YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 31 and Aug. 6)
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Today’s reading continues the story of David and Bathsheba. We move on to the scene where the prophet Nathan exposes David’s guilt in the affair. The lectionary reading skips a number of verses following last week’s reading (2 Sam. 11:16-25). These tell how Joab did as David had asked so that Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, died in battle. Joab’s words to the messenger anticipate that David might get angry at what seems a gross tactical blunder in letting warriors get too close to the city walls and become easy targets. The words the messenger is to say, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too’, carry a message within a message and explain to David the reason for what seems like carelessness on Joab’s part. The messenger’s words do their job and not only convey to the king how the war is going, but that the deed he wanted done is in fact complete – or so he might think.
David’s response to the messenger’s words reveals an even deeper level of corruption in the king’s activities. Not only has his passion for Bathsheba led him into adultery, but into the act of murder. His action is typical of a despot. Now, however, his reply to Joab is double edged. He says, ‘Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes for the sword devours now one and now another’ (11:25). At one level the words sound encouraging of Joab and forgiving of his ‘blunder’ in battle. At another level David cynically suggests that no evil has been done in the plot against Uriah. Is David blind, or has his power so corrupted him that he thinks he can determine what is evil and what is not? But even in his own statement there is irony, for as the ‘sword’ has struck Uriah at David’s wish, so the ‘sword’ is about to strike his own house. The narrator hints at the tragic consequences that will ensue with the words ‘the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (v. 27). Nathan uses the same language in 12:9-10.
The end of 2 Samuel 11 (vv. 26-27) serves as a transitional piece moving from the time when David sends and commands (11:27) to the time when the Lord sends (12:1). The story of Bathsheba also moves forward. She fulfills the pattern of mourning and David can legally take her as his wife. But as the writer continues to call her the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and does not use her proper name, the means by which David gained this wife, including murder, are still evident to the reader. The short report that she (Bathsheba) ‘bore him a son’ in v. 27 sets the scene for events in the following chapter.
In 2 Samuel 12 Nathan the prophet comes to David for the second time (see also 2 Samuel 7). This time, however, his message is not good. Nathan will appear again after the death of David taking the side of Solomon against Adonijah (1 Kings 1:8-38). The parable of the rich man and the lamb, which Nathan tells David as if he were reporting an actual event, is powerfully eloquent, so much so that it elicits a transparent response from David. He not only asserts that restoration must be made for the poor man’s loss, but that the rich man shall surely die. David does show a sense of justice, as someone in his position should. His earlier actions, however, reveal that corruption can take hold even where a sense of justice is strong. The fact that he understood the injustice perpetrated in Nathan’s tale only condemns David further, and shows up the blindness to one’s own actions that can accompany a position of power. The analysis of the corruption of power in this story deepens. As the words of Nathan’s story still ring in David’s ears, his world is turned upside down: ‘You are that man.’
David’s actions, which in the story so far have been unknown to all except his accomplice Joab, are now exposed by the one who sees deeply into all people. The Lord declares through Nathan that David has murdered Uriah and stolen his wife. Through his actions in the human sphere David had despised the word of the Lord to do evil in his eyes (v. 9). David perpetrated this evil in the course of a military campaign, attempting to cover his action under the guise of a military blunder. He had stayed home at the time when kings go out to battle. Now as a result of his action his household will be beset by hostility and conflict from this day. Moreover, he will be put to shame by the flagrant actions of his own family in the sight of all Israel (vv. 11-12). There is irony in this story which reaches back well before the story began to unfold. Earlier, Saul had pronounced the threat of death against David (1 Sam 20:31) but David was then spared. Now in Saul’s place, David also assumes to take the moral high ground, until he is exposed. Poetic justice will shortly ensue for while David will live on, the son born to Bathsheba will die (2 Sam 12:14).
We see that Nathan’s charge: ‘You are the man!’ reached David when we read the significant closing words of today’s reading: ‘and David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”’ In this admission, we learn that once again kingship in Israel is subject to the divine word. We also face the reality of human life, that one as calculatingly evil as David is in this story, could nevertheless still express deep repentance. This ambivalence points to a deeper reality about God, that his grace is greater than human evil.
The final judgment on David’s actions in this story is not included in our lectionary reading. As we noted briefly above, the story ends with the death of the first child born to David and Bathsheba. This could be troubling for the reader. In a story about justice and the abuse of power it seems that in the end the Lord who oversees all actions and intentions here is himself the greatest perpetrator of injustice. Why should this innocent child suffer for David’s wrongs? But we should be careful. This is a story that invites us to ponder the nature and relation of power, injustice and sin. It was written in a time and for a society in which individual responsibility was not a prized value. The story is not an exposé on the eternal nature of divine actions. Could not the episode telling of the death of the child reveal for us, in an albeit shocking way, the inevitability that injustice and the abuse of power will in turn have their effect on both the perpetrators of such actions and on the innocents bound up with their lives?
Psalm 51 (see Lent 5): This psalm was set for Ash Wednesday and for Lent 5. The latter commentary has fuller comments on the psalm and suggestions for its use in worship. It is a fitting psalm to accompany the reading from 2 Samuel 12 in which David admits his guilt in the affair of Bathsheba and death of Uriah.
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