Tuesday, June 03, 2008

2 Samuel 7-12: David Remains Problematic

Well, King David is who he is, and I suppose the problem in this relationship is me. Me and my expectations. Somehow, I just figured that being a big famous Biblical hero and all, he would have some sort of greater-than-usual moral stature. Instead he is, I suppose, refreshingly prone to human frailties. He's certainly prone to human frailties.

God, David, and Prophecy

Today's reading starts with a revelation to someone named Nathan, but it's not that guy Nathan who was in your dorm back in college, it's Nathan the Old Testament prophet. He is given a somewhat cryptic message, one that seems to imply that it would be a good idea for David to construct a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant -- still spoken of here as the physical embodiment of God. In return, God will render David's kingdom and dynasty permanent. Informed of this, David rushes to the Ark and makes an intimate, rambling prayer praising God and asking that the prophecy in the revelation come true.

Now here's an interesting thing. Some Protestant denominations technically believe that human beings can not really have free will. An all-knowing God, the reasoning goes, must by definition know everything that is ever going to happen. Since deviating from God's expectations is impossible, we all must be on a invariable track toward our final destiny.

Among other problems with this line of thinking -- it sure feels like free will, for instance -- it would seem from the Scriptural evidence in 2 Samuel 7 that God doesn't really know what's giong to happen in the future. His predictions, here as elsewhere, have simply not panned out. He tells David, for instance, that Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (16) He says that I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore.... (10) Mind, this is not a covenent, and there is no proviso for "as long as y'all are good." It's just stated that this is the way it's going to be. A literal interpretation of 2 Samuel would have to conclude that the Romans, the Dispora, and 20 centuries of pogram and persecution were things that God didn't see coming for his chosen people.

David in Love and War

Meanwhile, David leads the Israelites on a whirlwind of military adventures. We learn of horses hamstrung, quantities of bronze captured, thousands and tens of thousands cut down. We learn of how, after finally defeating the Moabites, David

made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. (8:2)
Some lucky peoples are merely enslaved, or even allowed to become subject nations, after their armies are defeated. The Ammonites are made slaves, for instance. The Bible goes into quite a bit of depth about the cause, tactics, and conclusion of the Ammonite War, weaving it in and around some stories of David's life. I won't go into all that; basically, this is a war where the Israelites keep their winning streak alive and continue their expansion and subjugation of the neighboring kingdoms.

Chapter 9 is an interesting interlude in all the action. Feeling nostalic about his late buddy Jonathan, David asks around until he locates Jonathan's son Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth is lame in both feet, as he was dropped in the panic when his father and grandfather, King Saul, were slain by the Philistines. David restores all of Saul's personal property and lands to Mephibosheth, and announces that he will henceforth always eat at the king's table. This is presented as a magnanimous gesture, but it is not hard to imagine an ulterior motive. Young Mephi is the legitimate heir to King Saul if you go by paternity, and therefore he's a potential rival to David's power and reign. By making him a perpetual guest in the court, David both coopts and undermines any claim Mephibosheth might make to the throne. Plus, he keeps him where he can keep an eye on him.

It is pretty obvious that David has, as they say, an "eye for the ladies," and his rise to high office hasn't changed this. He's walking on the roof of his palace one night, and he sees a smokin' hottie bathing nearby. Discrete inquiries reveal that this is Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah is out of town; in fact, he's on campaign with David's army. So, David sends for Bathsheba, and she comes on over to his place. She is ritually pure, so David decides -- how can I put this in a dignified way? -- to do the big freaky-freak with her. Commandments get broken.

Solimena Francesco, Bathing Bathsheba, c. 1725.Listen up, kids. That's how people get pregnant. Bathsheba sends word, in fact, that she is pregnant.

David, considering the outcomes of his actions, determines to do the right and moral thing. That's right: he calls Uriah back from the wars, hoping to give the hapless Hittite enough of a conjugal furlough so as to, shall we say, confuse the paternity issue. The baffled Uriah, more an infantryman than a messenger, is asked some perfunctary questions about how things are going back at the front, given a handsome royal gift, and told to go home to his wife. Unfortunately, Uriah is a dedicated patriot and soldier. "my master Joab [David's general] and my lord's men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife?"

Touched by Uriah's devotion to duty and principle, David knows what he must do. The next day, he gets Uriah really, really drunk, and tries again. But noble Uriah sleeps in the street once more, unwilling to enjoy comfort when his comrades are suffering.

Moved by the moral example of his heroic subject, David sees that he must step up and take responsibity for his actions. So, he sends Uriah back to the front lines with a note for General Joab. The note instructs Joab to make sure Uriah dies in battle. Joab, an obediant soldier, arranges a tactical error that results in the death of a number of his soldiers, including Uriah. After a decent period of mourning, Bathsheba marries David. Everybody's happy! So remember, kids, always do the right thing, and everything will turn out fine.

Wait, scratch that last part. Actually, God gets pretty angry with David over the whole Bathsheba affair. Nathan goes to David, and tells a little parable about rich men and poor men and sheep, the gist of which is, David has been very, very naughty. As a result, God makes David & Bathsheba's child sicken and, despite a week of praying, fasting, and prostration from David, die.

In the process of comforting Bathsheba for her loss, however, David gets her pregnant again, and this second child is born and lives. His name is Solomon.

Next Time: More Moral Reasoning with King David!


Jennifer said...

If I have my chapters right, I'm looking forward to next week's commentary on Absolom.

No pressure, of course.

Nichim said...

Perhaps the "literal" interpretation of "I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore...." is "eventually" or "in God's time, my dear, in God's time."