A Great King’s Lust
Posted by foryourfaith on March 5, 2012
The Biblical narrative of David’s rise to power is filled with vivid detail. From the start, when Samuel prophetically anointed David, the narrative follows him through the dangerous rivalries of Saul’s court, and through his years as an outlaw. After Saul’s death, we witness David’s struggle to consolidate his position. Finally, David was anointed as king by all the tribes of Israel. He brought unity to the nation, defeated its enemies in battle, and captured Jerusalem – making it his capital and moving the Ark of the Lord there. Success attended him as he built his empire.
But it is just at this point that the biblical narrative takes a strange turn. David’s public success is followed by the dark narrative of his private sins and their dire consequences for himself and his family. The negative side of even so great a hero as David must also be told so that the reader will be reminded that it is God, and not a human being, who is the focus of the story.
The tragedy begins with David’s adultery with Bathsheba. There are hints, planted in the story’s introduction, that David had forsaken his heroic role. It was spring, “the time when kings go forth to battle,” but David sent a subordinate to do his kingly duty while he “remained in Jerusalem.”
While his troops besieged the Ammonites, David took a walk on the roof of his palace. Gazing down, he spied a beautiful woman bathing nearby. He found out that she was Bathsheba, the wife of a Hittite named Uriah, a man who was not an Israelite but was fighting in David’s army. In a raw exercise of power, “David sent messengers and took her.” He committed adultery with her, and she became pregnant.
The king sought a way to hide his crime. He had Uriah summoned back from the front, and, over the course of three days, tried to get the man to visit his wife so as to make plausible Uriah’s paternity of the child. To David’s chagrin, Uriah the foreigner remained true to the Israelite tradition of continence during a time of battle – a tradition that David himself had formerly observed. Uriah refused to go to his wife so long as his comrades were in combat.
David resorted to a more desperate stratagem. HE sent Uriah back to the war with a sealed message to his commander instructing that Uriah be placed in the front line of battle. The order was followed, and, as David had hoped, Uriah was killed. David quickly married Bathsheba, and when their son was born, they assumed they were beyond the reach of any who could call them to account.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” The prophet Nathan came to the king and asked him to judge the case of a wealthy man and many flocks of sheep who stole the one little lamb that belonged to his poor neighbor. Not realizing that Nathan was offering a parable of his own crime, the king angrily declared that the rich man deserved death. The prophet replied, “You are the man.”
David confessed and was repentant, but his remorse could not release him from the consequences of his sin. “And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.’” One of the most beautiful prayers of the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 51, was later attributed to this moment in David’s life.
Nathan also predicted further strife and turmoil for David as punishment for adultery and murder: “the sword shall never depart from your house.” Indeed, the remainder of David’s reign was a sorry spectacle of jealousy, rape, murder, and rebellion within his own family.
The manner in which this story unfolds allows the readers to see the moral purposes of the narrators. The initial sin of David and Bathsheba is told with almost austere brevity, but the consequences of their sin are narrated with pathos and great detail.
The inclusion of such a story about this otherwise heroic king reveals much about the understanding of human beings in Israelite tradition. There are heroes and villains throughout the Scriptures, but none of them is a paragon of virtue – not the Patriarchs, not Moses, and certainly not King David. David was chosen by God to rule over Israel; he was blessed with victories; he was the progenitor of a monarchical dynasty; he was the prototype of the Messiah destined to come and redeem the world. Nevertheless, he committed a heinous sin.
When David neglected his responsibilities and began to exceed his prerogatives as an anointed monarch, his actions led to disaster. Even though divinely anointed, David was bound by the same rules of morality and justice that governed the lives of his subjects. The prophet Nathan did not hesitate to enter the palace and confront the king with his crime. David, for his part, felt obliged to acknowledge the truth and repent. Until he laid eyes on Bathsheba, David is portrayed as one immune to sinful temptations – in fact, he seems to be almost too good to be true. But some later Jewish commentators felt that David was overly confident and wished to be tested by God so that he could prove that he compared favorably with the Patriarchs. He complained to God; he wished to be put through a trial so as to attain the spiritual greatness of Abraham and the other Patriarchs. Sure enough, when temptation was placed before his eyes, the great king succumbed. David overestimated his own strength of character and was punished for his pride.
Thus the view of David that emerges from this moving story is of a man like other men. David’s public success could not mask his private vice. At the same time, David is not perceived to be a villain – his reputation is merely tarnished. Repentance restored him the eyes of the Lord, the Israelites, and posterity.
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