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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Impunity—2 Samuel 12:1-9 (Mark Davis)

King David’s actions in taking Bathsheba provide a shocking and illuminating case study in the behavior and psychology of impunity. The prophet Nathan’s employment of parabolic misdirection in his exposure of David’s sins suggests an effective manner in which such impunity can be confronted.

And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 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. 4 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.” 5 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; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

7 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; 8 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. 9 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.

While salacious movie-makers and unctuous morality-preachers want to depict David’s sex with Bathsheba as an “affair,” it is not. It is an act of tyranny by a king with a victim, an act rife with the power dynamics behind many rapes and justifications of rape today. After raping Bathsheba and conspiring to have her husband killed on the battlefield to cover up his rape-child, King David seems to have gotten away with his transgression marvelously. He has added Bathsheba to his home, in what appears to be an act of kingly benevolence to a war widow. One can only wonder how David must have reacted when courtiers said, “My Lord, how gracious for you to invite this poor, pregnant war widow into your house.” Would David have looked the speaker in the eye and said, “Believe me, it is the least that I can do”? Would he have had the arrogance to smile and nod? Would David’s reactions have been a bit different if Joab—his general and co-conspirator in the murder of Uriah—were in the room? What if the same servants who went to fetch Bathsheba at David’s order were standing by pouring wine during the comment? Did the king at least retain enough morality to blush and lower his head in shame?

The story does not give us David’s complete state of mind. It does, however, describe David in a way that tyrants and other abusers of power might rightly be described throughout history—throughout this story, David acts with impunity. Impunity is a way of living as if one is free from the consequences of one’s actions. It is an ugly, deceptive use of power that gives rise to an enormous deposit of political sins. Impunity causes Uriah to be killed with the sword of the Ammonites—now David can lament, promise vengeance, and cover up his rape. Impunity causes peasants to be “disappeared” in the darkness of night, until their mutilated bodies are discovered in a killing field. Impunity causes refugee camps to be attacked or orphanages to be used as human shields. Impunity causes the will of the people expressed through the ballot box to be controverted by deceit and their objections to be met with riot police. Impunity causes corporations to cut health care for its employees while increasing bonuses for its stockholders. Impunity causes a high school football star to take off for college while a girl back home tries to kill herself because nobody will believe that he raped her.

The language of David’s impunity is all too familiar. It is the language of plausible deniability, of feigned ignorance, of religious indignation, of promised action, but ultimately of “moving on” once the outcry for accountability has been averted. The deceitful language of David’s impunity allows his action to come full circle: David using his God-given power to bring Bathsheba into his home, ordering Uriah to have a furlough, seeing to it that Uriah dies on the battlefield, and then bringing Bathsheba back into his home again. Whether by deceitful manipulations or open acts of feigned benevolence, impunity is an act of practical atheism. The biblical definition of atheism—“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”—is not about intellectual disbelief. It is about impunity—living as if there is no God, as if there is no justice woven into the fabric of God’s world. This is a story of David, the practising atheist.

Against David’s act of royal impunity comes the prophet Nathan armed with a parable. Parables are familiar to gospel readers, but they are rather scarce in the rest of the Scriptures. Nathan’s story itself begins quaintly, with the pastoral imagery of a family and their beloved lamb. The story evokes the sympathy of even this most impudent of kings, who quickly is indignant—what a travesty of justice for the rich man to take the precious sheep of the poor man’s family! David even imagines that he himself will execute the justice that the rich man in the parable deserves. Nathan’s parable becomes a peculiar looking glass of impunity, prompting David to pronounce his own guilty verdict. But, in order for David to see his impunity as it really is, Nathan must first pretend that his parable is something that it is not—a story about a lamb, a family, and a bully. What ultimately convicts David, despite how effectively he has glossed over his transgression, is the fascinating misdirection of his story in parabolic speech.

The power of Nathan’s parable suggests that the most effective tool for dismantling impunity may not be loud rage, pitchforks and torches, or even sharp-jawed pundits, eloquently arguing for reasonable action. Because impunity is a deceitful corruption of power, the peculiar mis-directional quality of a parable may be impunity’s most effective antidote. A parable is not just a story. It is a story that conveys truth about something that it is not. A parable about seed is not about agriculture. A parable about hidden treasure is not about money. And so on. Parables have a quality of irony that distinguishes them from simple stories. Their meaning lies precisely in their ability to be about something that they are not.

Perhaps that ironic power of parables explains why so many people tune into Stephen Colbert at night, to hear him expose the impunity of power with satirical fervor. In a situation where open and serious debate invites civil response, perhaps pamphleteers and panel discussions are the communications of choice. But, in a situation of impunity, where wrong is called right, falsity is called truth, and rapist murderers are called benevolent kings, the ironic power of a parable is an effective form of exposé, bringing truth to light by calling something what it is not.

David ultimately responds to Nathan’s parable and follow-up speech by saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” To people who mouth those words corporately week after week or personally day after day, there may be something unsatisfying about David’s response. We might want him to keep going and to say, “I have sinned against Bathsheba. I have sinned against Uriah. I have sinned against this unborn child. I have sinned against my general and my servants. I have sinned against my people.” But, there is a world of meaning behind the words, “I have sinned against the Lord.” It means that the practical atheism behind David’s impunity has been overturned. It means that David admits he has violated righteousness and truth against the one who is the source of all righteousness and truth. For David to say, “I have sinned against the Lord,” means that he gets it: Impunity is not simply a plausibly deniable act of overreaching. It is a violation of everything we mean by the good, the true, and the beautiful. And David—despite his titles and roles and pious reputation—confesses that he is numbered among those who have violated everything that God is about.

What a story! The practical atheism of impunity is brought to light by the misdirection of a parable, bringing a tyrant king to his knees. It is no wonder that poets, comics, cartoonists, meme-writers, the fool in the court, satirists, and parable-tellers have long been the bane of the impudent. Parabolic misdirection is a powerful tool against impunity.

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