Opening The Old Testament
The Corruption of Power: Reflections on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Lectionary Reflections on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Sunday, August 5, 2012
This week David gets what he has coming to him from a most unlikely source. First, a quick summary of where we are in the story may be useful. David has slept with another man's wife and she has gotten pregnant. He has called the cuckolded husband back from the battlefield, where he is fighting on behalf of the king himself. David urges him to go to his house and sleep with the pregnant wife to make it look as though the baby is not David's after all. But the husband, Uriah, refuses to go sleep with his wife, Bathsheba. He claims that enjoying such pleasure and comfort, while his men are living and dying in the fields of war, would be a great evil—both against God and also against his king.
Finally, David is forced to arrange a murder plot with his general Joab that works to perfection. Uriah is killed in battle, along with several other soldiers in order to cover over the foul deed (Joab added that last wrinkle, since David's own plan to have Uriah killed would have involved only his death, a fact that might have proved very suspicious to the surviving troops). Joab then selects a messenger to tell David of what has happened, but warns the man that David can be very emotional when receiving bad news. When an Amalekite man brings David news of the death of Saul and claims to have killed the old king himself, David has the messenger killed on the spot! So Joab counsels the messenger to tell the story of the battle, and if the king's anger rises, simply state that Uriah too has been killed. Joab implies that that welcome news will quickly cool the king off.
But when the messenger comes into the presence of the fabled David, he blurts out the fact of Uriah's death before the king has any chance to express rage or sorrow of any kind. Instead, the king is completely calm, and says coldly, "Do not let the matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city and overthrow it." Oh, (and about Joab) "encourage him." (2 Sam 11:25) In other words, the adulterous and lying murderer says to his long-time general, "Nice job! It worked beautifully."
"When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she lamented for him. When the mourning days were over (one gets the impression that the rituals were kept only to the letter and not one minute longer than publically necessary), David brought her to his house, she became his wife, and bore him a son." (2 Sam 11:26-27) And then follows a most unusual phrase in this harrowing tale: "The thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of YHWH." (2 Sam 11:27b) Very seldom in the long story of Saul, Samuel, and David do we hear such a direct intrusion by the narrator. It informs us of exactly how readers should evaluate the behavior of a character. In fact, it is fair to say that the Bible quite rarely directs its readers in this way. It is usually up to us to supply such evaluative ideas. But not here.
YHWH is plainly disgusted by the Mafioso actions of the man who was presumably "God's favorite." The prophet Nathan is sent to announce God's reactions to David, who is now luxuriating in the presence of his new wife and bouncing son. He's feeling that he has gotten away with shattering fully four of the Ten Commandments, but just who is this Nathan? His name comes from the verb "to give" or "to place." YHWH has given and placed him in front of David to call the king to account. All of us should remember that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible do not show up until kings take hold in the land. In the Bible, kings generate prophets as surely as rain generates crops. Kings have this unerring propensity to go bad. Their power all too often is used for evil rather than for the good of the people or of God. Nathan is thus God's mouth. He is in fact the living example of the meaning of the word "prophet." He is a "mouthpiece," the spokesperson of YHWH.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.