2 Samuel 11: David and Bathsheba
This is a famous story from the life of David; I’m not sure if people outside of religious circles are aware of it the way they’re aware of, say, the story of David and Goliath, but I know I was aware of this story for most of my Christian life. I’m guessing folks growing up in Judaism would know the story well, too.
It starts with David sending his men off to war, while he himself stays home in the palace:
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. (verse 1)
Any commentary I’ve seen has mentioned the fact that this is a bad sign; the implication in this verse is that David should be going to war, this is the time when kings do that, but he’s not. I assume this is either backtracking to the battles happening in the previous chapter or a continuation of the battles that are happening with the Ammonites. 10:7 mentions David “sending” Joab and the army to fight the Ammonites (instead of going with them), but I don’t know if this chapter is talking about the same battle or if it’s a different one.
Regardless, David ends up on his roof one evening—it was common for people to have roofs that they could walk on, or even sleep on, to escape the heat of the night—and sees a woman named Bathsheba bathing to purify herself from her “monthly uncleanness.” (Is that important? Yes it is! We’ll come back to it in a bit…) David sees that she’s beautiful, and the ESV Study Bible notes tell us that the Hebrew translated “beautiful” literally means, “very good in appearance.” Other words are used for “beautiful” in other places, where it doesn’t necessarily refer to outer beauty, but here it is specifically denoting that it’s her physical appearance that’s beautiful.
David inquires about her and finds she’s the wife of Uriah, who isn’t just a soldier, he’s one of David’s top soldiers, one of “the thirty.”
As far as the text tells us, however, this doesn’t seem to deter David: he sends messengers to get her, sleeps with her, and sends her back home. She eventually realizes she’s pregnant and sends word to David to let him know.
Which brings us back to the point of her cleansing herself from her “monthly uncleanness,” and why it’s actually relevant to the story: the fact that Bathsheba had her period means that there’s no way she or David can claim that the baby is Uriah’s, she’s clearly conceived while Uriah was gone. But that doesn’t deter David: he comes up with a plan.
David has Uriah brought from the battle to come back for a visit. David makes a show of asking him how things are going on the battlefront, and then tries to send him home to his wife. His obvious intent is that Uriah (who’s been gone for a while) will sleep with Bathsheba, and then they can claim that her baby is Uriah’s.
The plan is thwarted, however, by Uriah’s faithfulness: he doesn’t go home, because that’s not what a soldier is supposed to do while his comrades are in battle! Soldiers in Israel were supposed to refrain from sexual intimacy with their wives while they were at war, and as far as Uriah is concerned he’s still at war, so he’s going to stay “clean” (meaning the Israelite rules about being “clean” and “unclean”).
David was told, “Uriah did not go home.” So he asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just come from a military campaign? Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”
David is not deterred, however. He has Uriah spend one more night, invites him to dinner, and gets him drunk, hoping that “drunk Uriah” might be less upright than “sober Uriah.” Unfortunately for David, “drunk Uriah” is still sticking to his morals, and sleeps with David’s servants instead of going home to Bathsheba.
At this point David seems to realize that he’s not going to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, so he resorts to Plan B: he sends Uriah back to the battle front, carrying a letter for Joab in which David instructs Joab to purposely put Uriah into some fierce fighting and let him be killed. Well… “let” him be killed? No, David actually instructs Joab to withdraw from Uriah so that he’ll be struck down and die.
As a quick sidenote, it is heartless for David to have Uriah carry the letter to Joab with instructions for his own execution! What started as adultery has now escalated to murder, and murder in such a disrespectful way it’s as if David doesn’t even remember how faithful Uriah has been to him over the years. Uriah is already an “unperson” in David’s mind.
Joab does what David has instructed, and then sends a very pointed message back to David to inform him that it’s done:
Joab sent David a full account of the battle. He instructed the messenger: “When you have finished giving the king this account of the battle, the king’s anger may flare up, and he may ask you, ‘Why did you get so close to the city to fight? Didn’t you know they would shoot arrows from the wall? Who killed Abimelek son of Jerub-Besheth? Didn’t a woman drop an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died in Thebez? Why did you get so close to the wall?’ If he asks you this, then say to him, ‘Moreover, your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead.’” (verses 18–21)
It might be a bit too pointed, frankly, because when the messenger delivers the message in verses 22–24 he doesn’t state it as strongly as Joab told him to. And I don’t know what response Joab was expecting, but David’s message back to him seems… a bit too nonchalant to my eyes:
David told the messenger, “Say this to Joab: ‘Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.’ Say this to encourage Joab.” (verse 25)
Bathsheba then observes a period of mourning for her husband, after which David brings her to become his wife and she bears the son that they’ve conceived. The passage ends with another pointed comment:
But the thing David had done displeased the LORD. (verse 27)
Part of the reason Christians know this story so well is that it’s a case of the Bible showing humans to be humans. David isn’t made out to be better than he was; he was a man after God’s own heart, but he was also a sinful human. Less sinful than me? Probably. (In fact almost for sure.) Sinless? Not even close! And the step-by-step way the story is laid out for us, showing us everything that David had to do to commit this act of adultery (and then cover it up), brings home the fact that this was more than just a momentary act of weakness; it took planning and resolve. To me, this illustrates the danger of having an earthly king: David was a powerful king by this point, so I’m sure he was feeling that he could do whatever he wanted. “That woman is good looking, and I’m the king, so why shouldn’t I have sex with her?”
He clearly didn’t want to make Bathsheba his wife—at least not initially—based on the way he was trying to make it seem like any child she’d have would belong to Uriah. Only when he felt he was left with no choice did he decide to get rid of Uriah and marry Bathsheba.
There is definitely a sense in which David still has a moral compass, even in his sin. He didn’t decide to openly take Bathsheba from Uriah; we can easily envision other kings doing that. As bad as this story is, it could have been worse. But we have to remember that God doesn’t grade on the curve! He doesn’t look at David’s sin, decide it’s not as bad as others’ sin, and let him off the hook. God holds David—and us—to a high moral standard. The highest, in fact: He demands perfection of us. We fail Him, of course, every single day, but He still gets his perfection, in the person of his Son Jesus.
It displeased the LORD
It should be pretty obvious to us that what David did in this passage was wrong and immoral, on multiple levels. The author of 1-2 Samuel wants to leave no doubts in our mind, however, and ends the passage by explicitly telling us that God is “displeased” with David’s actions. Actually, the ESV Study Bible has a good point on this:
But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD is literally, “The matter that David did was evil in the eyes of the LORD”; see 12:9 and Ps. 51:4. This contrasts with David’s words to Joab two verses earlier, “Do not let this matter displease you.”
Is that necessary? Especially when David is going to be called out in the next chapter on his sin? (Spoiler alert…) Probably not. But, at the same time, David is called out as an exemplary character a lot, and I wonder if the author was aware of that fact, and didn’t want to leave any doubt in our minds. If anyone reads this passage, and thinks to themselves, “well this sounds bad but it is David afterall…” they’ll get to that last sentence and realize, no, even though David is usually very righteous, in this case he’s not!
It’s impossible to read this and not wonder about Bathsheba’s role in all of this. Unfortunately, the passage is silent on the matter. Is she a willing participant, thrilled with the idea of becoming the wife of a king? Unwilling, but compelled by a king who has total authority over her? Something in between? We’re not told. Given the day and age, I can’t imagine Bathsheba would have had full autonomy or control in this matter, but could she have resisted? If she had, would it have caused David to see that what he was doing was wrong, or would she simply have suffered at his wrath? We aren’t told, so any assumptions we make are just that: assumptions.
The focus of the passage is clearly on David’s sins, but I can’t help but wonder how Bathsheba felt in all of this.