Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15
Every week, a small group of seminarians and professors meet at a local watering hole here in Dubuque to talk theology and enjoy a beer.
The forum is open. Topics have included sacramental theology, doctrinal issues, and textual problems. On the night I visited, the professor facilitating the conversation queried the group for that evening’s topic:
“I’m interested in sin,” one of the students announced.
Another student quipped in reply, and to our amusement, “You mean which one you’d like to try?”
The student communicated something we all know but never quite get around to saying: we’re more interested in sin than we would like to admit or confess. The story of David and Bathsheba suggests that our “interest in sin” is neither merely academic nor especially marked by struggle.
Israel, according to the narrator, “ravaged the Ammonites” and “besieged Rabbah” (1). It was the time of year when the kings went off to war. Conflict seems normative, annualized, and routinized. The question is not whether or not there will be war, but where and when and with whom. And most of these questions are not difficult to answer, either in the case of Israel or in our own time. Conflict with enemies comes so naturally to the human race that we imagine that we enter the struggle boldly, confidently choose sides, choosing between good and evil.
But the lection assigned for today suggests that we may be overstating our opposition to sin, overstating our capacity for moral reflection. There is much that appalls us as readers of this text: David’s sexual exploitation of Bathsheba; the murder of Uriah; the mindless cooperation of Joab in a cynical act of betrayal. However, what may be more appalling is the startling absence of a divided will, of moral or ethical pause, or even theological explanation.
Readers of David’s story will be accustomed to hearing the biblical narrator supply a theological explanation for David’s actions, some of those actions being morally and ethically problematic. But in these instances the narrator carefully describes the situation in order to mitigate a negative interpretation. Our ear almost instinctively waits for such a theological explanation in this text, but instead we hear the laconic character of the prose: terse, sparing, to the point, forensic.1
From the security of his royal house, David saw, he sent, he took, he lay . . . he effects his deadly will through proxies, messengers, secret communications, and commanders.
The sex act itself is utterly dependent on a coercive use of power. The story is not complicated by love, or speculations about the psychological condition of David, or even a reference to a divine plan. These may be inferred but they are not given by the text. It is not a crime of passion: the routine and premeditated character of David’s actions point primarily to the calculations of power and not towards the recklessness one expects from unreasoning passion.
Consider the brevity of the narrator’s description of the actions that precede and follow the sex act:
“David sent someone to inquire about the woman” (3a);
“So David sent messengers to get her” (4a);
“He lay with her” (4a);
“She returned to her house” (4b).
Calculation and lust, yes, but passion in the complex sense of the word, no.
Sexual coercion, i.e. rape, is not incidental to this story. The Hebrew verb “to take” in verse 4 (translated as “to get” in the NRSV) recalls Samuel’s warning to Israel about the nature of kings: “‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take . . .'” (1 Samuel 8:11-18). He will take your sons, your daughters, your fields, your wealth.2 Coercive power will be, according to Samuel, characteristic of the “ways” of the king.
It is also the way of rapists.
David attempts to create a house in which crime is impossible to detect. Nevertheless, according to the narrator, “it happened. . . .” (2a). Likewise, David’s seemingly impervious employment of powers to silence and disguise violence are decisively exposed through Bathsheba’s only and deeply vulnerable utterance, “‘I am pregnant'” (5b).
Ordinarily, this would be an utterance accompanied by an outburst of joy; on this occasion it is greeted instead by a systematic cover up. Imminent life sets into motion imminent death. Although this narrative is far from complete, it seems wise to let this text do its descriptive work.
Traditionally, this text has done its work by exposing the human captivity to sin, sin’s inescapable power over the human imagination and our actions. “Ingrained evil,” according to Augustine, “had more hold over me than unaccustomed good.”3 Paul speaks unsparingly when he declares, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 8:18b-19).
While this trajectory of interpretation is invited by the text, and certainly by tradition, it seems to not go far enough. Interpreters might note, for instance, the soon to be told story of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). A victim, she was reduced to the condition of “a desolate woman, [who remained] in her brother Absalom’s house” (20b).
Is it an accident that David’s story comes just before the story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar? Today, the enslavement of women and children in the international sex trade, the use of rape as a tool of war, and high profile sex scandals (some involving rape, all involving the abuse of power) of leaders who hold the public trust (coaches, pastors, financial executives, to name a few) — together these imply that this text’s descriptive work is not finished at the threshold of personal indiscretion.
1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., The Anchor Bible: II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984), 289.
2Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 273.
3Saint Augustine, Confessions (trans. Henry Chadwick; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 150-1.