This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings.
2 Samuel 11:1-27
New English Translation (NET)
David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba
11 In the spring of the year, at the time when kings normally conduct wars, David sent out Joab with his officers and the entire Israelite army. They defeated the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed behind in Jerusalem. 2 One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. Now this woman was very attractive. 3 So David sent someone to inquire about the woman. The messenger said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”
4 David sent some messengers to get her. She came to him and he had sexual relations with her. (Now at that time she was in the process of purifying herself from her menstrual uncleanness.) Then she returned to her home. 5 The woman conceived and then sent word to David saying, “I’m pregnant.”
6 So David sent a message to Joab that said, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” So Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked about how Joab and the army were doing and how the campaign was going. 8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your home and relax.” When Uriah left the palace, the king sent a gift to him. 9 But Uriah stayed at the door of the palace with all the servants of his lord. He did not go down to his house.
10 So they informed David, “Uriah has not gone down to his house.” So David said to Uriah, “Haven’t you just arrived from a journey? Why haven’t you gone down to your house?” 11 Uriah replied to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah reside in temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and my lord’s soldiers are camping in the open field. Should I go to my house to eat and drink and have marital relations with my wife? As surely as you are alive, I will not do this thing!” 12 So David said to Uriah, “Stay here another day. Tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah stayed in Jerusalem both that day and the following one. 13 Then David summoned him. He ate and drank with him, and got him drunk. But in the evening he went out to sleep on his bed with the servants of his lord; he did not go down to his own house.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote: “Station Uriah in the thick of the battle and then withdraw from him so he will be cut down and killed.”
16 So as Joab kept watch on the city, he stationed Uriah at the place where he knew the best enemy soldiers were. 17 When the men of the city came out and fought with Joab, some of David’s soldiers fell in battle. Uriah the Hittite also died.
18 Then Joab sent a full battle report to David. 19 He instructed the messenger as follows: “When you finish giving the battle report to the king, 20 if the king becomes angry and asks you, ‘Why did you go so close to the city to fight? Didn’t you realize they would shoot from the wall? 21 Who struck down Abimelech the son of Jerub-Besheth? Didn’t a woman throw an upper millstone down on him from the wall so that he died in Thebez? Why did you go so close to the wall?’ just say to him, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is also dead.’”
22 So the messenger departed. When he arrived, he informed David of all the news that Joab had sent with him. 23 The messenger said to David, “The men overpowered us and attacked us in the field. But we forced them to retreat all the way to the door of the city gate. 24 Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall and some of the king’s soldiers died. Your servant Uriah the Hittite is also dead.” 25 David said to the messenger, “Tell Joab, ‘Don’t let this thing upset you. There is no way to anticipate whom the sword will cut down. Press the battle against the city and conquer it.’ Encourage him with these words.”
26 When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for him. 27 When the time of mourning passed, David had her brought to his palace. She became his wife and she bore him a son. But what David had done displeased the Lord.
This story is a masterly portrayal of David’s weakness. His sexual predation is certainly not unusual for a middle eastern monarch of the time. Rembrandt has a great drawing of Bathsheba deliberating over a note from David, but in truth she has no choice: the king wants her; she must go. And that would usually have been that. A more ruthless king than David would either have taken her into his harim or simply ignored her pregnancy,especially as her husband is a foreigner, but David sees himself as a just king favoured by God, and therefore embarks on concealment.
The author makes a point of contrasting David’s repeated lying attempts to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, with Uriah’s soldierly loyalty to his fellow soldiers and his king.
In this self-made crisis, David commits another crucial folly: he turns for help to Joab, thus giving a man he knows to be a thug a hold over him, which Joab will exploit without mercy. Joab makes sure that not only Uriah but others also are killed in battle; and that David knows of their deaths. In the aftermath the reader is not sure if David makes Bathsheba a royal wife out of affection or policy. The sober narrative shows an absolute monarch behaving in a despicable but entirely typical way. But then comes the astonishing, quiet, sentence. “But what David had done displeased the Lord.” There is one to whom even kings are responsible. He does not appear on stage personally; he displays no supernatural powers, but his displeasure signals, as the reader will see, a turning point in the David story.
We do not know if this intimate portrait of David is factually true. We have no other sources for the life of David’s court. The account appears to the reader to be different from the stories of the mythical Greek hero Agamemnon, but it may be best to see it as a historical novel rather than history in the modern sense. It recognises and takes pleasure in, the characters of men and women, and is particularly adept in imagining the stratagems of the powerful, but it insists that on-one can escape the justice and the mercy of God.
This story also speaks about how ordinary human beings mis-manage their own royalty. I know how easy it is to be like David and to imagine that because my own talents are fruitful in my calling, that I am entitled to extras beyond the ten commandments, ignoring the fact that true royalty and true freedom are gained through obedience to God. Even at my most irresponsible I never for a minute cease to be answerable.