Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a
Judgment rings out loud and clear in God’s displeasure, in Nathan’s sermon, in David’s confession, and perhaps also in our own reactions to the text.
Not least among these reactions might be very real objections to the notion that an innocent child should be the one to bear the burden of God’s wrath in place of David: “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (12:14). What kind of justice is that? Isn’t that a miscarriage of justice? The fact that the lection stops at 13a only intensifies the problem. Additionally, we may not feel that the judgment is quite finished, especially if we happen to live on the same street as Bathsheba.
Maybe part of us would like to call for a congregational investigation or convene a grand jury to indict David (and perhaps even God) for crimes against humanity. Whatever else we might want, this text presents problems, some of them perhaps insoluble. Better to acknowledge than to try to rationalize or explain them. By acknowledging those problems, we are not abandoning the good news within the text, but, instead, taking the text seriously enough to listen carefully for God’s word to us within it.
In this spirit, the text does evoke something more subtle than raw judgment: we begin to see the unfolding narrative of God’s mercy, the beginning of a sometimes painful, often tragic, but ultimately beautiful journey of humanization — the story of David’s humanization and perhaps, by analogy, the promise of our own as well.
To begin with, David seems as inhuman as he can possibly be. As I noted in my commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15, his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah reflected the cool calculations of indifferent power.
To the extent that David manifested any passion, it was primarily the glandular passion of the groin rather than the higher passion of the heart.
This characterization of David represents a stark contrast to the person who was once lauded as “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14b). The David who takes shape in this text bears no resemblance to the David we met in 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, who was anxious for the house of the Lord. This David’s only concern is for his self-indulgence, keeping secrets at all costs, and the preservation of his total grip on power.
God’s displeasure with David’s actions signals the first instance of substantial ethical engagement: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David” (11:27b – 12:1a). By contrast, when we do see anything remotely like David’s ethical reflection, we see only his anger at the perceived deficits of others.
David’s anger surfaces twice in chapter eleven and twelve and in both instances it is directed at external objects. The NRSV, following the Hebrew Bible, implies David’s angry response to Joab’s military report, but does not include it. The Jerusalem Bible includes his angry reaction: “David was angry with Joab. ‘Why did you go so near the ramparts?” (11:22b). And in chapter twelve, as he listened to Nathan’s parable, “. . . David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. . . .” The judgment that follows that anger was as sure as it was blind to its application to his own situation: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die” (12:5a).
David’s indignation was aroused by Nathan’s sermon, especially by way of the ethical blindness of the rich man. At one level, it seems as if David is highly alert to ethical failures, if his anger is any indication. He sees it, responds to it physically and emotionally, and offers an unambiguous judgment against the person who would do such a thing.
On the other hand, he cannot judge clearly and he cannot see that he cannot judge clearly and no one, apart from the messenger of the Lord, Nathan, seems equipped to break that closed system.
According to biblical commentator, P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., Nathan’s sermon employs a juridical parable, namely, “a type of speech that functions to break open a closed system of the sort found here. It presupposes a situation of concealment or denial, whether of motives or ethical issues, and its purpose is disclosure and exposition.”1
One would normally expect David to be outraged by Nathan’s sermon. Indeed, it almost seems as if Nathan has teased David into a bloodlust of ethically inspired rage. You expect David to leap on Nathan, with the prophet’s exclamation, “You are the man!” (7). If David acted lethally in the calculated exercise of power, we imagine he would become positively bloody if aroused by Nathan’s prophetic accusation. Instead, what we witness is something and perhaps someone quite different: “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.'” (13a).
Notably, the confession comes to David’s lips without anger. It is human, in the best sense of the word, like Bathsheba’s exquisitely human word, “I am pregnant.”
Perhaps David’s confession figures not only as an end of David’s illusion of power and secrecy, but also a beginning, inaugurated not by his manipulation of the levers of power, nor even his capacity for righteous indignation, but through what theologian Gerhard O. Forde describes as “the creative righteousness of God.”2
Nathan’s sermon does, indeed, proclaim an ending, an ending David confesses. Maybe that confession is also an ending with a beginning inside of it, already growing within it, taking shape before we knew it or could imagine it.
1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., The Anchor Bible: II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984), 304-5.
2Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 102.