Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bible Study: The Second Book of Samuel!

Our text today is from II Samuel, from the infamous lust-story of David and Bathsheba. One balmy spring evening, David is strolling on his palace roof when he spots a beautiful woman bathing. He asked around about who she was (we're not told how; either he described her address to the people he asked, or else he dragged them up to the roof and pointed) and learned that she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the soldiers in David's own army, under the command of Joab.

David sent flunkies to fetch her, and (presumably after saying hello, although David was a randy little bugger and the Bible is silent on the point) they slept together. Bathsheba later sent word to him that she was pregnant and that she was certain the child was his. So David promptly sent for Uriah; they sat and chatted about things in general, about the conduct of the ongoing war (those pesky Ammonites again). The Bible is silent on whether or not Uriah found it strange that he should be summoned out of the blue to gossip with the king, and what David did next is even stranger: he told Uriah to go home and relax for a bit, and he sent him away with a generous portion from the royal banquet tables.

David's motivation is obvious - if Uriah wasted no time in sleeping with Bathsheba, David could then claim the child was Uriah's and nobody would be the wiser. As starstruck as he is by Bathsheba's beauty, at this point in the story he's still trying to duck having anything more to do with her or the baby.

Unfortunately, Uriah didn't go home. He slept in camp in the palace yard, and when David summoned him and asked him (his exasperation can be imagined) why he didn't go home and take it easy for a bit, Uriah's dignity was ruffled: how could he live with himself if he want home and relaxed while his commander and all their men were still in the field, under arms, waging a war?

Nothing if not persistent, David tried again the next day ... more food, more wine, more chit-chatting, followed once again by urging Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife. And again Uriah refused, once more sleeping in camp at the palace. Commentators over the centuries have wondered if perhaps there wasn't more going on here than simple martial virtue. After all, David had hardly made a secret of the fact that he fancied the man's wife - if Uriah had heard of this, is it any wonder he didn't feel like cozying up to Bathsheba, drunk or sober?

Finally David had had enough:

Next morning, David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by Uriah. In the letter he wrote, "Station Uriah in the thick of the fight and then fall back behind him so that he may be struck down and die." Joab, then besieging the town, posted Uriah in a place where he knew there were fierce fighters. The men of the town sallied out and engaged Joab; the army suffered casualties, including some of David's bodyguard; and Uriah the Hittite was killed too.

When Joab got word of this, he sent a messenger to tell David what happened, and he prepared the messenger for a hostile reception (David by this point has something of an evil reputation for how he takes bad news), warning the man to make sure to tell David that Uriah the Hittite died in the day's fighting. And sure enough, when David hears news of the battle, the little hypocrite waxes wroth - until he's told about Uriah, at which point he almost comically calmed down and sent Joab a message saying, essentially, these things happen.

Either Bathsheba or David or both made a point of waiting out the bare minimum decent interval of mourning, and then they got married. Which might have been what they both wanted, but even so, the Bible tells us Yahweh wasn't happy about it.

It's hard to read into the story what might really have happened, although it's at least certain that at some point David changed his mind about what he wanted. At first, he made very pointed efforts to keep Uriah the Hittite alive and make him the baby's father. And when these attempts failed, David suddenly shifted his tactics and successfully got Uriah killed (and, in an especially cold little gesture worthy of King Claudius, had Uriah himself unknowingly carry the order for his own execution). What changed?

I think Bathsheba is the key. I think David was realizing two things during those days when he was trying to send Uriah home to his wife: first, that Uriah himself was a bit of a boob, and second, that David increasingly couldn't bear the thought of anybody being with Bathsheba but himself. I think the more he thought about her, the more he had to have her.

Still, he took an enormous risk. The people he asked about Bathsheba's identity, the flunkies he sent to fetch her, the palace servants he instructed to bear the royal banquet to this nobody's house, his army commander Joab, to whom he gave actual written instructions to connive at the murder of one of his own men ... right from the beginning, way too many people knew about this erotic fixation of David's, and that's surely our lesson for today: when pursuing another man's wife, discretion is everything. Without it, you run the risk of gossip, mutiny, and pissing off Yahweh.


Samuel II said...

Well, presumably, David wanted Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba and continue to be none the wiser as David went on shtupping her during and after the pregnancy. But since Uriah refused and would have discovered Bathsheba's infidelity (and then, what, have her stoned to death?), David had to choose between turning his back on her entirely or rubbing her husband out. When you're king, the second option is simply easier (although not easier to live with afterwards, as David learned).

I don't quite know what to make of the idea that God was mostly pissed at David's indiscretion... This definitely isn't so--God was pissed at David's abuse of power and corruption and megalomaniacal violation of two of the Ten Commandments. The fact that Uriah was a Hittite shows that God intended His laws for everyone, and that only God Himself is entitled to break them (as lunatically unfair as that may seem--TS, God would no doubt say).

God only grudgingly acquiesced to the formation of the monarchy in Israel in the first place, and he always reacted angrily to its abuses (or perceived abuses). Just ask Saul. Or Ahab.

steve said...

I don't know ... II Samuel makes a point of telling us that Bathsheba was physically certain the baby could only be David's when she told him - that doesn't sound like a woman who would have been content to settle for Uriah the Hittite. Maybe THAT's the unspoken key change: a threat from Bathsheba.

In either case, 'rubbing out her husband' might have been easier - if David had been more circumspect about it! As it was, he WROTE an order for his army captain to leave one of his own fighters out to be killed! What if his army found out? David would have been nailed to the city wall!

I doubt severely that Yahweh cared about the breaking of two of the Ten Commandments (I doubt Yahweh could have guessed ANY of the Commandments correctly), but I agree that He was probably pissed by David's uppity behavior - which is roundabout what I was saying: if David had been more discreet, he might have continued in his God's favor. After all, we're not told that Yahweh is displeased until after David's ham-handed maneuvers get him what he wants. I am a jealous God indeed ...