King David and Bathsheba: Sin and Human Brokenness

Today’s First Reading from the Second Book of Samuel is a challenging one to reconcile with what we know and celebrate about God’s chosen leader, King David. He is often depicted as the great ruler of the people of Israel and God’s agent of action in history. He is recalled as the progenitor of a lineage that leads to Jesus of Nazareth and his legacy is overwhelmingly reflective, at least in most imaginations, of one endowed with special gifts by God for the mission he had in salvation history. Yet, we get a very stark depiction of David’s actions that exhibit the condition of human brokenness and sin that affect all persons. It just so happens that these are the “big two” types of sin upon which people most often dwell: sex and violence.

For those who didn’t hear the reading proclaimed today or might not be familiar with this episode in 2 Samuel, here’s a brief overview. During a time of war, King David is hanging back in Jerusalem away from the battle front when one day he wakes from his afternoon nap and goes for a walk on his palace’s roof. He spies from his vantage point a beautiful woman bathing (presumably naked) and he asks his aides who this woman is.  She is the wife, it turns out, of one of King David’s soldiers Uriah the Hittite. David then sends his aides to “take her” (which sounds like kidnapping, but the context is a little unclear) and bring her to his palace where he then has sex with her. To make matters worse, one might reasonably presume that it was not consensual sex given the whole “taking” business. It turns out then that this woman, Bathsheba, is pregnant and sends word to King David to let him know.

If this is where the story ended it might illustrate well enough the shadow side of the great King David, offering us an unpleasant glimpse into his own sinfulness. But the story goes on.

David therefore sent a message to Joab,
“Send me Uriah the Hittite.”
So Joab sent Uriah to David.
When he came, David questioned him about Joab, the soldiers,
and how the war was going, and Uriah answered that all was well.
David then said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and bathe your feet.”
Uriah left the palace,
and a portion was sent out after him from the king’s table.
But Uriah slept at the entrance of the royal palace
with the other officers of his lord, and did not go down
to his own house.
David was told that Uriah had not gone home.
On the day following, David summoned him,
and he ate and drank with David, who made him drunk.
But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his bed
among his lord’s servants, and did not go down to his home.
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab
which he sent by Uriah.
In it he directed:
“Place Uriah up front, where the fighting is fierce.
Then pull back and leave him to be struck down dead.”
So while Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah
to a place where he knew the defenders were strong.
When the men of the city made a sortie against Joab,
some officers of David’s army fell,
and among them Uriah the Hittite died.

To summarize the ending of this narrative: King David has the husband of the woman he had sex with (possibly raped) and got pregnant intentionally killed by deliberately sending him to the front lines of battle where things were most violent.

What are to make of this story? I think at the heart of the story stands a truth about humanity, God’s Spirit and the condition of our brokenness.

That we are all subject the an existential characteristic that the tradition calls Original Sin, that finitude and hubris that is a condition of our very existence, does not in fact justify the categorical sins we commit by virtue of our own agency. We have free will and we can and do make decisions that do not reflect what God intends for humanity and creation. But, even the greatest examples of holiness and Christian living also have their shadow sides, their imperfections, their sin. It’s what, rather literally, makes us human. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter, St. Paul, Bl. Mother Teresa, Bl. John Paul II and so on, each was a sinner like King David.

Now, not every sinner has an affair and then murders that person’s spouse, but each of us is far from the perfection of humanity we find in Christ. Our goal, our aim should always be to act more in accord with the model of what it means to be human in the example that God personally showed us in Christ.

It is also important to remember that despite our sinfulness we too can do great things for God as King David surely did. We are not simply our worst thoughts or actions, but much more than that. May we strive to sin less, but also forgive ourselves and others for the actions of our human imperfection. We will inevitably fall short of our ultimate goal to live as imago Dei, but we pick ourselves up, seek reconciliation with God and the community and work to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Photo: From the movie Original Sin (2001)

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