Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

The preacher needs to plan carefully how to allocate the segments of the David and Bathsheba narrative over the next two weeks.

July 26, 2009

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15

The preacher needs to plan carefully how to allocate the segments of the David and Bathsheba narrative over the next two weeks.

It is hard to imagine preaching on 2 Samuel 11:1-15 without moving to Nathan’s (and God’s!) confrontation in the next chapter. The consequences of David’s action extend to the death of Bathsheba’s son born from David’s adulterous act (cf. 2 Samuel 12:15b-23).

The deeds of David cannot be glossed over with a facile offer of grace such as “God can even use characters like this.” To do so would make light of the death of the child and all the subsequent turmoil in the family of David, including the rape of Tamar and the deaths of Amnon and Absalom. As 2 Samuel 12:10 states: “The sword shall never depart from your house.”

2 Samuel 11:1-15 can be an occasion to ponder public trust and distrust. Loyalty to political leaders has limits. Dissent is not coterminous with treason. Patriotism is not the same as obedience to God. Even leaders chosen “by the will of God” and understood to be the “gift of God” are not to receive unqualified obedience parallel to that owed to God.

David’s exploitation and manipulation of power — even God-given power — is a paradigm for the ages, our own included. In fact, David’s conduct can be a mirror in which to examine our own cultural conduct. For example we might ask to what extent the exercise of our national power reenacts David’s. Being a “God blessed” nation does not exempt us from sin, just like being chosen by God did not exempt David from betraying and sinning against others.

The suggested ending of this reading leaves no doubt about David’s intentions. If we only read through vs. 15, we do not know Joab’s reaction. Joab has not always conformed to David’s intentions, but here David leaves himself open to Joab. Joab can hardly be trusted given his murder of Abner and the subsequent trouble (PR problem!) he caused David. David orders Joab to execute a tactic that puts Uriah in a highly vulnerable position. The tactic is probably not so unconventional as to raise suspicion among the rest of the soldiers, but David’s closing words leave no doubt about intent: “So that he may be struck down and die.”

David orders Uriah’s execution. It’s murder. There is no other way to state it. The letter is explicit; there is no deniability left if anyone besides Joab reads the communiqué (which, of course, every reader of Scripture does).

Joab is a known murderer. In 2 Samuel 3, he kills Abner for his own private purposes — avenging Abner’s killing of his brother. This act was in defiance of David, who had just worked out a deal with Abner as he was building coalitions with the remnants of Saul’s kingship. David was angered, at least publicly, but he did not act against Joab. Now in 2 Samuel 11, David becomes like Joab. He becomes a murderer, and he does it through Joab.

It is speculation — the text does not mention it — but one wonders if David assumes that Joab owes him a favor. Having crossed David once, Joab perhaps cannot afford a second act of defiance no matter what his loyalty to his own troops might have been. The writer rarely states motives in explicit language. The biblical text subtly hints at critiques of David in the first ten chapters of 2 Samuel, while at the same time celebrating his rise as the will of God. If there are disapprovals, they are not overt. But the remorse at Abner’s death and the piety expressed while moving the Ark seem heightened to the edge of exaggeration. The reader is permitted to wonder if David is sorrowful and, at the same time, ceasing the moment to solidify his position. It would not be the only place in Scripture where human motives are mixed while the divine purposes are nevertheless carried out. God’s will can be done through humans without the human actors being absolved of accountability for their own motivations in the very same events. Compare the Joseph narrative and the Oracles against the Nations in prophetic books.

If readers have developed a bit of suspicion about David in the first ten chapters, then they are more prepared for David’s lechery in chapter eleven. David becomes a typical royal despot. The opening clause is the first clue: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle….” David has made war a routine.

In contrast, 2 Samuel 7 started, “The Lord had given him rest from all his enemies.” This is reiterated twice as a promise from God (2 Samuel 7:9, 11). We are a long way from that promise, as well as from the period of the Judges. In that time, the Spirit of God would come upon an Israelite who would then raise up a militia to deliver Israel. David’s rise could be read as an extended version of the Spirit of God selecting a leader, but the opening verse clearly marks that we have moved into a different era.

1 Samuel 8:11-17 had warned about the ways of kings: “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen…” Now in 2 Samuel 11, the apparatus of kingship is on full display. David even has foreign mercenaries (Uriah is termed a Hittite).

Further, Israel had been warned that kings “will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers (1 Samuel 8:13). David has already taken several wives and concubines (cf. 2 Samuel 5:13). Now he takes one more, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah. David takes a daughter without the cultural norm of consulting the father. She is also a wife which makes its adultery.

As a bridge toward David’s indictment in next week’s unit, one might mention the anticipation of the accusation in Joab’s report back to David. Joab knows that he might be the fall guy for what might be interpreted as a tactical mistake: “Why did you go so near the wall?” (2 Samuel 11:21). He tells the messenger also to report: “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.”

Checkmate! David will not be able to weasel out of this. “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7) will soon fall despite all the appearance of propriety in David’s waiting for Bathsheba to complete her period of lamentation. David will not be able to sweep this aside with a cynical observation that “the sword devours now one and now another” (2 Samuel 11:25). Is it that simple for the son who will die in the next chapter (cf. 2 Samuel 12:15b-23)?

In fact, David’s disingenuous comment may be yet another occasion to reflect on our own conduct. Do we mirror David’s attitude in our casual acceptance of human deaths as collateral damage in war? Are we as disturbed by the widows and orphans we have created in Iraq as we are apt to be in reading of the son’s death?