Wednesday 28 July 2021

Bathsheba's Baby (2 Samuel 12)

David Demands Justice

So first up. When it comes to Nathan's denouncement of David. Nathan's being very brave. He is tearing a strip off the king of Israel, whatever it costs.

He had a bit of practice two weeks ago, when he told David he wasn't allowed to build a temple. But stillNathan lecturing a sitting, shell-shocked, David he really is being brave. David at this stage is pretty much an absolute monarch - able to take any woman he wants, or get anyone killed he feels like. He's got the heroic back story. He's still the embodiment of the new Israelite state. He can be pretty sure he can get away with murder, with the people behind him. That's what power can do.

But Nathan has to tell it to David  as it is. Nathan is a prophet of the Lord. And a prophet has responsibilities. And telling the truth is one of them. As is standing up for justice.

 And Nathan tells his story carefully. He's a good prophet. If he'd gone to David and just said, "miserable sinner: adulterer and murderer" he'd have lasted about as long as Uriah the Hittite. I think about all the times I've seen people standing on the street, shouting at passers-by that they're miserable sinners. I suppose they've a chance of attracting other people who'd like to stand on streets, shouting at passing sinners. But that has got to be a limited market, I reckon.This is not how to get people to listen to you.

So Nathan doesn't do that. He weaves instead a tale about a rich man stealing a poor man's sheep. Now, there's nothing to suggest that David thinks he's listening to a parable, a moral fable. David is, as king, the supreme judge of Israel. So trying cases is his job. But normally a senior judge (think Moses) would get the tricky cases. And to David, this is a very simple case. 

David's judgment: the poor man has been sinned against. The rich man is guilty of theft. He must die. And pay 4 times the value of the lamb.

Reading that back, it might make more sense if he paid 4 times the value of the lamb, and then died. Gonna get messy the other way round. But still. David wants justice! David is also projecting his own guilt, I think. Because the penalty for stealing one lamb - however much-loved - is not death under  Israel's laws. It was under the supposedly Christian United Kingdom in Victorian times, of course. Amazing how flexible Christian forgiveness becomes when property is involved. But the Hebrew law was as much about limiting punishment as it was about imposing it.

How often we want justice imposed properly as long as it's others who are getting that justice. It won't have occurred to David that he's judging himself. He's one of those people that are better speck-spotters than plank-removers. Some of us are the same. Not only do we pretend to ourselves we did no wrong. We also make excuses for ourselves when we do something wrong. We assume that others are always making the wrong decision with level heads, wherease when we get something wrong, it's because we were tired, or stressed. Others among us, the opposite - we judge ourselves too harshly, and forget we have a God who forgives. In  this case, David doesn't just judge the sheep-stealer's theft. He also judges him because he had no pity. Best remember. Sin is sin. And we all foul things up. But God's forgiveness, bought hard, is free.

And David has passed a death sentence on himself.

In David's case, there's quite a charge list here. Of the Ten Commandments - the moral laws that underpin the Covenant with Moses, I reckon David has definitely broken three:

  • Do not covet your neighbour's wife
  • Do not commit adultery
  • Do not murder.

And arguably, in his attempts to cover up his adultery, he's also broken the command against false witness. At what point does attempting to evade blame become straight lying?

You start with breaking one. You end up breaking three or four. Thing with sin is - repent early and repent often. Or it can take you over.

The Woman Pays

It's quite a strip Nathan has torn off David. But. Although Nathan says David has had his sin taken away, the consequences of that sin are pretty huge. Nathan says the Lord has defined three punishments for David's adultery and murder:

  • A blood curse on his descendants
  • Someone else (Absolom his son, as it turns out) sleeping with his wives in the open
  • The death of the baby Bathsheba has just borne.

And maybe it's just me. But in my conception of God, I'd rather that the person taking the rap here had been David. Struck down by lightning, crushed in a surreal harp-falling-from-a-window accident, anything. Anything but a curse on the newborn, the unborn, and the totally innocent. The punishment for David's sin has not been so much removed as transferred.

And do you know what, I don't see any way of letting God out on this one. Thomas Hardy said that it was a mystery to him how humans can conceive a deity that is less moral than they are themselves. Though Hardy tormented his creations just as much as any President of the Immortals could care to do. Poor Tess. Poor Marty South. Not Jude. Useless get.

And I'm not going to let God off by comparing the judgemental God of the Old Testament to the lovely God of the New. Because the God of the New Testament lets a lot of people send themselves off to perdition, apart from the whole Ananias and Sapphira incident.

I can see it could be a post-justification by the person writing the Book of Samuel - this happened so if must have been a punishment. Except I can't apply that to the rest of life. Jesus was clear to the man born blind that his blindness was not due to anyone's sin. When someone today suffers - cancer, the loss of a child - I won't accept that this is punishment for their sin. Yet it's easy to do. There's been enough victim-blaming over Covid the last 18 months. People have been too overweight, too stupid, too reckless, to have protected themselves, we are told. So I don't buy that.

I can see that the way the world works means that people do in general get hurt by other people's sin. I was reading the way athletes have suffered because of their country's and their coaches' determination to win medals. And the ones normally suffering the abuse are young women or children. And when people are hurt by others' sins, the sinners are normally the powerful and the weak are the ones hurt.

All this should make us angry. And it's worth going off to Loughborough Church's "Ministers' Muse" with Revd Wendy Dalrymple and friends to hear more on this.

Because isn't this how life actually is? The powerful man sins. He is humiliated. But he gets to die at a ripe old age, with a young virgin in his bed to use as a hot water bottle. He's remembered as the ideal king - the one whose monarchy will be restored in his descendant, the Messiah. Even has a hotel named after him in Jerusalem.

Bathsheba is abused. Her husband is killed. She has to marry her abuser. Her son dies.  She has been treated as property. And yet still she pays.

The other wives of David are abused. The foreigner, Uriah, is dead.

The powerful man has sinned. And everyone else pays the price.

If this doesn't make us want to rage against God, and consider the state of this world and what we should be doing about it - it should.

Where Prophecies Collide

And we're now left with two prophecies, which while not quite contradictory certainly aren't particularly synergistic.  

David has previously been promised that his throne will last forever

He has now also been told that the sword will never leave his descendants.

How do you reconcile them?

I look to a man who walked this earth, a son - it was said - of David. He died a violent death at the hands of the powerful - the religious and secular powers of his place and time. He died the death of the powerless, the death of a slave. Death by crucifixion. Even though he was said to be the Son of David - the Messiah - he gave up all the power he had and died like a rebel.

And when he rose from the dead, he took all the weakness of humanity, the scars that had been inflicted - the sheer suffering that human beings can inflict on others - and carried them into heaven. And there, the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world, he argues with his Father on behalf of the weak, the powerless, the victim. And when the time is right, he will come to claim back his own.

That Son of David - bearing the scars of that curse forever -  having made all things right, he will reign.

And there will be no more oppressors, and no more oppressed. Because the Lamb's own will love him and be loved. And they shall inherit, not through force and might, but through the Lamb's own sacrifice. And though the violence David brought on his descendants will always be remembered, yet that throne will never end.


  1. Oh my! This most wonderful thing I have read in a long time.

  2. Depends whether you think Bathsheba was simply a victim. Why was she having a bath in a place overlooked by the palace? Also later on in her story she emerges as a manipulator (re the succession of Solomon etc.. Not so straight forward at all.

    1. "Unknown" and we know why.
      We have no idea why her bath was overlooked by the palace. Maybe she wasn't expecting the king to be wandering the roof tops. But there is no suggestion of Bathsheba initiating anything.

      What happened later has nothing to do with what happened here.

  3. A royal boy of doubtful legitimacy usually has at best an insecure life, and often a horrid end. Even his legitimate brother Solomon narrowly escaped almost certain death had the later attempt at usurpation been successful.
    Perhaps the death was, for the innocent child, one of God's harder mercies.


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