Proper 12B/Ordinary 17B/Pentecost 9
July 29, 2012
2 Samuel 11
King David’s “romantic” episode with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, has been immortalized in both art and film
– with Bathsheba portrayed as either star-struck lover or as siren and temptress. Hebrew Bible scholar Bruce Birch points out that the actual Biblical text supports neither of these images (Ft. 1). The encounter between King David and Bathsheba is not romance, or even simple adultery (which implies mutual consent). It is, quite bluntly, rape.
Prior to encountering Bathsheba, King David already had two wives: Michal – daughter of King Saul – and Avigail. Apparently, two were not sufficient to satisfy him. One spring, when all his armies are off in battle, David sees Bathsheba bathing from the roof of his house, notices her beauty, and inquires into her identity. His messengers clearly tell him that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11:2-3) – and thus not available to him under Mosaic Covenant Law, which forbids adultery.
At this point, the text simply says that David “sent messengers and took her” (NASB, 2 Sam 11:4). An 1871 commentary on this text states, “The despotic kings of the East, when they take a fancy for a woman, send an officer to the house were she lives, who announces it to be the royal pleasure she should remove to the palace” (Ft. 2). There is no indication in the text that Bathsheba wanted this attention. When the king’s messengers come – most likely armed – there is no declining the king’s “invitation.”
The text then says that “when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself of her uncleanness, she returned to her house” (2 Sam 11:4). There is no hint of romance, attraction, or even foreplay for that matter. The king wanted and the king took. Not only did David rape Bathsheba, once he discovered that she was pregnant, he also arranged for her husband – Uriah the Hittite – to be killed in battle through treachery. David orders his general to “Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Sam 11:15).
After Bathsheba ends her mourning period for her husband, “David sent and brought her to his house and she became his wife” (2 Sam 11:27). Again, there is no hint of desire or romance. David sends and David takes. The text even points out that “the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Sam 11:27).
In case the reader misses the point that what David did was not romance, but premeditated rape and murder, the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. Knowing that he is dealing with a king who could kill him at the slightest offense, Nathan confronts David by telling him a parable about a rich man (King David) – who has many flocks (i.e., wives) – who steals the beloved ewe of a poor man, kills her and serves her to a guest visiting his house (2 Sam 12:1-4). Note that Nathan’s symbolic retelling of Bathsheba’s rape highlights the brutality and violence of the act – she was physically violated and enjoyed as a tasty dish.
King David implicates himself through his anger at this fictional man, whereupon Nathan bluntly states “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12: 7). Nathan then issues a lengthy prophecy against David, saying “Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised [the Lord], and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house … For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun” (2 Sam 12:10-11a, 12). David then finally admits “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13).
Nathan, however, is not finished with David. A reluctant admission of guilt in the face of incriminating evidence is not going to cut it. Nathan says that the Lord will spare David’s life, but “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you [by Bathsheba] shall die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). Surely enough, the male child that Bathsheba bares for David as a result of the rape dies in infancy, in spite of David’s fasting and pleading with the Lord (2 Sam 12: 15-23).
So what are modern readers to do with this sordid tale? It seems greatly disillusioning that the founding father of the state of Israel was such a brutal thug (at least when it came to women). I believe the moral of the story is that no matter how wealthy or powerful you are – and no matter how poor and helpless your prey of choice is – predators will never escape judgment. Even if the only party other than you and the victim that knows of the deed is the Lord, the Lord will not be denied justice. In the case of King David, the blow-back from this deed unfolds well into the future. His male children model his predatory behavior among themselves, with his eldest son Amnon raping his half-sister Tamar (this story alone is worth an entire separate commentary), and Tamar’s brother Absalom killing Amnon in revenge and plotting rebellion against the throne (Ft. 3).
For any potential predators, the warning of Nathan should ring as a constant reminder: You may think you can do this secretly; but I will do this thing to you before the whole world, under the sun. And blow-back is a real bitch.
1) Birch, Bruce. 2008. “1 and 2 Samuel.” The Discipleship Study Bible. NRSV. Ed. Bruce Birch et al. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. Commentary on 2 Sam 11:1-12:31, pp. 432.
2) Jamieson, Fausset and Brown. 1871. Commentary on the Whole Bible. Cited in Textweek: http://www.textweek.com/history/2sam11.htm.
3) Birch, op.cit., pp. 434.