Bathsheba’s Power

December 18, 2022
I Kings 1: 1-31

Today in our study of the women in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, we focus on the woman referred to as “the wife of Uriah.” Her own name is erased for some reason. As curious and perhaps scandalous as Tamar, Rahab and Ruth’s stories are, at least their names are included in the genealogy. But the wife of Uriah is referred to by her dead husband’s name. And the child this woman gave birth to, Solomon, that is included in the genealogy, was not Uriah’s son. Patriarchy, again?

I have to say that when we started this series I was fascinated with how … “irregular” the sex lives of these women are. (Or maybe it is just the church that is irregular?) Tamar – and her father-in-law; Rahab is a sex worker; Ruth, told by her mother-in-law to offer herself to a man in the night. And today, the wife of Uriah. Let’s say her name – Bathsheba. Bathsheba becomes the wife of King David. These are some very hard stories. Confusing stories. Very human stories.

As the weeks have unfolded and we have told these stories and explored them more deeply, what I began to hear was that as “irregular” as the stories of these women are, what they all have in common is that… they are widows. Tamar had two husbands die. Rahab was not married – but effectively all her sexual partners died when her city was conquered by Israel. Ruth and Naomi’s husbands both died. And Bathsheba’s husband was killed on order of the king.

They are all widows and yet, somehow they give birth to babies that end up in the line of Jesus. Suddenly we see that this strange conception of Mary’s is just one more weird, unexpected, inexplicable birth in a series of peculiar births. Matthew sets Jesus’ story in a long line of very human, flawed, living and dying people, from whom come… life.

Back to Bathsheba. If we know Bathsheba at all, it is probably the very painful part of her story that appears in II Samuel 11 and 12. The abbreviated version of the story is that the powerful King David observes Bathsheba as she bathes on her rooftop. She believes she is bathing in private but the king can see her beauty from his high palace tower. David has his men fetch Bathsheba and bring her to the palace. He rapes her then sends her home again, alone. When she sends word that she is pregnant, King David tries to save face by manipulating Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, off the battle field and into bed with his wife.

When that doesn’t work, David tries another scheme to get himself off the hook. He devises a way to make sure Uriah is killed in battle. When Uriah is killed in battle, King David takes Bathsheba as his eighth wife – in addition to his concubines. Bathsheba gives birth to a baby but it tragically dies after seven days. Soon afterward Bathsheba gets pregnant again and this time has a son named Solomon.

The story we hear today is much later, after Solomon, the youngest of David’s ten sons, has grown up. The story in the book of I Kings goes something like this.

When David was old and well up in years, he couldn’t keep warm even when he was wrapped up in his many blankets. So his attendants said, “O King, let’s find a young woman to take care of you, and nurse you. If she sleeps with you, her body will keep you warm.” They looked all over the land to find just the right woman. They found the young and beautiful Abishag of Shunem, and brought her to David. (Is this sounding a bit like earlier in David’s life? Men going out to acquire a woman for the king?) Beautiful Abishag looked after David and kept him comfortable. But he did not have sexual relations with that woman. The text makes that clear. (You will want to keep reading this story in I Kings 2, Abishag becomes an important plot point later on.) 

Meanwhile Adonijah, who was David’s fourth son, (his mother was Haggith the fifth wife,) boasts, “I will be the next king!” And the handsome Adonijah begins the process of gathering his power. He acquires horses and chariots and 50 runners to precede him. He also begins lobbying some of the military leaders and local religious leaders to gain support. But not everyone support Adonijah’s campaign for power.

 Nathan the prophet, who has a history of standing up to King David, goes to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. “Did you hear that Adonijah, son of Haggith, has announced that he is the king, without the agreement or confirmation of our lord, King David? For your personal safety, and for the safety of Solomon, you need to go immediately to David and say, ‘Didn’t you swear to me, I who have been loyal to you, that Solomon would succeed you as ruler, and that Solomon would sit on your judgement seat? Then how is it that Adonijah can claim the judgment seat?’ “And then,” Nathan said, “while you are still there talking to David, I will come in and confirm what you said.”

Reading 1  

So Bathsheba went to the king in his room. The king was very old; Abishag the Shunammite was attending the king.  Bathsheba bowed and did obeisance to the king, and the king said, “What do you wish?” She said to him, “My lord, you swore to your servant by the Lord your God, saying, ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne.’  

But now suddenly Adonijah has become king, though you, my lord the king, do not know it. He has sacrificed oxen, fatted cattle, and sheep in abundance and has invited all the children of the king, the priest Abiathar, and Joab the commander of the army, but your servant Solomon he has not invited. But you, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. Otherwise it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his ancestors, that my son Solomon and I will be treated as criminals.” …

And as Bathsheba is speaking, the well-respected prophet Nathan appears as he said he would. Nathan tells the king all the same things that Bathsheba just said. (Do these things have to be confirmed by a man, or at least a man of God?) Nathan reiterates that he and some others were not invited to the banquet that Adonijah is throwing to celebrate his impending kingship. And crafty Nathan ends his recitation with a question to the king. “Is there something you did, O King, without informing me and your other faithful servants? Did we miss the announcement of who is to be the next king?” Then David calls for Bathsheba to step forward again. And it is to Bathsheba that David swears an oath.

Reading 2 –

David swore an oath, “By the living YHWH, who delivered me from all my troubles, I will carry out the oath I made to you, the oath I swore by YHWH the God of Israel: Solomon will succeed me and sit on the judgement seat in my place!” Bowing to the floor in homage to the ruler, Bathsheba (whose name means daughter of an oath) said, “May my lord, King David, live forever.”

It is tempting to remember Bathsheba only as a victim of King David after he used his power in such a tone deaf and abusive way. But we see that Bathsheba has learned to live into her power. She is no longer simply the beautiful young woman who is maneuvered and manipulated by the powerful king. She is now the Queen Mother who is looking out for her son, and for herself.

Bathsheba has lived in the palace for many years and by now has learned how power is used. She is ready to preserve the power and prestige she has and is willing to fight for it (or humble herself for it), even if it pits her against the other queen mothers and their sons. Bathsheba stands up and claims her power. (Though we might wonder if she is now being manipulated by the prophet Nathan who has interest in keeping his position as the king’s personal prophet.)

Bathsheba’s story illustrates how complex power can be, how confusing power can be. Even defining power can be confusing. It is not that many months ago that I preached on the power of vulnerability. But vulnerability is not a power we really choose.    Vulnerable Bathsheba was raped and her husband killed. When Bathsheba was vulnerable, she was moved into the palace and her baby died. Now that she has power as one of the king’s wives, she uses her access to the king to hold onto the power that she has. Bathsheba’s actions illustrate that she has no interest in becoming vulnerable again. And she certainly does not want her son to lose out on the power that he might have access to.

There is a kind of power in vulnerability, absolutely.  But really, who wants to have access to only that kind of power? Vulnerability is a risky, unpredictable kind of power. Vulnerability is a power we use as a last resort when we have no other options. It doesn’t feel like power at all when the vulnerable one is at the mercy of others. Isn’t it better to have power that one can control? I mean not power to gain absolute control, but power that can be used to make vulnerable lives better, others lives or even our own.

Finding the balance between vulnerability and power is not easy. While we might wish for just a little more power to make our own decisions or what we consider good decisions on behalf of other people, there is always the danger that we might begin to live into power just a little too much. We know that David went from a young and powerless shepherd boy, to a king who abused power, to an old man who used his power to determine where the power would go to next. Bathsheba was caught in the power plays of others – and she participated in some of the power plays.

We may not think of ourselves as powerful people but education, occupation, family wealth, home ownership, race, gender, age, ability, citizenship, legal record…all of these give us more or less power.

How do we find or even create ways to use our power for good?

How do we discern when it is time to humble ourselves, make ourselves vulnerable, and when it is time to use our power?

How do we decide when to step aside to make room for others to empower themselves?

It takes practice to figure out how to handle power. It takes commitment – and community that models sharing power. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of learning.

In this season we celebrate the birth of a baby that came into the world with all the power that babies have – smallness, wailing, and adorableness. We follow the way of this child whose beginnings were humble and vulnerable. His parents were poor and his lineage includes widows who had few options.

And – these widow women made choices. They made decisions, they took risks, they used the power they had. And – a way was made.

Let’s receive Bathsheba’s blessing. p 89 in Expecting Emmanuel