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.

  • Anonymous

    I think they’d get their foot soldiers in to defend them with the throwback, “But not a *gay* adulterer or a murderer amirite?”

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Except these “kings” when presented with an accusation of their own immorality, flash some hot-button issue at the “Nathans” and says, “Hey look!  Something that makes you angry!  It is some one else’s fault!  You should be angry at them instead!”  

    And when the “Nathans” go off to vent their frustration at the “kings” immorality elsewhere, the “kings” chuckle, “There’s one born every minute…”  

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    “All it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to say ‘It’s just business.’”

    - snorky

  • Anonymous

    Interesting Bible story.

    I suppose the prophet Nathan could tell a story about a wicked ruler who killed the child of one who wronged him, which in our society is universally condemned, and 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.

    Sorry, I’m in a cantakerous mood. But, like the Egyptian military in the last post, some of what can be seen as great goodness also has a rotten underbelly.

  • muteKi

    I saw the URL and expected that to be about, say, the working conditions at FOXCONN or something similar. On the one hand this doesn’t seem anywhere near as severe, but then I have issues with most of Apple’s products these days anyway.

  • Mau de Katt

    America has embraced the Rules of Acquisition as its new Constitution and Holy Book combined.

    All Hail the United States of Ferenginar!

  • Anonymous

    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.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    Well, adultery we already know they’re OK with as long as the guy who does it is white.  (But Newt has signed a pledge not to commit adultery now, so it’s OK!  All his previous pledges not to commit adultery apparently didn’t count.)

    Murder, anyone?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Um. Actually, this is one time when actual biblical literalism is called for. In this metaphor, the rich man stealing from the poor man is literally *a rich man*. The poor man being robbed by a rich man is literally *a poor man*

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    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 shout “class warfare”.

  • Anonymous

    Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.

  • Ursula L

    And yet, if you read the story literally, then Bathsheba is reduced to property, stolen from her husband.  So I wouldn’t want to go too far with the literalism.  What was it like, for her, to be taken from her home while her husband was away, to be left with the king, someone whom she had no power to refuse, and to see her husband killed?  

  • Anonymous

    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.

    No, no, that would be an anti-tax argument and we all know you have better sense than to make an anti-tax argument, taxes being the price of civilization and all. What I can’t make sense of is how the people can possibly be stealing from the government. Unless by ‘the people’ you mean ‘the 1%, especially executives of bailed-out banks and of government contractors such as Halliburton and Blackwater Xe’, in which case all is clear.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Nope. The war isn’t over until I surrender.

  • Xeno

    From my own faith (Mormon) a similar warning from one of our prophets:

    “There are Elders in
    this Church who would take the widow’s last cow, for five dollars, and
    then kneel down and thank God for the fine bargain they had made.” -Brigham Young

    When did capitalism stop being an economic system we live in because it is less dangerous then others? When did it become a virtue instead of an imperfect system?

  • pharoute

    Back then Bathsheba WAS property; the woman’s POV wasn’t erased, it never existed.

    /not agreeing with it…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I think Max Weber says that Calvin had a lot to do with it.

  • Anonymous

    Women weren’t considered property to Mosaic Law. Don’t be silly.

  • Hth

    Well, this may come across as quibbling over terminology, but I think it’s important to say that Bathsheba’s POV was never committed to writing, not that it never existed.  Even when women are considered items of property under the law, they do still *have* thoughts and feelings about things, which was Ursula’s point.

  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    “When did capitalism stop being an economic system we live in because it is less dangerous then others? When did it become a virtue instead of an imperfect system?”

    Probably around the time that overt racism became taboo.  An idealized, sanctified version of “The Free Market’ is one replacement for those who, for whatever reason, desperately need to believe that there is a natural inequality among people.   

    There’s also a Quixotic vanity at work here, a thrill from imagining that no question of taxation or fiscal policy ever exists on its own terms towards its own pragmatic ends but is always an Epic choice between absolute loyalty or absolute enmity towards “The Free Market” . 

  • Anonymous

    Well then who’s the rich and poor person? The next time I see someone mugging someone else, whatever their economic levels might be, I’ll be sure to try and stop or report them.

  • Dave W.

    Let’s not forget that David didn’t kill Uriah to get Bathsheba.  That part of the story starts when Bathsheba sends word to David that she has become pregnant.  David brings Uriah home on leave and twice tries to manipulate him into having sex with his own wife so that Uriah will believe that the child is his.  It’s only after Uriah stubbornly insists on maintaining temporary celibacy that David escalates to more drastic measures and has Uriah sent on a suicide mission.  It seems to me that David here was primarily trying to protect Bathsheba and their unborn child from the likely consequences if Uriah discovered the adultery.

    And I wouldn’t be too sure that Bathsheba’s POV is erased here, although the story is filtered through a male narrator, who may well have been the prophet Nathan himself.   We know that Nathan was Bathsheba’s confidant and supporter in the later palace intrigue over the succession.  He clearly heard about the affair from someone in order to confront David with it, and he didn’t hear about it from David himself.  Was he just confronting David with common palace gossip, or had he heard some of the intimate details from Bathsheba herself?

  • Alicia

    It seems to me that David here was primarily trying to protect Bathsheba
    and their unborn child from the likely consequences if Uriah discovered
    the adultery.

    That’s really sweet of him.

    Too bad he didn’t think about that beforehand, you know? It’s always nice when people who do bad things come up with all these elaborate self-serving rationalizations for their cover-ups. If he really cared about her reputation, he would have left her alone. If he really cared about her reputation, he would have used protection — they did have that back then. If he cared about her wellbeing, he wouldn’t have impregnated her and then murdered her husband. 

    Well then who’s the rich and poor person? The next time I see
    someone mugging someone else, whatever their economic levels might be,
    I’ll be sure to try and stop or report them.

    Well, for example, the ‘rich’ person(s) might be who illegally foreclosed the homes of thousands of Americans ‘poor’ persons, if you will. This scandal involved kicking thousands of people out on the street who had zero problems with their mortgages, all because the ‘rich’ person couldn’t be bothered to read the documents that s/he was supposed to be signing, documents that referred to fictitious banks, fictitious mortgages, inapplicable late fees charged to people who, you know, weren’t actually late on their payments, and all kinds of shenanigans.

    Maybe you think that it doesn’t count as stealing as long as it doesn’t involve a knife-wielding mugger in an alleyway, but fortunately for the free market and fortunately for honest homeowners and honest lenders everywhere, the law is a little more nuanced than that.

  • Kish

    So, in your world, if it’s not mugging it can’t be theft.

    You know who the rich and poor men are. You’re not as stupid as you’re trying to score points by pretending to be, or rather you’re extremely stupid but not in the way you’re trying to score points by pretending to be.

  • Anonymous

    @Mr. Heartland,  you are helping continue the making Capitalism & Free Market synonymous with each other, they are not.  A Free, or Open, Market allows free movement, or competition, in the market allowing the price to move up or down.  This is an anathema to Capitalism which want to maximize the return on investment.  The easiest, quickest way is to be the sole seller of a something the customers must have (an inelastic good).  

  • Ursula L

    It’s a matter of priorities, with capitalism and markets.

    Properly, money is a tool, that we use in markets, to help exchange goods and labor so that everyone in society can get what they need.

    But it gets twisted, so that money becomes the end instead of the means, and people, goods and labor become the tools for making money.  

    Markets should work where people have Useful Things, and money helps exchange for other Useful Things.

    If it turns around, so that people with money play with Useful Things to get more money, then the system is broken. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    No you won’t. Why are you even pretending?

  • Josh

    I think the commenter is being sarcastic, or perhaps does not know about the amount of mendacity involved in creating the housing bubble, for example.

  • Josh

    Well, it turned around a while ago in just that direction, as Marx pointed out.

  • hapax

    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.

    I am puzzled by the distinction between “the Federal Government” and “the American People” (unless by the former you mean the government of, say, the Federal Republic of Germany, which would make even lesssense).

    Every member of the Federal Government of the USA that I have met or heard of was*, indeed, an bonafide American Person.  Moreover, they were chosen to serve in a system that is designed to reflect, however imperfectly, the philosophy and will of those American People who care enough to exercise their rights of suffrage.

    Perhaps you have information that members of the USian government are actually foreign citizens?  (and no, “Obama is a secret Kenyan” doesn’t count).  I might be willing to consider that the current Republican caucus in the House is in fact composed of space aliens — it would explain a great deal.

    *the vast majority of them weren’t much richer than the average USian private citizen, for that matter. Civil service — nor military service — is rarely a career path that rakes in the big bucks.

  • Anonymous

    Just adding an additional point to the story: Uriah doesn’t go on the suicide mission by himself. That’s what David proposes (“in the heat of the battle, have the men pull back from Uriah”), but Joab is smart enough not to try to get his men to turn against one of their own. Instead, a large number of soldiers are sacrificed.

    Fortunately, this has no modern equivalent. I don’t know why I brought it up. [/sarcasm]

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    My definition of money is “something we pretend has value in order to make it easier to move bits of actual value around.”

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    Heck, I’m on the same side as most people here, and even I don’t really know the extent and exact nature of the fraud and whatnot that went into that. I should probably do something about that.

  • FangsFirst

    I was going to say, “The Federal Government” is, to Kyouko, some mystical separate entity, that exists outside of the people who work for IT. Then I started thinking about how utterly insane that idea is. Nevermind that a decent portion of that money the Fedgovbeast “steals” goes into programs that are (ostensibly) for the people it is “stealing” from. Or, at least, the portion people are most likely to complain about having “stolen.”

    But then that was the laziest attempt to start an argument I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t even all inflammatory, and no one who has posted here repeatedly (as Kyouko allegedly has, through a non-account) could possibly think that that sentiment would be legitimately believed as genuine.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    *the vast majority of them weren’t much richer than the average USian
    private citizen, for that matter. Civil service — nor military service
    – is rarely a career path that rakes in the big bucks.

    Former Congresscritters seem to rake in the dough, though, and quite a lot of them were pretty rich even before they got elected.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    Blackwater Xe
    Actually, they just changed their name again. They are now Academi.

  • PurpleGirl

    An example of a rich man would be Michael R. Bloomberg or George W. Bush. An example of a poor person would be me. Close to “retirement” and unemployed for three years. I’ve used my savings and the 403B money to live on since my unemployment ran out (I only had benefits for 1 year because NYS’s statewide numbers went down .2 of a percent). I’m poor because I’m out of money, not working and those rich people I named pay less in taxes to all levels of government.

  • Anonymous

    Well then who’s the rich and poor person? The next time I see someone mugging someone else, whatever their economic levels might be, I’ll be sure to try and stop or report them.

    Obvious troll is obvious.

    What I’d love to know is, what exactly do you think you’re going to accomplish? By making blithe statements, are we somehow supposed to be converted to your point-of-view? It’s not like you’re even trying.

  • Anonymous

    Folks please don’t waste your time responding to transparent trolling by a commenter whose first comment on this blog was “Harry Potter is garbage, like this blog”.

    Kyouko is not here to engage in good faith.

  • Anonymous

    As simply as I know how to put it (without linking to Fred’s earlier posts, which I’ll dig up ASAP), rich men = bankers, generally. Koch Brothers. The Man. People with more money than any one person, even any one /family/ could ever begin to know what to do with. Poor men = poor people, those whose aid programs are being cut by the Koch Lobbyists, or more directly, those who are being (often illegally) foreclosed on by the bankers, or stolen from by other means.

    (ETA: Ah, I did not realize this was a troll. Will cease to engage.)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I keep thinking of Bob Riley when I read stories like this.

  • Ursula L

    Choosing not to have sex, with your spouse, or anyone else, shouldn’t carry the death penalty.  And it doesn’t justify David’s actions, or make them positive actions towards Bathsheba.

    And would Bathsheba even want to have sex, with Uriah, or David, or anyone?  David’s actions are pretty much rape.  Bathsheba did not have the power to say “no” and have David respect it if he didn’t want to. Now David expects Bathsheba to have sex with Uriah, while concealing the trauma she’s been through thanks to David’s manipulations.  Bathsheba was in the unenviable position of having no power to resist the King’s advances, particularly with her husband away, but also being in a position where she’d be blamed for “infidelity” for not resisting those advances.  David taking advantage of that powerlessness is monstrous.  Trying to cover up his blame, by making Uriah think he was the father of Bathsheba’s child, isn’t to David’s credit.  It’s one more assault on Bathsheba, demanding that she submit her sexuality for David’s benefit. 

  • Anonymous

    Given Batsheva’s later career as a capable manipulator and power-broker, I have to give some credence to a question someone once posed in a class my mother took: “Exactly who saw whom from that rooftop?” But those may have been survival skills she picked up to manage a bad situation.

    I must say that, from my point of view, Nathan’s focus is odd. Yes, David has stolen Uriah’s wife. But he’s also caused his death, which to my mind is a tad worse than stealing from him.

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    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 were.  Isn’t it the very definition of a victimless crime when the only person harmed is oneself?

    This is a troll who would argue that ice and water are completely different substances.

  • Anonymous

    The women in David’s life are an interesting bunch. When you do see them in action, they tend to be in ACTION.

  • Anonymous

    “It seems to me that David here was primarily trying to protect Bathsheba and their unborn child from the likely consequences if Uriah discovered the adultery.”

    Of course, the child’s paternity would have been so murky, in any event, that he would have stood no chance of inheriting from David, as his younger brother ultimately does.

    And then he dies.

    Oddly conveniently for everyone, despite David’s well-observed grief.

    I don’t know who I’m accusing of what here.

  • Anonymous

    I must recommend Joseph Heller’s _God Knows_, an anachronistic satirical recounting of David’s life, by David. The confrontation with Batsheva’s husband involves the repeated invocation: “Uriah, Uriah, go home and f–k your wife!”

    When Uriah brings up the ritual reason for not going home, David yells, “You’re not even Jewish!” to which Uriah responds, “Some of my best friends are Jewish.”

  • Anonymous

    “Then Bathsheba bowed low with her face to the ground and, kneeling before the king, said, “May my lord King David live forever!””

    She says this, of course, to a dying man who’s just agreed to make her son king after him.

    I’ve always wondered if she’s just getting on with the business of becoming Queen Mum, or if she’s deliberately mocking him.

  • Josh

    It’s hard to know whom to trust to give a thorough and informed account of the whatnot. I like Matt Taibbi’s articles, because they get very specific about the banksters’ testimony to Congress and the transparent dishonesty and amorality revealed there. Inside Job, I hear, is pretty good; but I saw a liberal critic say it conflates the housing bubble with other, less criminal, causes of the crash, so I guess it should be watched with a critical eye to see if that might be so.

  • Ursula L

    I think the “later in life” is pretty key to understanding Bathsheba’s situation.   

    She was probably fairly young at the time David noticed her.  And in a culture where she had no power, but would be blamed for David’s attentions and her powerlessness to resist.  In the world of David’s harem, she’d be alone, and a target, because she was his favorite at the time.  But it was also inevitable that while she was his favorite for a time, his interest would wander away from her.  

    So she had to learn how to survive.  And how to protect her son, so that he could protect her later on.  Because her options for later in life were either to be the mother of the new king, or to be one more forgotten concubine in the old king’s aging harem.  

    How much of her reputation as a power broker was that she was actually a power broker?  And how much of it is a cover for Solomon and David, blaming her for the political manipulation that led to Solomon being David’s primary heir? By casting Bathsheba in the role of manipulator and power-broker, they tell a story that allows Solomon to be shown as virtuous, innocent, and worthy.  

    The stories of David and Solomon are full of situations where horrible things happen to benefit David and Solomon, but they’re shown as innocent dupes of those around them.  David’s alleged grief over Jonathan’s death, when it cleared the way for David to take the throne, David’s ostentatious mourning over the death of his first child with Bathsheba, the child of dubious paternity who could never be heir but who would block the inheritance of a later son, etc.  

    At the very least, these are stories with an unreliable narrator, told to make the kings look virtuous and legitimate, while ensuring others are blamed for anything bad that happens.


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