For this week please read 2 Samuel 11-12. This week’s episode gives us the story of Bathsheba, David, and Nathan. Tradition holds that the episode ends with David’s composition of Psalm 51 (the penitential psalm we recite on Ash Wednesday.) The next two weeks of David’s story will be about rape, murder, and rebellion.
In Episode 7 we saw David’s rise to the apex of his power. We began last week with the elders of all of Israel anointing David as King. David conquers Jerusalem and makes it his capital. He brings the holy Ark of the Covenant into his city consolidating all political and religious power in one place under his rule. David brings Saul’s sole remaining heir under his roof thus quelling any remaining internal dissent. Through Nathan the prophet, God assures David that he will never forsake him or his descendants and that they will always rule over Israel. God also gives David victory on the battlefield. David recaptures all of the territory that had been lost to the Philistines. And David makes the surrounding kingdoms of Aram, Ammon, Edom, and Moab his vassals who bring him tribute. All the enemies of David have been subdued and he faces no threats to this power. David is secure.
This week is the story of David’s fall. This is the story of David and Bathsheba.
The Scene: (11:1)
David’s fall does not begin with Bathsheba, but with David’s himself. The episode opens with the words: “It was the time of year (the spring) when kings go forth to war, and David sent out Joab and all of Israel against the Ammonites. But David stayed in Jerusalem.” Kings go to war in the spring. The spring is when the winter rains cease, the sky clears, and the ground hardens allowing for the movement of troops and supplies. Kings go out to battle, but David sends his commander Joab. David was happy and secure in Jerusalem. David was enjoying the fruits of his past triumphs. He was enjoying his newfound power and his newfound wealth in his newfound city. David has more wives and more concubines than the Scriptures can tell us. All of Israel went out to war, but David, the king, did not. (Scripture will later provide us another reason why David may have stayed behind. 2 Sam. 21:17.)
Scripture gives us very little insight into who Bathsheba is. During this entire episode, she will only speak once to tell David that she is pregnant. Unlike Michal or Abigail, we never learn her perspective. We do know that she is the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite. She is under the protection of both a father and a husband. She is off-limits to everyone, including the king.
Uriah the Hittite:
Remember back to when David was fleeing from Saul. Then he escaped to the southern Judean wilderness and found refuge in the caves of Adullam. There 400 other men who also suffered from distress or debt or discontent joined him. (1 Sam. 22:2). Of these 400, thirty “great men” were David’s most trusted and most valiant warriors. Uriah was one of these men. (2 Sam. 23:39). Use your imagination to create a flashback between David and Uriah camped out in the cave of Adullam. Uriah has fled some persecution and David gives him sanctuary. We can picture Uriah following David to Ziklag and participating in the massacre of the Amalekite raiding party and enjoying its spoils. We can see Uriah, as one of David’s thirty great men, being at David’s side as he is anointed King of Judah. Uriah is there with Joab fighting against Abner. He is one of the men with Joab who takes Jerusalem. He is there to see David’s triumphal entry and there in the parade when the Ark is brought up. (If you enjoy historical fiction, a good book filling in the gaps of Uriah’s life is The Hittite Must Die which gives us Uriah’s perspective on this week’s story.) Uriah was always at David’s side doing David’s bidding. This year, when Joab goes forth into battle, Uriah is there fighting for David and his kingdom as he had done for the past decade or more.
The Rape of Bathsheba: (11:2-5)
The story begins with Bathsheba washing herself. Most likely, she is purifying herself after her mensural cycle. And so it happens, as David awakens from his afternoon nap, he goes onto his roof to survey his city. From there he sees Bathsheba, and she’s beautiful. David is told her identity and that she is the daughter of Eliam and the wife of his long-time warrior Uriah the Hittite. Despite this knowledge, David sends his attendant to retrieve Bathsheba for him. He has sex with her and he sends her back home. David rapes Bathsheba and then sends her away.
David raped Bathsheba; it was not a consensual affair. Scripture simply tells us that she was bathing and that she was beautiful, it does not tell us or even imply that Bathsheba was trying to tempt David. She knew that her husband was at war and therefore could assume that the king was at war as well. Being summoned by the king, she had no choice but to go. That is the way the world works. As we will see in chapter 12, Nathan the prophet only condemns David while calling Bathsheba an innocent lamb. Some short discussions on why the act was rape and not simply adultery are Here and Here and why it matters are Here and Here.
The Murder of Uriah: (11:6-26)
“I’m pregnant,” Bathsheba tells David. David is in a quandary. Palace servants talk and everyone can do the math to know that the child is not her husband’s. David hatches a plan. He sends for Uriah. When Uriah comes to David, the king asks him about the war and its prosecution. David instructs Uriah to go to his house and to be with his wife. Uriah refuses this command. Uriah tells David that he will not go to his house and be with his wife while his comrades are camped in a field doing battle. (We previously saw this convention discussed in 1 Sam. 21:4.) Instead, Uriah sleeps on the palace doorstep. The contrast between the virtue of Uriah and the deceitfulness of David is stark.
The next night, David invites Uriah to dinner. The men eat and drink until Uriah is drunk. David once more sends an intoxicated Uriah to his own house. Once more Uriah sleeps on the palace doorstep. Uriah is too virtuous, despite being drunk, to play David’s game.
Imagine being David. He raped and impregnated his warrior’s wife, but the warrior will not have sex with his own wife because his fellow warriors are in the field fighting David’s battles. David doesn’t have a good solution, and David certainly does not ask God for advice.
David’s plan to have Uriah sleep with his own wife and thus cover-up David’s actions has failed. David sends Uriah back to Joab to the siege of the Ammonite capital city of Rabbah. David gives Uriah a letter to deliver to Joab. The letter tells Joab to send Uriah to lead the next assault on the city and then abandon Uriah at the front. Uriah dutifully and ignorantly carrier his own death sentence to Joab.
Joab does as he is instructed. Uriah leads the next assault which is intentionally unsuccessful. Joab sends word to David of the defeat and tells David that “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.” David sends back words of encouragement to Joab to not let this defeat discourage him in the battle.
David has now successfully murdered Uriah by proxy to cover-up the rape of his wife. David has killed a man who has been with him for years. He has killed a man who is respected and beloved by his own fellow soldiers. It is these men who will one day rebel against David.
After Bathsheba completes her mourning period, David takes her as his wife. Again, the math is simple enough to determine when and by whom Bathsheba became pregnant. David shows no remorse by David for what has transpired. David’s statement to Joab to not let “this thing trouble you” reflects how David understands his own actions – he is untroubled. He is the king and the king can do no wrong. Rape and murder no longer trouble him.
In what maybe the most understated passage of Scripture we read that “what David had done displeased the Lord.” (11:27)
Nathan the Prophet: (12:1-11)
Nathan is David’s chief religious advisor. Nathan first appeared in last week’s episode as the mouthpiece of God who tells David that David will not build God a house (i.e. a temple), but that God will build David a house (i.e. a dynasty). Back then, Nathan pronounced God’s continuous blessing upon David and his descendants forever.
In our story tonight, there are twelve times when people or messages are sent: David sends for Bathsheba, he sends for Uriah, he sends a message to Joab, Joab sends Uriah and sends a message to David. But now, it is God that sends Nathan to David.
Nathan confronts David. As a young lawyer, I was told that an attorney cannot tell the jury the right answer, but we have to lead the jury to come to the “right” answer on their own. A person can readily reject the counsel of someone else, but they seldom reject the conclusion that they themselves have reached.
Imagine the scene. David is holding court surrounded by his top advisors. There may be tribal elders present or ambassadors from other nations. Servants scurry in and out bringing food and drink. Into this arena walks Nathan who tells David a parable.
There once was a rich man who had sheep and cattle in great abundance. Next door lived a poor man who owned but one little ewe. The poor man nurtured and raised the little lamb, and she ate his table and slept in his bed. A guest came to the rich man’s house. Instead of taking one of his own sheep which he had in abundance, he took the lamb from the poor man and had it served to his visitor.
David reaches the just conclusion that the rich man ought to die for his perfidy. We can see David rise from his throne and, in a loud voice, pronounce judgment against the rich man. Everyone in attendance nods in favor of the king’s righteous judgment.
After David’s passionate condemnation of the rich man, Nathan looks at him and simply states “You are the man.” The room falls silent. Channeling the voice of God, Nathan says “I delivered you from the hand of Saul, I gave you wives, I gave you all of Israel, and I would give you anything else you asked. But yet, you killed Uriah the Hittite and have taken his wife for your own. Therefore, you will face a rebellion in your own home, and this rebel will take your wives for all to see.” David has sinned in secret but the consequences of that sin will soon be public.
David’s Repentance: (12:12-14)
Upon hearing the words of Nathan, David repents. His first act of repentance is to not kill Nathan. Saul slaughtered the priests of Nob for giving shelter to David, Ahab sought Elijah’s life, Herod imprisoned and ultimately decapitated John the Baptist, and in our own Anglican tradition, Henry II got rid of that turbulent priest Thomas Becket. David’s very human character of both depravity and righteousness shows forth in his willingness to submit to Nathan’s condemnation.
David repents. God forgives (mostly). Tradition holds that David wrote Psalm 51 as his song of repentance. This is the same psalm we recite at the Ash Wednesday service. 1979 BCP 266. A good commentary on this Psalm and its relationship to the events of Bathsheba and Uriah is HERE. David does not repent of having a lapse in judgment or of simply making a horrible mistake, rather he faces the evil that lies within himself and his own character and asks God for purgation and cleansing. David repents without excuse and without casting blame on anyone else but himself. David shows us how to properly repent. Re-read Psalm 51 in light of 1 Samuel 11 and find the depths of David’s contrition.
The Death of the Child: (12:14-25)
Nathan pronounces David’s forgiveness but also pronounces that the child conceived in sin will die. The child is born alive but soon takes ill. David fasts and prostrates himself in repentance before God, but the child nonetheless perishes. David and Nathan believe that the child’s death is due to David’s sin. (Why Bathsheba and the child himself is punished goes without mention.) The child is not given a name and we are not told whether the child is a son or a daughter. Under the law, God will cause a miscarriage of a child of an adulterous wife. Numbers 11. The question for us is whether we agree with the Scriptural witness of whether a child may be rightfully killed by God in punishment for its sinful conception?
After the child dies, Bathsheba bears David a son named Solomon. This is the son who will succeed his father and become the last king of a united Israel.
Return to Battle: (12:24-25)
Our story this week begins with David sending Joab (and Uriah) off to war against the Ammonite city of Rabbah. We now return to this battle. Joab sends word to David that he has taken the city’s water supply and the city is about to fall. Joab remains David’s obedient servant and will not usurp the royal opportunity of sacking an opposing nation’s capital city. David goes forth from Jerusalem and takes Rabbah. He despoils the city and takes the Ammonite king’s crown for himself. And David enslaves the people of the city in his brickkilns as he continues to build out Jerusalem.
Nathan’s prophecy is that a rebellion will arise within David’s own household. The rebellion will be led by Absalom (David’s son by Maacah the daughter of the king of Geshur). The origin of this rebellion is the rape of Absalom’s sister by her half-brother, Ammon, David’s first-born son, and Absalom’s subsequent murder of Ammon. Rape, murder, and rebellion are the themes of the second half of David’s rule.