“Bathsheba and King David” by Lika Tov
2 Samuel 11 (NRSV)
The narrative of David’s adultery and murder is embedded in the account of the war with Ammon, because the events of the story occur against the background of that war. Uriah’s absence from home, which paves the way for the adultery and also necessitates creating an explanation for Bathsheba’s pregnancy, is occasioned by the war, as is Uriah’s death. The narrative does not try to conceal or mitigate David’s sins. The outstanding loyalty of the non-Israelite soldier (Uriah) underscores the perfidy of the Israelite king. It is highly unusual for ancient literature to criticize powerful and successful kings. The way David’s behavior is depicted and condemned in the Bible shows the overriding importance it assigns to moral values.
“In the whole of the Old Testament literature there is no chapter more tragic or full of solemn and searching warning than this.”
–G. Campbell Morgan (British evangelist and Bible scholar, 1863-1945)
David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle (that is, because the weather is warmer and drier), David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah (that is, modern Amman, the capital of ancient Ammon). But David remained at Jerusalem.
In that part of the world, wars were not normally fought during the winter months because rains and cold weather made travel and campaigning difficult. Fighting resumed in the spring.
David should have been out at the battle but he remained behind. In 2 Samuel 10 Joab and the army of the mighty men were preserved against the Syrians and the Ammonites, but they did not win a decisive victory. The decisive victory came when David led the battle at the end of 2 Samuel 10. Both through custom and experience God told David, “You need to be at the battle.” But David remained at Jerusalem.
2It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.
David and Bathsheba, illustration by Barbara Griffiths
David looked at Bathsheba and said “beauty” but God saw this as ugly. The pleasures of sin deceive us like the bait hides the hook. We must call it what God calls it — sin. We want to say “affair” but God says “adultery.” We want to say “love” but God says “lust.” We want to say “sexy” but God says “sin.” We want to say, “romantic” but God says “ruin.” We want to say “destiny” but God says “destruction.”
3David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.
She is the wife of one of David’s Mighty Men (2 Samuel 23:8, 39). The Mighty Men are away at battle. Whoa, David thinks — this could work! David is a thoroughly modern man, seeing sex simply as a pleasurable experience. Perhaps with all those wives, David never really experienced the one-flesh bonding experience of sex that God intends.
(Now she was purifying herself after her period.)
So she wasn’t pregnant before coming to David’s house . . .
Then she returned to her house. 5The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
“As soon as ever we are conscious of sin, the right thing is not to begin to reason with the sin, or to wait until we have brought ourselves into a proper state of heart about it, but to go at once and confess the transgression unto the Lord, there and then.”
–Charles Haddon Spurgeon
6So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.”
David hopes that Uriah will sleep with his wife and thus—unwittingly—cover up the adultery.
Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house.
10When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?”
11Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.”
“David had expected and hoped that Uriah would prove to be like himself; instead he proved to be a man of integrity, whose first loyalty was to the king’s interests rather than to his own pleasure.”
–Joyce Baldwin, English evangelical biblical scholar, 1921-1995
12Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.”
“David and Uriah” by Rembrandt, 1665 (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)
Rembrandt: David and Uriah
Uriah has risen from the table
At which they have been talking.
He is beginning to walk away.
His right hand is laid across his breast
The way a Diva might take a bow.
Or the President salute the flag
His left hand clasps his belt,
A soldier’s grip.
Like everything else in Rembrandt
It is the moving moment he conveys,
The motif of motion: happening action.
And this, the moment, is fissile.
‘I was this morning early at your door
While sleep still held you unawares…’
But now he knows his heart
Has been inundated, his dreams
Are couriers to nightmare.
The moment is turning hard,
And the moment slowly
Astonishes his heart,
Slowly, inexorably, as coral.
So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
Ah, David, what we are capable of stooping to, in order to conceal our own sin!
David Has Uriah Killed
14In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
Now David is planning a new sin to cover an old sin. And sending the instructions for it by the hand of the victim!
16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well.
18Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; 19and he instructed the messenger, “When you have finished telling the king all the news about the fighting, 20then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, ‘Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal? Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?’ then you shall say, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.’”
Joab knows that the news of Uriah’s death will please the king and calm him after the losses of battle.
22So the messenger went, and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell. 23The messenger said to David, “The men gained an advantage over us, and came out against us in the field; but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. 24Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall; some of the king’s servants are dead; and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.”
25David said to the messenger, “Thus you shall say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it.’ And encourage him.”
26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
How noble David appeared! One of his mighty men falls in battle, and he tenderly takes in his widow! How kind and generous he is!
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.
The first mention of God in the chapter.
“Bathsheba at her bath with King David’s letter” by Rembrandt, 1654 (The Louvre, Paris). The most famous painting of this subject.
from Peculiar Treasures
by Frederick Buechner
Even when King David lay on his death-bed and she was there with the rest of them to nag him about the succession, he still remembered the first time he had ever seen her. The latest round of warfare with the Syrians had just ended, and his victory had left him feeling let down. He drank too much at lunch and went upstairs for a long nap afterwards. It was almost twilight when he awoke. The palace was unusually quiet, and he felt unusually solemn and quiet inside his own skin. There were no servants around for some reason, nobody to remind him that he was anointed king, victorious general, all that. He bathed, made himself a drink, and with just a towel wrapped around his waist, walked out onto the terrace on the roof where he looked down over the parapet in a kind of trance.
If the whole Syrian army had been drawn up in battle dress, he would have simply noted their presence and passed on. There was a bay gelding tethered to a tree, sweeping the flies away with his tail. In the servants’ court, the cistern had overflowed onto the cobbles leaving a puddle the shape of Asia. Beyond a wall, a naked girl stood in a shallow pool dipping water over her shoulders with a shell. In as detached a way as he was the girl, he saw both that he had to have her at any cost and that the cost would be exorbitant. Her husband’s murder, the death of their first child — like actors awaiting their cues, the fatal consequences lurked just out of sight in the wings.
Years later, when the chill was in his bones and rattling with beads Bathsheba came to pester him about Solomon, he could hardly see her there at his bedside but saw her instead glimmering in the dusk like a peeled pear as he’d first gazed down at her from the roof with his glass in his hand all those years earlier. Raising it first to eye level, he had drained it off in a single swallow like a toast, but it was only on his death-bed that he caught a glimpse of why.
It wasn’t just Bathsheba that he’d been toasting or the prospect of their life together, but a much more distant prospect still. He had been drinking, he realized, to the child of their child of their child a thousand years thence, who he could only pray would find it in his heart to think kindly someday of the beautiful girl and the improvident king who had so recklessly and long ago been responsible for his birth in a stable and his death just outside the city walls.
HERE is one of the most beautiful love songs of my lifetime, I believe — “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” — Celine Dion.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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