Did God Immorally “Murder” King David’s Innocent Child?

Did God Immorally “Murder” King David’s Innocent Child? May 6, 2019

God’s Providence and Permissive Will, and Hebrew Non-Literal Anthropomorphism

2 Samuel 12:9, 13-15, 18 (RSV) Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uri’ah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. . . . [13] David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. [14] Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.” [15] Then Nathan went to his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uri’ah’s wife bore to David, and it became sick. . . . [18] On the seventh day the child died.

Atheist Jon Morgan stated in one of my blog comboxesAccording to that story, David and Bathsheba conceived a child through adultery. In today’s world, abortion might have been the way out, but then it wasn’t available, and so David seemingly came to the conclusion that murdering Bathsheba’s husband Uriah and then marrying her was the only possible way to hush it up. The baby was then carried to full term, and slightly after full term the child was killed. Is that the shocking work of a “bloodthirsty childkilling advocate”? Actually, it was your God.

It seems like you are applying one set of rules to God and a completely different set of rules to humans, and I do think that is a problem.

Atheist Stewart Felker chimed in also: The most significant problem with that passage [is] not simply the death of an innocent, but God bringing punishment on the infant in order to punish the parent for his sins!

The major crux of the issue . . . isn’t about premature death itself, but about God’s killing of an innocent as direct punishment for someone else’s sin. It even differs from those instances in which God kills or orders the killing of a mass group of people and children just so happen to be a part of this larger group. This was the specific targeting of an individual child as punishment for the sins of their father.

Beyond this, I really, really think that “[i]nstead of the death of innocent children being an evil thing, it is often a blessing for the children to be taken away from a life of hardship at the hands of a sinful society, and ushered into a paradise of peace and rest” is the product of rationalizing, and brings us into insanely dubious and even dangerous ethical territory.

It’s not just that God has the prerogative to do whatever he wants here, though. That may or may not be true as a general rule of thumb (though of course God couldn’t do things against his own nature, nor could he in good faith do things that he promised he wouldn’t do, etc.); but here we’re specifically talking about God more or less arbitrarily killing someone in order to punish someone else for their own sins.

If David knew that the child was going to be immediately ushered into unending paradise, though, shouldn’t he have been pleased and not upset?

From the particular ancient Near Eastern perspective that underlies this story, however, there probably was no such notion as the child entering enter paradise upon death. The most relevant background and explanation is that God killed David’s son because human lives were sometimes thought to expendable, and could be used opportunistically for things like vicarious punishment. (The expendability of human lives — particular the lives of children — reaches its most extreme apex in idea that there are still traces of a positive attitude toward child sacrifice in various Biblical texts.)

I found an article which gives a full and adequate answer to the “dilemma” of God allegedly killing a child because of the sins of his or her father: “Did God Kill David’s Baby?” (Come and Reason Ministries). The Bible sometimes presents things as God doing something, when in fact it means (at the deepest level) that God permitted something to happen in His providence. And so the article explains:

Does anyone really believe it is just to kill an innocent baby for the sin of the father? The Bible certainly doesn’t:
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The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. [Ezekiel 18:20]
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. . . So what is going on? The context reveals that the author of the passage is elaborating on the mindset of King David and those who lived at that time in Earth’s history. At that time in Earth’s history people attributed to God that which God allowed, but did not directly cause. An example of this would be the death of King Saul, who was king prior to David. King Saul committed suicide and the Bible faithfully records this, but the Bible also describes Saul’s suicide as God killing him:
Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.” But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day. [1 Samuel 31:4-6]
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Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. [1 Chronicles 10:13-14]
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Now, did God actually put Saul to death? Was an angel sent from heaven to force Saul down on his sword against his will, or did Saul choose to end his own life? Then why does the Bible say “the Lord put him to death?” Because at this time in the Bible God is described as doing what He permits. . . .
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We are not told what actually caused the infant’s death, only that the infant died and God did not intervene to stop this death, despite David’s prayers. The pronouncement of the prophet that the child would die was an announcement of what God foreknew would transpire, a prediction of future events. It was not a judicial finding with subsequent execution by God. It did not mean God would kill the child or cause the child’s death, but rather that God knew the child would die and God would not intervene to miraculously save the child.

I have explained the same sort of (analogous) thing in the case of the Bible saying that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” which — when closely analyzed — is really Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and God permitting it in His providence. Thus the Bible says (in this specific sense) that God did it rather than Pharaoh. See:

God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That?

Reply to a Calvinist: Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

The article I cited above mentions that each person is responsible for their own sin. Yes, that’s true, and I show at length that this is biblical teaching also:

God’s ‘Punishing’ of Descendants: Is it Unjust and Unfair?

Seidensticker Folly #17: “to the third and fourth generations”?

Does God Punish to the Fourth Generation?

A very clear and straightforward example of God permitting a thing, while the Bible says that He did it, is found in the book of Job. It’s all spelled out. Job (as is well-known) suffered terribly, even though God Himself said about Job, “there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8; cf. 2:3). Job himself understood his suffering as God sending the evil:

Job 2:9-10 (RSV) Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” [10] But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The writer of the book, near the end, refers to “all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).

This is, again, the language of providence, and (technically) of anthropomorphism, or condescending to the limited understanding of man by explaining things about God in a non-literal fashion. For more about that, see my paper:  Anthropopathism and Anthropomorphism: Biblical Data (God Condescending to Human Limitations of Understanding).

If we want to discover the literal truth of what was going on at a far deeper spiritual level, the beginning of the book explains it, in its narrative. God permitted Satan to afflict Job:

Job 1:12 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” . . .

Job 2:6-7 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.” [7] So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.

So there you have it again. Sometimes the Bible states that “God did x,” but what it really means at a deeper level is that “God in His providence did not will x, but rather, permitted it in His omniscient providence, for a deeper purpose.”

As has been shown, we see this in Job’s case, King Saul’s case (cited in the article at the top), and with Pharaoh hardening his heart. This is biblical thought. But not one in a thousand atheists would have ever become familiar with this ancient Near Eastern Hebrew thinking. Nor would (sadly) one in a hundred Christians (if even that many). This is why we apologists do what we do! We’re here to educate and assist believers in better understanding the Bible and their Christian faith.

Thus I replied to Stewart Felker:

You are the one who lacks understanding of Hebrew thinking, in this instance, and in many others. But nice failed try, taking yet another swipe at God, out of your ignorance of how the Bible truly presents and explains His character and nature. May it be a lesson to you.

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Photo credit: The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David, by Eugène Siberdt (1851-1931) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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