Adultery, betrayal, revenge, and retribution as David falls away from God’s path.
David now starts to pay his debts. He had promised Jonathan that if anything ever happened to him, he would look after his family. Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is still alive and probably in hiding. He was crippled at a young age when he was dropped by his nurse. So he’s no great specimen of a leader in the physical sense, but he still has the blood of Saul and Jonathan in his veins. David could have easily seen him as a threat to his kingship. Instead of looking at him as a threat, he sees in him an opportunity that has multiple assets.
He can repay his debt to Jonathan. That friendship was very special to him, and perhaps in Mephibosheth he can see the face of his old friend.
He can demonstrate that he is a man of his word. He promised Jonathan that he would take care of his family and, in spite of the political sense it would make to have Mephibosheth have an accident, he is true to his word.
He can show that he is still honoring the house of Saul and the blessing God had
bestowed upon that house when he chose Saul to be king.
He is demonstrating that he is secure enough in his kingship to take a risk, one that will later come back to bite him. Ziba the servant will later have an important role to play in the story, so keep his name in mind.
David continues to act “kingly.” He tries to make a treaty with the Ammonites, but the new king doesn’t want to play nice. So he insults David by shaving the beards of his emissaries and making them walk bare… back to him. It is the diplomatic equivalent of giving them a “wedgie” and flipping the bird to the king at the same time.
David tried to make nice, at least on his terms, but this cannot be tolerated. So off go the armies of David again seeking vengeance. The Ammonites ally themselves with the Arameans and prepare to do battle. Joab and Abishai lead their troops into battle with a risky strategy. They divide their troops, something like what Custer did at the Little Bighorn, and proceeded into battle. Now, most military analysts will tell you that dividing your troops in the face of the enemy is a losing proposition. But once again, you have God taking charge of the situation. With God backing them up, even risky maneuvers like this succeed. Once again, that’s the point. At this time in his kingship, David and God are tight, and everything that David – or his general – does comes out okay.
David is at the top of his game. Unfortunately, when you are at the top, there is often no place to go but down.
One of my favorite expressions is “There’s nothing like a ‘good-bad example.’” And that begins to become part of the story of David. It is interesting to see that in their time, as in ours, the personal habits of a leader often play a role in defining the greatness of that person. The Kennedys are remembered for their “excesses” in this line. Gingrich has had to answer for his previous behavior. Many will use these incidents as means of defining the character of a leader, and judge them harshly for it. So, too, in the time of our story. So, one might wonder why the narrator would include David’s “indiscretion” with Bathsheba in a story that is ostensibly intended to glorify him.
The answer is that the story was not intended to glorify David, but to glorify God. It was also intended to show that when David followed God’s path, everything he touched turned to gold. But once he stopped believing that the rules applied to him too, everything went bad – until he repented.
Here we have David the king of all he surveys. Kings at this time had a lot of latitude in how they conducted themselves. Everything in the kingdom was theirs; other people simply got to use those things, including wives, only when the king didn’t want them for himself. Such behavior was very common, even expected, for kings in their area at the time. So on that level, David was not engaging in behavior that was unprecedented. He was simply doing what ordinary kings do – except that David was not an “ordinary king.” He was a king anointed by God, and he was expected to behave in a manner that would honor that relationship, not defile it.
But David succumbs to temptation and has Bathsheba brought to him. They follow “nature’s course” and, as there was no birth control in their day (that we know of), she gets pregnant. Now they have a problem. If she had been the wife of a local merchant, it would have been one thing. But she was the wife of one of his soldiers, and a valiant soldier who had come to him from outside of the kingdom to serve him. This is more than a simple case of adultery, as bad as that would be by itself. David is breaking the “warrior’s code.” As king, he has a sacred bond with his troops. Trust and loyalty is a two-way street. “Loyalty up, loyalty down” is the code that is still taught in the military. You are expected to be loyal to your leaders, and they are, in turn, expected to be loyal to you. They are expected to provide you with what you need to go into the fight. To back you up when trouble comes, and to protect those you leave behind. No greater betrayal can happen than for one of those on the top to invade the home of a subordinate and take his wife. Everybody gets that one – everybody except David.
Sure he tries to cover it up, even getting Uriah drunk so he would go home to his wife. But Uriah is a loyal warrior, and will not violate their code. When everybody is deprived, he must be deprived, too.
David is now desperate. He can see that his whole kingdom will collapse if this becomes public. He can’t get Uriah to cooperate, so he does the only thing left for him to do. The despicable act is made worse by the fact that he gives Uriah the letter that is his own death warrant to carry to Joab. Joab, being the loyal general that he is, complies even though he’s probably sure something is up. We have to remember the description of Joab’s character in the previous parts of the story. He is a ruthless man who doesn’t let the niceties of proper society stand in his way. He knows something is going on, and might even be a little glad to see that the king is becoming a bit more like him, instead of always being the “good boy” he’s been in the past.
So the deed is done. Uriah gets killed and David tries to pretend that it is all just part of the cost of war. There may have been some intent on the part of David that he could show his “care for the fallen” by taking the pregnant wife of one of his soldiers into his house. What a guy!
David, at this point, probably thinks he’s gotten away with it. But God has not been fooled and sends the prophet Nathan to bring his word to the king. Note here how the divine interacts with the real world. If Nathan had directly accused the king, nothing good would have happened. David could have simply denied the facts, or he could have had Nathan killed. He was the king after all. While this may seem simply to be a savvy political move on Nathan’s part – to get the king to condemn himself – it is really much more than that. You have to remember that another king might have reacted poorly to the subterfuge and killed Nathan for it. But God knew that the core of David was still good. While some of his behavior had gone astray, deep down inside there was still that inherit “goodness” that God has always admired. God could have simply struck David down, but that’s not how he is going to play out the rest of the story.
God is going to take the bad example of David’s adultery and use it to show some things. He’s going to show that for bad behavior there will be consequences, which will not be pleasant. He is going to show that when basically good people do bad things, he will punish them in the most grievous way possible. But he will also show that, after a period of chastisement, redemption is possible, and that even a restoration of good will can come back to the person if they make a significant change in their behavior and get back on track with God.
So the affliction of David, and Bathsheba, starts with the death of the child they conceived. David pleads with God not to kill the child, but to no avail. One might wonder why God would take the life of an innocent child to punish the king. It’s a hard question to answer. The only thing I can say is that God knew this was the only way that things could start to get “uncomplicated” and he could inflict pain on David at the same time. Imagine if the child had lived and grown up in the house of David. Every day he was there would be a reminder to everyone of the king’s “indiscretion.” Then, too, I have to believe that God would have a special place in heaven for the soul of such an innocent one. Neither one of those answers fully to my satisfaction. I guess the only answer is that this is the way God chose to do this, and in their day and time it would have been understood differently than it is in ours.
Note here, too, that God is letting up a bit on David and Bathsheba. They are allowed to have another child as a demonstration that their penance will not last forever. In fact, the result of this union will have a great effect on the future of Israel.
The end of this chapter shows two things. First, the displeasure of God with David does not necessarily extend completely to his kingdom. Their success in battle continues. Secondly, it shows that crusty old Joab is still conscious of his place in the pecking order. He doesn’t want to be seen as usurping David’s role as “the conqueror.” Rather, he wants to help the king maintain that position. One might also think that he knows that David is hurting over the loss of the child and wants to give him something to do that will take his mind off the loss.
Now I have no way of proving either of those statements. I am freely engaging in what Biblical scholars would call “eisegesis.” Eisegesis is a process of reading things into the scriptural story that are not really there. I do this less so with the first statement (that Joab wanted David to maintain his position as “conqueror”) than I do with the second statement (that he wanted to give him something to do). That is my assumption, a reasonable one I would maintain, but it is not directly supported by the story. I engaged in this little bit of eisegesis intentionally to make a point.
When we read the scriptures, it is important to know when we are staying with the story, or when we are interpreting the story. We can get ourselves into a lot of trouble when we start interpreting without guidelines. The major guideline always has to be what the scripture says, not what we think it means. Read the story, and listen to the words. Think about the story not in the context of our time, but in the time it was written. Then and only then can we start to interpret it for how it functioned in their time, and what it means for ours. We’ll keep ourselves out of a lot of “eisegetical trouble” if we pay attention to those rules.
As hard as all of that has been, David’s troubles are just starting. In this next series of events we get a picture of a king who succumbs to the normal weakness of any parent with troubled kids – and almost loses the whole kingdom in the process.
David’s family is a “blended” family, to use the term of our time. He has children by multiple wives, not unusual for their time – or ours for that matter – and problems result from the “blending.”
Tamar is the beautiful half-sister of Amnon. Amnon is love sick over her and lets
himself get talked into a scheme to be able to possess her. So the plan unfolds and immediately after gaining his desired outcome, Amnon, the writer says, “is filled with a great loathing for her.” My analysis is that this statement is cover for the real thing is going on. Amnon is probably now terrified about what he has done, fearing the wrath of his father or Tamar’s brother Absalom. But he can’t admit to that, so he blames it upon her. It’s the old “it’s really her fault, if she hadn’t been so pretty or dressed so provocatively…” excuse that has been used for centuries to justify rape.
But then a curious thing happens in the story, at least to our way of thinking. Tamar pleads with him to go to their father and ask his permission for them to marry. There was a tradition in the Middle East at the time that continues to today: If a man rapes a woman, he is then obligated to marry her. The rape is then considered a little “pre-marital sex,” diffusing the guilt of the crime and saving the reputation of the woman at the same time. Women who were raped at that time were often considered the provocateurs of the incident and could be put to death if they didn’t fight back hard enough or scream for help at least three times.
This fine tradition was recently in the news with an incident that occurred in Iran where a woman who was raped was forced to marry the man who raped her. In our own world we don’t have to look far to find similar situations. Women who were captured by the Indians were often shunned by the whites when they were recovered for having been forced to sleep with their Indian captors. In our own time, women who are raped are often consumed with guilt over the attack.
I bring these points up because it is very easy to start throwing stones at the folks in this story over these actions and the repercussions to them. This is one of those points in the story that I would encourage you to read the text in the context of the time it was written. They had ways of dealing with these situations that, while they might not conform with our standards, were undoubtably set up to avoid the blood feud that is to come.
“Revenge is a dish best served cold” is an accurate description of what happens next. Absalom waits two years, lulling Amnon into thinking everybody has gotten over it. Why would he? Nothing has happened. The story only says that David was “greatly upset.” There were no repercussions from the king or from anyone. So Absalom, who is the apple of his father’s eye, sets up a scenario and extracts his righteous vengeance. He then flees to Geshur to escape retribution and/or to save face for his father. There is considerable doubt as to what David would have done if Absalom would have stayed, but public opinion probably would have demanded some sort of action. By fleeing to Geshur, Absalom removes the pressure from both of them.
Enter Joab. He feels the need to fix this thing. So he sets up a scenario whereby the king adjudicates a case that gives him the excuse to bring Absalom back from exile. No one could have told the king that he “needed” to do that. And the way he judged this case made it both impossible not to call Absalom back and gave him the cover he would need to do so. Pretty smart move on the part of Joab.
But then the king messes thing up by holding Absalom at arm’s length and refusing to see him. He can come and stay in Jerusalem, but he can’t come to the royal house. This will begin to eat away at Absalom – and have dire consequences for David in the future.
So Absalom gets tired of waiting and forces the issue by burning down Joab’s field. Joab then sets up the meeting between, and Absalom is welcomed home. But the damage has been done, and Absalom is plotting his revenge against his father.
Absalom would be in line to take over the throne, but he makes a move to have the power early. First of all, he is the impatient sort. Look at how long Prince Charles has been waiting for the Queen to die! Secondly, considering the whimsical nature of his father in dealing with the whole Tamar thing, there is no assurance that the throne will not be passed to one of his brothers. Finally, there is an undying resentment against his father for his “unfair” treatment of him after his return from Geshur.
So Absalom gathers an army and starts a revolt. The country quickly divides into the pro-David and pro-Absalom camps, and the war is on. Some of those David trusted the most, such as Ahithophel, go over to Absalom’s camp, along with a growing number of people who seem to be weary of David and his rule.
So David flees Jerusalem, leaving behind 10 concubines to care for the palace. They will later be punished by him for their loyalty. He has some notable pledges of allegiance from Zadok who wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant with him. But David sends him back, basically saying that what happens next is all in God’s hands. This is part of the rehabilitation of David’s relationship with God. Once again, he is beginning to rely on the hand of God to preserve him. Somewhere along the way he lost that reliance, and now in this time of trial he begins to gain it back. This is part of the story that is meant to inspire those of us who face hard times to remember that God is with us even when times look their worst.
David’s counselor Hushai comes to offer to go with him, but the king sends him back to be his agent to disrupt the planning of Absalom. He sets up a system of communication so his spies can communicate with him and let him know the plans that Absalom is making.
An interesting thing now happens. Remember that I told you to pay attention to Ziba? His loyalty to David for the kindness he has shown to Mephibosheth now bears fruit. Mephibosheth has deserted David and thrown his lot in with Absalom, thinking that somehow he might become the next king. David takes the gifts that Ziba offers him and returns the favor by giving all of the position of Mephibosheth to Ziba.
David then has an encounter with Shimei, who had been part of the house of Saul. The old angers come pouring out of him, and he throws stones and curses David. Not a bright move. Even a wounded lion is dangerous as shows Abishai who wants to kill Shimei. But David’s rehab in the sight of God goes on.
He withholds any punishment. There will be time for justice later if the kingdom
is restored to him. If not, the squelching of one more critic will not make any
Absalom then begins to take over, both literally and figuratively. He moves into the palace, and in the sight of everyone takes all 10 of David’s concubines and has intercourse with them. This is a dominance thing and is done to demonstrate to all that Absalom is now in charge.