The Complete Book of 2 Samuel

The Brilliance of the Bathsheba Story. Plus, How 2 Samuel Is Like Entourage.
What's really in the Good Book.
Nov. 6 2006 4:17 PM

The Complete Book of 2 Samuel

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The Book of 2 Samuel

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David's a fabulous king—victory abroad, and a fantastic domestic policy at home. He "delivered justice and equity to all his people." Equity—that's an interesting word. So far, the Bible hasn't been much concerned with equity. The Good Book tends to celebrate the best men, most fearsome warriors, most godly prophets, and boldest kings. But this verse suggests that the Israelites cared about the little guy, too.

Here's a great name: A neighboring monarch who sends gifts to David is King Toi.

Still missing his beloved Jonathan, David hunts for any of his surviving relatives. He hears about Mephibosheth, a son of Jonathan who avoided fighting in the wars because he has crippled feet. David gives all of Saul's land to Mephibosheth and then summons him to live at court. David even insists that Mephibosheth eat with him every day. (Is this such a great reward? Would you really want to live at the house of a rich acquaintance, mooching his food and liquor, always having to thank him? It would be like Entourage, but without the girls, or the Lamborghini.)

God warned the Israelites a million times not to make treaties with the heathens. Maybe this is why: David sends diplomats on a friendly mission to Ammonite King Hanun. The Ammonite princes convince their king that David's envoys are really spies, so Hanun arrests them, shaves off half their beards, cuts up their clothes, and sends them home. In addition to being very inhospitable, this is also extraordinarily stupid, since it just causes David to beat the living daylights out of the Ammonites on the battlefield.

This is the moment we've been waiting for. All of 2 Samuel so far—its battles and treaties and prayers—is just an appetizer for these two chapters. Here's how the story begins:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

What a setup! Read the beginning line to yourself again "It happened, late one afternoon …" What happened? Tell us! Tell us!

Keep going—a first paragraph couldn't be more provocative. A man spying on his neighbor! And she's in the bath! And she's hot! Forgive me for revealing a bit more about my adolescent reading habits than I should, but isn't this the world's first Penthouse letter? (What would the headline have been? "Afternoon Delight," of course!)

Her name is Bathsheba. He sends for her and immediately sleeps with her. Now comes a part of the story I don't remember from childhood, and it turns the whole episode from Penthouse to After School Special. Bathsheba announces: "I am pregnant." Oops. The zipless affair has suddenly gotten very complicated. David decides he needs to get Bathsheba's husband killed. (He's Uriah the Hittite. Question: Does the fact that he's a Hittite mean he's not a Chosen Person?)

Bathsheba's pregnancy means that David is actually acting from (slightly) nobler motives than I remember from school. He's not bumping off the husband because he lusts after Bathsheba. He's already demonstrated that he's happy to sleep with her while she's married. He would be glad to keep cuckolding Uriah. Rather, he's getting rid of Uriah so he can marry Bathsheba and be father to their child. So, it's homicide in pursuit of family values.(See update  below for another take on this.)

David dispatches Uriah to the front. Gen. Joab, who is supposed to get only Uriah killed, screws up, and lots of other soldiers die, too. David doesn't seem to mind, because his rival is out of the way. David, who knows how to work a funeral, marries Bathsheba as soon as her mourning ends.

God is enraged and sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. Nathan tells David a parable about a rich man with large flocks who, when visited by a guest, steals the one lamb owned by his poor neighbor in order to feed his visitor. With his innate sense of justice, David recognizes that the rich man's behavior is grotesque—"the man who has done this deserves to die"—but he doesn't recognize that this story is about him till Nathan bellows at him: "You are the man!" Then, Nathan delivers God's message: Because of his Bath-thievery, God will cause trouble in his house and take away his wives. David is genuinely remorseful and seems almost suicidal, but Nathan reassures him: "The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die."

But, Nathan adds, his son by Bathsheba is doomed: He will die. When the baby is born, he immediately falls deathly ill. David weeps, fasts, and pleads with God to spare the child, but on the seventh day the boy dies. This prompts one of the most extraordinary scenes in the Bible. If you ever want proof that the Bible is psychologically complex, that its characters are as rich and nuanced as any ever described, open to the back half of Chapter 12. When David learns the baby is dead, he briefly prays, then returns home, and promptly sits down for a big meal, his first in a week. His servants, both curious and shocked at his apparent callousness, ask him why he "fasted and wept for the child when it was alive" but is feasting now that the baby is dead. David answers:

While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, "Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and the child may live." But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.

Just imagine the traffic in David's brain at this moment: He's sorrowful at his son's death. He's gloomy because the Lord—for the first time—did not answer his prayers. He's even gloomier because he realizes that if Nathan's prophecy about the baby's death has come true, so too will the prophecies about David's other troubles. He's feeling profound self-disgust at his own sin. But finally, above all else, he recognizes that he has to keep going: He must eat, he must remain strong, for he is still the king.

In the very next sentence, he shows that resolve: He consoles Bathsheba, then immediately sleeps with her. She conceives and gives birth to another son. They call him "Solomon." It means "replacement."

Update, Nov. 6: Lots of you have rightly chastised me for skipping a key episode in the David-Bathsheba-Uriah love triangle. After Bathsheba announces her pregnancy, David recalls Uriah from the front and sends him back to his house to "wash his feet." This is a euphemism for … well, take a guess. David is hoping that Uriah will sleep with Bathsheba, thus providing an explanation for her pregnancy and allowing David to avoid messy emotional complications. But pious Uriah refuses to go to Bathsheba because he has been ritually purified for war and won't contaminate himself. The noble soldier thus misses his chance to save his life. When he doesn't sleep with Bathsheba, David issues the order that gets Uriah killed. In any case, the key point remains: It's not lustthat causes David's crime, but rather the unborn child.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com . E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)