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Politics of Scripture

Of Corruption and Cover-Ups—2 Samuel 11:1-15

The story of David and Bathsheba is a story of power’s corruption and of the cover-ups of abuse—a story with considerable resonance in our own day.

1In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. 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. 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. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
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.” 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.” 12Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” 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.
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.”

This is a familiar story: David spies Bathsheba bathing, lusts after her, gets her pregnant, and, in trying to cover up his adulterous rape, arranges the death of her innocent husband Uriah. This is a rich narrative with multiple political lessons.

Power corrupts. This political truism has no better illustration in the Bible than the life of King David. Many examples of could be drawn from his life to show that this is true; David’s adultery with Bathsheba is only one.

This episode is not, however, an isolated episode of the moral failing of the King; it demonstrates something important about the nature of the state and political power, which remains relevant for our time. In his essay “David and His Theologian” (1968), Walter Brueggemann highlights parallels between this story and that of Adam’s fall, suggesting that in this passage we see the fall of human politics.

We must remember where this story fits within the emergence of the monarchy in Israel. This new political form began with King Saul. Israel was still coming to terms with this new form of political role, when David became Israel’s second King.

It was only in 1 Samuel 8 that the state comes into being from an unholy desire of Israel to be like other nations. In this passage, we see that, as expected, King David proved no better than the surrounding Kings (cf. King Ahab of Samaria in 1 Kings 21). The potential of politics is shown wanting.

It is worth recalling that the Lord warned the people about what a king would do (1 Samuel 8). These warnings include the domination of the King over women: “He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers” (1 Samuel 8:13), and “He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work” (1 Samuel 8:16).

These and other warnings could never be fulfilled overnight, or even within the reign of a single King (in fact they are still being revealed to the careful observer of states). Nor can they be taken literally; the King will do as he pleases, and take women as and when he pleases.

This passage is seen as a part of the “succession narrative” which has been a way Bible scholars have described the narrative of the problem of who will succeed David on the throne. Another way of viewing this passage is to see it as a narrative about the ascension of the state, the political power this confers on office holders, and the temptations that beset them.

Here the recent study of James C. Scott into the origins and development of the earliest “states” is instructive (Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017]). He remarks how much of the development of the state was based on controlling resources. Land was central, of course, as were waterways, but also the reproductive resources of women.

Foreign women were especially prized as wives, concubines, and slaves as their offspring provided a labor force for the state. In the case of David we see both the accumulation of wives and land. The placement of this story within the narrative of the war against the Ammonites, therefore, shows that David is not neglecting the importance of the state in his lustful domination over women at home. This is part of the emergence of states in addition to the acquisition and control of territory.

David’s sin is not the sin of an ordinary man. His elevated position above other dwellings allows him a superior view of other houses and people. He is able to inquire after his subjects and order them to come to him. He rapes with apparent impunity. He has the power to try to cover up his sins and then can murder in order to do so. He is able to marry Bathsheba and appear to make things seem OK.

His kingly position extends the power of ordinary men. Power makes sin possible where it wouldn’t otherwise be. In reflecting on this passage, it is important to note that David is not just a regular man, but misuses his exalted position for self-gratification and his own pleasure, which he then must cover-up.

The cover-up of David’s sin happened not only within the story itself, but continues in the reception of this story, with the account of David’s exploits recorded in Chronicles (1 Chronicles 20) omitting this episode. Various other theologians, sages, interpreters, and commentary writers, wishing to protect the reputation of King David and the state, have promoted pro-monarchical interpretations of the story. Bathsheba’s exploitation (her #metoo moment) has also had interpreters blame her and suggest that tried to seduce David for political and personal reasons (this typically involves creatively reading her manipulation of courtly politics in 1 Kings 1-2 back into this text).

In this passage, King David is an exceptional king. Unlike other kings, he doesn’t go into battle but remains in Jerusalem confident of victory. Breaking with the traditional role of king, instead of being with his troops as commander-in-chief in battle, he lounges at home on his sofa. He controls the battle from afar, confident that his orders will be carried out and he will win.

David is exceptional in another way; he is above the law. The death penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22) does not seem to apply to him. As king he is above the law, and has control over the whole of his realm.

There are, however, some things David cannot control. He cannot control his lust, which is the beginning of his trouble. To be a good king it is necessary to have self-control and not simply be able to sack cities (Proverbs 16:32). David has more success controlling others; he is able to summon Bathsheba to his palace and Uriah from the battlefront (does this jeopardize the war effort?), but he has no control over whether Bathsheba gets pregnant.

Bathsheba’s only words in this episode, “I am pregnant”, struck terror into the King’s heart. David cannot control whether Uriah will participate in his cover up plan. Finally, he cannot control exactly how the cover-up is implemented, or control God’s prophet Nathan and the other results that follow his sin.

This disturbing passage and its cover-ups is unsettling because it confronts us with the corruption of human desire and the misuse of political and personal power to cover up one’s abuse of women in order to protect the reputations of politicians and institutions. Current events inform us that we must face up to these questions and dealing with them is not going to be pretty.

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