Friday, 23 November 2007

David & Bathsheba: Understanding OT Narrative

We hold the Bible in great esteem and wish it to rule our lives. So we constantly appeal to Scriptures in support of various issues which we are discussing. For the most part, Scripture is fairly self-interpretive, but on many contentious issues scripture lacks immediate clarity. The fact that the Bible was written so many years ago, and in a language and culture very far removed from our own, and sometimes in literary genres in which we're not experienced often requires more exegetical work to be done. All this is especially true of the Old Testament stories.

These stories are designed not just to preserve history. They were preserved in order to teach theology and the path of righteousness for Israel's generations in perpetuity. However, the moral of the story is not always obvious to us today as we listen to them in English in our 21st century North American context. Sometimes, we hear preachers or teachers build a case for behavior based on a reading of an OT story which is quite alien to the author's intention.

One example I might cite is that I heard a well-loved, hard-hitting preacher preach on Jacob and Esau to about 300 men who loved his style of preaching. He made a big point to say that since Esau was a hunter and Jacob preferred the indoors and was a chef, then Jacob was a "momma's boy." These 300 men, many of whom were very much hunters, and who were very much oriented toward male machismo, took away from this sermon that Esau was more oriented toward God's righteous path for men than Jacob. Exegetes grieve when a congregation's most hearty "amen's" arise at lines like, "Jacob was a momma's boy" rather than the main point of the story which comes in the form of the divine comment, "So Esau despised his birthright" (Gen 25:34). Regrettably, often a preacher's sermonic reflections are driven by crowd-pleasing one-liners than by exegesis.

OT narrative, however, is sometimes complex and not so easy to discern as my analysis of the Jacob and Esau story might suggest. Sometimes, the point is very subtle. For example, Gen 35:8 records Rebekah's servant Deborah having died and the place of her burial. The subtle point behind this comment often goes unnoticed until the sensitive reader asks, Why does Rebekah's death and burial go without biblical notice? This might be especially important since the death and burial of both Sarah and Rachel are indeed given notice. As we investigate the matter, we realize that Rebekah's last actions were her scheming to deceive Isaac into giving her son Jacob the birthright, her initiative in rescuing her son from Esau by sending him away from the land of his rightful inheritance, and her self-serving fomenting of contention regarding Esau's marriages to Canaanite women. With this in mind, we see that the biblical author wants to condemn her actions by not giving notice of her death and burial. Herein lies a cluster of theological and moral points: 1) trust in God who first made the promise that Esau would serve Jacob; 2) do not seize the initiative away from God in keeping his promise; 3) be not overly ambitious and self-seeking; 4) give proper respect and submission to the God-called head of the family. Much more could be said.

  1. All this is prelude to a quick look at the narrative regarding the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11-12). Here are some pointers for getting the most out of the story without inventing unintended points.
  2. One often noticed point comes in the form of the author's editorial notice that this occasion happened "in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war." Surely, this is an indication that the occasion for the sin arose while David was neglecting his mandate to take dominion of the Promised Land.
  3. The sin is manifestly more flagrant by the rhetoric used by the loyal servant, "Isn't this Bathsheba…the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" Implicit in this turn of phrase ("Isn't this) is that David should indeed have already known something of who she was. Moreover, she is explicitly denoted as a man's wife, and this man was a well known man to David, who made his list of famous warriors in 23:39. Finally, the Gentile (Hittite) Uriah is shown to be more righteous than the Jewish king; the Gentile knows and lives God's way, but the God-privileged Israelite king does not.
  4. David's neglect of the spring war campaign is made more flagrant by faithful Uriah's refusal to go home and sleep with his wife while the army and the ark were deployed in the field.
  5. David's sin is again intensified by his cover-up plan to get Uriah drunk so that he would be taken home to sleep with Bathsheba: "David made him drunk."
  6. Again, the sin is intensified not only because of Uriah's planned murder, but also by the unplanned deaths of some of the other men with him in battle.
  7. David's service as the commander-in-chief is blackened further in that initially he was rightfully and predictably angry over Joab's battle tactics which caused the lives of a number of men, but then when he heard of Uriah's death, his anger was mitigated. Accordingly, he sends a message to encourage Joab, "Don't let this upset you…."
  8. Despite the above clues being so obvious, the author provides yet another clue in the form of divine commentary: "But the thing David had done displeased the Lord."
  9. Upon hearing Nathan's parable, David burned with anger and righteous indignation, showing his hypocrisy. He spewed forth a condemnation and punishment for the man. His own word of condemnation sets up his own judgment by God, and foreshadows the death of his newborn baby.
  10. Another divine commentary is offered: "Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes."
  11. David's restoration is explicit in his confession "I have sinned" and in Nathan's assurance, "The Lord has taken away your sin." Still, David would face the consequence, namely, the death of the child.
  12. David's pleading, fasting, and self-humiliation would not remove God's judgment against the child. This is interesting in that there might be some poignant parallel to Moses' effective intercession for Israel. Confer also Hezekiah's similar, but effective prayer for prolonging of life.
  13. Perhaps a main point of the whole story is encapsulated in 12:20. After fasting and praying in utter submission and humiliation, the child still dies. Despite this severe disappointment, once the child is dead, David gets up, washes, puts on body lotions and changes clothes so that he might go worship Yahweh in the house of the Lord. This can preach.
  14. In light of the severe condemnation handed to David by the Lord, the question arises whether David will truly be restored. What's more, and this may be relevant to our modern day issue of divorce and remarriage, God blesses David specifically in regard to his relationship with Bathsheba. Here's what's striking:
    --The biblical author no longer censor's David by referring to Bathsheba as Uriah's wife. Quite the contrary, she is now explicitly referred to as David's wife.
    --David comforts Bathsheba. This meets with the author's approval as is implicit by several indications.
    --The comfort David afforded to Bathsheba was explicitly connected to his going to her and lying with her.
    --This renewed sexual relationship is given divine consent and sanction. This is explicit in that the child born to them (Solomon) was specifically mentioned as being loved by God. This is likely the only occasion in the Bible where a newborn child is specifically mentioned as being loved by God.
    --David's response to this sanction by God is to give the child a second name, Jedidiah, which, in fact, means, "loved by the LORD."

Some of this analysis is more obvious than others. No doubt, a careful reading of the story in Hebrew would lead to more discoveries, as would an increasing understanding of Israelite culture and other OT literature. I myself am no expert in reading OT narrative, and hope to increase my abilities in the coming days. I have written this as an invitation to encourage further studies in reading OT narrative so that we can get the most out of reading our Bibles.

No comments: