David, Mafioso Don: Reflections on II Samuel 11:1-15

Lectionary Reflections on II Samuel 11:1-15
Sunday, July 29, 2012

There can be no more notorious passage in Scripture than this one. David, Golden Boy of Israel, charismatic second king of God's land, greatest monarch of the fabled chosen people, and remembered for three millennia as "a man after God's own heart," in this chapter descends into adultery, murder, and denial, breaking many of a community's most basic expectations for its human members.

How did it happen? And why was this grim tale remembered at all? Why not allow the Chronicler to have the last word about David, and simply omit any talk of Bathsheba, or dead husbands, or lying?

In the Chronicler's accounts of the king, he writes songs, arranges worship, and directs choirs, a very model of religious piety. Perhaps the author of the Chronicles thought he could clean David up, make him out to be great only, a pious paragon. But the joke is on the Chronicler! II Samuel became scripture, and the Chronicler's attempt to whitewash lies mainly unread and unpreached as the boring material it so obviously is.

But why tell such a grim and unrelenting tale about one's greatest king? That is a question that every preacher needs to ask and answer if this terrible story is to have weight and meaning in our churches. Great David is skewered in this story more brutally than about any kingly story one can name. But why? Let's first tell the story again, and then turn to possible reasons for its existence at all.

It begins simply and unassumingly. It is spring, "the time when kings go forth to battle." David has seen many springs and many battles, and he has led his troops to countless victories, so many that only one significant city in the king's orbit remains to be defeated, Rabboth Amon, the location of the contemporary city of Amman, Jordan. But this spring is somehow different. Rather than going forth, David sends his general Joab and the forces of Israel to besiege Amon and to secure the victory, while David himself "remains in Jerusalem." No reason is given for David's decision not to fight, for his decision to stay in the capital. Perhaps he is tired of the bloodshed. Perhaps he no longer feels the need to lead his soldiers. Perhaps he is just bored.

No matter the reason, disaster awaits the king in the person of the lovely Bathsheba whom he spies from the roof of his palace at her bath. He is immediately captivated and asks a servant just who this wonder may be. "Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah, the Hittite," he is told. The woman is known to many in the city, her lineage easily spoken of, even by a servant. And most importantly, she is a married woman, wife to one of David's generals, a mercenary soldier with ancient connections to the fierce Hittite warriors of long ago. The woman is well known and she is a well-known wife. Without a word, David demands that the woman be brought to him. She comes, and the two either begin a torrid affair, or, worse luck, their one-night stand results in pregnancy.

And so the king must decide. Reveal the truth? After all, he is king—he can have whomever and whatever he wants. Is that not so? Well, perhaps not in Israel. Perhaps in this land of God, one is not so free to act however one wishes. So, the king hatches a plan designed to cover the thing over. The husband Uriah comes hot and sweaty from the battle, and the king schemes to get him into his house with his wife. After the door closes on the two of them, all will believe that the coming child is theirs, and David can serve as beaming godfather for the baby. No one will know! But the plan fails. Uriah refuses to go to his house and "sleep with his wife" (he clearly knows what David wants from him), because he will not seek the comfort of the beautiful Bathsheba while his men are sweating and dying in the field. He sleeps in the streets and does not go down to his house.

And though David demands that he stay another night, and gets Uriah roaring drunk, kicking him in the direction of his house, he again sleeps in the streets. And so the king now thinks his only option is murder. He urges his general Joab, who is in reality his henchman in many a questionable deed, to set the valiant Uriah at a place in the siege of Amon where he knows the bravest men will be, and then tell the other soldiers to retreat, leaving Uriah to stand and die alone. But Joab sees immediately that this is a foolish and ridiculous plan; what will all those retreating soldiers think when they witness Uriah alone near the walls of Amon? So Joab arranges things so that several other soldiers are not told of the retreat plan in order to cover over Uriah's death with several other deaths Who will ever know?

It works. Uriah, along with a few other brave men, are killed at Amon, and when David is told of their deaths, he can only muster the following phrase, "Well, the sword devours now one and now another. These things happen. War is indeed hell." And he tells the messenger who has brought the deadly news, "Tell Joab, good work. Encourage him!" And after the days of public mourning are over—one gets the impression of just the right number of days and no more—Bathsheba enters the palace, quickly marries the king, and awaits the birth of their child.

So, why this sordid story? How about this? The great and mighty and supposedly holy David is one of us. He, along with no human being, is worthy of our veneration or worship. No matter how grand, how handsome, how seemingly wise and clever, however wealthy and talented and winsome, no human being is worthy of our worship. Even the great David, "the man after God's own heart," is finally all too human. It is often said that David most especially loved his God. And so he may have. The problem is that he rather too often loved himself more. Does that sound familiar to any of us, to you, to me?

7/22/2012 4:00:00 AM
John Holbert
About John Holbert
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.