Bathsheba, our Sister

Here’s the sermon I preached on Bathsheba on 27 June 2015

Sermon preached by Kelvin Holdsworth on 26 July 2015

It so happens that later today I’m going to be on the television in a short slot on Songs of Praise. Blink and you’ll miss me – it won’t be long.

From time to time I get the chance to be on both television and radio. And I’ve learned to treat them very differently and prepare what I have to say to suit the medium.

Generally speaking, I really like doing radio work because, as people often say, the pictures on the radio are far better.

Its true. Radio is about painting pictures and television is about telling stories.

And I think Radio and Preaching are very similar, which is why my preaching is very visual. My aim is to get you to see things in your head as I’m speaking.

And so I find today my own gaze turning over to my left as I look amongst the high windows of the church for one of the protagonists of the Old Testament story which is what I’m going to preach about today.

For every day, he catches my gaze when I’m over there saying morning prayer and you can’t see him from where you are, so this is going to be like radio with me describing him.

As I recite the psalms at Morning Prayer, as often as not, I’m looking up at him. David in Stained Glass. High and mighty. Bearded and wise. Colourful. Powerful. Present.

He’s a familiarly figure to me. As I recite God’s praises using words that he himself wrote, I have him directly in view, God bless him.

King. Poet. Warrior. And downright naughty but do utterly beloved rogue.

He’s a complex character. Though peaceful in stained glass. He is portrayed playing the lyre he made music with as a younger man in order to calm King Saul’s insane rages.

He concentrates on his lyre. Making music. As I look at him I wonder who he makes music for now. For Saul? For Michal his first love. For Jonathan his great love? For Bathsheba his great…. Well, what was it? Was it love? I’m not so sure.

And as he makes his music up there in stained glass I fancy him hearing us reciting his psalms down below.

As I gaze up and him, I imagine him gazing down at me.

But as I look in his direction, I see him dropping the lyre and transported. Transported out of the stained glass and standing on a balcony on a rooftop.

And he’s not looking down at me, he’s looking down at someone else entirely. Yes. Bathsheba on her own roof taking what she suspects is a private bath.

And we’ll leave him there for a moment. Gazing. Desiring. Lusting after another man’s wife.

And we’ll think about her.

It suddenly occurred to me on Friday that though I’m relatively used to seeing David depicted in stained glass, it is at least interesting that we don’t have a corresponding picture of her. She’s a significant figure in her own right in the events that were to follow today’s story.

Is it, I wondered, that we are prepared to forgive him in our collective memory and put him in stained glass simply because he is a man. She, the floosy, not so much.

I’m not sure.

Anyway, on Friday morning, I decided to take a look around the known world for Bathsheba and see if I could work out what she looked like. Now, google has an image search these days. You put in a search term and instead of giving you links, it gives you pictures.

So, into the search box, I typed Bathsheba’s name and pressed the button and immediately was taken aback by what I saw.

Immediately, I encountered the flesh.

Picture after picture of a rather voluptuous figure.

Breasts bare. Rising from baths, fountains, bathing ponds.

Curiously, she seemed rather pale and western looking. I fancy that her peely wally skin wouldn’t survive terribly long on the beach at Saltcoats, never mind on the rooftops of Jerusalem.

But the overwhelming impression was the sheer amount of bare flesh.

And somewhere in most of the pictures, King David casting a sly eye over what was on offer to him in the heat of the day.

My mind boggled at the ogling. It was as though google had suddenly become booble.

And I realised in an instant that we are very used to reading the story of Bathsheba from King David’s point of view.

We are used to reading the story of Bathsheba from King Patriarchy’s point of view. Where women are to be goggled at and ogled at. And owned and taken and possessed.

As I looked at all these medieval manuscripts and more recent paintings containing all these naked Bathshebas I realised that I was seeing transmission of the male gaze through time.

So many monks in scriptoriums painting saucy Bathsheba in the margins and passing the books down from one to another through the ages. What fantasies she must have conjured up just from reading the story.

And remember we had a story a couple of weeks ago of David leaping about in the dance and losing his clothes. But guess what, there are far more bare Bathshebas in the manuscripts and far, far fewer naked Davids.

Women and men are not equal in our tradition.

And once you see such inequality you can start to make the tradition change. (Because that’s what traditions do – they change surprisingly often when people want them to).

I’ve often said that that by a long way, the greatest change that the Scottish Episcopal Church has made in relation to marriage was to produce a liturgy a few years ago where the two participants were equals. A man and a woman getting married in our modern tradition are married as equals and it is a huge lurch away not only from biblical tradition and Victorian traditions of human relationships with which I sometimes think we are obsessed.

This morning’s gospel was the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Well, I think it was the story of the feeding of the five thousand and one. Or five thousand and two. Or five thousand and three.

For what it is trying to tell us is that there is always room for another at the picnic.

(And that’s a metaphor for heaven by the way).

As we re-read the stories of old, we need to read them from different perspectives and I want you to try to read the story from Bathsheba’s point of view this morning.

Manipulated by a powerful man who then murdered her husband in order to take control of her. And then ogled through the ages by churchmen who should have known better.

We must listen to her, for women are trafficked seemingly more and more. Too many are treated as things rather than people because they don’t measure up to the false expectations of patriarchy. Those with power in their hands still refuse to help us build a world based on fairness and human dignity for everyone.

So, I invite you to think again about Bathsheba. Let her prompt your prayers this week. There’s room for her at the heavenly picnic. And it is time her experience is listened to.

And in case you were wondering, there’s room for you too.



  1. In the second verse of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” these words describe Bathsheba:

    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

    Brilliant songwriter, Leonard, and my favourite version of the song is by k d lang.

  2. Elizabeth says

    Thank you for this. It prompted a similar search on my part. A quick search did not bring up any images of Bathsheba mourning for her dead son. (ok, I rushed ahead in the story a bit). It made me think about the hiddenness of much of women’s grief. And about how some grief is acceptable (Rachel weeping, the Mater Dolorosa, etc) and some isn’t. And how much so much of the stories gets left out.

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