For the next two Sundays (Propers 12 and 13, Pentecost 9 and 10) the RCL Old Testament readings cover the story of David and Bathsheba and its aftermath (2 Samuel 11:1-15 & 26 – 12:15). CSBV Research Associate Ceri Webb invites us to revisit the story.
I have a confession to make – I don’t care about football. I don’t watch a lot of sport, but I do understand a little about fandom and how it can be both supportive and divisive – with an in-crowd and the outsiders. So while I don’t see the attraction of football, I get how it can feel to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I was almost tempted to watch the Euros final with my housemates, until I looked at twitter and saw the behaviour of the “fans” before the game had even started. Then I realised, win or lose, toxic masculinity would not cope with the result.
I think toxic masculinity is at the heart of many problems in society, such as this deeply ingrained idea that every situation has winners and losers – so if women or people of colour are asking for equality, they must be stealing from the average white man. Or the suggestion that men should not show emotion other than anger, and with football being one of the few things men are allowed to get emotional about, they have never learnt how to channel that emotion in a positive way, whether their team is winning or losing. This leads to scenes like we have seen over the last few weeks, of rioting in Leicester Square and the racist attacks Black players on the England squad have been subjected to, despite securing the team’s best result in an international competition for decades.
So what has this got to do with King David, the so-called ‘man after God’s own heart’, role model for Christian men everywhere, who must have been in touch with his emotions, after all, he wrote the Psalms didn’t he?
In this story we see another facet of toxic masculinity – privilege and the abuse of power. David by this point in his story is secure in his kingship, and God has promised that one of his sons will be king after him and will build a temple (2 Sam 7). He has everything he has ever wanted, including a harem full of women and many children. His military campaigns have been largely successful and his palace established in Jerusalem. When he should be away with his army on their latest conquest, he is instead strolling about the roof of his palace, spying on women taking baths.
David sees, he wants, he takes – he is the king, who is going to argue with him? We don’t know what Bathsheba’s response might have been – all we know is that she went to David when he called. But commentators over the centuries have been ready to lay blame at Bathsheba’s door. It seems we really struggle with the idea of David as anything other than a heroic figure to emulate – we can’t cope with him being the bad guy in this saturation. Even feminist theologians often court the dominant narrative here: Lilian Klein creates an elaborate paradigm, drawing on the stories of Tamar and Ruth, around the assumption that Uriah is infertile and Bathsheba therefore has to seduce David in order to get pregnant. Aside from the fact that her paradigm doesn’t really work, while her interpretation does give Bathsheba agency in her own story, it also lets David off scot free. Ruth Tucker, however, does assert David is guilty, but adds ‘we cannot let her [Bathsheba] entirely off the hook’. After all, Tucker suggests, she could have said ‘no, I’m married’ when David sends for her. But what happens when someone says no to the King? For Uriah, later in the story, it was a death sentence.
Assuming Bathsheba’s complicity, even in the subtle way of referring to David’s sin in this story as ‘committing adultery’, fails to account for the power dynamics at play in the situation. Bathsheba’s husband is away, she is alone and vulnerable – she has no power, no means of resistance. Maybe she went quietly into the palace, maybe she was dragged kicking and screaming. Maybe she agreed because she thought it would help her family to give in to the King’s demands. We don’t know. What we do know is that all the cards were in David’s hand.
Since people have found out about my research into this story, they regularly send me pictures of tweets or memes that they think will interest me. Recently I received the same image twice. It is based on a Star Wars meme format, Annakin Skywalker stands in for King David and Padme is Bathsheba.
This image does sum up the story pretty well, in my mind. David is drifting over to the dark side, realising that his power and position mean he can take what he wants. While there are consequences – pretty nasty ones for many of David’s associates – we often stop telling the story at the point of David’s repentance and overlook the lasting legacy of David’s actions. This episode in David’s life kickstarts an era of rape, rebellion and retribution as David’s sons, who have seen his abuse of power, believe that they can also do what they like as princes. While David and the male characters do experience pain as a result, the majority of the suffering falls on the women in David’s court. This should make us deeply uncomfortable.
I find David’s story fascinating, because the more I read it, the more uncomfortable I become, and the less I understand the hero worship built up around him. Until we understand the negative aspects of his character as well as we do the positive, we risk perpetuating the toxic masculinity he represents in this story – allowing men in positions of power to abuse their male privilege at the expense of women in their congregations.
Ceri Webb is a research associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She is a Church of England ordinand. She will shortly be beginning doctoral research at Trinity College, Bristol, on the representation of the story of David and Bathsheba in contemporary Christian romance novels.
 Klein, Lillian R. From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003. p55-65
 Tucker, Ruth. Dynamic Women of the Bible: What We Can Learn from Their Surprising Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2014. p177