10 September 2010

David and Bathsheba: Bible Writing at its Most Brilliant

The Subtext of 2 Samuel Chapter 11
By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                The brilliance of 2 Samuel Chapter 11 may be unparalleled in the extraordinary brilliance of the entire account of David’s life. Robert Alter (1999) comments: “…it seems as though the writer has pulled out all the stops of his remarkable narrative art in order to achieve a brilliant realization of this crucially pivotal episode” (Alter, p. 249). I wanted to share some of the complexities and nuances of this amazing bit of writing.

11 And it came about at the return of the year, at the time that kings sally forth, that David proceeded to send Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, that they might bring the sons of Ammon to ruin and lay siege to Rabbah, while David was dwelling in Jerusalem.
                The Hebrew word for “messenger” is malakhim; the word for king is melakhim. The difference is impossible to see in Hebrew, which is written only in consonants. This ambiguity is deliberate—it sets up one of the key contrasts in the upcoming account: the difference between those who do (the will of God) and those who stay at home.  Polzin writes: “The verse clearly doubles back on itself in a marvelous display of narrative virtuosity: at a time when kings go forth, David did not, making it a time, therefore, when messengers must go forth; at a time when messengers go forth, David, remaining in Jerusalem, sent Joab, his servants and all Israel to ravage Ammon.”
                The David and Bathsheba episode is not just a moral parable—it illustrates the dangers of monarchy. David is now a sedentary king who has too much time on his hands (“was dwelling” at the beginning of verse 11 is the Hebrew antonym of “sally forth” at the end of the verse). Throughout the whole account David operates through others—messengers and intermediaries. This creates all kinds of unforeseen complications. Nathan keeps reminding us that when we try to use others for our own ends, things never turn out the way we hope they will.

2 And it came about at the time of evening that David proceeded to rise from his bed and walk about on the rooftop of the king’s house; and from the rooftop he caught sight of a woman bathing herself, and the woman was very good in appearance.
The wealthy of Israel took a siesta after lunch. Apparently, David has been lounging in bed all afternoon.

 3 Then David sent and inquired about the woman and someone said: “Is this not Bath-sheba the daughter of E·liam the wife of U·riah the Hittite?”
“David sent”—once again using others to do his work.
It is highly unusual for a woman to be identified by both her father and husband. Perhaps this is because both Eliam and Uriah are members of the Gibborim, David’s elite warriors, the equivalent of the Knights of the Round Table. Uriah is a Hittite—a foreigner. The author makes use of a clever irony here: the man who turns out to be the perfect soldier is a foreigner, while the pure Isrealite, David, betrays and murders him.

 4 After that David sent messengers that he might take her. So she came in to him and he lay down with her, while she was sanctifying herself from her uncleanness. Later she returned to her house.
The author, Nathan the Prophet, uses a string of verbs (sent…take…came…lay…sanctifying) to convey rapid, single-minded action. But in the middle of this string, one verb switches its subject from David to Bathsheba. He writes “she came in to him”. When the verb “come into” has a masculine subject and a feminine object, it refers to sexual intercourse.

5 And the woman became pregnant. Consequently she sent and told David and said: “I am pregnant.” 6 At this David sent to Joab, saying: “Send to me U·riah the Hittite.” So Joab sent U·riah to David.
Bathsheba sent, then David sent and asks Uriah to be sent and Joab sends him. The theme of using others for one’s own ends, instead of acting for oneself, is once again repeated.

7 When U·riah came to him, David began to ask how Joab was getting along and how the people were getting along and how the war was getting along. 8 Finally David said to U·riah: “Go down to your house and bathe your feet.” Accordingly U·riah went out from the king’s house, and the king’s courtesy gift went out following him.
“Feet” can be a euphemism for the male sex organ, but probably that is not what Nathan is doing here. Most likely he is echoing his earlier reference to Bathsheba’s bathing, which led to sex. David is hoping that this bathing of the feet will lead to the same.

 9 However, U·riah lay down at the entrance of the king’s house with all the other servants of his lord, and he did not go down to his own house. 10 So they told David, saying: “U·riah did not go down to his own house.” Upon that David said to U·riah: “It is from a journey that you have come in, is it not? Why have you not gone down to your own house?”
The read might expect that the phrase “Uriah lay down” would have been followed with “with his wife.” But Uriah abides by the mandates of  the Torah, which require soldiers to practice abstinence during times of military action.
Nathan also reminds us here that people may not do what they are “sent” to do—leading to unforeseen problems.

 11 At this U·riah said to David: “The Ark and Israel and Judah are dwelling in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping on the face of the field, and I—shall I go into my own house to eat and drink and to lie down with my wife? As you are living and as your soul is living, I shall not do this thing!”
The verbs “dwelling” and “camping” and “lie down” are all cast in a negative light—they reflect David’s decision to “dwell” in Jerusalem while he sends forth others to do his bidding.
Moshe Garsiel suggests that the latter part of this verse tells us a lot about the subtext of this account. When Uriah first arrives from the front, he does not know what his wife has been up to—and Nathan conveys that by not specifically mentioning sex in Uriah’s conversation with David. But by verse 11, the court rumors have made their way to his ears, and so Uriah specifically brings up sex with his wife—as though to prick the conscience of the king. It may also be noteworthy that he does not add the deferential “my lord the king” to his statement.

12 Then David said to U·riah: “Dwell here also today, and tomorrow I shall send you away.” Therefore U·riah kept dwelling in Jerusalem on that day and the day following. 13 Further, David called him that he might eat before him and drink. So he got him drunk. Nevertheless, he went out in the evening to lie down on his bed with the servants of his lord, and to his own house he did not go down. 14 And it came about in the morning that David proceeded to write a letter to Joab and send it by the hand of U·riah. 15 So he wrote in the letter, saying: “PUT U·riah in front of the heaviest battle charges, and YOU men must retreat from behind him, and he must be struck down and die.”
More “sending” by David. It seems likely that Uriah guesses what is in this letter. Courageously, he goes to face his doom.  (There is something strikingly distasteful--and Shakespearean (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)--in having Uriah carry his own death warrant to his executioner).

16 And it came about that while Joab was keeping guard over the city he kept U·riah put in the place where he knew that there were valiant men. 17 When the men of the city came on out and went fighting against Joab, then some of the people, the servants of David, fell and U·riah the Hittite also died.
Joab doesn’t do as he is told. He recognizes that David’s plan (to have the men retreat and leave Uriah to be killed) is so clumsy it will immediately reveal to everyone that it is deliberate. So he decides that accomplishing the king’s will is important enough to sacrifice a few good men. David’s guilt grows.

18 Joab now sent that he might report to David all the matters of the war. 19 And he went on to command the messenger, saying: “As soon as you finish speaking to the king about all the matters of the war, 20 then it must occur that if the rage of the king comes up and he does say to you, ‘Why did YOU have to go so near to the city to fight? Did YOU men not know that they would shoot from on top of the wall? 21 Who was it that struck down A·bime·lech the son of Je·rubbe·sheth? Was it not a woman that pitched an upper millstone upon him from on top of the wall so that he died at Thebez? Why did YOU men have to go so close to the wall?’ you must also say, ‘Your servant U·riah the Hittite died too.’”
Joab sends this messenger with very bad news, but provides him with a get-out-of-jail-free card: as long as he mentions Uriah’s death, David can hardly be angry about anyone else’s bad decisions.
The Abimelech that Joab refers to (from Judges Chapter 9) begged his armor bearer to kill him so that it would not be said that a woman killed him. Joab is subtly calling David’s attention to the fact that he knows a woman is the source of this disaster.

22 So the messenger went and came and told David all about which Joab had sent him. 23 And the messenger went on to say to David: “The men proved superior to us, so that they came out against us into the field; but we kept pressing them right up to the entrance of the gate.
Robert Alter (1999) comments: “The astute messenger offers a circumstantial account that justifies the mistake of approaching too close to the wall: the Ammonites came out after the Israelites in hot pursuit; then the Israelites, turning the tide of battle, were drawn after the fleeing Ammonites and so were tricked into coming right up to the gates of the city” (p. 255).

 24 And the shooters kept shooting at your servants from on top of the wall, so that some of the servants of the king died; and your servant U·riah the Hittite also died.”
The messenger doesn’t bother to use Joab’s historical lesson about Abimelech. He knows what David wants to hear—Uriah is dead. This also shows the apparent public knowledge of David’s sin and plot.

 25 At that David said to the messenger: “This is what you will say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter appear bad in your eyes, for the sword eats up one as well as another. Intensify your battle against the city and throw it down.’ And encourage him.”
The king tosses back a sort of soldier’s cliché. He also gives an implicit admission that Joab made the right call in allowing other soldiers to die to accomplish his plan.

26 And the wife of U·riah got to hear that U·riah her husband had died, and she began to wail over her owner. 27 When the mourning period was past, David immediately sent and took her home to his house, and she came to be his wife. In time she bore to him a son, but the thing that David had done appeared bad in the eyes of Jehovah.
Bathsheba’s mourning is shorter than Gertrude’s in Hamlet.
Throughout this entire episode, David has never been seen anywhere but in his house. Robert Alter (1999) comments: “Only now after the adultery, the murder, the remarriage, and the birth of the son, does the narrator make an explicit moral judgment of David’s actions. The invocation of God’s judgment is the introduction to the appearance of Nathan the prophet, delivering first a moral parable “wherein to catch the conscience of the king” and then God’s grim curse on David and his house” (p. 256).

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

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