David’s Successes and Failures as King (2 Samuel 1-24)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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The Bible regards David as the model king of Israel, and the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles describe his many successes. Yet even David, "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14), abuses his power and acts faithlessly at times. He tends to succeed when he does not take himself too seriously, but gets into serious trouble when power goes to his head—for example when he takes a census in violation of God's command (2 Sam. 24:10-17) or when he sexually exploits Bathsheba and orders the assassination of her husband, Uriah (2 Sam. 11:2-17). Yet despite David’s failings, God fulfills his covenant with David and treats him with mercy.
People in power have been covering up instances of sexual abuse for millennia, but the Bible boldly exposes examples of abuse against Sarah, Hagar, Dinah, two Tamars, and Bathsheba, the subject of this passage. The abuse of Bathsheba seems the most shocking of all because it comes at the hands of none other than Jesus’ most famous ancestor, King David. The story is ancient, but the issue remains as timely as ever. In recent years a wave of sexual abuse stories spawned a #metoo movement that toppled titans from the realms of entertainment (Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose), politics (Al Franken, Patrick Meehan, John Conyers), business (Steve Wynn, Travis Kalanick), sports (Larry Nassar), music (R. Kelly), and religion (Bill Hybels, Andy Savage, Paige Patterson). These names are from the USA, but the problem is worldwide.
The story is a familiar one. From his rooftop, David notices his attractive neighbor, Bathsheba, washing. He sends his men to take her back to the palace, he has sex with her, and she conceives. In an attempt to cover up the pregnancy, David recalls Bathsheba’s husband Uriah from the siege of Rabbah, but Uriah has too much integrity to sleep with his wife while the rest of the army and the ark are camping in tents. After David orchestrates Uriah’s death in battle, he assumes the disaster has been averted. But David doesn’t take God into account.
Over the course of history, this encounter between David and Bathsheba has often been described as adultery, which implies mutual consent. However, as we examine the details, we see that it is actually sexual abuse of power, in other words, rape. Neither the text nor the context supports the conclusion that it was an affair between two consenting adults. People who think Bathsheba seduced David by bathing outside his window may not realize the Hebrew verb rachats, used for Bathsheba’s action here (2 Samuel 11:2), literally means “wash” which is how it is translated elsewhere in this narrative (2 Sam. 11:8; 12:20). There is no reason to assume that Bathsheba was naked, or that she was aware that the king, who should have been with his army, would have been watching from his rooftop like a peeping Tom (2 Sam. 11:1-2).
People who think that she agreed to come to the palace willingly do not understand that when an ancient ruler summoned a subject to the palace, the subject had no choice but to comply. (See Esther 2:14, 3:12, and 8:9 for example.) And David sends not one, but several messengers, to ensure Bathsheba’s compliance (2 Sam. 11:4). Remember, the only person who refuses to follow David’s directives in this story, Uriah, is killed (2 Sam. 11:14-18). The text does not say that Bathsheba realized she was being brought to the palace for sex with the king. More likely, she would have assumed she was summoned there to be informed of her husband’s death, which is essentially what happened later (2 Sam. 11:26-27).
The text states the action as a one-way perpetration by David. “He lay with her,” not “they lay together” (2 Sam. 11:4). The language used here to describe their encounter suggests rape, not adultery. David “took” (laqach) Bathsheba and “lay” (shakav) with her. The verb shakav can mean merely sexual intercourse, but it is used in most of the rape incidents in the Hebrew Bible. The verbs laqach and shakav only appear together in contexts of rape (Genesis 34:2; 2 Sam. 12:11; 16:22).
We cannot blame Bathsheba for acquiescing when conveyed into the chamber of a man possessing great power and a history of violence. As the narrative continues, every person reproaches David, and none Bathsheba. God blames David. “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). The prophet Nathan indicts David by telling a parable in which a rich man (representing David) “takes” a precious sheep (Bathsheba) from a poor man (Uriah). After hearing Nathan’s parable, even David blames David. “The man who has done this deserves to die” (2 Sam. 12:5). Just in case it wasn’t already clear, Nathan responds, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). According to the rape and adultery laws of Deuteronomy 22:22-29, if only the man deserves to die, what took place was not adultery, but rape.
When we call this incident adultery or impugn Bathsheba’s actions, we are not only ignoring the text, but we are essentially blaming the victim. However, when we call it rape and focus on David’s actions, we not only take the text seriously, but we validate the stories of other victims of sexual abuse. Just as God saw what David did to Bathsheba, so God sees what perpetrators do to sexual abuse victims today.
David’s crime was an abuse of power carried out in the form of sexual violation. As sovereign over Israel’s largest empire, David had arguably more power than any other Israelite in the Old Testament. Before David took the throne, he used his power to serve others, perhaps most notably the defenseless cities of Keilah and Ziklag (1 Samuel 23:1-14; 30:1-31), but with Bathsheba he abused his power first to serve his lust, and then to preserve his reputation.
While few of us have as much authority as David did, many of us have power in smaller spheres in family or work contexts, either as a result of our sex, race, position, wealth or other status markers or simply as we get older, gain experience, and have more responsibility. It is tempting to take advantage of our power and privilege, thinking that we have worked hard for these perks (better offices, special parking spaces, higher salaries), even though people with less power don’t share them.
Conversely, many of us are vulnerable to those in power for the same reasons, although on the opposite side of the power distribution. It may be tempting to think that those in vulnerable positions ought to try to defend themselves, as many have thought with regard to Bathsheba. The text presents no evidence that she attempted to refuse David’s sexual imposition, therefore—as this kind of thinking goes—she must have been a willing participant. As we have seen, the Bible rejects this kind of thinking. The victim of a crime is always the victim of the crime, no matter how much or little resistance he or she may have attempted.
David plunged himself into this crime after he forgot that God gave him his position of power, and that God cared about what he did with it. Shepherds were meant to care for, not eat, the sheep in their herd (Ezekiel 34). Jesus, the good shepherd, used his power to feed, serve, heal, and bless people under his authority, and he commanded his followers to do the same (Mark 9:35; 10:42-45).
David’s sovereign power allowed him to avoid unpleasant aspects of his responsibility, specifically leading his army in war, even though he was a military hero, defeating Goliath and “thousands” in battle (1 Sam. 17; 18:7; 21:11; 29:5). A consequence of his decision to stay home and nap was that he had little accountability, since his closest friends (his “mighty men”) were out fighting. There were many people who know what David was doing, but they were servants, and, not surprisingly, none of them spoke out. People who confront power typically pay costs.
But that hadn't stopped Abigail, wise wife of foolish Nabal, from putting herself in harm’s way to prevent not-yet-ruler David from going on a bloody rampage (1 Sam. 25). If one of David’s servants had spoken an early word of warning like Abigail did, perhaps the rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah could have been avoided. After the crimes were committed, the prophet Nathan was prompted by God to confront the king, who fortunately for his soul listened to the message (2 Sam. 12). Notice that Abigail and Nathan were not themselves the intended victims of David’s power abuses. They were in positions of lower power than the perpetrator, yet somehow recognized that they might be in a position to intervene and were willing to take the risk to do so. Do their actions suggest that those of us who are aware of abuse have a responsibility to prevent or report it, even if doing so poses a risk to us or our reputations?
Most of us aren’t in situations where confronting a boss or supervisor involves risking our life, but speaking up in these types of contexts can mean losing status, a promotion, or a job. But as this story, and many others like it in Scripture illustrate, God calls his people to act as prophets in our churches, schools, businesses, and wherever we work and live. The examples of Abigail and Nathan—in addition to Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-17—suggest that ideally we should speak up face-to-face with the perpetrator. (However, Romans 13:1-7 implies Christians may use other means of due process that don’t require one-on-one confrontation with the abuser.)
For those of us who are conflict avoidant, learning to speak truth to people in authority can be developed gradually over time, like doing physical therapy for a weak or injured muscle. We cultivate the ability to confront by starting with small steps, asking questions or pointing out minor problems. We can then move to more significant issues by offering alternative perspectives that may not be popular. Over time, we can grow to be more courageous so that if we are aware of a significant moral failure like sexual abuse by a colleague or a superior, we can hopefully speak truth in a wise and gracious manner. On the other side of the equation, wise leaders make it easy for their subordinates to hold them accountable and raise issues. When you function as a leader, what do you do to welcome or solicit negative feedback from others?
David accepts Nathan’s severe negative feedback, and he repents. Even so, Nathan points out to David that his individual repentance and forgiveness does not by itself bring an end to the consequences David’s sin will have on others:
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (2 Sam. 12:13-14).
David, though personally repentant, does not eradicate the culture of exploitation in place under his leadership. Nathan declares to David that the punishment for his sin will be severe, and the remainder of David’s reign is characterized by turmoil (2 Sam. 13-2, 1 Kings 1). In fact, David’s son Ammon commits the same crime (rape), but in an even more reprehensible manner, against his own sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1-19). David himself is complicit, though perhaps unknowingly. Even when it is brought to his attention, David does nothing to bring justice to the situation. Finally, David’s son, Absalom, decides to take action on his own. He kills Ammon and starts a war within David’s own household (2 Sam. 13), which escalates to civil war and a cascade of tragedy throughout Israel.
A culture that tolerates abuse is very hard to eradicate, much harder than its leaders suppose. If David thought that his personal repentance was all it would take to restore his household’s integrity, he was tragically mistaken. Sadly, this kind of complacency and willing disregard in tolerating a culture of abuse continues to the present day. How many churches, corporations, universities, governments and organizations have promised to root out a culture of sexual abuse after an incident is exposed, only to fall back immediately into the same old ways and to perpetrate even further abuses?
This episode does not end in despair, however. Sexual abuse is one of the most grievous of sins, yet even so there is the hope of justice and restoration. Can we let David, Nathan and Bathsheba’s examples embolden us to admit and repent (if we are the perpetrator), to confront (if we are aware of the crime), or to recover (if we are the victim)? In any case the first step is to make the abuse stop. Only when this occurs can we speak of repentance, including accepting guilt, punishment, and if possible, restitution. In the lineage of David’s most famous descendent, Jesus, Matthew reminds us of David’s rape. Matthew includes Bathsheba among the four mothers he mentions, not calling her the wife of David, but the wife of Uriah, the man David murdered (Matthew 1:6). This notice, at the beginning of the gospels, reminds us that God is a God both of justice and of restoration. In this one facet, we may in fact see David as a model worth emulating. This man of power, when faced with evidence of his own wrongdoing, repents and calls for justice, even though he knows it may well lead to his ruin. He does receive mercy, but not through his own power nor the power of his cronies, but by submitting to an authority beyond his power to manipulate.
Most people feel uncomfortable in situations of conflict, so we tend to avoid facing conflict, whether at home or at work. But conflicts are a lot like illnesses. Minor ones may clear up even if we ignore them, but major ones will work their way deeper and more catastrophically into our systems if we do not treat them. This is true for David's family. David allows conflict among some of his sons to plunge his family into tragedy. His oldest son, Amnon, rapes and then shames his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-19). Tamar's full-brother, Absalom, hates Amnon for that crime, but does not speak to him about it. David knows of the matter but decides to ignore the situation (2 Sam. 13:21). For more on children who disappoint their parents, see "When children disappoint (1 Samuel 8:1-3)."
For two years everything seems fine, but unresolved conflict of this magnitude never fades away. When Amnon and Absalom take a trip into the country together, Absalom plies his half-brother with wine, then has his servants murder him (2 Sam. 13:28-29). The conflict draws in more of David’s family, the nobles, and the army, until the entire nation was engulfed in civil war. The destruction brought about by avoiding the conflict is many times worse than the unpleasantness that might have resulted from dealing with the issues when they first arose.
Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe how leaders must "orchestrate conflict," or else it will boil up on its own, thwart their goals, and endanger their organizations. Likewise, Jim Collins gives the example of Alan Iverson, who was CEO of Nucor Steel at a time when there were deep divisions about whether the company should diversify into scrap steel recycling. Iverson brought the divisions in to the open by allowing everyone to speak their opinion, protecting them from reprisal from others who might disagree. The “raging debates” that ensued were uncomfortable for everyone. “People yelled. They waved their arms around and pounded on tables. Faces would get red and veins bulged out.” But acknowledging the conflict and working through it openly prevented it from going underground and exploding later. Moreover, by bringing out a variety of facts and opinions, it led to better decisions by the group. “Colleagues would march into Iverson’s office and yell and scream at each other, but then emerge with a conclusion…. The company’s strategy ‘evolved through many agonizing arguments and fights.’” Conflict well-orchestrated can actually be a source of creativity.
In 1 Chronicles 13, David confronts a challenge in his work as king, and gets off to a good start in solving it. He believes that the ark of God should be brought back from Kiriath-jearim where it had been left under Saul’s reign. Nonetheless, rather than strike out on his own, he confers with all his leaders and gains their concurrence. Together they pray to God for wisdom and conclude that they do indeed need to bring back the ark. It is easy for a leader to make the mistake of going out alone, without counsel from God or from others. David does well to recognize the need for both human and divine counsel. He receives a clear “go” for his project.
But disaster strikes. Uzzah, who is helping transport the ark, puts hand on it to steady it, and God strikes him dead (1 Chron. 13:9-10). This makes David both angry at (1 Chron. 13:9-11) and afraid of God (1 Chron. 13:12), which leads David to abandon the project. What begins as a confirmation from God and trusted colleagues to carry out a project suddenly turns into a dramatic failure. The same happens today. Eventually, almost all of us experience a painful setback in our work. It can be deeply discouraging, even tempting us to abandon the work that God has called us to do.
In what seems like a parenthesis, David carries out two successful battles. He inquires of the Lord in each case whether to go ahead, and God sends him out successfully both times. But God’s guidance for the second mission contains a peculiar instruction. God says, “You shall not go up after them; go around and come on them opposite the balsam trees.” God wanted David to go, but he wanted him to go in a particular way.
After these successes, David reflects on this experience and orders that no one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, because the Lord had chosen them for the task (1 Chron. 15:2). This was written in the book of the Law (Numbers 4:15), but had been forgotten or neglected. After David assembles the Levites to complete the job of moving the ark, he says of the previous failure “Because you [priests and Levites] did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God burst out against us, because we did not give it proper care”(1 Chronicles 15:13). The second time, because they followed the procedure prescribed by the Law, the ark was successfully moved.
This story is a reminder to us in our own work. It is important to inquire of God and gain counsel from trusted people about what we are to do. But that is not enough. God also cares about how we do the work. As David’s failed campaign when neglecting Numbers 4:15 shows, doing things God’s way requires a working knowledge of Scripture.
David also suffers another failure that, to us in the 21st century, may seem strange. He takes a census of the people of Israel. Although this seems like a prudent thing to do, the biblical text tells us that Satan incited David to do this against the advice of David’s general Joab. Furthermore, "God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel" (1 Chronicles 21:6).
David acknowledges his sin in taking a census against God’s will. He’s given three choices, each of which would harm many in the kingdom: (1) three years of famine, or (2) three months of devastation by the sword of his enemies, or (3) three days of a pestilence on the land. David chooses the third option and seventy thousand people die as an angel of death passes through the land. At this David cries out to God, "Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father's house; but do not let your people be plagued!" (1 Chron. 21:17).
Like David, we probably find it hard to understand why God would punish 70,000 other people for David’s sin. The text does not give an answer. We can observe, however, that the transgressions of leaders inevitably harm their people. If business leaders make poor product development decisions, people in their organization will lose their jobs when revenues plunge. If a restaurant manager doesn’t enforce sanitation rules, diners will get sick. If a teacher gives good grades for poor work, students will fail or fall behind at the next level of education. Those who accept positions of leadership cannot evade responsibility for the effects of their actions on others.
1 Chronicles adds a detail not found in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. David creates a corps of musicians “to make music at the house of the Lord.”
They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. They and their kindred, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all of whom were skillful, numbered two hundred eighty-eight. (1 Chronicles 25:6–7)
Maintaining an ensemble the size of two modern symphony orchestras would be a major undertaking in an emerging nation in the 10th century BC. David does not regard it as a luxury however, but as a necessity. In fact, he orders it in his role as commander in chief of the army, with the consent of the other commanders (1 Chron. 25:1).
Many militaries today maintain bands and choruses, but few other kinds of workplaces do, unless they themselves are musical organizations. Yet there is something about music and the other arts that is essential to work of all kinds. God’s creation—the source of human economic activity—is not only productive, it is beautiful (e.g., Genesis 3:6; Psalm 96:6; Ezekiel 31:7-9), and God loves beautiful handiwork (e.g., Isaiah 60:13). What is the place of beauty in your work? Would you or your organization or the people who make use of your work benefit if your work created more beauty? What does it even mean for work in your occupation to be beautiful?