When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David.2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a (NRSV)
He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
As the David and Bathsheba saga continues, 2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a narrates the outing of David’s coverup and—backed into a corner—his admission of guilt. In a way, David’s confession is like many of the political apologies we have encountered in recent years. The exposed politician mounts the podium, retrieves their written statement from their vest pocket, and, amid the clackity-clack of camera shutters, says what everyone already knows: “I made a mistake.” The apology may communicate genuine remorse, the politician’s intent to make amends, and their acceptance of the consequences of their actions for their life and career. Or, it may be a word-smithed damage control statement, calculated to admit as little as possible and move the news cycle beyond the scandal. Which sort of apology is David’s?
In the wider story of Israel’s monarchic period (told in 1 Samuel–2 Kings), David’s simple two-word confession (ḥata’ti la’adonai, “I have sinned against YHWH,” 12:13a) is accepted by the deuteronomistic historian as genuine and sufficient. First Kings 15:5 summarizes David’s legacy thusly: “David did the right thing in God’s sight, not veering from anything God commanded him all the days of his life (except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite)”—note that Bathsheba is an invisible victim, left out of this summary. The Septuagint translation of this verse (perhaps representing an alternate Hebrew tradition) even omits the parenthetical note about Uriah, considering David’s record to be entirely unblemished. Likewise, the book of 1 Chronicles tells David’s story with no mention of this scandal at all. Forgiven and forgotten.
On the other hand, some readers of the story have felt uneasy about David’s apology. It was too curt, too aloof. The scribes who added superscriptions to several psalms ascribed the generic but lengthy and passionate confession of Psalm 51 to David, making it the more complete version of his apology, perhaps composed on the spot when the prophet Nathan confronted him with his crime (see the superscription to Psalm 51). The Revised Common Lectionary also pairs Psalm 51 with the reading from 2 Sam 11–12, in order to fill out David’s pithy apology with a more heartfelt gush of remorse.
But is Psalm 51 the apology we want from David? For all its length, the psalm still reinforces the strange reduction of David’s guilt: Bathsheba was (as far as we may surmise from the narrative) non-consensually penetrated and impregnated, and Uriah was deceived and then murdered. However, the David of Psalm 51 passes over both of them to emphasize that “against you (YHWH) and you alone have I sinned, and done what is wrong in your sight” (Ps 51:4 [51:6 Hebrew], cf. 2 Sam 12:13a). With such a statement, is David compartmentalizing his sin, owning his moral failure before God, but not his crimes against people?
Another pertinent feature of the superscription to Psalm 51 is the play on the Hebrew verb bo’, a common sexual euphemism: “A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan bo’ (entered, penetrated) him, just as he had ba’ (same verb: entered, penetrated) Bathsheba.” The most straightforward unpacking of this paronomasia comes through the lens of power and domination, where sexual penetration is culturally understood as a form of masculine social dominance. From this perspective, even though David was the king, the prophet of YHWH was able to “dominate” him with a divine word, just as David had “dominated” Bathsheba. God’s word emasculates even the brute power of monarchy.
On the other hand, if assigning this psalm to David was intended to induce empathy toward him, to rehabilitate him through a more elaborate confession and subsequent divine forgiveness, then perhaps this wordplay in the superscription could also be read as an appeal to the readers to have compassion, as if to plead, “Wasn’t Nathan’s confrontation punishment enough? Look how hard it hit David, how ashamed and pitiful he is, how much he longs to be reconciled with God! That word from Nathan ‘emasculated’ him just as much as he had ‘asserted masculinity’ over Bathsheba. Shouldn’t we feel a bit sorry for him and have mercy in our assessment of him?”
It is easy to condemn the crimes committed by the underclass and marginalized and to prize leaders who are “tough on [certain] crime.” But when violence is perpetrated by people of privilege against those on the margins, why do we go to such lengths to rouse our empathy for the criminal, to connect with their humanity, to recognize that we all make mistakes and deserve second chances? For political offenders (especially those from our own party or persuasion), why are we so often satisfied with verbal censure and not true, consequential accountability? In David’s case, why do so many of us share the biblical remembrance of him as a complicated, but overall great, man? He was a “man after God’s own heart”—except for that one momentary lapse. But you know, he felt really bad about it afterward…
I am not against mercy, forgiveness, grace—I surely need these as much as anyone! And the idea that even an adulterer and murderer can receive forgiveness from God is, in my opinion, a true and hopeful message about God’s character. But reconciliation with God should not come at the expense of telling the truth, restoring the victims (to the extent possible), and identifying and dismantling the factors that enable such abuses of power in the first place.
Despite being exposed for a capital crime, David did not forfeit his life, nor his autonomy, nor his position of power, nor his wealth, nor his longevity, nor his legacy, nor his dynasty. He had taken everything from Uriah, and practically everything from Bathsheba except her life, but the penalty for his crime was exacted principally upon his illegitimate child (who perished shortly after birth, 2 Sam 12:14–23). Justice? Likewise, Nathan prophesies that David will experience shame when David’s “neighbor” will publicly fornicate with his wives (2 Sam 12:11–12). When David’s concubines were subsequently raped by his son Absalom (2 Sam 16:20–22), this was somehow a penalty against David? Perhaps we can understand these dimensions of the text’s rhetoric when we remember that much of the ancient world considered wives and children to be a kind of property belonging to the patriarch and under his care. Therefore, their death or debasement could be interpreted as an injury to the patriarch himself. Nevertheless, even taking this culturally-embedded rhetoric into consideration, David certainly survives his scandal with minimal personal cost. Is this true and appropriate accountability?
The text also considers the pattern of violence in the Davidic dynasty to be divine judgment (1 Sam 12:10). But was this not just the natural consequence of leaving David’s abuses unpunished? With no model of true accountability in David’s story, his sons and grandsons were emboldened to perpetuate the dynastic abuse of power. They continued to sow violence and reaped violence in return.
Perhaps my reading unfairly imputes modern standards of justice onto the ancient text. If the transmitters of the David tradition in Scripture accepted his confession as sufficient for the redemption of his legacy, who are we to second-guess them? I understand this objection, but I feel that we do have a solemn responsibility to second-guess the Bible here, for three reasons:
First, we need to remember that the biblical David is a literary character. We have no way of knowing how much of his story conforms to the life of the historical David. As readers, we can reconstruct implied authors behind the David stories who present a literary, interpreted version of him that is culturally embedded, just as we also interpret from our own social locations. Therefore, we can engage in an ethical conversation—and even debate—with those implied authors over our differing contextualized interpretations of their literary David. We should expect that at times the implied authors’ rendition of the David story communicated enduring treasures of their culture and worldview, and at other times their literature participated in ethical limitations endemic to their context. It is this very mix of insight and oversight that comes to us (according to my Christian tradition) as a word from God. Our responsibility as interpreters is not simply to accept their conclusions. Rather, we are called to read with discernment.
Second, the character of Bathsheba, even if she is fictional or fictionalized in the biblical telling, represents thousands of real people in the ancient world and modern world who have been abused by the powerful and then written out of the story. Bathsheba is not entirely forgotten in the biblical narrative; she resurfaces to play a dynamic role in the fraught royal succession of her son Solomon. But in the primary telling of the scandal in 2 Sam 11–12, she is objectified by David, Uriah, and Nathan alike. David takes her as an object of lustful desire; Uriah treats her as a carnal pleasure to be nobly avoided; and Nathan (speaking for God) understands her to be stolen goods—whose theft is a crime committed primarily against Uriah (1 Kings 15:5 agrees). To the extent that the vulnerable in our world (often women) are similarly objectified and rendered invisible, it remains imperative to name these dynamics in our sacred stories, perhaps precisely because they are so venerated and influential.
Third, whether or not the implied authors absolved the literary David in their own eyes, the powerful in the world still need to be held to account. When the Bible misses opportunities to write such accountability into its stories, it becomes a valuable witness to the way that privilege often causes us to overlook the faults of our heroes. Just as the implied (presumably male) authors of biblical narratives rarely ascribe to female characters the dignity they deserve, their predominantly elite social status makes them slow to condemn the errors of a fellow elite, whom they are quick to pardon and rehabilitate. When such oversights in the biblical text are identified, it can be an eye-opener for those of us who also participate in systems of power and privilege. We may be prompted to ask: when have we been quick to forgive the privileged injurer at the cost of the vulnerable injured?
It is right to hold those with power to a high standard of accountability. And when they abuse their power, we are right to expect apologies that tell the truth, dignify the wronged, and pledge steps of reparation while accepting personal and professional consequences for one’s actions. By that standard, just like many political apologies these days, David’s confession is a step in the right direction—but still far short of the goal.