David and Uriah: A Meditation

June 23, 2012 | 22 comments
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The most upsetting thing about the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) is not what he did with Bathsheba, bad as that was. That he was intrigued with her is unremarkable, even natural; she was totally hot, after all. Bringing her to the palace is a different story, disgraceful even if he had only sat her down for a chat, since her husband was away at war. Even as a phenomenally successful and revered king, David displayed the priorities of a ten-year-old who’s been hanging out with bad company.

I would have said “of an adolescent,” except that apparently David wasn’t much past adolescence when he volunteered to risk his life for the nation of Israel, declining the sword and armor of King Saul, to take on Goliath, the decorated, feared, and enormous champion of the Philistine army, with only a leather strap and five smooth stones. He had come a long way since then.

The adultery that came next is the greatest sin next to murder, though in my mind still that next step down to murder is quite a doozy. The most despicable thing is not merely that he ordered Uriah killed, but the way he did it. If you’re going to do something as appalling as murder, you can at least show some decent form. David wasn’t man enough to kill Uriah himself. He didn’t even do him the honor of hiring a hit man. What makes his action so insidious is that he used Uriah’s very loyalty to David and his nation as an opportunity to get rid of him. He had Uriah ordered into the most dangerous part of the battle, and Uriah went.

22 Responses to David and Uriah: A Meditation

  1. Jack on June 23, 2012 at 8:48 am

    I remember having this lesson in Sunday School during the Clinton impeachment. When the instructor asked what we can learn from David, I volunteered that great figures are often contradictory, complicated, and often have dark sides. I was actually thinking of Ernest Hemingway but the class assumed I was defending Clinton.
    On a related note, I heard a Jewish rabbi explain once that the adultry commandment is not actually about sex but about property since in Old Testament times a man’s wife was his property.
    In any case, it seems hugely ironic that the greatest of all Jewish leaders was — on this one occasion at least — a hugely sinful man.

  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 23, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I think that the hidden point, obvious to a reader of the time or even the middle ages is that her husband is one of David’s hrythgar as is her father and grandfather.

    In the later succession wars that all plays out. David had probably been at her wedding.

  3. Marjorie Conder on June 23, 2012 at 9:39 am

    This story opens very tellingly with, “…at the time when the kings go forth to battle,….But David tarried still at Jerusalem.” 2 Samuel 11:1 David was not where he was supposed to be, doing what was expected of him as king when his encounter with Bathsheba happened. I think it is also important to consider that this is the ultimate case of an older powerful male taking advantage of a younger female who has been primed to be subservient to authority figures. Often in SS classes, etc. Bathsheba is “blamed” for what happens. God is not of that opinion and puts all the responsibility on David.

  4. Julie M. Smith on June 23, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Nice post. Another thing: When Matthew gives Jesus’ genealogy, he includes “David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias.”

    What I find interesting about that is that Matthew has put Uriah into Jesus’ genealogy, when it would have been far more natural to say “Bathsheba.” His line ended because of David’s evil, but he gets included in the ancestors of the Savior.

  5. Janell on June 23, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Perhaps adultry not a steep step down from murder so much as the other side of a sins-against-life coin. Murder terminates a life. Adultry potentially creates a life – denying birth within a covenant and disrupting heir rights.

  6. Thomas Parkin on June 23, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Bathsheba loved David. She is the one, of however many wives and concubines, that is with him at his death bed saying, “oh, King David, live forever.” I think that the story is undoubtedly much more complex and tragic than simple moralizing can touch. I don’t believe that David saw her bathing and couldn’t help himself. I think he loved her, and that even at that early stage it was probably mutual. He also suffered immensely for what he had done. Among the products of his suffering are Psalms which are as beautiful an expression of longing after forgiveness and goodness as exist.

  7. nate on June 23, 2012 at 10:44 am

    “David wasn’t man enough to kill Uriah himself.” I think it helps contextualize this story to understand that David would have had to put other men into the “forefront of the battle” anyway, given the wars David continually engaged in. By giving Uriah a place at the front of the battlefield, David spared a place for someone else. One life, exchanged for another. By understanding that this was a culture of non-stop killing, both of your own people, and of your enemies, I think it might change the way we look at the severity of the sin. Ultimately, I think sending Uriah out to battle would be less of a sin than killing him with your own bare hands.

    It also brings additional perspective to note that David had 6 wives and 10 concubines that were given to David “by my servant the prophet Nathan.” Of the dozen or so women David could have chosen to sleep with that night, or the hundreds of beautiful single women David could have taken as additional concubines, he fancied Bathsheba instead, one of the few actually off limits to him. This sounds like the behavior of a man accustomed to having his way with women.

    A little like saying you can drink 10 liters of Coke a day, but if you drink just one drop of coffee, you can’t have a temple recommend. (except multiplied exponentially in it’s severity).

    I think the story of Bathsheba and Uriah is more about boundary and discipline issues than it is about sex and murder. When you live in a culture of non-stop bloodshed and promiscuity it changes the gravity of these sins.

  8. Ben S. on June 23, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Found my take on this, a podcast I used to do, with a transcript and notes.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/oneeternalround/2010/06/gospel-doctrine-podcast-24-2-samuel-11-12-psalm-51/

  9. Larry on June 23, 2012 at 10:54 am

    David’s actions are as frustrating and confusing as any in history. For one who knew and loved the Lord, and was beloved of Him, to make such a decision speaks to the depth of this temptation and the trials of mortality. I don’t think David made the decision quickly, but allowed it to fester in his mind until it became an overwhelming urge that he seemingly could not resist, as Thomas pointed out above. A tragedy for the eternities. And the consequence ended up being a son who saw the Saviour 3 times, but chose the same path.

  10. Guillame on June 23, 2012 at 11:17 am

    What was so wrong about David bringing Bathsheba to his palace? What’s wrong with professional relationships or even friendships between adult men and women? Why do we instantly assume that making friends with someone besides your spouse ends in adultery?

  11. Ben S. on June 23, 2012 at 11:24 am

    “What’s wrong with professional relationships or even friendships between adult men and women?” Guillame, if this is what you think was happening between David and Bathsheba, you need to reread the story.

  12. Jack on June 23, 2012 at 11:40 am

    “What was so wrong about David bringing Bathsheba to his palace?”

    Because he wanted more than friendship.

  13. YvonneS on June 23, 2012 at 11:59 am

    I have come to see the story of David and Bathsheba as being an account of the abuse of power. As I read the previous comments I thought of Mosses and the sin that cost him the privilege of crossing the Jordan. As the Israelites prepared to leave the desert Mosses begged the Lord to let him go. After all that he has been through, all the good things that he has done, because of one seemingly trivial incident he is denied his request. Both Mosses and David abused their power and temporarily forgot its source. It is the kind of abuse that could have led either of them into idolatry and yet it didn’t. We can learn a lot about humility from the way David handled the rebuke he got from the Lord.

  14. Ben H on June 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you, everyone, for the excellent comments! There is much more to this story, and much to learn from thinking about it.

    Yvonne (#15), I think you hit my main take-away. Power corrupts! What more striking example of this can we find than David? But it is a pattern we see again, and again, and again.

    Stephen M (#2), very interesting! I almost put more or less this point in the post (without knowing an awesome term for it like hrythgar!), that his adultery was already much exacerbated by the fact that he had a special relationship of trust with Uriah . . . I was going to say he was one of David’s trusted officers . . . but I wasn’t sure I could back up my impression that they had a pre-existing special relationship, since the seemingly intimate conversation with Uriah at the palace by then has ulterior motives. But Uriah has to have been someone somewhat special for it to have been plausible David would personally call him back from the war like that. I would love to see the evidence spelled out that you mention in the succession struggles. If you are right (and as I said, this is my instinct too), it makes David’s crime far worse still.

    I have seen other interesting analyses of the question, “And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” but this suggests another: Um, David, you do know that woman, right? And are you seriously going to go after her, of all people, Uriah’s wife?

  15. Ben H on June 23, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Marjorie (#3), there is merit to your point that usually the kings go to war with their people. I am reluctant, though, to make it sound like David was neglecting his priesthood responsibilities by not going out to make war during war season! That said, your point suggests an interesting angle on the conversation with Uriah! Uriah makes it quite clear that he is not going to enjoy the comforts of home while his comrades are living the hard life of a military camp . . . clearly seeing it as a point of pride and of loyalty to them (another reason I find Uriah so admirable), and he doesn’t quite say it, but David has been enjoying all the pleasures of palace life the whole time, including illegitimate ones. Was Uriah already noting and subtly rebuking David’s indulgence?

    I also appreciate your point about how David is probably using his position in ways quite unfair to/abusive of Bathsheba. The text is not completely clear on this, but the phrase, “sent messages, and took her” in the KJV suggests he didn’t slow down to find out her feelings on the matter, which unfortunately is all too typical of men in positions of power, particularly in sexist cultures. I don’t mean to neglect the serious problems with his treatment of Bathsheba and abuse of power on that front; I just didn’t want to get side-tracked from my point about Uriah.

    Julie (#6), thanks, as distressing as the original event is, I love how this gets incorporated into the patterns in Jesus’ genealogy!

    Interesting point, Jannell (#5); we neglect this point about originating life much too often.

  16. Ben H on June 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Thomas Parkin (#6), maybe there was real love between David and Bathsheba, eventually as time went on. And maybe even in their original adultery David was interested in her in the more comprehensive way that one hopes for in a romance, not merely in her attractive physical form. But there is something deeply twisted and selfish in an interest that leads him to want to undermine/destroy her marriage, whether she is willing or not. “Love” in the amoral sense of many movie romances is no justification of adultery and merely shows how warped many of our popular ideas of love are.

    There probably was a lot more to the story than mere moralizing captures, as you say, but I’m afraid the moralizing is still entirely valid, and much of the complexity actually makes the action look more dreadful, not less, as Ethesis points out.

    nate (#7), you are absolutely right that customs and habits David was already quite embroiled in probably did a lot to blur the boundaries and make it hard for him to feel how wrong his action was. We should ponder this point. And in some cases we should probably allow it to soften our judgments somewhat. For instance, while I vigorously applaud the care our military takes to minimize civilian casualties (collateral damage) and regard it as a mark of civilization, and similarly applaud our carefully upholding the distinction between killing that war compels and gratuitous or wanton killing, even in a war zone, I think we have a tendency to become overly self-righteous about this at times . . . it is not realistic to expect our military personnel to be able to always keep the moral categories tidily arranged in their minds, in the midst of something so wrenching as war. We who send people into these situations bear a large part of the responsibility for the damage to them and others.

    But David, comfortably far from the battlefield himself, didn’t just ask Joab to put Uriah in where someone might be killed anyway: he actually says, “Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.” In other words, put him in a tight spot, and abandon him! And he goes so far as to send the letter with this command by Uriah’s own hand! Joab, to his credit, doesn’t actually do this, but apparently does send him on a mission/maneuver that may have been more risky than ordinary military prudence would support (based on the way he asks the messenger to convey it).

    So, first, David was going well beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable even within the morally questionable customs of the day (surrounding royalty, etc.). And second, to the extent that culturally accepted practices blur moral boundaries, making it harder for individuals to maintain them, I suggest that rather than diminishing how wrong we judge their actions to be, we should recognize that in fact the evil goes well beyond the individual action, to include the surrounding practices that made it seem acceptable. If David thought he could have his way with Bathsheba because he was king after all, that indicts the whole institution of kingship. If he thought he didn’t need to consult her feelings, because, well, she is a woman, then that indicts a whole culture of sexism. If he thought, well, the sword devours one like another, so what’s the big deal if I stack the deck a little against Uriah this time? that betrays an inhuman conception of war as, say, perhaps a kind of seasonal sport? This just shows that our moral decay often begins long before the things we remark as crimes, and displays itself in all manner of behaviors that we take as unremarkable, and in so taking them, we show how far we are from God.

  17. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 23, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    So, here is David, with three of his “mighty men” involved. Well, two, Ahithopel was his prime counselor, renown for wisdom such as people refer to his voice being as if God was speaking. But Eliam was one of the thirty and Uriah was one of the heroes.

    Bathsheba was the granddaughter of one of David’s chief counsellors, Ahithophel. Her father, Eliam, was one of David’s thirty mighty men (2 Samuel 11:3 & 23:34).

    Ahitophel (“Brother of Insipidity”, or “Impiety”) was a counselor of King David and a man greatly renowned for his sagacity. At the time of Absalom’s revolt he deserted David (Psalm. 41:9; 55:12-14) and espoused the cause of Absalom (2 Samuel 15:12).

    David sent his old friend Hushai back to Absalom, in order that he might counteract the counsel of Ahitophel (2 Sam. 15:31-37). Ahitophel, seeing that his good advice against David had not been followed due to Hushai’s influence, correctly predicted that the revolt would fail. He then left the camp of Absalom at once. He returned to Giloh, his native place, and after arranging his worldly affairs, hanged himself, and was buried in the sepulcher of his fathers (2 Sam. 17:1-23) — which is one of the few times one of David’s close advisers and friends abandoned him. But for Hushai, Ahitophel would have had David slain at that point.

    As to the historacity of the story, to quote “The passages in which Bath-sheba is mentioned are II Samuel 11:2-12:24, and I Kings 1, 2.—both of which are parts of the oldest stratum of the books of Samuel and Kings. It is part of that court history of David”

    “And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” but this suggests another: Um, David, you do know that woman, right? And are you seriously going to go after her, of all people, Uriah’s wife? Exactly. You are going after the wife of a hero, the daughter of a hero, and the grand daughter of your closest counselor, get a grip man.

    Then he orders Uriah’s death through betrayal. One that is too obvious, so the commander won’t do it. Uriah ends up dying anyway. Had David waited, the entire tangle does not occur.

    So when the comment is made everyone comes to attention.

    BTW, I am as offended at the way he orders Joab slain following his own death. Though in his own era, and in the time of the King James edition, the various follow-up murders that David advises Solomon on are seen as examples of Solomon’s wisdom.

    Such are the differences in every time and place.

    Forgive the excessive text in this follow-up. Hope that helps put the repercussions to the affair vis a vis the dynasty of David into perspective.

  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 23, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    If he thought, well, the sword devours one like another, so what’s the big deal if I stack the deck a little against Uriah this time?

    No, he is asking for out and out betrayal of a man by his fellows, leaving him to be cut down alone. If that had actually happened, other than Uriah getting hit in the head by pottery cast from the wall, I suspect more of the mighty men would have later abandoned David.

  19. Ben H on June 24, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Excellent! Thank you, Stephen M. This is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for. It wonderfully brings out the texture of the situation and the depth of betrayal involved. And I agree completely with your (#18). Even if he had only contemplated stacking the deck it would have been deplorable, but this was much worse than that, direct betrayal.

  20. J. Mac Wilson on June 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Great observations, Ben. One of the things that really exposes for me the canker in David’s soul is that he sent the instructions to have Uriah killed by Uriah’s own hand. An ironic mockery of his loyalty. And he didn’t just put him on the front lines, he put him on the front lines with instructions to purposefully pull back so that Uriah would be sure to be killed, willing to lose a battle and sacrifice additional men in order to cover up his sin.

    I wrote a poem about this last year called “By the Hand of Uriah”. You can read it here: http://www.sixteensmallstones.org/original-poetry-by-the-hand-of-uriah

  21. J. Max Wilson on June 24, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    My phone corrects Max to Mac, for any confused by the incorrect name.

  22. Wendell on June 25, 2012 at 1:35 am

    Another layer in the sordid tale of David vs Uriah is the fact that military brothers in arms are pledged NOT to abandon each other to certain death as David to Uriah. What a contrast David’s betrayal shows compared to Uriah who slept apart from his desirable wife when offered a furlough designed to cover up Bathsheba’s predicament. Uriah eschews his own comforts because his men are lying in the field facing death. His reward is to be called back to the front and certain death so David can marry Bathesheba and cover his adultery that way. This is a tale that to a fighting man represents the most calculating kind of betrayal. The invasion of the home front and desertion on the battlefront. This is a morality tale almost without peer in the Old Testament. The story of David is truly fraught with inspiration and caution for all of us.

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