Nowhere in the Bible is the abuse of power more blatant than in the story of King David and his subject Bathsheba. Yet, somehow, over the centuries the truth of the narrative has been denied, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted until a King with absolute power has become the victim of a beautiful woman’s seduction. Somehow this illustrative story of a King’s abuse of power has become a fairy tale of seduction and consensual “affair” between the all-powerful King and his lowly subject Bathsheba. Bathsheba has gone down in history as the seductress and adulteress, complicit in “the affair” that prostrated the King. King David, in contrast, is boldly and fondly remembered as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22).
How can David be remembered so fondly and Bathsheba be remembered so scornfully when clearly the narrative tells a different story?
The action begins to unfold in 2 Samuel 11:1-4. David “sent” Joab with the King’s men and the whole Israelite army to war in the spring when kings go off to war. David “remained” in Jerusalem.
David sent Joab with all the King’s men.
David remained in Jerusalem.
David arose from his couch.
David was walking on the roof.
David saw a beautiful woman bathing.
David sent his messengers.
David inquired about the woman.
David sent his messengers again.
David took her.
David lay with her.
David sent this word to Joab: Send me Uriah.
Bathsheba came to David.
Bathsheba went back home.
Bathsheba sent word to David: “I am pregnant.”
David was known for “doing what was just and right for all his people” (2 Samuel 8:15). As God’s chosen one to lead Israel, David possessed political and spiritual power. Bathsheba was his subject. Her husband and father were risking their lives for their King and Israel. Bathsheba had no reason to believe the King would harm her. So she went with the King’s messengers to the palace. Secluded and isolated in the King’s chambers, the King sexually violated her. There was no possibility of consent. Bathsheba was sent for and taken.
Clearly, the King is out of control and God sends a prophet to the rescue. God’s prophet, a man named Nathan, was sent to David on a truth telling mission. Putting his own life at risk and armed with the only Power greater than that of the King, Nathan has the courage to defy King David and convict him of his sin.
Not his and Bathsheba’s sin.
Not Bathsheba’s sin.
Clearly, God sends his prophet Nathan to indict David for his victimization of both Bathsheba and her husband Uriah.
Despite Nathan’s brilliant parable that exposes the King’s guilt, this narrative of power abuse has gone down in history as adultery or an “affair” between consenting adults. However, David, not Bathsheba, is the one doing all of the action described in the story. David was a man with absolute authority and a leader of his people. Bathsheba is likened to the “little ewe lamb” who was the victim of David’s misuse of authority.
The abuse of power, with sex (as in the case of Bathsheba) or without sex (as in the case of Joab and Uriah), was not an “affair” back then and it is not an “affair” today. The admission of an “affair” by a person in authority (especially by one who holds spiritual authority such as a pastor) deflects and ignores the real issue and the underlying cause of what really happened: the abuse of authority. It is akin to clergy sexual abuse today and the destruction that happens in its path.
It is important to emphasize that neither Nathan (God’s appointed prophet), nor David (God’s anointed King), blamed Bathsheba for any wrongdoing. That’s what honorable and good leaders do. Even leaders who do lose their way, men like David, accept the blame totally and resist the temptation to blame the innocent in whole or in part. That’s what authority entails. Authority totally accepts the responsibility and the consequences of the appropriate use of power or the abuse of that same power. Authority accepts the fallout of good behavior or bad behavior. Authority is not a trump card to be played or a cap to be worn only if and when it benefits the one who holds that authority.
Authority does not use its power to dispirit; authority uses its power to inspirit.
Authority does not use its strength to constrain the weak; authority uses its power to liberate the less powerful.
Authority does not use its own roar to silence the voices of those with lesser or no voice; authority is the voice for the voiceless.
Authority does not use its power to withhold the truth from its people; it empowers them with the truth.
Authority neglects its own lust in order to satisfy the legitimate *needs* of those with less power.
Authority is willing to endure its own defacement in order to make beautiful its own people.
Authority is willing to suffer its own death so it can “author” its own people into life.
As I ponder the horrific mess David made, I marvel at our devotion to makes excuses for David and our enthusiasm to make Bathsheba the scapegoat. Perhaps since David is a biblical hero, people want to absolve him of any unscrupulous behavior. I started admiring David when I was just a kid. He was like a comic book hero who saved the day, slaying a giant with a rock and a slingshot when he was just a boy. Everybody wants to root for the champion. As Christians, we want to think of our ministers, pastors, and elders as our champions, action figures who will champion us into life.
Throughout time, powerful leaders (like Winston Churchill, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt) have spoken a truth that expresses a universal morality: With great power comes great responsibility. I remember hearing these words for the first time in 2002 when on the big screen Uncle Ben offered sound advice to his nephew Peter Parker (aka Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Little did I know that at a very young age I had heard the precursor of this admonition from my own daddy when he quoted Jesus from the pulpit:
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
Even though David was arrogant and selfish, dishonest and premeditating, in the end he accepted his authority and the full weight of that authority. And maybe, just maybe, that’s why David is so beloved. He finally repented (with a little help from God!) and faced the truth that in his authority was power. Great power. That same great power he had used to exalt himself, he used to humble himself. He had seen first-hand how authority and its concomitant power could “author” his people into life or destruction. And after all was said and done, after rape, deceit, and murder, he finally chose Life. He chose God.
Reference: Davidson, Richard M. “Did King David Rape Bathsheba? A Case Study in Narrative Theology.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/2 (Autumn 2006), pp. 81-95.