A Jewish rabbi once said “this story about David was included in the Scriptures to make the point that even the most moral of persons can fall, the most powerful people have weaknesses, and no one, not even David, is perfect.” This is an R-rated story about a great and powerful king’s wrongdoing and weak will. But it is also a story about a good man’s self-deception. When all is said and done, David thinks he has gotten away with it.
Let’s unpack this story a bit. David orders that Bathsheba be brought to him, and given the fact of his power as king, and the context of patriarchy in which this story takes place, I think it unlikely that Bathsheba comes as a consenting adult eager for a love affair. King David doesn’t even know who she is. And although there is a long history of interpretation that paints Bathsheba as a seductress who was bathing on her roof in hopes that the King would see her and be enticed, that is not the story. She is apparently bathing in her house and he is spying on her from his roof. She is brought to him, he has sex with her, and he sends her home. When word comes that she is pregnant, David ultimately conspires to have her husband killed in order to cover everything up. When the messenger brings word of Uriah’s death, David’s response is calloused and dismissive: “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one, and now another.” Such is life. Oh, well. As the rabbi says, “even the most moral of persons can fall.” David is described in Scripture as “a man after God’s own heart. He is one of the good ones, but nobody’s perfect. Everyone has weaknesses. Everyone misses the mark. Sometimes egregiously. Sometimes only slightly. We all know this. And, I don’t know about you, but stories like this can leaving me feeling pretty good about myself. I’m not that bad.
In the end, though, the deeper issue in David’s story is that he thinks that he has gotten away with it. He is self-deceived, and happily so. He takes Bathsheba as his wife and is ready to move on. But then Nathan, the prophet, dispatched by God, shows up with this little story about the rich man who steals and slaughters the poor man’s beloved sheep rather than take one of his own flock. Before he became king and a rich man, David was a shepherd, and a good one. He was brave and tender. While tending his flock, he sang to them and played his harp. Maybe he had named all his sheep. Maybe the little lambs curled up in his lap. Maybe they were like children to him. This is the right story to tell King David. It touches his heart. In his response it is clear that he knows right from wrong. He feels compassion for both the lamb and the poor man, and he feels moral indignation over what the rich man has done. “He deserves to die and must repay the poor man with four lambs,” shouts David. “You are the man,” whispers Nathan. Bingo. It is sometimes easier to see another persons faults than it is to see our own.
Psychologists tell us, every person is driven to self-deceive, simply to avoid the discomfort of the truth about ourselves. Self-deception is one of our handiest ego defenses. We are tempted to hide from the truth of the things we do that hurt others, or hurt ourselves. We are good at justifying our words, our actions, our outbursts, our harsh judgments, even our apathy in the face of another person’s needs. “I’m just feeling really tired, I’ve had a horrible day.” “You’re being way too sensitive.” “Well, he was wrong, he deserved what he got from me.” “I’m just too busy to be with you, or to care about this or that need.”
But our self-deception is also bigger than these kind of momentary denials of personal hurts to others. We participate in a bunch socially constructed deceptions that leave us self-deceived. The dynamics of male desire and power in the story of David and Bathsheba, have had me thinking about the Me Too Movement. Lots of men got away with sexually harassing and assaulting women for years, and women kept quiet about it because the way things are is that men have disproportionately more power of all kinds than women, and we’ve been schooled in the social lie that “men just can’t help themselves,” or that “women have to put up with these things if they want to live in a man’s world,” or the lie that “women want it, or provoke it, or are being crybabies if they speak up.” This is just one example of the social deceits that we live with. And it doesn’t only hurt women, it hurts men too. Everybody is robbed of their full humanity when we participate in these kinds of social self-deceits. Think racism, heterosexism, certain values of capitalism, the dynamics of wealth and poverty. They rob everyone of us of our full, blessed, beautiful humanity. They make all of us less than the person God has created and longs for us to be.
Then along comes Nathan, the prophet, who exposes the self-deceit, uncovers the lie, and makes it possible for David to truthfully see himself. It’s painful. It is so not fun to see the truth of ourselves and admit the injury we cause, both consciously and unconsciously. But it is an open door. Our very best relationships are with people who will not let us be blind to ourselves, or to the bigger reality in which we are situated. These people reveal both our hidden strengths and our brokenness. They uncover the things that invite change both in us and the society we live in. In my experience, this kind of self-exposure is easiest to bear when it takes place in relationships where there is deep trust and love. Relationships where we know that the person who shines the light on our darkness wants only the best for us. But even if the truth is uncovered by someone we don’t know well or trust or even like very much, if we can receive it, it will be a deep grace, a profound gift, a welcome awakening.
Nathan wakes David up, and David confesses the truth of his actions: “I have sinned against God.” You might wish he had confessed explicitly, “I have sinned against Bathsheba, and Uriah, and myself.” But in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is understood that every sin against any person is also always a sin against God whose image they bear, and whose heart is grieved by their grief. Although David has pronounced a death sentence on the rich man in Nathan’s story—a death sentence on himself—Nathan pronounces God’s forgiveness: “Now God has put away your sin, you shall not die.” This is the deep grace and forgiveness that pervades the universe. This is the divine love that never gives up on us. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone of us misses the mark. This is the truth we confess every day to God, to ourselves, to others. This is how we stay open to God’s perfect love which keeps freeing us from self-deceit, and which through Holy Spirit within us, recreates us to live wide awake in truth and love.