Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:10, 13-15
To make sense of the lectionary text, we have to back up to the beginning of Chapter 11: the story of David and Bathsheba.
First and foremost, this is a story about power—desire, too, I suppose—but ultimately power.
2 Samuel 11 begins with David staying in Jerusalem. The Ammonite threat persists, but David is now getting so settled and comfortable in his role as king that he no longer feels the need to go out and personally engage in the fighting. So he stays behind, on his couch. We all know what they say about idle hands….
David sees Bathsheba, who is immediately identified as the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. David knows from the start that she is the wife of another, a man in his ranks no less. This fact should give him pause, but there is no hesitation. David acts swiftly and decisively. “He sent, he took, he lay” (11:4). The action is stark—no romantic words, no cuddling, no flirting—just action.
We see a real ugliness in David here. He can have whatever he wants. He is at the culmination of his enormous power, and he takes, simply because he can. I cannot help but think of Bill Clinton when I read this part of the story. In his book, he offered up an explanation as to why he pursued a romantic relationship with a White House intern. He said he did it because he could. This is exactly what we see here with David.
But before long, what David may have justified as being a strictly personal matter threatens to become public. It all threatens to come crashing down when Bathsheba announces (perhaps with some satisfaction, knowing that this fact will threaten to put a chink in David’s armor), “I’m pregnant” (11:5). Suddenly David’s world is spinning out of control.
Again David acts swiftly and decisively. There is no vacillation, no debate, no “saying in his heart.” David acts and sends for his right hand man (some might say his hit man), Joab. They decide to bring Uriah up from the battle to lie with his wife; this way Bathsheba’s sudden case of pregnancy can be easily explained. But Uriah is so noble! In contrast to David, he shows incredible discipline and loyalty. He will not visit his wife, and David is starting to get stressed out. For all David’s power, he cannot get this man to sleep with his very own,and presumably very attractive, wife. Uriah will not lie with his wife while the war continues and his buddies—not to mention the ark—are at risk. And we see this nobility in a Hittite, a foreigner! The whole business makes David look pretty bad.
You know what happens from here. David sends for Joab, the kind of hatchet man every king needs, the guy who will always act in the interest of the king without scruple or reservation. Joab, on David’s order, sends Uriah out to the front lines where he knows the fighting will be the heaviest and the opponents the toughest. There is no suspense this time. Uriah is killed quickly. The plan works, and David is off the hook. As soon as Bathsheba’s allotted time of mourning is over, he brings her to his house and she has a son. It looks as though David, at least, will live happily ever after.
However Chapter 11 concludes with the statement: “And the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of YHWH” (11:27; n.b. NRSV’s translation sounds a bit softer [(it) displeased the Lord]). YHWH, despite YHWH’s love for and devotion to David, is not blind to the evil of this action. In the narrative, there is no attempt to explain the reasons behind David’s deed—the complicated merging of power and desire, the changing royal perceptions of the world and of morality. The judgment of YHWH is unconditional. The thing was evil in YHWH’s eyes.
And so YHWH sends the prophet, Nathan to David (12:1). Nathan enters to shake David out of what looks like a power-drunken stupor, but Nathan’s method is sophisticated. He does not march in and confront David directly. Instead, he tells the parable about the rich man who takes the poor man’s beloved lamb. David is so self-righteous and self-assured that his anger kindles against this man (12:5). Sounding like a man accustomed to pronouncing judgments, David says that the man deserves to die “because he had no pity” (12:6).
At this point, when David arrogantly slips into his role as judge, Nathan delivers the judgment: “You are the man” (12:7). At this point, the formerly calm and detached parable-teller speaks for the Lord who seems to be brimming with anger and hurt. Like a parent who feels betrayed by her child’s behavior, YHWH launches into an “after all I’ve done for you!” lecture (12:7-8). God’s investment in David has been so great and God’s disappointment so deep that the lecture even ends with the typical parental question: “Why?” (12:9). “Why did you do it, David?” “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” YHWH takes this failure of David’s personally.
However, despite YHWH’s pathos, YHWH is not a parent who will be satisfied with a guilty expression and a sincere enough apology. In verse 10, God explains what David’s punishment will be. There will be a sword over David’s house, his family, and his dynasty for all time. The unconditional covenant, extended by God in Chapter 7, has not been revoked, but now there is the curse to accompany it.
Now the amazing thing about David is that here, he seems to recognize his depravity. He does not try to explain. He does not protest the judgment. He says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Perhaps David realizes, not only that he has done something evil, but that as the anointed one of the Lord, there is no such thing as a strictly personal action or a personal sin, one that has nothing to do with his public role as YHWH’s anointed king.
The narrative in 2 Samuel 11-12 shows two very distinct sides of David. On the one hand, in taking Bathsheba and ordering Uriah’s death, David is presented as an unfeeling public figure who uses his vast power as commander of the army to pull off a shrewd and ruthless cover-up (2 Samuel 11:25). Yet, on the other hand, at the end of the story, we see David reacting to the illness of his son (12:15-17). He appears debilitated by profound grief and pleads with God to spare his son.
In the story, we see David trying to keep his professional and private lives separate. Yet by the end of the story, we see that God will not allow this boundary to be maintained. The “personal sin” has a “professional” and public consequence. The very nature of God’s punishment emphasizes the convergence of David’s personal and public self: David’s “house,” meaning his family as well as his dynasty, will both be punished.
As the Succession Narrative continues (from 12:15), David’s public and personal troubles infringe upon one another, and as the narrative builds, the boundaries between his two worlds become increasingly blurred. Hard as he tries, David cannot keep his private hell from seeping into his public life. The convergence of this seepage takes place in the rebellion of his son, Absalom. In the end, Joab, the same general who killed Uriah (or set him up to be killed), kills Absalom. Again, the murder accords with the king’s role as head of state. Even more than before, David is devastated by grief. His grief is so overwhelming to him that Joab has to summon David back to his public role as king.
Like so many of us, David tries to separate his personal and professional lives, his religious self from his public self. As it eventually does for so many of us, it threatens to tear him apart and destroy both of the worlds he inhabits.
As human beings in relationship with the living and demanding God of the Bible, we cannot divide our selves and our loyalties. We cannot be Christians on Sunday and non-Christians during the work week. Our God does not accept the compartmentalization of our religious and secular selves. Even if we give money for the mission trip, sing in the choir, and bring lunches to shut-ins, if we take advantage of the weak and abuse our power at work, we despise the word of our Lord.
The good news is: God is always calling us back to integration, to be whole and undivided selves, united within ourselves in our commitment to God.