Studying 2 Samuel 12 1-9, 13-15

Who will hold the ruler of a country to account, for runaway abuse and violence? In 2 Samuel 12:1-9 and 13-15, the text we are studying for Sunday, February 6, the answer seems to be God, through the agency of the prophet Nathan. This is the story of the aftermath of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah,” and then his murderous cover-up of the initial transgression. In effect, we are reading the exposé. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this well-known text.

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Samuel, parts 1 and 2, is one of the books thought of by Jewish readers as “the former prophets,” and by Christian readers as “the history books.” Scholars think of it as part of the Deuteronomistic History – a theological account of the history of ancient Israel, brought together from earlier sources, in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile.

But the portion of 2 Samuel in which we find our text is a distinctive unit of that larger work that has come to be called the Court History of David. It is stylistically and thematically different from the rest of the book of Samuel and from the larger Deuteronomistic History. It reflects an intimate knowledge of the life of the court, the personalities and minds of the characters, as well as a keen literary sensibility.

The Court History begins with David’s secure grip on kingly power and position, after winning out in the succession conflict that followed the death of Saul in 1 Samuel 31. The text we studied a few weeks ago (2 Samuel 9), of David’s rehabilitation of Mephibosheth, is an earlier part of this Court History. So David is king now, but there are still wars to be fought. And the king’s personal absence from a military campaign against the Ammonites sets the stage for the rape, and then cover-up, ending in murder-by-proxy, that is the story in chapter 11.

Our text records the God of Israel’s response to David’s actions, and how the prophet Nathan communicates that response to the king. Not positive, as we could have guessed. The selected verses (1-9, 13-15) skip over the substance of God’s curse on the house of David. That curse unfolds in the subsequent chapters of the Court History, in the stories of Amnon and Tamar and Absalom and Joab and Adonijah. [The family systems theorists must love this story; it makes all their points about secrets and dysfunction and family patterns repeating themselves.]

This text, along with part of the preceding story, is one of the lectionary options for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) and also the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), so there’s a reasonable chance that you’d know this was in the Bible from the lectionary. As long as Easter was early enough, or you weren’t on vacation the Sunday it was the preaching text.

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CLOSER READING: We are missing the tail end of 1 Samuel 11:27, with its dry understatement,

But the thing that David had done displeased the Holy One,

And which is immediately followed by the first words of our text. Verse 1 repeats some of the verbs and sequence in 2 Samuel 11:4 – the sending and the coming in. This feels intentional – that is, it feels like we are supposed to see this as a parallel event. And considering the differences in power involved in this whole story, we are probably meant to be thinking about the differences in power between messengers and monarchs and subjects, and between Nathan and God and David.

The parable Nathan tells in verses 1-4 is carefully worded, and reads like a story. Robert Alter notes that it is noticeably different from the more realistic prose around it, clearly in the mode of a traditional tale. Also, that the description of the poor man’s relationship with that lamb draws explicit parallels with Uriah’s speech in the last chapter, of what he would not indulge while on leave, to “eat and drink and lie with my wife.”

The lamb that is “like a daughter” to the poor man (v3) might remind us that the name Bathsheba means “daughter of [the, an] oath”.

In v4, the coming of a traveler or wayfarer might make us think of all the other stories in the Bible where people have offered hospitality to travelers – like Abraham in Genesis 18 or Lot in Genesis 19 or the nameless Ephraimite in Judges 19. The comparison to that story in Judges 19 is particularly creepy, because that story is a horrible one about rape and death and devastation with far-reaching consequences; and we are probably meant to think of it, too, because the same unusual word for “wayfaring man” that appears there is used here.

[I wonder about the identity of the traveler. In the Genesis stories, the travelers are messengers from God, “better angels.” In this story, could this “traveler” be metaphorically the opposite, one of those evil impulses we are not supposed to entertain? Just a thought.]

The explicit motivation of the rich man is ironic; the NRSV says “he was loath” to take from his own flocks or herds, but the Hebrew verb there often means “to spare” or “to pity.” It was used earlier in this larger story when Saul spared the king of the Amalekites and all the best animals in 1 Samuel 15, for instance. And it will be used again, by David, when he accuses the rich man of having “no pity.” The issue seems to be who or what is the appropriate object of pity or sparing – what a person should be loath to do.

The “rich man” clearly has his priorities messed up. Even David can see that. He calls the man, literally and evocatively, “a son of death” – a contrast with the daughter the rich and pitiless man didn’t spare. When he says the man will need to “restore” the lamb, the word is literally “make whole,” a relative of the resonant word shalom.

Nathan’s retort, “you are the man,” is even shorter in Hebrew, two short words. “You’re him.”

But God’s lecture is a lot longer. The speech lists each thing God has done for David; God anointed and delivered and gave house and wives (into his bosom – see Nathan’s story) and gave the house of Israel and Judah, and would have added more of the same. And then lists all that David has done, despised and done evil and struck and taken and killed. Far from equitable.

The mention of the “house of Israel and Judah” is a little odd, here, since we think there is a single kingdom at this time. It might be a reminder of the past, when Judah supported David early, while Israel held out. Or it might be a foreshadowing of the future, when this line of tension and identity will split the kingdom for good. Or, maybe both.

God specifically mentions that David has done evil in his [God’s] eyes – assuming we are to read it this way, there’s some text question here. Still – as a figure of speech, it echoes those ominous words from Judges, where everyone did what was good in his own eyes when there was no king. And leads us to think, again, about whose eyes people, even kings, should use to assess what’s good.

Our text skips the curse in verses 10-12. [Why?? It seems relevant. Sometimes it is not so easy to put the past in the past. These things have long tails. This action will have a long tail for David. And it sounds like God is taking action. The language in v10 might be consistent with God merely observing what the consequence of all this will be, as a matter of fact. But the language in vv11 and 12 is more intentional and active: God is going to do something here. It will not be pleasant, and it will be very public.]

In v13, David’s words of acknowledgement that he has sinned against God are brief; this doesn’t need to mean that they are not heartfelt. We could take a look at Psalm 51 on this.

Nathan tells David that God, literally, has “passed over” or “crossed” his sin. The NRSV translates this as “remitted,” but that feels a little strong. It’s more like God has put it behind him, or as we sometimes say about some mess in the past, “moved on.”

And besides, that misbegotten baby will die. I admit that, as a modern reader, I have a tendency to identify with the baby at this point. I’m pretty sure this is a mistake, though. And considering the rest of the events in the Court History of David, we might well ponder whether death in infancy was really the worst fate one of David’s children could have had.

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Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible. Volume 2: Prophets. A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

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Images: “Synagoge Enschede, Venster met zuil en sjofar,” by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David,” Eugène Siberdt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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