Sibble Saturday: Not Perfect, Just Forgiven (2 Samuel 10–12)

A few days late. Hey, I’ve been having New Year’s fun.

Short snarky summary: David is finally a horrific enough asshole that the narrative stops making excuses for him. Also, he is surprisingly bad at metaphors.


OK. I have to admit I’m in a bit of a hurry to get through Chapter 10, because it’s not nearly as exciting as what happens next. Our first tale is a pretty par-for-the-course snippet of diplomacy and war. There’s a new king in Ammon, and David is anxious to build an alliance with him, just as he had an alliance with his father. That’s a direct quote from the text, which is damn weird, because neither David individually, nor Israel collectively, had any sort of alliance with old king Nahash. We first met Nahash back in 1 Samuel 11, when he was terrorizing an Israelite village and Saul, as the first act of his kingship, routed him. We most recently saw Ammon in a list of nations David subdued in 2 Samuel 8. In between there wasn’t much mention of nahash or of his nation. So if David and Nahash had any sort of alliance or rapport, then it sure doesn’t appear in the text. Anyways, the young king is advised to distrust David’s diplomats as spies, so he engages in a spot of ritual humiliation, cutting off half their beards and half their pants and sending them home.

David decides to go to war to avenge this breach of protocol, and the Ammonites hire up the armies of a couple of their neighbors (mostly the Arameans, who don’t much like the Israelites either). Here, once again, we get sane-looking muster numbers, with a mercenary force of 33,000 together with whatever Ammon;’s standing army is (we get no numbers for either Ammon or Israel here). The foe displays some actual battle tactics here, splitting their force to encircle Israel. Meanwhile Joab (who has still not been sacked for his shameful assassination of Abner) deploys his forces with a crack squad against Aram and the remainder lined up against Ammon, with instructions for whichever force is succeeding to reinforce the one which isn’t. As it turns out, the enemy beats a hasty retreat on both fronts, and the Ammonite war is over just as soon as it starts. The Arameans come back for more with their main army, which seems like a terrible idea, and in fact it is a terrible idea, because they end up being massacred.

Anyways, in the next two chapters, we get a view of David’s personal life, and a story many know but don’t necessarily think about very often. The scene-setting is already a strike against him: it’s apparently the season for kings to go out in war (I guess in the ancient Near East they were just in a constant state of warfare but only went out to fight at certain times of year), but David isn’t out at war! No, he’s lolling about on the royal roofdeck when he happens to see a beautiful woman bathing. Inquiry determines her name and that of her husband. He then—as you do—summons the woman in for a visit and sleeps with her.

So, yes, we have dereliction of duty and adultery. And possibly something on a coercion/rape spectrum but the text doesn’t really engage with the aspect of consent at all. This is already pretty morally awful but it gets worse when Bathsheba tells him that she’s pregnant. In fairness, most people’s internal summary of the story skips straight from this to the villainous ending, but to give credit where it’s due, David makes an effort to resolve this one without bloodshed. He calls her husband, Uriah, home from the front, chats with him, and then tells him to go home and take some time off (specifically “wash your feet”, which might be a euphemism, although perhaps a different euphemism from “uncover your feet”). Uriah encamps on the steps of the palace instead to David’s consternation, and even on David’s entreaties refuses to go home and sleep with his wife while his fellows are still at war.

Credit where it’s due, here: David is going to end up killing Uriah, but in fairness, killing him wasn’t his first plan. It is transparently obvious from this particular exchange what David’s intent is: Uriah will sleep with his wife, a child with a vague resemblance to the king will be born, and nobody needs to know the truth. I won’t defend David’s actions here at all, but this is at least a pretty reasonable attempt to defuse the situation without violence. But unfortunately Uriah is too damn virtuous to play his necessary role in legitimizing David’s bastard, so he moves to plan B: kill the husband, marry the widow, and hope nobody does the arithmetic on the baby’s conception date.

So David sends a letter to Joab (who I would think is still feeling a hint of job insecurity and I sure as hell wouldn’t trust with this mission, but maybe David figures that he’s no stranger to assissination), essentially telling Joab to make a suicide strike on the town with Uriah and a few others. Joab is good at getting his troops killed but bad at intrigue, since the he instructs the messenger he sends back to treat the death of Uriah as the “good news” part of a “bad news and good news” report. So now the messenger and anyone in David’s court who is paying attention also know that Uriah’s death was ordered. Really, maybe he just should’ve ordered him executed for no good reason. Kings did that, and it would’ve been a lot more intellectually honest (and kinder to the unfortunates who were chosen to accompany Uriah in his doomed mission). Anyways, mission accomplished: Bathsheba mourns perfunctorily, marries David, and has a son.

Anyways, we are told for the first time, at the very start of Chapter 12, that God is actually unhappy with David. It took long enough! I’d say David has done or countenanced some pretty questionable shit in his day, but the Biblical text has an extraordinary sense that he can do no wrong. I would credit most of this to Deuteronomical attitudes. I’ve mentioned the bizarre relationship the Deuteronomists had with monarchies before: love of the nation of Judah and the possibly mythical unified Judah-Israel, distaste for the separate nation of Israel, dislike for monarchs in general, and admiration for the Davidian dynasty. The whole thing comes from the fact that although they’re basically anti-monarchical, they’re also tied in knots about eschatological significance of the Temple and the Messiah, both products of the line of David. So in spite of his extremely dubious morality, the Deuteronomists and the later rabbinical scholars whitewash David’s legacy and elevate him to one of the highest points in Jewish hagiography. I can’t help but find it weird that that his legacy of genocide, adultery, and assassination is regarded more highly than that of, say, Abraham, who comes across in the stories about him as a pretty decent sort.

So, to convey his displeasure, God sends Nathan (presumably the prophet mentioned back in 2 Samuel 8, not David’s son of the same name from back in 2 Samuel 5) to tell him a parable. Nathan’s fable is pretty heavy-handed: a rich man with abundant livestock decides to seize his poor neighbor’s sole possession, a precious lamb, to serve to a guest. When Nathan asks what should be done to the rich man, David declares that he deserves death.

So Nathan points out what everyone except David has realized, which is that the story is metaphorical, and, surprise! it’s not really about lambs at all, but about how David, who has everything he could ever want, stole an unfortunate man’s wife (and killed him, too, but let’s not dwell on that). Nathan pronounces a curse on David, predicting strife in David’s household and the theft of his own wives. In response David gives pretty much the most perfunctory contrition imaginable, and Nathan commutes David’s self-imposed death sentence to… death for his son, who immediately falls ill. At this point David puts forth a more energetic form of contrition, weeping and fasting and praying. But it’s too little, too late, and his son dies. But, hey, he can always have more, and indeed he does: Bathshba’s second child, who lives, is named Solomon. That’s also the name of one of David’s sons from back in Chapter 5, but I guess they had a limited imagination, or more likely two distinct origins for the next king in the text which some editor failed to rectify.

This wodge of Bible, however, actually ends as it begins: with David kicking the shit out of some Ammonites. A brief postscript in Chapter 12 describes Joab and David capturing Rabbah, stealing everything that isn’t nailed down, enslaving its people, and repeating the same procedure on every Ammonite town. I guess the eventual capture of Ammonite cities means Uriah didn’t die completely in vain.

Next up: more sexual misconduct in the house of David!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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