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David’s Downfall

Artemisia Gentileschi

Many readers—and not a few Hollywood directors—have imagined the story of David and Bathsheba in 2Sam 11 as a romance. But the biblical text tells us little if anything of their relationship. Instead, the chapter lays bare some of the problems in David’s character and his leadership that explain later difficulties in his reign.

Before his encounter with Bathsheba, David moved from achievement to achievement: David, the youngest son of Jesse, is anointed to be the future king of Israel (1Sam 16). He, out of all Israel, slays the imposing Goliath (1Sam 17). David triumphs in battle, establishes the holy city of Jerusalem (2Sam 5), and receives a covenant that establishes his dynasty forever (2Sam 7). Despite opposition from the mad King Saul, he maintains his righteousness and meets with repeated success.

2Sam 11 is something different. King David “lies with” and impregnates the wife of a loyal soldier, tries repeatedly and fails to cover up his actions, and murders her husband. It is no small matter that Bathsheba’s desires are not made clear. The narrative’s curious silence about Bathsheba’s motives and the fact that it mentions no guilt on her part suggests that she may not have been a willing participant.

If 2Sam 11 is the key to understanding David’s later difficulties, then the underlying issue is not simply about sex, but it is an abuse of power and a violation of law. The chapter is focused on how David “takes” the married Bathsheba and how he later murders her husband by invoking the privilege of the king to orchestrate battle. David’s willingness “to think outside the box,” so charming in his victory over Goliath (1Sam 17), now has darker undertones and will have ominous implications for the future of Israel’s monarchy.

What David has done is clearly wrong. The narrator weighs in with an unusually frank assessment: “But the thing that David had done displeased YHWH” (2Sam 11:27). The prophet Nathan cleverly renders YHWH’s judgment by telling a parable about a rich man who has taken and killed a little ewe-lamb who was like the daughter of a poor man (2Sam 12:1-4). David himself, either unwittingly or knowingly, prescribes his own punishment: “As YHWH lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2Sam 12:5-6).

Nathan’s prophecy that “the sword shall never depart from your house” is born out in the subsequent chapters of David’s life, in which he appears to pay “fourfold” by losing child after child: He and Bathsheba suffer the loss of their first child; his daughter, Tamar, is raped by her half-brother and David’s son, Amnon, who is then murdered by Tamar’s brother, Absalom. David is ultimately betrayed by his son Absalom, who stages a coup d’état, rapes his father’s concubines, and forces David’s exile from Jerusalem. Though David is restored, he dies bitter, instructing his heir, Solomon, to avenge old grievances after his death. Even after David’s death, another son, Adonijah, is murdered in the battle for succession.

Despite suffering the judgment of God, strife in his personal and political life, and the cynicism that can accompany unbridled power, David is not deposed and does not “fall down” in biblical memory. David retains his throne and his dynasty. First and Second Kings recall him as the standard by which all other kings with be judged. In this we see once again that the biblical text rarely delivers easy moral tales, preferring instead more delicate and nuanced explorations of the difficulties of being human and, in David’s case, of being chosen.

  • Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

    Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.