The very worst thing Nathan could imagine

Here is an alien story from another world.

It’s from 3,000 years ago, or what we think of as “biblical times.” That’s the right word in this case, since this story is from the Bible. It’s the story of the prophet Nathan coming to condemn King David for his sin.

Before he can convince David to repent, Nathan has to convince him that he’s done something wrong, so first he tells the king a story. It’s a story about the very worst thing — the most despicably evil thing — that Nathan can imagine.

The story is about a rich man who steals from a poor man. In this story, the man who already has More Than Enough takes from another man who has Just Enough and leaves him with Less Than Enough.

Nathan doesn’t explain that this is the worst and most despicable thing he can imagine. He doesn’t need to explain that. Everyone already knew that. He knew it. David knew it. This was, for them and everyone they knew, the very definition of awfulness.

“The man who has done this deserves to die!” the king says.

And that’s when Nathan springs his trap. He shows the king that his own sin was to have done the same thing. Then, and only then, David collapses in sorrow and repents.

I called this an alien story from another world because it illustrates just how vastly different our view of the world and of God has become from the view that Nathan and David shared. David was guilty of adultery and murder. He knew himself to be guilty of those things. And Nathan didn’t walk in and point his finger at the king and say, “You are an adulterer and a murderer!” Instead, Nathan told a story to help David understand that he was guilty of something even worse. He told a story to help the king understand that he had become a rich man who had stolen from a poor man.

And once the prophet put it that way, David repented in sorrow.

Three thousand years later, when a rich man steals from a poor man he is as likely to be celebrated for it as to be condemned. The sin portrayed in Nathan’s story — the evil act that was the worst thing either he or David could imagine — is sometimes grudgingly conceded to be unethical, but it’s hardly seen as in the same league as adultery and murder. Accuse someone of adultery or murder and they’ll vigorously deny they’re guilty of such monstrous deeds. Accuse someone of being a rich man stealing from the poor and they’ll dismiss the accusation by explaining that their actions are justified and reasonable and perfectly responsible.

I suppose that if the old prophet Nathan were to return today he would have to take the opposite strategy from the one he took with David. If he confronted the predatory gamblers who reign as kings in our world he couldn’t tell them the same story he told King David. He’d instead have to tell them a story about adultery and murder — some story that they would recognize as being about something indefensibly wicked, until they shouted “This murderous adulterer deserves to die!”

And then, again, Nathan could spring his trap, revealing to them how their habit of stealing from the poor makes them just as evil as the murderous adulterer in his story. Perhaps then they would break down in sorrow and repent.

Or perhaps not. After all, that really is an alien story from another world.

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  • P J Evans

     I guess they got tired of people knowing who they are. Change the name, and maybe they can fool some more into thinking they’re not mercenaries.

  • Kinda like “See! We’re not SOA anymore! We’re WHINSEC! Totally not related to that organization that helped set up death and torture squads in South America in the 1970s!”

    Or, more mundanely, “I’m selling a Dreamcast and I’m selling 50 backup^ games”

    Who on God’s green Earth do they think they’re really fooling?

    Lying in such a way as to make the lie transparent to anyone who stops to think for two seconds, but which allows one to preserve the smidgen of a fiction that something is not what it plainly is – I always find it really sticks in my craw because it’s an abuse of some basic social rules governing the use of polite white lies to avoid awkward situations.

    ^ this was a favorite of people too cheap to buy the games, so they pirated them instead. In order to avoid the obvious problem of people refusing to buy stuff someone else got for free, someone came up with the paper-thin idea of calling them “backup” games.

    As if anyone is really fooled by the notion, anyway.

  • It’s possible that what that poster was talking about was the idea that politicians might steal from the public trust (by using their political authority to divert taxpayer money into their own pockets).

    Either that, or it’s one of those “taxation = theft = slavery” things, which honestly I don’t even time for any more.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I am fascinated, I must admit, with the hypothetical image of a Federal
    Government “of the People, for the People, and by the People” stealing
    from the American People — i.e., itself.  Picking its own pocket, as it

    To the Real True Libertarian, the Government _isn’t_ “people” – it’s a Borg-like phalanx of Stalinist Death Robots, who feel no compassion and who can only derive pleasure from oppressing The Real Producers (ie, Libertarians).

  • You think murder and adultery is universally condemned by the chickenhawk Party of the Christian Right that has backed the philandering Rudy, McCain, and Gingrich over Obama?

    They’re immoral. I had a Christian tell me this morning that if we’re going to call out Gingrich for lying about the poor and minorities, we should get to know his heart first. When I put out a biblically-based response, he pulled out the cannard that we should really be angry with Barney Frank and Barack Obama cuz,z apparently, they’re openly gay and love them Muslims (together?).

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    You think murder and adultery is universally condemned by the
    chickenhawk Party of the Christian Right that has backed the
    philandering Rudy, McCain, and Gingrich over Obama?

    IOKIYAR:  “It’s O.K. If You’re A Republican.”

    For ‘fun’, ask them if this means they never get to complain about Bill Clinton’s sex life from now on.  Pots and kettles, after all….

  • Agent Smiths. Jack-boot thugs. Etc. Etc

  • The latter. Not worth the wait.

  • tbqh i don’t respond to anyone who thinks Harry Potter is garbage because they clearly have no soul

  • It’s possible that what that poster was talking about was the idea that politicians might steal from the public trust (by using their political authority to divert taxpayer money into their own pockets).

    And that is a very salient point, one which I think deserves scrutiny and one that can be legitimately leveled at government spending programs.  Indeed, the common refrain I hear from those opposed to government taxation is (when they are pressed for details) that they are not so much opposed to the actual value of the taxation being taken, but what those taxes revenues are being spent on. 

    Unfortunately, this has a nasty habit of being drawn along partisan lines, with the opposition ramping up when a Democrat is in office and winding down when a Republican is in office.  I can certainly identify with the ideal though.  For example, I felt that the Iraq Regime Removal and Renovation Project had a useful outcome, but was bought at far too great an expense in taxpayer resources, leaving us in a position where meeting our other expense needs is very difficult. 

    Err, sorry, I was getting a bit off track. 

    But the buying of political favors is one of those big things that this factors into.  When a canidate can give preferential treatment to certain interests who will set them up with sweet retirement packages in the future and campaign money in the present that allows them to get a nice big chunk of government funding over something else which might be better qualified to use it to the benefit of the people, well, that is what undermine’s our system today. 

    We really need some non-partisan governmental agency to police this kind of thing. 

  • One thing that is a valid complaint is that people who grouse about the taxes they pay are upset that so much of it seems to be poured into things that yield no visible benefit for them, such as military spending.

    Oftentimes misplaced government priorities usually go hand in hand with “capture” by moneyed special interests, but it’s unfortunate that few people who complain about taxes also make this connection and vote for people who will work against regulatory capture.

  • muteKi

    After living in West Virginia for about 5 or so years, I’ve gained a new appreciation for pork-barrel spending. To say that state is in need of heavy investment is putting it mildly — for the most part, anyway. We lived in a pretty well-to-do area.

  • I’m interested to know who’s the rich man stealing from the poor man. I’ll make the reasonable guess of the Federal Government and the American People, respectively.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    One thing that is a valid complaint is that people who grouse about the taxes they pay are upset that so much of it seems to be poured into things that yield no visible benefit for them, such as military spending

    Not just “no visible benefit for them”. Actual catastrophic harm to others.

  • Anonymous

    This is the reason why they said of Robert Byrd that if it wasn’t nailed down, he’d earmark it for West Virginia, and if it was nailed down, he’d pry it up and earmark it for West Virginia. Also, he’d keep the nails, and earmark those for West Virginia too.

    It was dedicated pork belly wrangling, but his state needed it, and by God, he was going to deliver.

  • To quote the inimitable Shaenon Garrity on a past Slacktivist troll: “FF has made it clear in previous threads that he imagines The Government as some kind of Galactus-like alien entity stationed on Earth. It is singular and eternal and wears a totally boss Jack Kirby helmet.”

  • I instantly LOLed XD Thanks for the link and quote :D

  • vsm

    Besides, it’s not as if women’s POV was impossible to record down during the period. David’s own great-grandmother has her own book in the Bible and it’s all about the problems faced by women in a patriarchal society.

  • Anonymous

    Replace “federal government” with “multinational corporations” and you’ll have it exactly right.

  • fraser

    After Mark Foley’s fondness for writing flirty letters to his pages became public, James Dobson announced that this was all a scam, Foley hadn’t done anything, and so was totally unlike that horrible Clinton sex scandal.
    Likewise pundits Kathleen Parker and John Leo both announced some years back after the latest Repub sex scandal that it was time to stop driving people from public life for minor peccadillos … except Clinton! It was totally justified when they hounded Clinton out!

  • fraser

    Living in an ultra-conservative military retiree town much of my life, I’ve never heard anyone suggest military spending wasn’t yielding a visible benefit. It’s pretty much everything else: Welfare, planned parenthood, any federal agency that regulates anything … but cutting military spending was an invitation to beggar the local community and let the Russkies/Islamofascists kill us all.

  • Anonymous

    I am just bewildered by the Biblical “heroes” ~ Noah, Lot, David etc. ~ whose behaviour doesn’t bear any kind of examination. Actually, presenting them to us as flawed heroes wouldn’t be so bad but of course Fundies don’t go in for subtlety …

  • I guess they [Blackwater] got tired of people knowing who they are. Change the name, and maybe they can fool some more into thinking they’re not mercenaries.
    Thing is, they’re not trying to hide what they are – according to their press release in re: this name change, Academi is a reference to Plato’s Academy of well educated warriors. 

  • friendly reader

    That’s how they were presented to me growing up, but as Lutherans we embrace the concept that everyone is simultaneously 100% saint and 100% sinner; flawed heroes are a thing we like.

  • Cathy W

    Nonsense. Newt did The Right Thing: he divorced the wife (because that marriage was irrevocably over the instant he cheated, amirite?) and married the mistress (thus ending the sinful nature of that relationship). So he’s all good there. Bill and Hilary stayed together, thus offering irrevocable proof that their marriage was a sham from the get-go, for the purpose of advancing both their political careers.

  •  Nathan could spring his trap, revealing to them how their habit of stealing from the poor makes them just as evil as the murderous adulterer in his story. Perhaps then they would break down in sorrow and repent.

    No, that wouldn’t make them break down. Why would it? They would just look at him in annoyance and then explain that stealing from the poor was just good business (and that paying practically NOTHING in taxes definitely wasn’t theft, it was good economics); adultery was quite an old-fashioned concept, not even worth considering; and that enabling the death and/or misery of foreigners, or old, sick and weak countrymen of theirs certainly wasn’t murder.

    And then they would buzz for security and have Nathan thrown out on his prophetic ass.  They wouldn’t feel guilty. The most that they’d worry about is bad publicity.

  • Anonymous

    I came upon this passage this morning in the subway, reading Borges. (Although, as usual, he was more interested in “You are that man” than the moral of the tale.)

  • Ursula L

    In understanding Biblical heroes, it is worth distinguishing between Legendary Heroes, those from pre-literate times, where the Bible records earlier oral histories and legends, as opposed to historical characters where what we get is the Official History, told from a specific political point of view.  

    Noah, Abraham and Lot are Legendary Heroes, larger than life, whose stories are in many ways symbolic origin stories.  You see things like impossibly long lives, physical interactions with gods, etc.

    David and Solomon are historical figures, and their stories are told from the specific point of view of their court historians and the court historians of their heirs.  You see that after the Judea/Israel split, the stories continue to be told from the political point of view of Judea.  There are more specifics in these stories, and fewer supernatural events.  

    The stories aren’t reliable historical narrative of the type that you’d get from scholars in a good university today.  But they’re unreliable in specific ways, and you can see the same patterns in the myths and histories of other cultures, where you have both written records of older oral histories and legends and official governmental histories/propaganda.  

    The stories of Noah, Abraham and Lot are similar to the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey, legends that grew out of historical events into spectacular myths of gods and heroes.  The stories of David and Solomon are more like Plato’s stories about Socrates, written by people who were there but who had a very well-defined agenda.  

  • Anonymous

    You may be surprised to learn that the traditional Jewish interpretation, based on the Talmud, is entirely different.  According to this theory, King David was guilty of a sin, but it was neither adultury nor murder.

  • There’s really only one part of the story that feels alien to me anymore: that a man of power would repent out of sorrow.

    Maybe it’s that we live in a litigeous society, where admissions of guilt carry a heaveir burden than ever before.* Maybe it’s that since Dickensian England or before, the poor have been branded as “surplus population” and de-humanized. Maybe it’s that in our modern world, most rulers ascend to power through vast wealth** or military force, a process that tends to select against those of compassion or mercy.

    Whatever the cause, it does feel alien to me that a ruler might both feel sorrow and repent in a way that would diminish his standing as a result of his sorrow.

    *there is an entire professional class whose livelihood depends on maximizing the amount of money extracted from those found guilty; sadly, their livelihood also depends on keeping as much of that money as possible versus giving it to those who were wronged.

    **The U.S. Senate is a millionare’s club… but not because of the Senate. Most of it’s members were millionares before they were elected.

  • FangsFirst

    Okay, woah, I want this thing to take money if it has a friggin’ boss Jack Kirby helmet. That is just too rad for words.

    PS: that gave me a moment of “But I didn’t say that!!” before I realized that, date-wise, that didn’t apply to me.
    And “FF” hasn’t been the way I’m abbreviated in a long time.

    Still, for a moment, I thought I’d somehow managed to completely goof up somewhere and imply that I agreed with that loony sentiment…

  • Oh come on, how many people are actually going to put that together?

  • cyllan

    Anursa, that is a fascinating link.  The story as related there is completely and totally different from the one that I learned, despite (I believe) having the exact same words. 

    Is this the commonly taught version of events in Jewish tradition? Are there other points of view?  I know that I learned several variations-on-a-theme in regards to the David and Bathsheba story; I’m curious to know if this reflects how it is taught in your faith.

  • Kish

    FreedomFighter, he called himself.

    Other people called him a variety of things with those initials, as you might imagine. “Financial Finagler,” for example.

  • Hawker40

    Personally, I liked to point out that firefighters fought fires, and crimefighters fought crime…

  • Sure they do: “the flawed heroes of the Old Testament are imperfect foreshadowings of the one and only flawless hero, Jesus Christ.”

  • Lori

      then since the irresponsible fiscal behavior of our rulers hurts the children of the foreclosed-upon and the debt-enslaved, he could spring his trap and say – Wait a minute.

    This is worth discussing if we focus on ways in which it’s true in some meaningful way. For example, if we were talking about polices that allow our infrastructure to fall apart through neglect and our human capital to be destroyed by poor education.

    If instead it is, as I suspect, a Fox News talking point about the ZOMG! the defecit then it’s not really worth wasting any energy on.

  • rizzo

    “Perhaps then they would break down in sorrow and repent.”
    Not bloody likely.  People make arguments that Jesus said it was admirable to be obscenely rich, the only evil thing is to love the money that you’ve horded.  Anyone who can twist the obvious statements Jesus makes on the subject into that definition can rationalize away any ‘wrongdoing’, even adultry and murder, quite easily. 

  • Ursula L

    Frankly, even if Uriah and Bathsheba went through a divorce on paper to protect Bathsheba from difficulties should Uriah be killed at war, it doesn’t do a thing to exonerate David.

    After all, if Uriah and Bathsheba remained committed to each other and fully intended to remarry if he survived the war, then the divorce was a technicality, in a marriage that continued emotionally and in terms of the commitment they had to each other.

    And even if David confirmed the technical divorce before sending for Bathsheba, it doesn’t erase the massive power inequality between a temporarily-divorced wife whose husband was away and a king with the full power of the state behind him.  There is no evidence that David gave Bathsheba the option of saying “no” to him, or that she would even have had reason to consider “no” an option, as a young woman alone facing a king with all the might of  the state and his soldiers and servants to back him up.   

    Likewise, David insisting that Bathsheba bathe in a mikvah before he had sex with her – it doesn’t show that he had any respect for her consent, only that he was selfishly concerned with his own ritual purity.  He had a harem full of wives and concubines.  Waiting a few days if necessary before having sex with a ritually-cleansed Bathsheba was no hardship for him.

    These rationalizations don’t excuse David.  They only make the people offering the rationalizations look like assholes who don’t understand the basic concepts of consent and free will. 

  • Jenny Islander

    Same here.  Now I attend an Anglican church.  We also spend a lot of time talking about how the Bible is an excellent chronicle of the many and various ways in which human beings can screw up.

  • I asked my dad, a conservative rabbi, and here’s what he said:

    Everyone wants to defend King David’s reputation, including the rabbis in the Talmud. So they imagine that Uriah, Batsheva’s husband, left her a divorce before he went off to war. While there might have been some people who did this later on, so as to avoid the possibility of their wives becoming agunot (chained and unable to remarry if their husbands were MIA), that was a thousand years after King David. There is no rational basis in the text for the idea that Batsheva was unmarried. Of course, kings could get away with a lot, and part of the beauty of the story is the notion that OUR kings were supposed to be different.
    I think the greatness of King David is not that he was sinless, but that he could be a sinner and repent, could still be a spiritually great soul and maybe even author some of the Psalms.

    It’s weird how much Talmud-era rabbis can resemble modern fandom.

  • Anonymous

    Um, no? I thought the “foreclosed-upon” clause made it clear that I was talking about actual human people in serious trouble because of personal debt right now.

  • I’m afraid today’s kings would laugh Nathan out of the court. Isn’t there this hideous group called The Family that tells its devout politicians that they are like King David and if they sin, well, God will disregard just as he did with King David because they’re righteous warriors or somesuch?

    Yep, found the article. Here’s a key passage:

    King David,” David Coe said. “That’s a good one. David. Hey. What would you say made King David a good guy?” He was giggling, not from nervousness but from barely containable delight.“Faith?” Beau said. “His faith was so strong?”“Yeah.” David nodded as if he hadn’t heard that before. “Hey, you know what’s interesting about King David?” From the blank stares of the others I could see that they did not. Many didn’t even carry a Hebrew Bible, preferring a slim volume of just the New Testament Gospels and Epistles and, from the Old, Psalms. Others had the whole book, but the gold gilt on the pages of the first two thirds remained undisturbed. “King David,” David Coe went on, “liked to do really, really bad things.” He chuckled. “Here’s this guy who slept with another man’s wife—Bathsheba, right?—and then basically murders her husband. And this guy is one of our heroes.” David shook his head. “I mean, Jiminy Christmas, God likes this guy! What,” he said, “isthat all about?”The answer, we discovered, was that King David had been “chosen.” To illustrate this point David Coe turned to Beau. “Beau, let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. And now here you are at Ivanwald. What would I think of you, Beau?”Beau shrank into the cushions. “Probably that I’m pretty bad?”“No, Beau. I wouldn’t. Because I’m not here to judge you. That’s not my job. I’m here for only one thing.””Jesus.”

  • Ursula L

    For the record, I consider it to be a much more productive use of money to give it as welfare so that people can stay home, rather than to give it to them to carry a gun and go kill people.  

    And this is particularly true for US military spending.  There is no plausible good reason for the US to have a military the size it does.  And it is actively dangerous to the world, and to the US, for the US to have a military so powerful that nothing can stop it.  

    If a nation engages in conspires to engage in aggressive war or engages in aggressive war, a crime against humanity, it needs to be stopped.  And right now, there is, demonstrably, no way for the US to be stopped when it engages in aggressive war.  Some wars need to be lost, and it is monstrous that the US can’t loose when it ought to.