What Can A King Do?

What Can A King Do?

Glynn Cardy

Sun 29 Jul

For the last two years the soap opera called ‘Donald Trump hits Washington’ has played out across our media providing for some entertainment, for some elation, and for others despair, even shame.  It is easy as Kiwis to cynically laugh at it all.  It’s easy to feel sorry for those Americans who are highly embarrassed by his policies and behaviour.  It’s easy to slip into the thinking that in the long run all will be well once this bizarre ‘Apprentice’ presidency is over.

Trump’s behaviour is not unknown amongst those with egotistical pretensions of grandeur: denying the veracity of any reality or perspective other than their own; seeing their personal welfare as synonymous with the country’s welfare; and being unencumbered by any moral compass other than that which will maintain their power.  One can see reflections of these behaviours in the leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea, and many kings and emperors past.  They are behaviours that can lead to wars, and much suffering for innocents.

These king-like pretentious behaviours also coalesce with the patriarchal notion of strength and potency, exemplified in what our text today calls ‘the taking’ of women.  This ‘taking’ is not just about sex – it’s primarily about power and image.  The ‘grabbing’ interview Trump had with Billy Bush in 2005, the affair that Trump had with Karen McDougal following the birth of his son, and the affair with the porn star so-named ‘Stormy Daniels’ is all about that blend of patriarchal power, ego, and need to exhibit male virility. 

Such ‘takings’ are often the purposefully ‘badly-kept-secrets’ of presidents and kings.  ‘Purposefully badly kept’ because such ‘takings’ are part of the misnamed ‘strength’ that many of the populace (and not just men!) want in a president and king, even those in the populace who purport to have a Christian morality!   We public are often beguiled by these big, strong, male leaders with bravado, and wealth, and arrogance, and beautiful women in their train.

But let’s be clear, these power-imbalanced ‘takings’ are also covertly, and sometimes overtly violent, primarily against the women so taken, and those who fear being taken, and all who care about these women.  These ‘takings’ are also violent towards, and violating of, the ideal and experience of mutual, loving, giving, costly, trusting, long-term relationships between couples.  In short, they are an affront to the sort of love our faith promulgates.  

It is hard not to read our text today, this ancient story of King David and his lust for Bathsheba, and not hear the resonances with ‘King Donald.’  The questions then, and now, are how to read the texts and how to bridle the power of kings in order that their violence is curtailed, and fewer people come to suffer.  

The story goes like this:

King David saw a woman he fancied, Bathsheba.  He wanted her, he took her.  And in time she became pregnant.  He tried to dupe her husband, Uriah, and then had him murdered. 

Eventually David got found out and was confronted by the gutsy prophet, Nathan.  Nathan was an educated man [he wrote histories of both David and Solomon[1]], and he was involved in the music at court.[2]  He was trusted by David[3] but also had the courage to publicly confront him. 

Nathan cleverly tells a tale of a rich man who stole the one little ewe lamb of the poor man.  David’s response was, “The man who has done this deserves to die!”  And Nathan replied, “You are the man!”[4] 

Note though Nathan, like the narrator of the tale, sees the King’s offence to be against the ‘poor man’, namely Uriah, not against Bathsheba.  David had taken the ‘property’ of another man.  And not just any man but, along with Bathsheba’s father Eliam, Uriah was one of David’s thirty elite soldiers.  Like in the Trumpian patriarchal world insulting women is one thing, insulting the leaders of the military is something else.

David was the King of Israel, beloved for his military expansion of the kingdom and his support of the Yahwehist religion, yet even he was to discover there were limits to his power.    

I can imagine David pleading his case to Nathan, starting with denial: “It wasn’t like that,” moving to victim blaming: “She seduced me,” moving to boasting of his virility: “I have strong passions that need expression,”  “I mean, what can a king do, the woman is stunningly beautiful, naked, and all alone?” concluding with redefining lust:  “It was love at first sight.” 

Yeah, right.  Like what can a king do?

Well, given the male world David lived in, he could have begun by being as faithful to his soldiers as his soldiers were to him. 

Verse one reads: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle David sent out Joab and all his officers…  But David remained in Jerusalem.”  This was testerone season when the boys did their thing away from the girls.  But the King stayed within view of “the girls”.

From a 10th century BCE view, Uriah, not to mention the rest of David’s troops, trusted that the King would respect the property of his soldiers particularly when they were off fighting.  Their property included their wives and daughters.

What can a king do?  He can rise to the trust that is placed in him rather than sink to being governed by his greed and needs of his ego.

Instead David satisfies his ‘needs’ around potency, power, and lust – what Nathan calls greed – with a soldier’s wife, and then goes on to attempt to cover up this violation of his soldiers’ trust by arranging the murder of that soldier.

Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah alludes to the David and Bathsheba story.  There is a line that goes “Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you…”  Cohen’s song is about the ecstasy and agony of love.

But Cohen gets this story wrong.  This isn’t about love.  David, in the fading light of the day, spies Bathsheba bathing on a distant rooftop.  He likes her shape – he couldn’t see her face!  The Hebrew verbs in verse four flow rapidly: “David sent… to get… she came… he lay.”  This is no mutual loving affair, albeit illicit.  It’s a ‘taking’.  Bathsheba was not in a position to freely choose, or resist.  Meaningful consent was absent. 

There are some commentaries, dated now, that try to paint Bathsheba as a seductress.  She is framed and shamed as a manipulative shrew.  This is the same errant mythology that blamed Monica Lewinsky for President Clinton’s abuse of power and infidelity.  As Anne Letourneau puts it in her aptly named article Beauty, Bath, and Beyond: Framing Bathsheba as a Royal Fantasy: “Ask who controls the situation before you determine whether this is adultery or rape?”  And she concludes the latter.

I like romance, but let’s not fool ourselves.  Romance is premised upon two people having the power to choose.  If one of the two is explicitly or implicitly coerced then it is abusive and needs to be publicly addressed as such.

The story doesn’t dwell on Bathsheba.  Rather it dwells on the faithfulness of Uriah and the faithlessness of David.  It is about the violation of society’s rules by the one who as a son of God[5] was meant to uphold those rules.  [The term “Son of God” is first used in the Bible in reference to David – let’s pray Trump doesn’t read that part of the Bible!].

Bathsheba sends a message to David: “Guess what?  I’m pregnant.”  The law decreed that she could be executed for the crime of adultery.  What can a king do?  David, most likely concerned about the loyalty of his soldiers if he is found out, begins the cover-up.  

Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is summoned from the battlefield.  He is told by David to go home and “wash his feet” – wink, wink, nudge, nudge.  This is strategy number one: Get Uriah to have sex with his wife so that in nine months time he, and others, will be fooled into thinking the child his.

But Uriah doesn’t “wash his feet”.  He sleeps in the front porch of the King’s house like any other servant.  Next morning David finds out.  “Hey, Uriah,” says David, “What’s the problem?”  The problem, so to speak, with Uriah is that he is faithful.  The battle on the front is raging.  It is not over.  Uriah has solidarity with and a fidelity to those men.  A solidarity that is in marked contrast to the treachery and infidelity of the King whom Uriah serves.

What can a king do?  David embarks upon strategy number two: Get Uriah plastered and wheel him home to his wife.  Come the morning he won’t know whether he did or whether he didn’t.  So David invites Uriah to wine and dine – a cultural sign of friendship and fellowship.   

Uriah gets drunk, but ends up sleeping again in the porch.  What can a king do?  The guy is just not cooperating.  David instigates strategy number three.  Time for murder.  David writes to his commander in the field, Joab, telling him to assign Uriah to the fiercest fighting in order that Uriah is killed.  Uriah faithfully carries this letter, containing his own death sentence, from his king to Joab, who does its bidding.

In the 10th century BCE kingship and despotism went together, and people by and large expected it to be so.  Save in Israel.  When Saul, David’s predecessor, was made king there were some understandings or conditions written down and placed in the Ark of the Covenant.  When David came to replace him, although it is not explicitly stated, scholars assume that those understandings and conditions were still around.  It was a form of covenanted monarchy: that all, even the king, are accountable to the communal and age-tested ‘construction’ called God. 

II Samuel 12:1 reads, “But the thing that David did displeased Yahweh.”  This is one of only three explicit theological statements in the story of David.  God sided with the poor man against his ‘chosen’ King.  The villain of the piece was God’s ‘chosen’, the golden haired hero, the saviour of Israel, and the ancestor of Christ. 

This is a story about power, unfettered sexual greed, treachery and murder, committed by the one labeled ‘God’s son’.  It is about the faithlessness of the one whose press thinks he’s closest to God.

It is a story about loyalty, solidarity, and fidelity to one’s king and colleagues by a soldier.  Faithfulness is not the preserve of the most powerful, nor of those we consider religious or godly.

It’s a story too about being a pawn [a ‘ewe lamb’] in the games of men, to be threatened by death, and to have her newborn child die [see the next chapter].  Her feelings don’t feature.  For Bathsheba this is a story of survival.  It is written by men, for men, about men.  She is, by and large, passive, a plaything in their affairs, a pad that others write on and then rip pages off.

However, in another book [I Kings], by another author, Bathsheba, older now, is portrayed as a strong and active favourite wife and mother.  But that’s another story.

[1] I Chronicles 29:29, II Chronicles 9:29.

[2] II Chronicles 29:25.

[3] In 1 Kings 1:8-45 it is Nathan who tells the dying David of the plot of Adonijah to become king, resulting in Solomon being proclaimed king instead.

[4] II Samuel 12:7

[5] Psalm 2:7.