Today at 5:30pm we begin our Evening Church Camp! We expect around 25 kids from St. Dunstan’s and beyond. The theme of our Church Camp this year is “Message Received: Hearing God’s Call.” And we will work with five wonderful stories from the Old and New Testaments, about people who received a call from God, and how they responded. For some reason, the story of David, Bathsheba, and Nathan isn’t on the list. Even though God definitely had a message for David, and David received it…
We were meant to have the first half of this story last week, but I took the liberty of skipping it then, and adding it to today’s lesson. It makes for a long reading, but certainly not a boring one. The story hangs together better when you hear it in one piece, and besides… I really could not figure out how to preach a children’s sermon on this story. Some concepts need to be explained by a parent…! Like adultery and premeditated homicide.
It’s not a particularly pleasant story, and at first glance it’s not perhaps particularly edifying. In reflecting on it together today, I’d like to look at Nathan, the prophet. His voice and his role. The great prophet Samuel has died; Nathan follows him as the prophet who speaks God’s words, welcome and often unwelcome, to the King.
Nathan’s words to the King on this occasion are certainly unwelcome. We don’t know exactly how the word of God came to Nathan on this occasion. Perhaps it came in a vivid dream, as it had before. Perhaps he simply heard the chatter on the street about this nasty business with Uriah’s wife, and his righteous anger boiled up within him, the spirit of God driving him to the palace to confront the king.
He surely knew the risks. David could easily have had him thrown in prison, or quietly killed. Remember King Herod summarily executing John the Baptist, a thousand years later and three weeks ago in the lectionary? How easy for David, powerful and successful, having once turned from righteousness, to shrug off God’s words and follow the path of self-will. But as far as we know, Nathan doesn’t hesitate – or hesitates only long enough to figure out the best way to show the King his sin. Nathan goes to the king and tells him to his face: You. Are. That. Man.
The court history contained in the books of Samuel and Kings gives us three stories about the prophet Nathan; this is the second one. We had the first one as a lectionary text a few weeks ago. King David wanted to build a temple, a fancy house for God – or rather for the Ark of the Covenant, a powerful symbol of God’s presence for the people Israel. Nathan says, Sounds great, God will like that, go for it.
But then Nathan receives God’s word that night: “Tell David the King that it is not he who will build me a house, but I will build him a house. Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be prince over my people Israel…” Let’s just remind the King who’s steering this bus, shall we?… And Nathan carries that word to the King.
In that story Nathan speaks for God, simply conveying God’s message to the King. That’s the formal role of a prophet, the official definition: one who receives and speaks God’s word. But in today’s story, Nathan enlarges that role. Confronting David for his treatment of Bathsheba and Uriah, Nathan again speaks for God; but not just for God.
Nathan confronts David with the theft and rape of Bathsheba. And in doing so, he speaks for her. Bathsheba is voiceless and almost without agency, in this story. The only action she takes is to send that message letting David know that she is pregnant. Other than that, she is taken; she is sent home; and once Uriah is dead, she is taken again. Bathsheba’s consent, her yes or no to David, isn’t recorded – because it isn’t relevant. Women had little standing or voice to claim their own bodies. Consider: our society, even now, is still struggling to fully understand that in the hands of a powerful or influential man, a woman may appear to go along with things, yet still feel violated – and deserve our sympathy and outrage.
Nathan is outraged about Bathsheba. His parable casts her as the little lamb, sweet, innocent, beloved. And what happens to her at David’s hands is like a death. Like being slaughtered, and devoured. An interesting side note: The third story of the prophet Nathan, found in the first chapters of the first Book of Kings, has Nathan working with and advocating for Bathsheba. King David is on his deathbed and his son Adonijah has decided he would make a great king, so he’s more or less declaring himself king, with a great banquet with all his friends and supporters. David had sworn that Solomon, Bathsheba’s second son, would be king. Nathan goes to Bathsheba and says, Listen, if this happens, if Adonijah claims the kingship, you and your son Solomon are as good as dead. And he strategizes with her to approach David and remind him of his oath to make Solomon his successor. Pressed by both Bathsheba and Nathan, David rallies to declare Solomon the next King and arranges to have him anointed and crowned.
The Biblical text is clear that God favored Solomon as King. (By the way, this is why, within the terms of the text, the baby had to die – David and Bathsheba’s first son. Solomon, King of Israel, couldn’t be illegitimate. He couldn’t be that baby. If that detail makes you stop and wonder, don’t wonder what kind of God kills a baby for its parents’ sins. Wonder how long after David and Bathsheba’s wedding baby Solomon was really born.) So: The Biblical text is clear that God favored Solomon as King. But it doesn’t tell us that Nathan was acting on God’s prompting in approaching Bathsheba and working with her to ensure that Solomon is able to claim his throne. Nathan has just never forgotten, in all these years, how much David owes to Bathsheba. And that the promise of the throne to Solomon was compensation of a sort for Bathsheba’s struggles and losses.
So in today’s story Nathan speaks for God; Nathan speaks for Bathsheba. And Nathan speaks for Uriah – who has also been rendered voiceless by this time. Uriah, a strong man, an ethical man, a straightforward man. I like Uriah; don’t you? Sleeping at the palace gates with the servants, because he just doesn’t feel right about enjoying the comforts of home while his comrades in arms sleep on the ground out at the front? Poor Uriah. And poor General Joab, forced to risk and sacrifice his men because of the lusts and fears of his king, the king who stayed home at his comfortable palace in Jerusalem instead of coming out to lead his troops as a king ought to do.
Uriah stands for all those – soldiers and civilians – whose senseless deaths testify to the selfishness and hard-heartedness of their leaders, of those who command them and determine their fates. Don’t mishear me; there are noble deaths on the battlefield, no question. But Uriah’s death is not noble. It is a shame and a disgrace. Joab’s bitterness shows us that plainly. And Nathan tells it like it is, telling David: You murdered this man. Sure, you used the sword of the enemy to do it; but the blood is on your hands.
Nathan speaks for God, for Bathsheba, for Uriah. And Nathan speaks for the people. He sees, or God sees, or both Nathan and God see, that this a watershed moment in David’s kingship. Waaaay back in 1 Samuel 8, when Israel was calling for a king, even before King Saul, the prophet Samuel warned the people what kings do. Kings take. They take your sons as guards and warriors. They take your daughters as servants and cooks and concubines. They take your wealth to arm their troops, decorate their palaces. They take the best of your crops and your flock, for their banquet tables and storehouses.They take the best of your land to give away to their courtiers. You will become no better than slaves to the power, ambition, and greed of this King you want so badly. And the people say, Fine, whatever. Give us a King.
Samuel’s prophecy is the mirror that Nathan holds up to David today. You have become a taker. You have become that kind of king. For all your piety and righteousness, you have set your foot on a very slippery slope. Nathan’s words to David tell him that he has wounded his relationship with God, AND his relationship with his own people. He is in real and imminent danger of becoming the kind of king whose authority has everything to do with power and fear, and nothing to do with righteous rule and divine call. He calls David back to the straight and narrow path, to being the kind of King David intends to be, wants to be, a king chosen by God, beloved of God, ruling for God.
Nathan the prophet steps up to the risk and responsibility of speaking truth to power. I used to have a bumper sticker that said that: Dare to speak truth to power. It’s the kind of bumper sticker you have in your twenties, or your seventies. I can’t think of many times when I’ve lived up to its challenge.
But Nathan: he’s the real thing. Speaking truth to the greatest human power of his time and place, with insight, courage and savvy. Speaking for God, and also for those who couldn’t speak for themselves: Bathsheba, silenced by her gender and status; Uriah, silenced by his murder; the people of the kingdom, who had no approval polls or votes to convey their dismay or concern to their king.
The prophet Nathan is an icon of a very important concept for us as people of comparative privilege – mostly white, mostly straight, mostly educated, mostly middle class or above. The prophet Nathan is an icon of allyship. Of being an ally to those without voice, without power.
Canadian educator Anne Bishop defines being an ally this way: “People acting as Allies work to support diverse groups in [the] community with which they may not necessarily identify as members… Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice, and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on.” (Source)
Nathan is an ally. He is a man of education and status. He holds an important, recognized and respected position. He has the ear of the King. And he chooses – in this story – to use the advantages, the privileges of his position, to say some uncomfortable things on behalf of others. On behalf of women, the victims of war, and the common people, all of whom – for various reasons – had very limited scope to speak for themselves.
Being an ally often means helping to elevate the voices of those who are trying to speak their truth and their needs in the public square, but aren’t getting heard. But it can mean speaking for those who really are voiceless, because of their vulnerability or marginalization – like modern-day slaves, undocumented workers, refugees…
Being an ally means looking beyond the boundaries of our comfortable worlds and lives, and listening to voices we don’t usually hear, sometimes voices that are uncomfortable to hear, because they show us the dark side of our worlds and lives. I’m sure it would have been easier and more comfortable for the prophet Nathan to just shrug this business off. Boys will be boys, kings will be kings. What can you do?
Being an ally means taking with utmost seriousness the Gospel’s mandate to see ourselves as brothers and sisters to people of all backgrounds and circumstances. To serve Christ, the Lord we love and follow, in our care for the excluded and the beaten-down. In the words of one of our hymns, we sing and pray, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” In our Prayers of the People, we use the words of another Biblical prophet, Jeremiah, to ask God to help and inspire us to work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell, – the city, nation, world – for only in its peace shall we find our peace.
Being an ally means noticing, caring, engaging. Not with everything at once; there’s so much, I know that. But with something. As you are called.
Nathan heard his call from God. Message received. He knew for whom, and to whom, he was called to speak, and what he needed to say. David heard and received God’s message because Nathan first heard and received God’s call. What call do you hear? Where is your care for a friend or family member, or the deep insistent tug of some struggle in our world, calling you into allyship, with a voice that might sound suspiciously like Jesus?
What’s your call?