A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 2, 2015.
The story of David and Bathsheba is not a love story. In spite of Darryl Zanuck and Cecil B DeMille it’s a story of moral values in conflict with human passions, It’s about biological urges, not love. I said last week that marriage is an evolving institution. The Bible tells us of wives being purchased, of multiple wives, of wives and concubines. Love is an occasional aspect of Biblical marriage but not primary, not necessarily expected. And nowhere do we find the language beloved of conservatives that marriage consists of one man and one woman.
In all the long story of David, forty-some chapters in First and Second Samuel and the First Book of Kings love is mentioned maybe a dozen times but never with David as the subject. David, so far as the Bible tells us, never loved anyone. Jonathan loved David, and Saul’s daughter Michal loved David, and Judah and Israel loved David, but we are never told David loved anyone. He didn’t even know Bathsheba’s name until the day he saw her and wanted her. He wanted her and as king, he got her, but it was not about love.
We talked about that story last week and how lust led to murder, but don’t get distracted by the love angle or even the sex angle. Yes, this is a story of moral failure but I think we miss the point if we put the focus on the adultery. That may be more interesting, it may make a better movie or headline, but I think the emphasis is on property – property and robbery – and we don’t see it because adultery is more interesting. But we have to think ourselves back three thousand years to a day when women were property first of all and love was an occasional bonus.
What we heard today is the prophet Nathan’s indictment of David and it is put in terms of property. Nathan indicts David for robbery, not adultery. David had done his best to cover his tracks but a king can’t hide. A king is a public figure surrounded by courtiers and word gets out. Word got out and Nathan knew he had a job to do: because someone needed to call David to account and because no one, not even the king, maybe especially the king, can flout the law of God. Someone needs to call the sinner to account. Someone needs to call the sinner to account no matter how much power or money they have. But it isn’t easy to speak truth to power. It’s not easy to get past the third assistant secretary.
It’s also dangerous to speak truth to power. Power insulates. We have separation of church and state not because the church has no role in the state but because it does and can only fill that role effectively if it is separate and unentangled and free to call the state to account in a way an established church can’t do. There were priests in Israel but they were paid to serve the state not to criticize it. Nathan the prophet was free with nothing to lose but his life. David had dealt with Uriah and he could deal with Nathan if he had to.