I’m going to offer today a little thought about the Bible, that unique gift of God which it’s easy for all of us to take for granted.
Three Sundays ago, after the service, a member of the congregation came up to me and expressed shock, disbelief, and a certain outrage at something she’d heard in the Old Testament lesson. And I have to tell you that, as a member of the clergy, as the pastor of a congregation, and as a garden-variety Christian who loves the Bible, I was thrilled by that reaction. If you were in church that day, you may recall the lesson: it was from 2 Samuel, the beginning of the story of David and Bathsheba. David sees a beautiful woman whom he doesn’t know, learns that her name is Bathsheba and that she’s married to an officer in his army named Uriah the Hittite; he sends for her anyway, they sleep together (this was a culture in which her wishes didn’t matter one way or the other); she becomes pregnant, and David ends up sending her husband Uriah to the front line of battle so that he’ll get killed, which happens.
And this congregant was saying, What’s up with this? Does the Bible go along with this behavior? In fact, she probably was not fully aware of just how badly David had acted. In the story, we hear that when David learns Bathsheba is pregnant, he calls Uriah back from battle duty and tells him to go home and “wash his feet.” In Biblical Hebrew, this was a euphemism for sexual intercourse. So David is trying to cover his tracks: he wants it to make it look like the child will be Uriah’s. But Uriah refuses to go home and “wash his feet”, out of solidarity with his brothers in arms, he won’t desert them, and out of loyalty to David, his king. So David decides that his only remaining option is to eliminate Uriah, and thus not merely erase his guilt, but pave the way for an ongoing relationship with Bathsheba.
The following week in church we heard the conclusion to this story: the prophet Nathan calls David out for his behavior, and David acknowledges his responsibility and expresses a measure of contrition. But none of that changes what this woman in the congregation was reacting to: that David, the greatest king in the history of Israel and beloved of God – proudly identified as a forebear in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth (who is called “son of David”) – David has acted in a way that is despicable, and completely inexcusable.
I was thrilled to hear that congregant’s reaction to the story because, in the way she heard it in church that day, she was doing three things that were absolutely right (at least three things.) The first was that she was paying sharp attention. It’s easy for all of us, myself included, to fail to do this, week in and week out in church. That’s partly because our liturgy is structured, it happens the same way every week, there are always four little bite-size chunks of the Bible that we hear: Old Testament, psalm, New Testament, gospel; it’s routine, and that tends to lull us into a lower level of awareness. Then too, we go right from hearing scripture to something else we need to give our attention to: the sermon (God help us all), during which we have to at least act like we’re listening (I feel your pain). So we don’t have much time to really absorb the scripture we hear. (And we’re not really reading it: reading it out of the service leaflet is not the same as sitting in a chair with the whole Bible open on your lap, and you can take your time over it.)
The second thing she was doing that was right was this: she reacted personally – she didn’t just let the story wash over her, she took it seriously - and honestly, with no thought given to how anybody else might hear that story, or to how “the church” might expect her to react, what “the lesson” might be that we’re all meant to get.
And the third thing she did right was to feel disbelief and outrage: directed mostly at the supposedly great King David, who’s just done a horrible thing, which shows he’s just as dominated by his own appetites as the weakest and most selfish of us; but not simply that. There was also a hint of outrage that this story was in the Bible. What are we reading here? What kind of book is this?
When we read the Bible, this kind of question comes up. It comes up for me today because of the reading from 1 Kings about Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba. In Judeo-Christian tradition Solomon is the paradigm of wisdom, the model of the wise king; and this is the wonderful little story of the origin of his growth in wisdom. David has just died; Solomon, who is probably about twenty years old, is his successor. God appears to him in a dream and tells him, Ask what I should give you. (It’s an offer, but it’s also a test.) And Solomon says, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in….Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil….” We see the beginning of Solomon’s wisdom here: we see his humility, and his trust in God. It’s a wonderfully inspiring and touching little story.
But if you go on to read the whole story of Solomon, which takes nine chapters in the book of 1 Kings – and which we never hear in church, it’s not in the lectionary - you see quite a different side to this man.
As the Bible tells it (in direct, unvarnished detail), Solomon wass a man of big appetites – much bigger than his father – a man who lived very rich, and made the people of his kingdom pay for it, through forced labor, and heavy taxes and tolls. He spent years building a very ornate temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, but more years building an equally ritzy palace for himself. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of whom were from foreign lands, and Solomon built temples for their gods as well: gods whom he worshipped alongside his women, which did not sit well the God of Israel. The Bible lays all this out; but near the end of the story of his reign – which ends in disaster for the kingdom of Israel – we hear this: “The whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” Here, as in so much of the Bible, it’s not either/or; it’s both/and; and what does that mean for our lives?
And it’s not just problematic stories like those David and Bathsheba, and Solomon, that put us in this position. You can open the Bible pretty much anywhere and find something that’ll stop you in your tracks. “You shall have no other gods before me”: how many ways do we stumble over that, in the course of our lives?
The Bible challenges us, in a way totally unlike any other book. It perplexes us; it pulls the rug out from under our feet; it outrages us. And it is able to do all this because any serious reading of the Bible demands personal involvement with it. This is why I was so thrilled with that woman’s reaction to the story of David and Bathsheba, because that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The Bible demands personal involvement because when we begin to question the Bible, what we actually find is that the Bible is also questioning us. When we ask, What’s up with this, if we’re really asking the question, we come to understand that we are being asked, What’s up with you? Who are you? And, Who do you say that I am? It is here, in my opinion, that the Bible most truly reveals itself as the Word of God. Thanks be to God.