first female candidate for president. And much progress has been made in the Episcopal Church, as women are at every level of ministry of our church, including the office of Presiding Bishop. And yet there are still many inequalities. I know this primarily because I have been listening to the stories of women, from friends and family, from you, from the news. I know this, because taking into account as strongly as I feel about the issue and as much as I try to uphold equality, when I take the time to reflect on my own life, I can still see traces of inequality. Consider the inequality of household labor. Very often within two-income households, a woman is the one who by default does the majority of laundry, cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Consider the persistent disregard for the specific needs of women in the workforce. While much progress has been made over the past few decades, and while there are certainly exceptions, there are still overall inequalities in pay and a glass ceiling in corporate America. Even more seriously, as pointed to in our text this morning, there is the reality of domestic abuse, both physical and emotional. This doesn’t just happen in small towns and far away countries; it happens across every socio-economic group. Our General Convention passed this year a resolution to raise awareness and speak out against the widespread practice of domestic violence. They say: “According to Department of Justice statistics, in the last five years, more women in the US have been killed by the men they live with, or used to live with, than American soldiers have been killed by war. The loss of these precious lives, and the grief suffered by their families, is a national tragedy. Thousands more women are battered, abused, and humiliated…. Yet, where is the outrage against the cycle of violence? Who will speak for these victims?”
The final perspective on this story of David and Bathsheba is God’s perspective. It may be tempting to locate God’s perspective as a 3rd-person-omniscient, condemning narrator—judging David, perhaps judging Bathsheba. There is, after all, so much to judge. But our God is a God of compassion, not detached judgment; God does not remain distant but enters our life stories, no matter how messy and unappealing and sinful. So where is God’s perspective in this story? Where does God enter this narrative? Where is God’s compassionate presence? God’s voice is in the missing voice of this story … and that’s not just Uriah’s missing voice. God’s voice in this story is Bathsheba’s missing voice, the voice that would protest the abuse of power, the disregard of other persons, the victimization of the vulnerable. The voice that would say these things, if it were given a place in the text, but which is displaced, only to show up later and secondarily in the male voice of Nathan the prophet, calling David to account.
While scripture undoubtedly has layers of patriarchy in its pages, its true message, the true voice of God is one of justice and equality. The scriptures include women of great ability, from Deborah the mighty Judge of Israel to Dorcas the disciple of Jesus known for her aid to the poor. Women were among Jesus’ closest followers, who buried Jesus while the men fled for their lives, and first to proclaim the resurrection of the gospel after his rising. St. Paul, who is rightly criticized for upholding first-century norms of gender inequality, nonetheless, clearly preaches an ideal of equality. Paul says: “There is no longer male and female; for all … are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). At its heart, the gospel of Christ is a message of equality, respect, and love for every human being. Our God is a God who constantly seeks to breathe life into our broken experiences. Our God is a God who affirms us as we are, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, disabled and able, gay and straight, female and male. Our God is a God who has special concern for the underprivileged, who feeds a mass of 5,000 people who have nothing to eat. Our God is a God who moves us beyond the debilitating cycles of oppression and victimization, overcoming evil with good and empowering people by the Holy Spirit. May we seek to overcome the inequalities in our lives and within the structures of our society. May we see our lives from the perspective of God. Amen.


kbeck said...

Well said . . . Thank you for your voice.

Cartoosi said...

I'm guessing David was the only one in town with a sufficiently elevated POV to actually see women bathing on their roof. Why wasn't he in the field with his troops to begin with?

It's good to see Bathsheba's point of view affirmed. After all, she couldn't say "No".