2 Sam 11:1-24:25
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Relationship to Samuel. The relationship of 2 Samuel 11-24 to the rest of Samuel is discussed at Samuel.
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in 2 Samuel 11-24 include:
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- 1 Sam 11:1. Though it is often pointed out that this first verse opens the Bath-sheba story ominously, because David stays in Jerusalem when he ought to be out at the battle, there are textual complications to such a reading. The original lettering of the Bible reads not "kings" here but "messengers" or "envoys." That "to battle" is italicized highlights the fact that it is not in the original Hebrew at all. The "kings" reading comes from the Masoretic text, where the Masoretes decided that the word must have been miswritten as "messengers/envoys," and so they changed the text, as is marked in every copy of the Hebrew Bible.
- But this complicates things: is David precisely where he ought to be, and we are simply being told what time of year it happened, or is David in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so falls into temptation? In the end, both readings are possible, and it may even have been that the author of the text wanted things to be somewhat ambiguous (the difficulty arises precisely from the fact that "kings" and "messengers/envoys" sound about the same when spoken, though "messengers/envoys" has an extra "vowel" sound). So, the reader--or perhaps more importantly, the hearer--is to feel at once that David is following protocol and that something is amiss. That is, David is doing things as they are quite simply done, but not everything is right. Whether or not David "should" have been at the siege of Rabbah, it is clear that David is in Jerusalem without a whole lot to occupy him.
- 1 Sam 11:2. It is vital that this verse emphasizes, in its last phrase, "to look upon." David's glimpse becomes a gaze, a regard, a voyeurism. It is this phrase that makes all the difference for what follows: David has done nothing wrong in walking on the roof in the cool of the evening, and Bath-sheba is bathing in precisely the custom of her people at that time of year. Nothing is amiss except for David's gaze. It is probably very important that David's relation to her for the moment remains a gaze: the text does not, as it does in many such stories--and stories that seem far worse even--say that David loved her, but simply that he looked. His engagement of her is entirely one-sided at this point, a gazing or intending that reduces Bath-sheba to a sort of fertility ("porno") idol, a graven ("graph") image. It is this look that says it all.
- 1 Sam 11:3. "Bath-sheba" is actually a Hebrew phrase that means "daughter of the covenant." Part of the difficulty of this story is working out the relations implied by Bath-sheba's Israelite role, married, as she is, to a Hittite. Broadly speaking, the Hebrew Bible explores the meaning of the boundaries of Israel through the narratives that concern marital (and extra-marital) relations between those of the covenant and those outside the covenant. This story, then, presents a major question concerning these boundaries. It may not be, in the end, that Bath-sheba's name was actually Bath-sheba: it may be that her name is never mentioned, though she is referred to a number of times as a/the daughter of the covenant. The New Testament, interestingly, might confirm this: in Matt 1:6, Bath-sheba is simply called "her of Urias," the one married originally to Uriah.
- But, then, the English of verse 3 seems in some ways to suggest that Bath-sheba is specifically not a daughter of the covenant: the italicized words betray the difficulty the translators had rendered the Hebrew directly into English. It appears, at a glance at least, that perhaps one responds to David by saying: "she is not a daughter of the covenant, but the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." That it appears as a question in the English appears somewhat problematic. However, in the Hebrew text, the interrogative h precedes lw` ("not"), marking the phrase as a question. That the phrase is a question, however, highlights the questionable nature of the situation: the question seems rhetorical ("Is she not a daughter of the covenant?"), but rhetorical questions can often betray ambiguities that the text does not want to decide. It is not clear, in the end, whether she is a daughter of the covenant.
- But then, there are other details that do suggest that she is an Israelite. In verse 4, it is clear that she follows the Mosaic ritual of washing oneself after intercourse ("for she was purified from her uncleanness"), and the very fact that she is "washing herself" in verse 2 suggests that she is performing ablutions according to the Law. There seems at least to be good reason to regard her as an Israelite, as a daughter of the covenant. But this does not release the political tensions of the story: if she is an Israelite, perhaps David has not overstepped the boundaries of Israel, but she has, being married to a Hittite. Though Uriah is one of David's fighting men (who has been with him from the beginning, even in his outlaw days), there may be a hint here that David is trying to reclaim a daughter of the covenant from a foreign marriage.
- All of this is to suggest that the whole narrative of David's affair with Bath-sheba has incredibly political overtones. This does not mean that there is no question here of personal sin, and this certainly does not mean that David was at all justified. Rather, it perhaps only compounds the sin of adultery/murder: David is doing all of this in his own systematic attempt to accomplish a purification of God's people. The adultery/murder business is motivated by the same misjudgment that later leads David to take a census of the people: he is overly political, and he is trying to regulate and systematize Israel despite the Lord's desires to keep things relatively open. These political questions connect this otherwise rather isolated story with all of the story that begins with the book of Judges and stretches right through to the end of 2 Kings: what political organization does not in one way or another attempt to cancel the covenant given to Abraham?
- It might be worth taking these questions up into the final few years of Joseph Smith's life, where this question of David and Bath-sheba was very important to the prophet, especially because of the incredibly "political" context suggested in Joseph's references to the situation. The Times and Seasons 2 (1 June 1841): 429-430 reports Joseph saying on 16 May 1841:
- The time of redemption here had reference to the time, when Christ should come; then and not till then would their sins be blotted out. Why? Because they were murderers, and no murderer hath eternal life. Even David, must wait for those times of refreshing, before he can come forth and his sins be blotted out; for Peter speaking of him says, "David hath not yet ascended into Heaven, for his sepulchre is with us to this day:" his remains were then in the tomb. Now we read that many bodies of the saints arose, at Christ's resurrection, probably all the saints, but it seems that David did not. Why? because he had been a murderer.
- Similarly, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his diary these words of Joseph, spoken on 10 March 1844:
- A murderer; for instance one that sheds innocent Blood Cannot have forgiveness, David sought repentance at the hand of God Carefully with tears, but he could ownly get it through Hell, he got a promise that his soul should not be left in Hell, Although David was a King he never did obtain the spirit & power of Elijah & the fulness of the Priesthood, & the priesthood that he received & the throne & kingdom of David is to be taken from him & given to another by the name of David in the last days, raised up out of his linage
- These several references seem to be tied to what is explained in D&C 132:38-39, that David sinned "in nothing... save in those things which [he] received not of me," and that "those things" seem to have amounted to "the case of Uriah and his wife," for which David "hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion," losing his wives to another.
- What all of this implies for the present verses remains to be worked out at some length. The political overtones of the David and Bath-sheba story are quite clear--are already pointed out above. The political overtones of the Nauvoo experience--perhaps especially of questions of polygamy--are becoming clearer and clearer in the work of LDS historians. There may be reason to recognize in the stories of David a sort of precedent for the kingdom developments of the Church in Nauvoo. The two discourses cited above, as well as the reference in D&C 132, suggest that David exemplifies the constant threat of danger implicit in the revealed kingdom. In the end, it seems that these sorts of questions ought to be worked out more directly in connection with D&C 132 than with the present verses, but the explicit connections between the two texts do suggest that a clear understanding of the present passage can only come with a clearer understanding of the revelations at Nauvoo. At the very least, this much can be said: David's taking Bath-sheba is profoundly intertwined with two major "political" questions, namely, how much power does a king in Israel have, and where are the borders of the kingdom?
- 1 Sam 11:4. David is not exactly shy about his action. Rather than sneaking about to accomplish his task, he sends messengers. Nothing here is done in secret: it appears that David understands this action to be his royal prerogative, that nothing stands in his way as a king. That David does the deed through messengers is doubly interesting: it is accomplished as a sort of affair of the state. David never wooes her nor entices her; he simply sends for her, and the deed is done. Whether or not this is exactly how it happened, the text states the matter in such cold political terms. Perhaps complicating all of this further is the fact that the verse uses the word "took," and David is the subject of the verb (that is, the messengers don't "take" her, but David does). The word is often the technical term for marriage in the Old Testament. There seems to be a sort of hint that there is something legitimate going on here. Of course, the hint is frustrated because Bath-sheba is already married, but the hint causes some confusion and seems to drive a sort of wedge into the story: is David doing something legitimate, in that he is superseding--as Israelite king--the marriage of an Israelite to a foreigner, or is David doing something horrific, overstepping his royal bounds in an act of megolamania? The story leaves the question relatively open for now.
- It should be pointed out that the "for" of "for she was purified" is misplaced: the word does not appear in the Hebrew. Rather, the Hebrew has the word "and," suggesting that the purification follows the intercourse, according to Mosaic Law. This detail suggests quite clearly that Bath-sheba was complicit. Rather than running from the palace to declaim the actions of the king, she simply goes about the prescribed ritual of cleansing and then heads home. The detail quite clearly suggests that Bath-sheba did nothing to resist the deed. But the detail is nonetheless ambiguous: does Bath-sheba comply because David is king, because she understands him to have such authority, because he is within the covenant and she ought to be, etc.? On the other hand, is she simply playing the harlot? But it seems unlikely that she would attend so dutifully and piously to the affairs of the Mosaic Law immediately after performing her part in a flagrantly disobedient act. In the end, the presence of this quite routine fulfillment of the Law is a clue--though an ambiguous one--to what is at work in this story. On the one hand, it might point to the fact that Bath-sheba understands the deed to be lawful. On the other hand, it might point to a sort of ridiculous piety, a going through the motions without any conception of true obedience. Perhaps another possibility is simply that Bath-sheba understands herself to be subject to the king, whatever he requires: she is in the right, though David is in the wrong. Whichever it is will have to be worked out in reading further.
- 1 Sam 11:5. The deed is done and the business seems to be entirely over. There are no return visits, and everyone simply assumes that David has had his royal prerogative. Now things can return to normal. Verse 5 gives the sense that the story only continues at all because it turns out that Bath-sheba is pregnant. Dutifully, she sends word to David. It is of some curiosity that she only sends word, rather than coming to him to speak to him. More and more, the whole affair seems a matter of state. At any rate, her message is clear: if she is pregnant, then her husband will know that something has happened. This need for coverup suggests the illicit nature of the business. At the same time, if the act were lawful for some reason (as is hinted at in verse 4), then there needs to be some good explanation made of the attempt to cover things up. Such an explanation might come from the foreignness of Uriah. But it gets more and more difficult to make any sense of this business. It may be, however, that David and Bath-sheba are, for some other reason, to keep things quiet. Unfortunately, one is left to read between the lines here.
- 1 Sam 11:27: David displeased the Lord. According to Nehama Leibowitz, "As many Bible scholars have noted the Scriptural record rarely inserts its own verdict on the actions committed by its characters. One instance of such an evaluation . . [is] David's conduct in connection with Uriah and Bathsheba. . . . But as a rule, Holy Writ allows the events it describes and the action of its characters to speak for themselves." (See reference below.) Also see Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) (4th revised edition) by Nehama Leibowitz, p. 264.
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