What Goes 'Round . . . or Does It? Reflections on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15

Lectionary Reflections
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
June 16, 2013

In last week's reflection on the story of Elijah and the widow, I tried to show that the apparently easy connection in the story between sin and punishment is not nearly as easy as it looks. The son of the widow did not die because she had committed some sin, although she imagined that to be so. And neither did the story enshrine for all time the miraculous power of God to raise dead children to life, thus proving the wonderful capability of God's prophets to do such deeds, and thereby reaffirming that God finally rewards the faithful.

Still, the theme of sin and divine retribution for it is a continual thorn in the flesh of modern-day believers as we read the stories of the Bible. Today's text presents one of the most famous of these accounts from the Hebrew Bible, as the murderous David receives his come-uppance from the mysterious prophet Nathan, YHWH's emissary of punishment. Again I will try to demonstrate that even such an apparently obvious tale of sin and retribution is not so obvious when seen in the light of the story's broader literary context.

The account seems clear enough. David has fallen madly in lust with the comely Bathsheba, the wife of one of his mercenary generals, Uriah. As often happens in these sorts of sordid things, Bathsheba becomes pregnant. David, rather than 'fessing up to his randy behavior, instead tries to cover it all up, first by inviting Uriah to sleep with his wife, but after that ruse fails due to Uriah's deep devotion to his warring soldiers, has him vicariously murdered by the Ammonites with the amoral help of the commander-in-chief of the Israelite army, Joab. We are then told,

When the wife of Uriah (note how the storyteller names her "wife," rather than "Bathsheba," to reinforce the evil of the affair) heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him (2 Sam. 11:26).

One can imagine that the lamentation was only as long as custom and public appearances demanded!

When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife (a secret ceremony with few or no witnesses?), and bore him a son (on the QT, as much as such things are possible)(2 Sam. 11:27).

Surely, that should end the matter; first husband dead and buried, second husband safely secured, child born—all is well!

Not so fast. Suddenly into the throne room marches Nathan who comes from we know not where, but is obviously privy to the most dangerous high-level secrets and has free run of the king's most secret and supposedly secure palace locations. Nathan tells the king a story, things the king evidently enjoys. One can picture David, lounging comfortably on his throne, convinced that his cleverness has secured for him a new queen and an heir to the kingship. In short, this ancient Mafioso thinks he has done the deed and has gotten off Scot-free.

But Nathan's story speaks a different truth. The rich man of the parable, blessed with vast flocks and herds, has stolen the poor man's one beloved lamb, and has fed it to one of his cronies. David reacts in rage, demanding the death of the rich man and a four-fold restitution for the aggrieved poor man. David here acts as Israelite kings are expected to act, according to the coronation Psalm 72, where we are told that the king's primary role is the defender of justice. But the joke is on the king himself, as Nathan thunders his famous line, "You are the man!" He does not mean the poor man; David is the lamb thief, having stolen Uriah's wife and murdered her husband. Nathan knows all and withholds nothing. David is hoisted by his own petard; God has sent punishment to the sinner!

Nathan proceeds to enumerate what will happen to this appalling sinner. The litany comes all too true, as one after another David's children rape and murder and finally depose him from his throne; the remainder of the terrible 2 Samuel spells out these tragedies in unforgettable detail. In the light of Nathan's monstrous indictment and prediction, "David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against YHWH" (2 Sam. 12:13). Nathan immediately responds, "Now (today) YHWH has put away your sin; you will not die" (2 Sam. 12:13). Forgiveness for this sinner is instantaneous. Of course, the deeds of evil as perpetrated by David, are not fully forgotten. The innocent child of the adultery will die, Nathan decrees, and so he does.

Notwithstanding the troubling way that the sin is paid for, with the death of a tiny infant, the nexus between sin and punishment seems clear enough. David sins, repents his sin, is allowed to live, and his child dies. And of course soon after all this Bathsheba births the future king of Israel, Solomon. It all is tied up with a fine bow.

Or is it? There is an earlier story in this same cycle of stories that calls this neatness into the most serious question. The first king of Israel, Saul, is indicted by another prophet of YHWH, Samuel, as a blasphemer against YHWH. His crime? Two technicalities of sacrifice, one in which he is commanded most ambiguously by the prophet "to wait seven days, until he comes" (well, which is it?) to offer the sacrifice before battle (1 Sam. 13), the other where is commanded to obliterate all the enemy, which Saul readily agrees to do, but decides to complete the annihilation at the sacred shrine of Gilgal rather than kill all in battle. But Samuel insists that complete destruction on the battlefield was God's command, though a rereading of the command does not show that at all (1 Sam. 15:3). The question here is not whether Saul has disobeyed YHWH, but rather who has the right to interpret YHWH's commands. Ambiguity drips in these stories, yet when Saul announces, "I have sinned," and requests that Samuel honor him by accompanying him to the sacrifice, Samuel not only refuses to forgive the king, he instead publically humiliates him and deposes him from his kingship. Saul admits sin, though whether he has sinned is deeply in dispute. He is not forgiven.