Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Royal Rape: David, BP & the Prophetic Counter-Narrative

You may be old enough – or watch enough late night television – to have seen the 1951 movie version of 2 Samuel Chapters 11 & 12, starring Gregory Peck as David and Susan Hayward as Bathsheba. The film depicts a love affair gone wrong, consensual adultery leading to political intrigue and murder, but ultimately redeemed by true love. David and Bathsheba may be naughty, but they look fabulous! Sex, violence, and religion: what could be more entertaining?

Yet, even this is a highly sanitized telling of the story, much like the versions we learned as children in Sunday school. Even translators and scholars of this text from 2 Samuel often attempt to make it more palatable to our moral sensibilities. My Revised Standard Version translation inserts a summary heading at the beginning of Chapter Eleven which reads: “David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba.” But is this really just a tale of marital infidelity?

It is tempting to read the story of David and Bathsheba in this way, but doing so requires us to forget that David isn’t just anybody: he is a king. It also requires us to ignore the Biblical text itself, which sets this story within a larger narrative of systematic violence. At the heart of this story is the contrast between the stories we tell to justify structures of sin, and the alternative story into which God wishes to invite us.

The story of David and Bathsheba is not a story of longing and fulfillment, but a story about rape – a royal rape that sheds light on a larger pattern of violence that is simply taken for granted. As Walter Brueggemann helpfully observes, “the narrative of sexuality is framed by a larger military narrative.”(1)

2 Samuel Chapter 11 opens by setting the stage this way: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him: they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” It was spring, the most propitious time for a military campaign, and so David – or at least his army – did what kings do. It is no more unusual than the beginning of spring baseball training. The narrative concludes at the end of Chapter 12 with Joab calling David in to deliver the final coup de grace to the defeated Ammonites so that he can take credit for the victory. Such violence is simply the way of the world.

It is within the context of business-as-usual violence that the rape of Bathsheba unfolds. The narrative is terse and to the point: David saw, he summoned, he violated, and then he sent back home. There is no crisis of conscience, no “should I or shouldn’t I.” I am tempted to speculate that David’s rape of Bathsheba was a way of vicariously participating in the orgy of violence being unleashed by his troops as they ravaged the Ammonites. At any rate, his violation of her was not about love or even sex, really; but rather the elixir of power and control. David is exercising his royal prerogative, reflecting the normalcy of this culture of violence.

When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David begins an almost comical effort at a cover-up. Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, is recalled from the front and encouraged in every way possible to have sex with his wife. Ironically, it is this foreigner – Uriah is a Hittite, not an Israelite – who demonstrates a sense of military honor and refuses to enjoy any liberties while his brothers are fighting and dying. David finally decides to send him back to the front and delivers the following order to Joab: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” And that is exactly what happened.

David’s rape of Bathsheba and its cover-up are simply part of the structure of violence justified for the sake of political order, social harmony, and united opposition to one’s enemies. Upon learning from Joab that Uriah is dead, David responds, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack upon the city, and overthrow it.” For David, it is not violence or murder that is troubling, but rather loss of face and of control.

That is the story that David told himself about himself and his world. But it is not the end of the story; or, rather, there is another story to be told about David and his world – and our world. It is the story that God wants to tell us: which brings us to the prophecy of Nathan.

Remember that prophecy is not so much about telling the future as it is about telling the truth; seeing ourselves as we really are. The story that God seeks to tell is a truthful version of events. Prophets seek to free us from our denial and our illusions so that we can respond appropriately to reality.

2 Samuel Chapter 12 begins by informing us that what David had done displeased the Lord. As William Willimon notes, “At this verse occurs a collision of two narratives: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the ‘real world’ and a second narrative about [God’s] counter plans for the world.” (2) Nathan appears on the scene to skillfully proclaim this counter-narrative in such a way as to lead David into the truth. The story could not possibly be more different.

In David’s account, the focus is all on him. Violence and exploitation are justified means to the end of maintaining power. The victims of this violence are marginal to the story – they have little emotional depth or voice. They are pawns. In Nathan’s parable, the poor victims come to the fore, and are given a humanity and dignity that contrasts with the selfish greed of the rich man. “In the prophetic counter-narrative, we notice people and economic circumstances that official, royal narratives teach us to ignore.”(3)

Here, we see most clearly that David’s sin is not simply a matter of personal failing, though it is that, too. His sin is not just about a sexual peccadillo, or even the murderous cover-up. It is about his complicity in a whole way of seeing and operating in the world as if amoral will-to-power defined reality, leaving nothing but invisible victims and triumphant oppressors. His sin is fundamentally his acceptance of this culture of violence, and his abuse of religion to justify it.

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel . . . I rescued you . . . I gave you your master’s house . . . and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” Nathan’s wake-up call to David is a reminder that reality is about covenantal relationship. We are not at the center of reality; God is. We are entitled to nothing, and yet God has given us everything. Our lives are meant to be ordered to the reception and preservation of this gracious gift.

David had become mesmerized by the seductive illusion of mastery – the idea that one can bend the universe to one’s own will without regard for consequences. Anything which undermines this illusion must be denied, excluded, or destroyed; thus the royal narrative that justifies violence to maintain order.

The prophetic narrative provides an alternative vision of reality as a gift to be received, a beautiful yet fragile interconnected whole of which we are but a part. Our call is not to mastery, but to conforming our lives and our will to the requirements of living in harmony with reality. This is the Biblical idea of covenantal relationship, the realization of our responsibility for the common good of the whole creation. God has blessed us with the gift of life and we are called to nurture that gift for all by cultivating justice, health and peace. Nathan recalls David to this sacred covenantal reality.

We, too, are apt to forget this covenantal reality and become mesmerized by the royal narrative of mastery, the illusion of invulnerability, and the culture of violence to which it gives rise. Our Presiding Bishop, in her recent pastoral letter reminds us of the prophetic counter-narrative. She writes that,

“The still unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is good evidence of the interconnectedness of the whole. [This disaster] has its origins in this nation’s addiction to oil, uninhibited growth, and consumerism, as well as old-fashioned greed and what [our] tradition calls hubris and idolatry. Our collective sins are being visited on those who have had little or no part in them: birds, marine mammals, the tiny plants and animals that constitute the base of the vast food chain in the Gulf, and on which a major part of the seafood production of the United States depends. Our sins are being visited on the fishers of southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, who seek to feed their families with the proceeds of what they catch each day. Our sins will expose New Orleans and other coastal cities to the increased likelihood of devastating floods, as the marshes that constitute the shrinking margin of storm protection continue to disappear, fouled and killed by oil.”

“There is no place to go ‘away’ from these consequences; there is no ultimate escape on this planet. The effects at a distance may seem minor or tolerable, but the cumulative effect is not. We are all connected, we will all suffer the consequences of this tragic disaster in the Gulf, and we must wake up and put a stop to the kind of robber baron behavior we supposedly regulated out of existence a hundred years ago. Our lives, and the liveliness of the entire planet, depend on it.”(4)

British Petroleum’s rape of the Gulf of Mexico was not an “accident,” anymore than David’s rape of Bathsheba was a “lapse of judgment.” It is an expression of the royal narrative that justifies exploitation in the name of order; in this case, preserving the fossil-fuel economy for profit without regard for consequences. BP’s behavior was a “necessary” risk justified by the illusion of unlimited economic growth, entirely consistent with the larger pattern of ecological violence culminating in global climate change.

David’s illusion of military mastery, the unlimited extension of Israel’s power without regard for the common good, unleashed a cycle of violence that tore his family apart, incited civil war, and eventually led to the destruction and exile of Israel at the hands of even more ambitious imperial powers. Nathan’s prophetic reminder brought David to repentance, but the consequences of his actions remained with him and his people for generations to come.

Even if the Biblical prophetic counter-narrative offered by Bishop Katharine brings us to repentance and amendment of life – and I pray it will – the consequences of our actions will remain with us for many generations as well. We must repent of the illusion of mastery and relinquish our sense of entitlement to exploit the earth to preserve unsustainable lifestyles. Not only the quality, but the very possibility of life is at stake. We must remember our covenantal responsibility to the whole, and renew our sense of wonder and gratitude.

Ours is the first generation of humans to have pictures of the earth viewed from space. It is this image of the whole that we must contemplate, internalize, and act upon; ever-mindful of the beauty and mystery of this precious blue-green orb wrapped in white clouds set against the magnificent background of endless darkness. What a priceless gift! May God give us the grace to receive it with humility and care for it responsibly. (5)

(1) Walter Brueggemann, “Abuse of Command: Exploiting Power for Sexual Gratification,” Sojourners Magazine (July/August, 1997).

(2) William Willimon, “A Peculiarly Christian Account of Sin,” Theology Today (Vol. 50, No. 2, July 1993), p. 224.

(3) Willimon, p. 224.

(4) The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, “A Lesson from the Gulf oil spill: We are all connected,” Episcopal Life Weekly at

(5) I'm grateful to Bishop Marc Andrus for his insight into the icon of the earth as image of the whole.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

This is flat-out brilliant, John. I am honored to call you my friend. Really. Brilliant.

R said...


Thanks for this! I'm struck by how Nathan appeals to David's much more humble shepherding past with his parable about the sheep. It's a way he reconnects David with his humanity, his compassion: the moment-to-moment earthy reality of the pasture and the responsibility the shepherd has to the vulnerable.

Fr. John said...

Dear R - your insight about the shepherd reference is spot on. It runs like a thread through Ezekiel and into the Gospel of John as a critique of unjust leadership. It brings David back down to earth. Thanks.