At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel there is a long genealogy of Jesus. There is also a genealogy in Luke’s Gospel, but the special thing about Matthew’s (compared to Luke’s, and every other genealogy of the time, and the rest of scripture) is his inclusion of five women.
Women didn’t usually get a mention in those kind of lists, because they weren’t considered important enough to warrant it, so it’s pretty significant that they’re featured there. But, as well as that, these women are not the kind of ladies that a good First Century Jewish chap would necessarily want to be associated with, never mind a good Jewish chap who’s claiming to be the Chosen One.
They’re unexpected ladies to feature in such an esteemed list, but then, Jesus is a pretty unexpected Saviour too.
The fourth of the five is Bathsheba.
“…and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah…“
As I begin I should warn you that the topic of today makes me pretty angry; angry in a way that may make this post a little on the blunt side. The story itself is terrible, of course, full of corrupt power, lies, murder, and the death of a newborn baby; but, what makes me really angry is the way that the story is retold in countless bible studies, sermons, commentaries, and moralistic tales, to paint the wrong person as the villain.
I cannot tell you the number of times I have read or heard this story used as a biblical cautionary tale, to warn men about the dangers of being led astray by immoral women; and/or to rebuke women for their immodest dress or activities.
THAT IS NOT WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT.
If you say that kind of stuff in my presence you should prepare yourself for the very real possibility of a punch in the face (or, more likely, a very stern look). Rest assured, I’ll not be pleased.
Here’s the thing. It’s an awful bad story, but it’s not an awful bad story about a nasty, whorey, temptress leading an innocent man astray, it’s a story about a great king, who falls in a spectacular fashion, is corrupted by power, and does despicable things. Let’s have a look, shall we?
If you want to read the story for yourself you can find it in 2 Samuel 11. The events are located in a time in Israel’s history when things are going pretty well, the low point of the time of the Judges has passed, the country is prosperous, and they have a king, and not just any old king: this is the reign of King David, the anointed one, a ‘man after God’s own heart’. However, in this instance David’s behaviour is decidedly less than exemplary, as we’ll see.
As the chapter opens we’re informed that it was spring, the time when ‘kings went out to war’, and yet, David has stayed in Jerusalem. He’s sent another man to lead his army, and he’s stayed behind in the city: he was exactly not where he was supposed to be.
One afternoon he takes a stroll out on his roof and catches sight of a beautiful woman bathing. At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking badly of that beautiful woman, Bathsheba. After all, being naked on one’s roof is not exactly modest and demure behaviour, is it? Isn’t she just being a slutty exhibitionist, deliberately trying to entice any poor, innocent king who happens to wander by?
No. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite of that, and to understand why, we need to understand the meaning of the comment in parenthesis in verse 4: ‘Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness’.
You see, that precious, special, monthly joy of womanhood (let the reader understand the withering sarcasm in that description) is referred to in Leviticus as her ‘time of impurity’ or ‘uncleanness’. During that time any bed or chair she sat on was considered unclean too, as well as any person who touched her, and at the end of the time she was required to ritually wash, in order to be clean again. The ritual washing happened in a special bath called a Mikveh, and the requirement of the Mikveh was that it be made from ‘living water’: ideally, a stream or river, but, if necessary, a bath filled from a cistern of rainwater was permitted. Almost certainly that is what Bathsheba was doing up there on the roof: not flaunting herself, but submitting herself to an obligatory ritual. She was being obedient to the law, she was making herself clean, she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
So, David sees her, and rather than turning away in shame, he goes and finds out who she is. And he’s told her name, and that she is the wife of another man, Uriah.
And his response to that?
“So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.”
This is not a story about an immoral woman leading a naive king astray; it’s a story about a king who uses his great power and influence to rape a woman.
Is that blunt enough for you?
Maybe you feel that describing it as rape is a step too far, but take a moment to appreciate Bathsheba’s position here. Did she have another option? Does it sound like he sent an invitation along with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates? Or something more like a gun pointed at her head? This was the King of Israel who was having her brought to him – you don’t say no to that. Not if you want to keep living.
Sadly, the story does not improve. Bathsheba ends up pregnant, and so David brings her husband home from the war in an attempt to pass the child off as Uriah’s. But Uriah is too righteous a man for David’s dastardly plan to succeed, as he refuses to sleep with his wife while the rest of the army are still fighting. And, in what is probably David’s lowest point, he sends Uriah back to the frontline of the battle and has him killed, all so that he can marry the newly widowed Bathsheba, and somehow disguise all of his awful behaviour.
Of course, he can’t hide what he’s done from God, and Nathan the prophet is sent to bring a rebuke, which he does through the medium of a parable. If we were still in any doubt about whether the fault in this story lies with Bathsheba or with David, this tale would clarify it all. Read it in 2 Samuel 12, because it is a brilliant moment: Nathan weaves a story, about a poor man with a single, dearly-loved lamb, and a rich man with great flocks and herds, who steals the poor man’s one loved lamb and kills it to feed a guest. David hears the story and is outraged at the tale and pronounces that ‘the man who has done this deserves to die’, and Nathan responds: ‘You are the man!’
David is cut to the heart, and his response is to repent before the Lord (you can read that in Psalm 51), but the sadness isn’t over: Bathsheba gives birth to a son, and seven days later he dies.
How are we to understand all of this? Why on earth would this awful story make its way into the genealogy of Jesus?
It’s a weird one actually, because in this one instance Matthew doesn’t even call Bathsheba by her name, she’s just ‘the wife of Uriah’, almost as if he’s specifically drawing our attention the scandal and shame and horror of the story.
Why? What place do scandal and shame and horror have in the story of the Messiah?
Every place. This real and perfect King of Israel has his biggest victory in a moment of absolute and total scandal and shame and horror: naked, bloody, excruciating death, on a hillside outside of Jerusalem. From a moment of absolute evil, God brings unimaginable goodness; and here in Bathsheba’s story we get a wee glimpse of that.
After the rape, and the deception, and the murder, and the death of a tiny baby, David goes to Bathsheba and comforts her, he sleeps with her again, and she has another baby, another boy: Solomon. David was promised that his son would have a kingdom and a throne that would last forever, we a see a taste of that in the reign of Solomon, but we see it fully in the One to come: Jesus.
Of his kingdom there will be no end. Proof, if ever we needed it, that God can and will turn evil to good.
In summary: redemptive.