Interpreting the Bible Ethically: The Case of King David

What David did (in particular the infamous story about him and Bathsheba), many of our national leaders have done, and what happened to David has happened to lots of politicians. It would be quite plausible to suggest that the stories about David were at least partially composed with this audience of rulers and government officials in mind. But what were they expected to learn from these stories? I am going to make some seemingly plausible, and at the same time seemeingly ridiculous, suggestions. Then we can discuss what, if anything, is wrong with them.

Lesson 1: Politicians are indispensible in a way religious leaders are not, and the moral failings of politicians are thus more readily forgivable in the eyes of both God and society. Hence Uzzah touches the ark when seeking to do something good, and pays for his life (2 Samuel 6), while David commits adultery and commits an illicit census, and other people are punished instead of him.

Lesson 2: Your public actions should be magnanimous. Make a public show of forgiving Shimei and Joab – you or your son can pay them back later (1 Kings 2:5-6,8-9). In other words, choose your moments. Once your fame and positive reputation is certain to be preserved for posterity, you can literally get away with murder. It helps, of course, if you let others do your dirty work for you. You can even punish them for doing things that were beneficial to your position, and thus give the impression that you yourself are innocent (see e.g. 2 Samuel 4).

Lesson 3: A public show of repentance, especially when coupled with a personal tragedy, can redeem you in the eyes of the nation (2 Samuel 12:13-19).

Lesson 4: Historians in the long term will focus on your accomplishments rather than your failings. They will leave at your misdeeds with women, and will blame your other failings on Satan rather than you (1 Chronicles 21:1).

Lesson 5: If you are remembered to have done the right things religiously, your other failings can be overlooked. David brought the ark to Jerusalem and made preparations for the building of the Temple. Isn’t the message of the Deuteronomic History (which runs from Joshua through to the end of 2 Kings) that kings are judged by whether they centralized worship and eliminated idolatry, and not by other moral failings or atrocities they may have committed?

One doesn’t have to be a Biblical scholar to feel that the “lessons” listed above are not the message that readers of these stories are supposed to take away with them. But why do we respond this way? It has little to do with anything explicit in the text, and in some cases it would seem reasonably plausible to read the text in the ways I have suggested.

What seems wrong is simply that we have certain moral sensibilities that we bring to the text. Of course, those who continue in our time to overlook the overindulgences and failings of the rich and famous may not react negatively to the interpretations I’ve suggested. But I suspect that many who are happy to overlook celebrities’ shortcomings might still find objectionable the idea that the Bible teaches them that they can expect to get away with such things.

A comparison may be made to the debates over slavery that led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention by the slave-owners who felt their right to keep their slaves was protected in the Bible. The exegetical arguments on their side were not insubstantial, and were not in any obvious way wrong in terms of specific texts interpreted in their immediate literary and historical context.

What the abolitionists had in their favor was the fact that, whatever Paul or others writing in his name may have said specifically about slavery, there were fundamental principles in the Bible that undermined it. If one takes seriously the Golden Rule, to do to others what you want them to do to you, then you cannot possibly enslave someone or keep them enslaved.

The keys to interpreting the Bible ethically are:

1) to look to general principles rather than specific passages,

2) to be suspicious of our motives when we come to the Bible seeking proof texts to justify what we want to be the case, and

3) to not, on the other hand, ignore the moral sensibilities we bring to the text.

This last point is important. Although many modern prophets of apocalyptic doom continue to maintain that society is on a continuous downward spiral, that things are getting worse and worse and always have been, the truth is that in many areas if not all, the moral standards that we hold ourselves to nowadays are often higher than, or at least as high as, they ever were before. Certainly for those who read the Bible to regard human history as one of perpetual decline is fundamentally ironic, and shows the selectivity of many modern interpreters. Tim LaHaye can say that the end is near, since he seems to read only the Book of Revelation, and does that in a very dubious manner. But the prophet Amos (who is, I hope you agree, more likely to be a true prophet than Tim) would probably be delighted by the progress we’ve made in some areas like human rights and social justice. This is not to say that we do not still have a long way to go. And, ironically, it seems to be those who most praise the importance of the Bible who often seem most out of touch with its key principles and emphases.

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  • I hope I am not setting you up for a fall of Davidic proportions, but your blog is the best thing I read on the web. Now, I am still chewing over the Radical Middle stuff and cannot get past the neo-noir of BattleStar Galactica (we seem to be awash in Blade Runner wannabes even though I liked Deep Space 9.)Your observation that we are actually morally superior to many of our predecessors is spot on. At least in the West, we don’t keep concubines, we don’t keep slaves and we don’t sacrifice our daughters. Human trafficking seems to be making a comeback but we view it, by and large, as abhorrent. A vocal segment of the religious community seems terrified that the world is slipping into secularism and perhaps they should be afraid. However, the ripple effects of the Enlightenment and the Social Gospel are by no means as nefarious as they would have us believe. We have become more moral. Against the onslaught of doom sayers, I guess we secularists (speaking for myself) need reminding that the world we are accused of creating is not so bad after all.

  • Paul Niles

    I also agree that this is one of the biggest misconceptions out there. Most christians would strongly assert that our world is getting worse, but it seems pretty clear that the opposite is happening. I think the bible/church sets you up for this belief with its view of the future — things will get worse until the end.Sometimes this viewpoint scares the heck out of me — If you truly think the world needs to get worse what is your incentive for helping out with the world and truly making improvements? Anybody from a more religious background have insight into this issue?

  • Good post. I recently heard Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza speak about what she described as a “dance of all the different kinds of hermeneutics” we must do in order to ethically interpret specific passages. If a particular scripture promotes violence or subjugation or promotes what she calls “the rhetoric of empire”, it is to be honestly called into question as inspired or as inerrant. If it doesn’t “sound like” god, it probably isn’t. This seems in line with what you are saying here. Also, it’s always fascinated me how some of the biggest “heroes” in the scriptures are lauded and celebrated despite their moral flaws.