04 October 2008

Who Speaks for Uriah?

Let’s set the stage:

As I noted recently, Pastor Josh Patty has wrapped up his 16 week marathon sermon series on the ancient Israeli/Jewish monarchies, as reported in Kings and Samuel (and probably elsewhere). In my comments here and on the pastor’s blog (www.alongthispilgrimsjourney.blogspot.com - kickin' place, you gotta try it) I’ve succeeded in offending lots of people with my lumping of the ancient and modern Israelis together and projecting my negative opinion of the moderns (controversial in itself) on the ancients.

I’ve commented with light humor and with heavy-handed sarcasm. That doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a good deal. Quite the contrary. Just as it’s easier to improve on someone else’s plan than it is to come up with your own out of whole cloth, seeing someone doing something less than optimally or even downright stupid prompts you to see new things and better ways. Or, put baldly, it's easier to criticize than create.

Despite their exploits being recorded by God in the Bible, the ancient Jewish leaders had venality and pettiness in excess even of Bill Clinton and his wandering hormones, Richard Nixon and his enemies lists and maybe Bush II and the phantom WMD’s. I have notes of the earliest adventures of David (whipping Goliath) for a potential future post on interpersonal conflict, probabilities given strength and other tactical matters, and reality, but turn today to David as King and the corruption of power. (Josh reads the story as being about sex. He is a biblical scholar. I am not. I still say it’s about power first.) And so, the story of David and Bathsheba:

(A note on the translation: This is from The Message, found at bible.com. It’s a very free translation that loses a lot - I guess, but how would I know - in the musical language of ethics, but restates the history in words heard around the fire since the nighttime fire was discovered. I’ve simplified the language even further – this is far enough from the original Hebrew or Greek that I don’t think I run afoul of the warning in Revelation about changing stuff in the Book. And if I do, I recognize that that’s a pretty big “oopsy.”)

2 Samuel 11

One late afternoon, David got up from taking his nap and was strolling on the roof of the palace. From his vantage point on the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was stunningly beautiful. David sent to ask about her, and was told, "This Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite." David sent his agents to get her. After she arrived, he went to bed with her. Then she returned home. Before long she realized she was pregnant.

Later she sent word to David: "I'm pregnant."

David then got in touch with Joab: "Send Uriah to me." Joab sent him. [Uriah is away with the army at a seige. What follows is David offering him a leave to go be with his wife and, presumably, cover David’s tracks on the paternity issue. Uriah, having more honor than brains, refuses because the others in the army can’t get the same deal. David tries again, this time getting Uriah drunk.] Uriah replied to David, "The Chest is out there with the fighting men of Israel and Judah——in tents. My master Joab and the army are roughing it out in the fields. So, how can I go home and eat and drink and enjoy my wife? On your life, I'll not do it!"

“All right," said David, "have it your way. Stay for the day and I'll send you back tomorrow." So Uriah stayed in Jerusalem the rest of the day.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. [Which is pretty cold under the circumstances, read on.] In the letter he wrote, "Put Uriah in the front lines where the fighting is the fiercest. Then pull back and leave him exposed so that he's sure to be killed."

So Joab put Uriah in a place where he knew there were fierce enemy fighters. When the city's defenders came out to fight Joab, some of David's soldiers were killed, including Uriah.

[Joab sends a report of the battle back to David, who is really, really peeved that the Israelis didn’t take the city. Then the messenger reports:] "By the way," said Joab's messenger, "your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead."

Then David told the messenger, "Oh. I see. Tell Joab, 'Don't trouble yourself over this. War kills — sometimes one, sometimes another — you never know who's next.’ “

When Uriah's wife heard that her husband was dead, she grieved for her husband. When the time of mourning was over, David sent someone to bring her to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son.

[Further passages go on to have a pity party for David, because that first child dies and he really regrets his sin, but finally, his life works out, he and Bathsheba have further children including Solomon, and Israel presses on.]

So King David suffers, loses a child, loses sleep, knows that he’s done wrong, but he’s still got the girl. Uriah is still dead. Who speaks for Uriah? The love child lives a short and miserable life. Who speaks for that child? Extolling the justness of David’s punishment and suffering is a rather strange position for people of faith who, presumably, believe in loving everyone and protecting those unable to protect themselves, whether it is because they are very young or because their backs are turned.

Well, this is ancient history and perhaps apochryphal or fantasy or something like that. Of no interest at all today. There is no modern David who would harm others for his own pleasure or benefit or enrichment, is there?

Damn right there is.

Uriah is everywhere. Who speaks for Uriah? Who speaks for the service people in mortal danger in Iraq and Afghanistan, danger that doesn’t resemble the noble and fun bullshit that the small screen portrays, Uriah who has been sent to war, tour extended, enlistment stop-lossed, furnished low-bid body armor, and sent into a war justified by lies which may really be about profit and showing the world which country has the biggest dick.

Who speaks for Uriah? The financial system glitz and promises sent a smart young woman to NYU 15 years ago, where she earned an education in finance, and then went to a second tier business school for an MBA. Let’s call her Jane Briefcase. The old boy net wouldn’t let her in on the top floor (being old boys and being Harvard/Yale/Columbia/etc. bigots), but they put Jane into a cubicle, paid her well enough to buy a late model used Volvo, and she started struggling with the idea of having children, but hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Oh, she worked at Lehman Brothers, an investment firm. Boy, the CEO and CFO and other guys in Saville Row suits and Italian silk neckties sure have egg on their face right now, since their greed drove Lehman Brothers into the ground. They are going to have to rely on vast savings, protected retirement accounts, and may have to sell off real estate until they have only the city condo, the Connecticut mini-manse and the house in the Keys. Oh, Jane Briefcase, who made them much of their money, was laid off with less than a day’s notice. She has a few thousand in savings and a mortgage that is eating it up. Nobody will be hiring financial people for a long time. She is Uriah, too.

Who speaks for Uriah? Uriah is the coal miner whose foreman sent him under some bad top because it was probably going to be OK. The roof fell, and Uriah blew out his back. He was making $60,000 per year because he worked a lot of overtime. He’s on workers’ comp taking home half of what he was. He may get retrained, or he may not. He may get Social Security, he may not. The retirement home isn't gonna happen.

Who speaks for Uriah? We market “gangsta rap” and glorify guns and violence without ever showing a real gunshot wound. We send police officers out with “rules of engagement” and laws of search equivalent to a “Mother, May I?” approach, and then tut-tut the TV when it reports more violence and blame the liberal-conservative-du-jour when we realize that we are losing the War on Drugs.

Who speaks for Uriah? The tobacco industry patronizes the U.S. Congress, which in turn protects and subsidizes the industry that directly kills Uriah 400,000 times per year.

Who speaks for Uriah? 43,000,000 have no medical insurance and won't be getting any. They may get some charity care, but if they need something expensive - chemotherapy, coronary artery bypass operation - they are shit-outta-luck. Talk to your congressman. Oh, you'll need to dodge all 4 of the health-insurance lobbyists that exist for each and every member of Congress.

Uriah is no weakling. S/he is dedicated and powerful, looks after the other guy and asks only that those who hold the power of life and death over her treat her honestly, and not put her where enemies are sure to kill her.

Who speaks for Uriah?

Pippa passes.



rosa said...

Roger, I'll agree with you that the parable is about power not sex. It's also about cultural prejudice and pride. You're right that Uriah is the abused, forgotten victim, but you're leaving out the whole idea that Uriah's suffering and death didn't matter to David simply because he was a Hittite, not a Jew, and thus both alien and less important. If your Pastor sees it only as a "parable" on sex and not one about power, well, then I would worry. I would worry that he has lost focus on the New Testament's message of compassion.

On the whole, that passage always reminds me of American hubris. Like David in the story, we tend to think we can take want we want and disregard others' rights. We can do this simply because we are America,, and thus always right, and because you the other are not us and thus less than us, and less important. It's certainly not a very honorable point of view--for King David nor for us.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you both that the story of Uriah is more about abuse of power than it is about sex. But, you both forget that God passed judgement on David for what he did.

Nathan comes in 2 Samuel 12, and tells David that 1) he's not getting away with anything, 2) the sword will never depart from his house because of what he's done. Our American sense of justice would like to see David struck down dead right at that moment. But, in some ways he might have prefered a quick death to what the rest of his life held for him - what with his son Absolom rising up and trying to kill him and all - as just one example of the life long grief God brought down on David for what he had done. Plus, his treachery has been written down for all generations to see. Embarassing much?

Because I believe in God, I believe He didn't let David off scot-free for what he'd done. He's not going to let America get away with what she's done or these greedy bankers with what they've done. We might not get to see it, but justice will be done.

rosa said...

God may have punished David, but he sure didn't take away any of his power, and Solomon--the son of David and Bathsheba--went on to be a more powerful king. So David's line strengthened and became more powerful gaining him eternal life vs embarrassment. In the long run, David got off very easy. His people, however, well they may still be suffering for it.

Justice in the afterlife doesn't do it for me, Mel.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, that is sometimes all we get, Rosa.