A prompt from this week’s working preacher podcast has me thinking about II Samuel 11:1 “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…” It was true for centuries, for millennia, that military campaigns were begun in the spring when the weather improved. A time when we think of new life, the earth’s bounty and beauty manifesting itself, the glory of God’s creation evident in colorful flowers and blossoming trees, when gardeners plant seeds in anticipation of a wonderful harvest, was also a time of destruction and death. It was the time when kings went out to battle.
But David did not go out to battle; he did not do what kings did. He stayed at home and sent his generals to wage war. And while they waged their war, he did something else kings and other powerful men often do, he committed an act of sexual violence on a woman. She was powerless and defenseless, a victim of a king’s power and his lust.
In an earlier piece, I pointed out the text’s ambivalence toward monarchy. There’s no ambivalence here. The story is told rather matter-of-factly. We see him arranging his rape of Bathsheba and attempting to arrange a cover-up by bringing Uriah back home to sleep with his wife. We also see David arranging Uriah’s battlefield death although we don’t see the death itself, nor the prophet Nathan’s condemnation of David’s actions (all that comes in next week’s reading).
In a way, the presence of this story reminds us again of David’s humanity and venality. In spite of being chosen by God, he was a deeply flawed man in an institution that was also deeply flawed.
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle… One of the critiques of monarchy in the biblical tradition is its exploitation of the people and land that it rules. The land’s wealth was dedicated to the lavish lifestyle of the court. Its people were conscripted into the army or into the service of the crown.
We live in a very different world but some things remain remarkably consistent. The US spends an exorbitant amount on its military and a pittance on programs that alleviate poverty. All the talk about cutting government spending focuses on those tiny programs rather than on the defense budget. Wealth is amassed in the hands of a few. It’s said that a few members of the Walton family possess more wealth than 40% of the American populace combined. Justice is rarely meted out equally to rich and poor.
The prophetic word that came to David, the prophetic words spoken in later generations by Amos and Isaiah demanding monarchs and the aristocracy to heed the needs of the poor, the widow and orphan, still fall on deaf ears. The president doesn’t go out in the spring to fight battles (he wages electoral campaigns) but he does command drone attacks on populations thousands of miles away.