It has been nearly two months since the lectionary started us on a journey through First and Second Samuel, two books that I want, again, to point out, should not be understood as two books in a series, but as two volumes of a single text, divided because it was too long to fit on a single scroll. I am leaving for two weeks, during which time you will finish the lectionary choices from Samuel, and the story of David, but do not worry, we will pick up in 1 Kings, which will continue the story of the early monarchy with David’s son and successor, Solomon.
We began this not-quite-series on June 6, when we read that the people were demanding a king to rule over them, so that they could be like other nations. God, through Samuel, warned the people what that would mean: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” It is worth noting that neither Samuel nor God ever say that they are talking about a bad king.
The people do not listen, or do not care. They continue to demand a king, and so God chooses, and Samuel anoints, Saul to be king. Saul, however, does not work out, and so God chooses, and Samuel anoints, David in a story that may well have served as a model for Cinderella, complete with Samuel, like the Prince, having to ask for the youngest sibling to be fetched from chores.
David comes to serve in Saul’s court, first as a musician, and then, following David’s defeat of Goliath, as a soldier and officer. Saul grows jealous of David, realizing that God’s favor has shifted, and so tries to have David killed, first by sending David into unwinnable battles, a tactic we will see again, but David not only survives, but wins those battles. Saul then sends men to kill David in bed, but David escapes with the help of Saul’s daughter and David’s first wife, Michal.
Eventually, David becomes king and sets out to unify the political and religious centers of Israel in his newly conquered capitol, Jerusalem. Now David is starting to feel his power, starting to feel like a king, and now it is worth reminding you all that Samuel’s warning about kings was not a warning about bad kings, was not a value judgement by which to judge if a king is good or bad, but was a warning about the behavior of all kings. Over the last two weeks, we talked about David bringing the ark to Jerusalem, and how he had to stop for three months after a man touched the ark and died during that journey. In moving the ark, David is beginning to try to control God, a pattern that continues in last week’s text, when David decided that God needed a house like David’s.
Today’s lectionary text begins with another warning about how power is affecting David, telling us that it was “the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with them.” The first part of that sentence sets an expectation: kings go to battle. The second part is what David did: he sent others. The next sentence pushes the point more clearly, “David remained at Jerusalem.” David’s rise to power came at the head of his army. His first military accomplishment was a victory in single combat against Goliath when David was still young. Under Saul, David led troops, and this is part of why he was able to unify Israel—because he was personally in command. Now that David is king, however, he no longer leads directly. Instead he sends his general, Joab, and the officers and army to battle while David remains behind in safety and comfort, but David does not stay out of trouble.
David goes to the roof, and he sees a woman bathing, and, once again, David sends someone to find out who she is, and, learns that she is the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. Uriah is later listed as a member of “the Thirty,” likely members of David’s personal guard and senior military advisors. David again sends someone to bring her to him. David is directing events in this story, yes, but David has become passive, sending other people to do the work for him. David, since the incident moving the ark, has started to become reactive. David’s relationship with God and the people change as David increasingly tries to serve himself first.
David, completely given over to this self-service, does not care that Bathsheba is married, does not care that her husband is even one of David’s strongest and most trusted warriors, does not care that she might not want or choose this, and does not care what consequences he might create for her, and so he summons Bathsheba and, as the text tells us, he lay with her, and in case you missed that euphemism, the text makes it clear: Bathsheba becomes pregnant. Bathsheba, it needs to be said, was not in a position to refuse David. She had no control, not ability to withhold consent when David summoned her, now the story starts to change.
When David summoned Bathsheba, he had lost control of himself, and God begins to take control away from David—first in the way David learns of the pregnancy. Bathsheba mirrors David, and does not come herself but sends a messenger. From this point forward in David’s story, he is reacting to events set in motion by others. He sends for Uriah, and spends several days trying to get Uriah to go home, to wash his feet, to engage in other euphemisms all of which point to the fact that David’s plan is to convince Uriah, and then everyone else, that Uriah is the father of David and Bathsheba’s child.
Uriah, however, is not having it. Uriah remains a loyal and faithful soldier even in the face of David’s betrayal of the wider kingdom, by refusing to lead the army himself, and in David’s specific betrayal of Uriah. We do not know if Uriah was suspicious, or if Uriah was instead just a faithful soldier, but the text does have Uriah making some subtle jabs at David, that emphasize how David is no longer serving God or the kingdom.
David did not accompany his armies, but stayed behind in comfort. Uraiah, however, even when summoned back, does not return to the comfort of home, but camps with the palace guard. Uriah remained on duty.
David asks Uriah why he does not go home, and Uriah’s answer is significant. “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.”
This is almost an exact mirror of our text last week, when David said: “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Last week we talked about trying to make God in our image, how David was trying to impose his desires on God, to model God on himself, but Uriah models himself on God. I want to make this explicit because I think it is possible that we can miss Uriah’s rebuke of David in those words, but I do not think that David would have missed them. Uriah is telling David that they should both be in the field with the army instead of in comfort in the capitol. Uriah is telling David that David should have seen to the care of the people before David built a place, Uriah is warning David that he has moved away from serving God and the people and is instead serving himself, but instead of David setting out to join the army in the field, David borrows from Saul. Saul tried to arrange for David to die in battle. David successfully arranges for Uriah’s death, sacrificing not only Uriah, but also those soldiers under Uriah’s command in David’s effort to cover his sin and to claim Bathsheba for himself.
Next week, the lectionary will tell you what the prophet Nathan thinks of all this, but I don’t think any of you would be surprised to learn that Nathan was not pleased. God was not pleased with David’s actions in this story, and while God kept the promise to keep David’s line on the throne, this story will be followed by a number of conflicts as David’s children try to work out the succession around him. You will hear about one episode in that story on August 8.
On August 15, I will be back, and we will talk more about Bathsheba, because while our text for today leaves her nearly voiceless, speaking only through a messenger who informs David of her pregnancy. David rose to the kingship by serving God and the people, but having attained it, having become king, David begins to serve himself, begins to force the people to serve him, and David tries to tame and control God, but God will not be controlled. Thanks be to God.