This story of David and Bathsheba illustrates the relationship between self-control and peace quite directly. David, at this point in his royal career, has grown quite comfortable with his privilege, he’s become rather accustomed to simply taking whatever he desires. We see no evidence of his youthful gentleness when he dispatches his guards to go collect his neighbor and bring her to him, whether or not she wishes to go, whether or not she has any knowledge of why she’s being taken from her home by armed men.
Not long after David’s encounter with Bathsheba, news reaches him that it won’t be so easy for him to simply forget that night and move on. Yet his primary concern, even then, remains entirely about his reputation, not the crime he has committed against Bathsheba or, according to Israelite law, her husband. David then attempts several cover-up schemes, but when those schemes fail, David sends not just Uriah, but also his fellow soldiers, to their death, for no other reason than to cover up his own sin.
One can draw a direct line from David’s lack of self-control to the death of not just Uriah, but an unknown number of David’s troops. There was little peace for anyone, as a result of David’s greed. He had, in his rise to power, developed this insatiable need for more, always more. But it was David’s concern for covering up his sin, rather than actually atoning for it, that really brought things from bad to so much worse.
I can’t help but notice some uncomfortable parallels between David’s response to the devastation caused by his sin, and the origins of the Residential School system here in North America.
And lest you think an American is here to criticize the Canadian Residential school system, I have to note here that the Canadian system was based entirely upon the American residential school practice.
As we well know, colonizers sewed devastation among Indigenous communities as they settled Turtle Island, spreading first disease, then violence, and ultimately, poverty. As subsequent white generations saw these problems wreaking havoc on native communities, rather than apologizing and beginning the work of atonement, they doubled-down on practices of erasure and white-washing. Under the guise of “charity,” white churches established boarding schools and populated them with kidnapped native children, telling their donors back in the suburbs that stripping these children of their ancestors’ culture would provide them their best shot at a “successful” future (by white, capitalist standards, of course). Perhaps, these white leaders thought, if we don’t have to see native culture anymore, it would be easier for us to simply forget our role in perpetrating or benefitting from the systematic oppression of native peoples.
Like David’s deeply misguided attempts to cover up his own sin, the Residential School system only made an already devastating situation so much worse.
The recent discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves has once again raised the question about how we are to atone for our nations’ (and, as an American, I mean “nations” in the plural) our nations’ original sin. How do we move forward? What is the right thing to do when such an unforgivable sin has been committed?
That question of atonement sent me back to our story. It left me wondering, what did David do to atone for his sins? The crimes that David committed were some of the hardest kinds of offences to forgive. So, what did he do once he finally realized just how heinous they were?
Well, the first thing he does is get right with God, and God forgives him, right away. But that’s not the end of the story. David still needs to get right with the woman he “took.” Getting right with God was only the beginning, and now he has to start the work of atonement with Bathsheba herself, and that is a much longer process.
It’s important to look at David’s atoning work with Bathsheba in the context of Bathsheba’s time and culture, one in which much of a woman’s status, safety, and livelihood revolved around how many children she bore.
Now, David had many wives, but never fathered more than one son with any of them. From what we can tell, he would basically fulfill his obligation to each wife by providing her with no more than a single male heir, and then he’d move along. David is never said to have loved any of his wives, but he appears to be dutiful in his treatment of them, by the standards of the day.
Yet for Bathsheba, he makes an exception. And remember, Bathsheba was just a local woman he had no intention of elevating to wife or even concubine status… until she was pregnant in such suspicious circumstances.
But once David commits to the work of atonement, he not only marries Bathsheba, but bestows upon her the status of primary wife, elevating her above more senior and noble women in his household, and endowing her with the maximum possible power and agency, a fitting start to atoning for a sin that deprived her of agency at the most intimate level.
David then goes on to father a strikingly uncharacteristic four sons and an unknown number of daughters with Bathsheba, which, again, we should consider through the culture of antiquity.
David never bore multiple sons by one woman, except Bathsheba. Since this is such a stark deviation from his typical pattern, I find it entirely plausible that this large family was borne entirely at Bathsheba’s will. This, I believe, was what she had always wanted, and since she could not have this large family with the husband of her youth, Uriah, David did his best to provide it for her.
But most importantly, David agrees to Bathsheba’s request that her son, Solomon, be named heir to Israel’s throne, a promise Bathsheba will find she has to hold David to when he starts to backpedal on this promise later in his life. Some of David’s other, more senior, wives were born as princesses in their home kingdoms, meaning that the sons of those relationships were of multiple royal lineages.
David’s eldest surviving son at the time of his death was Adonijah, who was of a neighboring royal line on his mother’s side. As the eldest surviving prince and the one with the most richly royal blood, Adonijah is the natural heir to Israel’s throne. He comes pre-packaged with all the advantages of the primogeniture tradition and the privilege of the political alliance he inherited from his mother’s side.
There was a strong cultural and political case to be made for David to break his promise to Bathsheba and crown Adonijah as the next king. I’m sure many of David’s advisors believed Adonijah was the most advantageous choice for Israel. And David is tempted to insulate the power of his monarchy by confirming Adonijah as the crown prince.
But as David lies dying, Bathsheba comes to him, and reminds him of the seriousness of the vow he made to her long ago. His sin had led to enough suffering in Israel, and perhaps in this moment, David remembers not just Uriah but the legion of men who died covering up his sin. David soon realizes that his only option is to fulfill his promise to Bathsheba, to complete his atonement as best he can in his dying days.
In declaring Bathsheba’s son heir to his throne, David restores power and agency to the woman whose agency he had robbed. He uses the last of his power to empower her, to equip her to be in charge of her own and her children’s fate.
As hard as the story of David and Bathsheba is, it does offer a good starting place for conversations around the work of atonement. If there’s one thing I take away from David’s reconciliation attempts, it is to center the one who was wronged. Honor their agency. Restore their power to the maximum extent one can. From the moment David acknowledges his sin, he starts letting Bathsheba figure out what her needs are, and he does everything in his power to help her achieve them. That was God’s grace at work in the lives of both David and Bathsheba.
David is a Biblical figure who is difficult, especially by modern standards. As a national leader, he made some incredibly selfish choices that dramatically disrupted the peace of vulnerable people. Those choices are part of his legacy… but his legacy also offers us a model and hope for redemption, for atonement, for reconciliation. God forgave David immediately upon his confession, and God was with David as he atoned for his sins with the one he had wronged.
The story of David and Bathsheba calls us to center victims in our response to injustice, to restore and protect their agency, and to accept the cost of following the lead of the vulnerable as we move towards reconciliation.
Perhaps this is what it means to seek God’s own heart.
May God’s grace guide us as we embark on the task that lies ahead, and may the gifts of the Spirit, especially those of self-control and peace, equip us to fulfill our call to reconciliation. Amen.