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April 18, 2014

Regal misbehaviour

The story, of adultery and murder, is told in the second book of Samuel, Chapter 11. It is spring, the start of the fighting season, and King David’s army is busy destroying the Ammonites and besieging Rabbah. But the King is safely home in Jerusalem, caught up in palace intrigues.

One day, Bathsheba, bathing on the roof of an adjacent house tempts him.  He sends for her, one thing leads to another, and soon she is pregnant.  This is inconvenient, because she is married to one of David’s best soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, who will be surprised to find his wife pregnant when he eventually returns from the fight.  So David sends for Uriah, asks him how the war is going, and tells him to take a day off and go home to visit his wife, hoping thereby to let Bathsheba claim the child is Uriah’s – pregnancy dating was less accurate then. But Uriah doesn’t cooperate. He stays in the palace with David’s servants, and when David remonstrates:

“Camest thou not from thy journey? Why then didst thou not go down unto thine house?”

Uriah replies:

The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.”

It’s a fine speech, contrasting the noble Uriah who will not even sleep with his own wife while his men are at war, with David who takes advantage of their absence.  David keeps Uriah back from the front for another day and even gets him drunk, but to no avail. He doesn’t go home.

David is ruthless. He writes to his general Joab instructing him to place Uriah at the front where the fighting is fiercest and then to withdraw so Uriah will be killed.  To make it worse he gets Uriah himself to carry the message, his own death warrant. The plan works and after a decent period of mourning Bathsheba marries David and bears his son.

But the Lord is displeased. He makes David understand the wickedness of what he has done, and causes the child to fall sick and die. The tough punishment is effective. David learns his lesson, and Bathsheba bears him another son, Solomon, from whose lineage Jesus is eventually born.

But who was really to blame?  Can’t kings take mistresses occasionally? Didn’t Bathsheba, a married woman, bathe on the roof where she knew David would see her?  The author of Matthew 1: 1-17 refuses even to name her in the list of Jesus’s ancestors.  She is simply “her that had been the wife of Uriah”.

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