A Broken Hallelujah
And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. (II Samuel 11:2; KJV)
The two Books of Samuel strike me as the Biblical equivalent of beach reading: they’re full of action and intrigue, gossip and scandal, love and betrayal, written from the perspective of an insider in King David’s court. Parishioner Emilie Øyen has been reading them on her summer vacation, and she told me that when a version of Leonard Cohen’s much-covered song “Hallelujah” came on the radio, her reading caused her to hear it in a vastly different way. Everyone who sings this song (there are over 300 versions of it available, according to Wikipedia) seems to hear something different in it, and Cohen is said to have written over 80 verses before paring it down to four or five, but even he refuses to say which is the definitive version. It seems to me to circle around the mystery of the divine in some powerful ways. Having the reading change her hearing of the song, the song then also informs her response to the reading. We’ve added a link to Tim Buckley's version of the song, and the lyrics Tim uses are printed below as well.
- The Rev. Craig Townsend, Vicar
A Broken Hallelujah
She was very beautiful, sitting at the table with the others in the shade of the terrace. The servants carried out grapes, pomegranates, lettuce, and cucumber but ladies’ lunches didn’t amuse her. Bathsheba was the daughter and the grand-daughter of king’s men---wise and smoldering men---and their intensity ran through her veins. She gazed out over the city while the ladies whispered about their servants and gossiped. The view was familiar and yet it always amazed her, gardens built into hidden terraces of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Jerusalem. Stone arches, towers and steeples, urns, bougainvillea, pots of evergreen and orange trees, palms, candelabras left out from a night’s party, and the distant commercial buildings glittering further south. Figs were brought and a plate of cheese presented as she surveyed the homes of those she knew… and that one there, pointed out by the ladies earlier, where the king remained while his servants and all of Israel went out to ravage and besiege in battle. The windows were dark but she could feel his presence. But then, she had felt his presence all of her life.
Bathsheba’s husband was a soldier. “They ravage, they besiege…” she thought. He had been away for almost a year this time. Always away, and time divided into waiting for his return and dreading the day of his departure. “It is hard,” she thought, “to love in a time of waiting. But they must fight their battles. They go to be tested for courage, and they go for bloodlust. They go to protect us, and to push borders and because, they say, they have no choice. They go for the grace of God. We stay, gracefully and without complaint. They conquer and kill so I can take my lunch on this cool terrace. Your sacrifice is for my privilege, darling. I can’t argue with that. I cried for three weeks when you left me with our first newborn. But of course the true agony was yours.
I have my battles too.
“But what of their courage, really? Have they faced one day of solitude in their life? Have they held a sick child, limp and feverish, through the night? I know my battles are not gallant. There is no blood. My courage does not require songs of joy. I stay at home in silence---patient, waiting, tending. Restrained by the children and the servants and the beautiful clothing. When people meet me, they ask after my husband. How is Uriah the Hittite? I smile and tell them what I know. They have conquered this, and dominated that, I say. The armies are strong. He will be home soon. Only a few more weeks? they say. That’s not so bad. I agree. I smile to reassure them that they need not pretend to worry.
And how are you? I wait for it. How are you, Bathsheba? But this they do not think to ask.
The ladies had finished the meal, they were gathering themselves to leave. Servants arranged their rich fabrics that lifted and fell as they moved. Happy maidens, unaware of their potential to reign. Their ethereal beauty---their dove eyes and scarlet mouths, their turtledove purrs---has taken the most valiant men captive. “Maybe there is a God above,” Bathsheba thought, “who will enter me one day and embody love. But for now love is the only weapon I wield. Love will be my victory march. It will never be overthrown by spears or swords or by troops that outnumber sand on the seashore.
“And love, even the thought of love---its indestructible power---terrifies you.” She looked again at his terrace and darkened windows. “Someday I will teach our sons that charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but the truth is I’m not one of those holy dove girls. Open your mouth, my baffled king. Breathe in my hallelujah. Draw me after you and I will drink from your holy vessel.” There was nothing left. The ladies had departed; her servants were waiting. In the afternoon shimmering light, the urns on the terrace where David remained seemed ready to fall from the ledge. “And I will conquer your heart,” Bathsheba thought, “without so much as lifting a stone.”
For in these times of great modesty, what married woman would take a bath on the roof?
- Emilie Øyen
- Jean-Léon Gérôme (ca. 1890)
"Hallelujah", Leonard Cohen
I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in 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
Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
There was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah