You might be familiar with Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah’. He released it in 1984, when we were all a lot younger. If you don’t know Cohen’s version, then there’s every chance that you heard it in the film ‘Shrek’ where it was covered by Rufus Wainwright. Or by Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, Alexandra Burke… The list goes on.
Apparently, Cohen originally wrote 80 verses (!), many of them based on stories in the Bible. The one of interest to us goes:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Bathsheba is the one taking a bath but I don’t recall a kitchen chair in our reading today and she didn’t do any hairdressing that we know of. That was Delilah with Samson. If you remember your Bible, or at least the Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature film, Delilah arranged for Samson’s hair to be cut-off whilst he was asleep. He lost his strength and was captured, blinded and imprisoned by the Philistines.
So, Cohen has mixed 2 stories together – and this mixing-up of the two women suggests that Cohen thought of Bathsheba entrapping David as Delilah had with Samson. And down the years Cohen’s not alone in that. The early church Fathers and many writers and artists since have portrayed her as deliberately seducing him. Interestingly, the Talmud, the commentaries written by the Jewish Rabbis in pre-Christian and early Christian times, never present her that way. They put varying amounts of guilt on David but not on Bathsheba.
The trouble is that the Old Testament reading from last week, which is the set-up to this week, is ambiguous. It doesn’t accuse her – but it doesn’t exonerate her either. There are big holes in the story where we and interpreters down the ages are left to fill in the gaps. Bathsheba viewpoint is untold. At this point she’s silent and silenced.
We’re not told how David is able to see her bathing. Yes, he’s on the roof but where is she? Does she come willingly to David or not – and does she willingly lie with him or not? Does she know her husband was murdered? And does Bathsheba have any choice in her subsequent marriage to David? Is she repeatedly victimized because she’s out of other options?
This may be quite sensitive for some here but if so, you will have seen this in the passage already: this can be told as a story of abuse. There’s a definite abuse of power resulting in a murder. There’s an unwanted pregnancy. There’s a cover-up. But conceivably Bathsheba is also the victim of rape – and then forced to marry her abuser. That’s certainly the way the story was looked at by some commentators during the height of the ‘me too’ movement a few years ago.
And it’s easy to see the resonance between then and now. Men in power getting what they want, the women victimized and voiceless.
On the face of it, today’s follow-up seems to back that reading. The prophet Nathan weaves a tale and David convicts himself. He admits his guilt. He confesses. It’s a great OT example of the power of the parable. Nathan doesn’t directly attack David. But David falls for the story and does the rest himself.
However, even Nathan’s story seems to be more about the killing of Uriah and the taking of his wife as if she’s a possession. There’s no mention of any violence done to Bathsheba.
And this helps to feed some of the other readings of this story. Indeed, the latest that I have seen is entitled: ‘Was Bathsheba the original Bridget Jones?’ in a commentary by Kristine Garroway.
In the book by Helen Fielding, and the films which followed, Bridget is a career and relationship-oriented girl who records her goals in life (get to work on time, lose weight, drink less, be a better person, find a man) and how she does in meeting them. She is obsessed with self-improvement and is constantly weighing her options. She endears herself to us by the ups and downs of juggling all these various pressures before realising she is perfect just the way she is.
In the view of Garroway, Bathsheba did not bathe naively, unwittingly placing herself in David’s gaze – but neither did she do so for the sake of ‘getting some action’, as Garroway puts it, whilst her husband was away. Instead, she ‘did a Bridget’ and bathed to further her place in society and ensure her success through becoming a royal mother.
And this interpretation seems to line up with when we see Bathsheba again in 1 Kings 1 and 2. Years have gone by and Bathsheba is a wise and politically savvy woman who collaborates or conspires with the prophet Nathan to ensure her son Solomon will be next in line for the throne.
So, which is it? Which version of Bathsheba would you rather believe?
Embrace the mess
Leonard Cohen was reluctant to determine the meaning of his song, saying only: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’”
Many of the different artists who have covered “Hallelujah” change the lyrics from Cohen’s original which gives the piece even more flexibility in meaning. Each time it’s sung differently, the personal baggage it gathers, the associations and affiliations, all have an impact on the way it is received. The same could be said of how we look at Bathsheba.
God sends Nathan to inform David of divine displeasure over David’s behaviour. God could have allowed David to believe that he had succeeded in getting away with his sin, but instead chose to open a path for David’s restoration to divine favour. It’s a moment of grace. Some may think that he was awarded that too easily, particularly if there was violence and coercion involved in his treatment of Bathsheba. But there were still terrible consequences for David and his family. For that you’ll need to read on in 2 Samuel and in 1 Kings.
And because of the way that Nathan teased this out of David, the confession came not from angry lips, but very quietly: “I have sinned against the Lord”. David’s illusion of power and secrecy have been stripped away. His manipulation of others shown for what it was. Perhaps there are lessons to learn here about how to bring perpetrators to justice today.
What do we learn?
But that still places all the focus on David while Bathsheba remains just outside the line of vision, whether or not you see her as a powerless victim or as someone who engineered the situation.
Maybe how you see her depends on your own experiences, your own situation. If this is the Word of God which is meant to change our lives, then how will our lives change having heard this passage today? Perhaps we’ve learnt that there’s more than one way to see things and to check our assumption. Or maybe that:
- There’s hope here for each one of us. Many of the characters in the Bible are flawed people. So are we! There’s a reason why confession and absolution are part of the service.
- There’s no sin that can’t be forgiven. We might sin against God and each other. We might try and cover it up. But God’s love that we experience through Jesus Christ wipes out those sins.
- With great power comes great responsibility. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. We see obvious abuses of that power in this story and we need to be mindful of perhaps more subtle changes happening to ourselves in our work lives or church lives as our roles change. How do we remain humble and servant hearted?
- Nathan spoke truth to power. He did it creatively, but he did it. Do we? When we see an injustice, do we speak up?
- Did the rich and powerful David get away too easily? Do the rich and powerful today still get too many breaks from our justice system?
- Sin has consequences. If you read on, David’s family and dynasty gets messed up. And sin messes up our congregations, families and society.
Possibilities and challenges
Perhaps we take from this story that God takes action on behalf of the oppressed. God saw Bathsheba and he saw Uriah too. He saw them as children of God, with all the rights and privileges of God’s favour.
Because any word that speaks of divine justice is directed to all who have been abused and offers them justice whether or not they are called by name. That’s our collective task, yours and mine, to make present in our situation today, the reality of our God, who seeks justice for all people.
How do we do that? Well, as Thomas Merton put it: “We must recognise the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope”. Or, if that’s all too much, then maybe, like Leonard Cohen, the best that we can hope for is that, in amongst all the conflict, we just take our chances to reconcile and embrace the whole mess.
And, when we do, then through our lips should be drawn a ‘Hallelujah!’ Amen
“Hallelujah, hallelujah” was given by Ian Banks to an on-line congregation from Bury and Heywood and then at St James, Heywood, on Sunday 1st August 2021. It’s based on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a.
- Garroway, K.H. (2013). Was Bathsheba the Original Bridget Jones? A new look at Bathsheba on screen and in Biblical Scholarship. Indiana University Press.
- Koenig, S.M. (2018). Bathsheba Survives. University of South Carolina Press.