The narrative of David and Bathsheba has for long captured the imagination of all peoples. Despite the sequence of events in this narrative, most of us still consider David as “the man after God’s own heart.” However, it was this man that brought disaster upon a home and sowed the seed of hatred and violence that ended up permeating his very home. We have conveniently embraced the ‘mighty’ and ‘powerful’ David, and perhaps even uncritically, the ‘repentant’ David. Therefore, I intend to re-read this narrative by questioning the ‘constructedness’ of masculinity and exposing the masculine vices of David. I would begin by placing him within the province of power and powerlessness, aggression and violence.
Masculinity and the Right to Desire and Acquire
In the societies of the Ancient West Asia, a woman’s sexuality (and destiny) was generally under the control of a man in her family. Men had to rule, be successful, be aggressive, be self-reliant, and also be sexual. And David knew just how to be that kind of a man. In Bathsheba, David’s right to desire is claimed. Desire in itself is not wrong but David desired a woman who was married to another man. First, David invades Bathsheba’s privacy and violates her even before bringing her to his bed. Second, his ‘royal action’ is governed by powerful verbs: “he saw,” “he sent,” “he inquired,” “he took,” “he lay,” indicating rapid and single-minded action. In Israel, as elsewhere in the ancient world, a man’s ability to collect multiple women supposedly increased his ‘manly’ status and power. And verse 4 tells us that David “takes her” and “lies with her.” The Hebrew word laqah should probably be understood as “fetch” or “summon,” clearly implying psychological power pressure used on Bathsheba. Therefore, David’s desire for Bathsheba was not borne out of love (or lust) but rather was borne out of the need to reassure his flagging manhood.
Masculinity and the Right to Validate and Exonerate
Over the decades Rabbis, scholars and commentators (all being men) have conveniently defended David. For instance, in the Midrash, it is said that YHWH had destined David to marry Bathsheba. Their interpretations invariably project Bathsheba as the seductress and David, as the victim. H. W. Hertzberg, in his commentary, speaks of “Feminine Flirtation.” Randall Bailey, a Hebrew Professor, calls Bathsheba the “Prime Mover.” Frank Mead calls her “dirty.” Men of God have even defended David’s murder of Uriah by viewing Uriah as a disobedient soldier, an abusive husband and a rebel who did not concede to David’s orders. Why was it necessary for these prejudiced men to put David in good light? Perhaps, they defended David because he was “the man after God’s own heart.” Perhaps, they had to protect and save his prestige. Or perhaps, they were just being men. The fact is that men first exercise at will their right to desire and acquire and follow it up by exercising their right to justify their right to desire and act. But wait, it doesn’t stop there.
Masculinity and the Right to Manipulate
Isaac Taylor believed that men, to be men, must act. And David does act. In verse 6 he sends for Uriah and upon his arrival urges him to tread into an amorous mood, inviting him to do what ‘real men’ would do – to have sexual intercourse upon being drunk (striking a link between male drunkenness and sexual activity). Surprisingly, David fails in his attempts. But David, the ‘man,’ has other ideas: he resorts to eliminate Uriah. In verse 14 David appeals to Joab’s male soldierly instincts to bail him out of this ‘male’ jam. David with his power and might decides to bring in another male into the mix, and this man concedes to the King’s appeal. David while in his palace is still able to control the destiny of another in the battlefield. How manipulative of David, the man! He was a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power.
Today we see the same things happening around us. A man can masturbate in public and still not be punished for it. Men can rape women and still manage to bail themselves out by the use and abuse of power. Men not only have access to physical means of power but also to the non-physical means of power. Private and public spaces are masculinized. Masculinity is valorized and elevated so much so that femininity and other masculinities are marginalized and subordinated. For all you know even the God we worship has been masculinized. Are we responsible for it? Certainly we are.
David may have been a “man after God’s own heart” and may still be a role model for many, but we must be critical of the way the Church has portrayed David, the man. The challenge before us is to do away with the rhetoric of the ‘manly,’ ‘victorious’ and ‘mighty’ David. We must stop defending and protecting David, the libertine. When we eulogize this masculine David, we end up granting credence to all the prejudiced interpretations, we end up advocating the impulse of men to be ‘real men,’ and we end up accentuating men, masculinity and their vices.