11 One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. 5 The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him. But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.David was told, “Uriah did not go home.” So he asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just come from a military campaign? Why didn’t you go home?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!” Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.” So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died. (…)When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.12 The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “That man is you! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” Then Nathan returned home. (2 Samuel 11:2-17,26-27; 12:1-15)
One day, the great King David sees a woman whom he desires. Now if desire is a human characteristic—for the Bible, humans are “beings of desire”—it does not follow that every desire is necessarily legitimate: we are obliged to take others into account, as well as God’s law. But David is the king, and he considers himself above the law, not bound by any limits. He therefore takes the woman to him and sleeps with her, without heeding the consequences.
Things quickly become complicated. Since evil possesses its own dynamism, adultery leads to falsehood and finally to murder. The king is caught in a web of small steps which lead him further and further away from the right path.
At this point the prophet Nathan arrives; he comes to the king and tells him a story. Condemning him in the name of God would probably have only led him to react in anger, thus enclosing him still more in his wrongdoing. To find a way out of his sinful behavior, David has to gain distance. He has to start not from his own outlook and his inevitable attempts to justify himself, not as the king, center of the universe, to whom all is permitted, but as one person among others. The prophet is shrewd enough to have David judge himself by seeing himself as if he were someone else.
After the king is judged, not by God but by himself, Nathan continues by mentioning two consequences of his wrongdoing. First of all, the violence he did to others will inevitably turn back on himself and his family. This is a general “law” of existence, one which Jesus expresses by saying “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Second, what was done in secret will end up being made public. Jesus says this, too: “All that is hidden will come to light; all that is concealed will be known and brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17). These are both important aspects of the Biblical notion of judgment, namely the revelation of the true significance of our acts in all their dimensions. But this revelation of the truth is not a punishment; it is part of the process by which the depths of our being are opened to the healing love of God.
The story ends with the king’s repentance. Having admitted his sin, he receives at once from the prophet the announcement of God’s forgiveness. As the prophet Ezekiel will later say, God does not desire the sinner to die, but rather to change his ways and live (cf. Ezekiel 18:23). However, the death of the newborn child, so hard for our modern sensibility to understand, is announced as an indication of the fact that, even when forgiven, evil remains evil and leads inevitably to death. But there is in fact a “resurrection”: shortly afterwards, Bathsheba will have another child with David, and this one will be the great King Solomon, who will enable the relationship between God and his people to reach a new summit.
Where do we see the temptation of David, to consider himself a law unto himself, in our contemporary society? What enables us to deal with this?
Nathan said to the king, in God’s name: “You despised me.” In what sense is this true?
Is it necessary to confess our sins in order to be forgiven? Why or why not?
Are there aspects of David’s experience that speak to me? Which ones?