Sunday, June 15, 2008

David Can't Keep it in his Pants: 2 Samuel 11-12

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Things seem to be going fairly well for King David and Israel when he fucks up again, pretty seriously this time, and God basically withdraws his blessing from the new government. So much for the monarchy being a grand idea.

This story is probably the most recognizable part of 2 Samuel. David sees a pretty woman bathing and summons her for sex. (Hilariously, the Bible suggests that htis occurred, "in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war.) Bathsheba is pretty passive throughout this story; teh only thing she actually does on her own initiative is to tell David she is pregnant.

I always remember this story as David wanting to take Bathsheba for himself, but that's not quite how it turned out. David seems to have started out with the idea of a simple one-night stand. He actually panics when she says she's pregnant, and tries subtly to get Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, to come home and sleep with his wife as soon as possible, in order to cover up what he has done. Uriah doesn't seem all that interested, though, insisting that he is a soldier and will sleep with the hired men until he's on leave. Only then does David decide that he will have to kill Uriah by sending him into a dangerous battle - which he does, in the process killing numerous other people as well. With Uriah out of the way, he makes Bathsheba his wife (this would be wife number four, for those who are counting), but there's no sign he's initially all that attracted to her beyond the sexual encounter that caused all this trouble.

While David does eventually suffer for this act, it's worth noting that this is not an isolated event - David has a pattern of doing dubious things. It's not even the first time he's picked up a widow just as her husband dies: he did this back as a rebel too, when he married the wife of Nabal after the latter refused to pay protection fees to David's gangsters. David's penchant for chasing women is a pattern, not an isolated incident.

God has generally stood aside while all manner of evil was practiced by Israelites, including kings, for many years now, but he decides to take strong action now, for some reason. Nathan the prophet, regaining the role of prophet as important political protestor and social critic (something that, for example, was never present in 1 Saul, when prophets helped people find lost keys and lost donkeys and such), courageously informs the king that God is incensed and will punish David's house. David breaks and admits his sin, so Nathan says God will take away the suffering that was coming to David, but nevertheless, "the son born to you will die."

Sure enough, Bathsheba gives birth to a son but he is ill and dies within a few days. Uncharacteristically, David actually celebrates the death of his infant son by worshipping and holding a feast. His servants are nonplussed, but David reasons that his son has gone to a better place.

I have to wonder whether there's more going on here - I know a lot of people love David, but seriously, how many fathers celebrate the death of their newborn children if they really wanted those kids in the first place?

The story is doubly interesting because, as you may recall, way back in the laws of Moses one of the penalties prescribed for adultery was that the priest would mix bitter water as a sort of trial by ordeal, and this trial would - if the woman were guilty - induce a painful abortion. Sure enough, here God has killed the child in question. Interestingly enough, in this case we know precisely who committed adultery - David and Bathsheba - but, intriguingly, no one seems to expect that they have to be killed for this. (I know Uriah is dead, but still.) This is because a new and troubling new law has been established as part of the creation of the monarchy: the king is not subject to the law of Moses. Oh, he has to follow the moral prescriptions - but he isn't subject to the same penalties as everyone else, and neither are those who fall under his protection.

Even more worrying, I suppose, is the fact that while David may personally escape the penalties for his actions, punishment and suffering is then imposed on his subjects, who have done nothing wrong. This is a consequence of the new monarchist slant of Biblical elitism. Recall that in the past God would punish an entire family for the sins of the man who headed the household. In the new social order, there is a man who heads the nation - and therefore, when that man does wrong, the nation must be punished. It's a seriously questionable approach to morality. God once said he would punish men only for their own sins, but he's never really followed that rule, and he certainly isn't following it now.

(There's an alternative, of course, which is not to excessively spiritualize what's going on. Perhaps the coming collapse would happen even without some form of mysterious divine intervention, because, after all, people are pretty much the same selfish ingrates that they've been in most of the other books so far.)