It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’
So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’ As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; and he instructed the messenger, ‘When you have finished telling the king all the news about the fighting, then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, “Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal? Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?” then you shall say, “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.”’
Forget anything you’ve been told about David being seduced by a scheming, adulterous woman; this is a story about male lust, abuse of power and a whole catalogue of sins that can be levelled against David. He breaks half the 10 commandments and violates other aspects of the Israelite law codes too.
Bathsheba is engaging in ritual cleansing when David spies upon her from the elevated position of his palace and she has no power to resist the king’s sexual advance. Her husband is part of Israel’s army and away fighting, (where David should have been as leader); and Uriah, a Hittite, isn’t bound by the covenant codes which David is supposed to exemplify. Hearing that Bathsheba is pregnant, David summons Uriah home to make it appear that the child is Uriah’s; but Uriah complies with Israelite law in full and David’s plan fails. When David tries to undermine his resolve, Uriah remains righteous, whereas David abuses his powers and makes Joab complicit in the killing of Uriah, along with the unnecessary deaths of other soldiers too. This inevitability wasn’t considered when David devised his unholy scheme.
Every aspect of David’s behaviour is sinful down to his anger towards Joab for losing so many men in battle – and all in a futile attempt to hide what would now be described as his rape of another man’s wife.
Why does this story exist in the scriptures? Because it portrays David, Israel’s greatest king, as a flawed human being, just like all of us. It shows how easily one sinful act can lead to another; and how things can spiral out of control if we try to preserve our reputation and abuse our position.
The good news is: God remained faithful to David and achieved great things through him. There is hope for me!
Loving God we pray for women and men in our world who are victims of sinful behaviour directed against them, or caught up in the consequences of the abusive use of power by those in privileged positions. Protect them from wrongful accusations of complicity and restore them to wholeness. Help us discern truth when others try to keep it hidden; and save us from becoming complicit with perpetrators of wrongdoing. Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge