David and Bathsheba

It is a convention of biblical scholarship that scripture sometimes presents seemingly contradictory information that forces us to evaluate the misdeeds of extraordinary people in the context of their times and circumstances. To warn us against superficially interpreting David’s episode with Bathsheba, the Talmud records the oral tradition that, “Anyone who says that David sinned is in error.”1

Even without the Talmud’s admonition, it is impossible to reconcile the simple reading of the text with Torah law. According to Jewish law, an adulteress is forbidden to marry a man with whom she committed adultery, even after divorce or the death of her husband.2 Any descendant from such a union would be a mamzer, i.e., illegitimate, and would thus be disqualified both from reigning as king and from marrying into the general community of permitted Jewish women. Because David remained married to Bathsheba after the incident without reprimand, and because their son, Solomon, was allowed to rule and perpetuate the messianic line, we have no choice but to conclude that David, whatever his sin may have been concerning Bathsheba, did not commit adultery.3

A number of details concerning Bathsheba are not addressed by scripture. Early in his reign, David had decreed that every soldier must give his wife a get, a divorce document, stipulating that if he did not return after the war the woman would be considered divorced retroactively to the giving of the get. David instituted this practice to protect every soldier’s wife from the unfortunate status of agunah, a woman prohibited from marrying because her husband is missing in action but not confirmed to be dead.

Consequently, when Uriah, a soldier in David’s army, did not return home from the war, the get he had given to his wife, Bathsheba, rendered her technically divorced from before the time of David’s first involvement with her.4

Furthermore, Uriah and Bathsheba had never consummated their marriage, indicating some severe dysfunction in their relationship.5 Although this would not by any means justify adultery, it does suggest a motive—other than Uriah’s stated reason of empathy for his fellow soldiers—for Uriah’s refusal to comply with David’s order to return home to his wife.6

When Uriah was called before David, he made reference to his general as “my master, Joab” (2 Samuel 11:11). Although this form of address would have been proper in the presence of his commanding officer, referring to anyone other than the king as master in the presence of the king himself constituted an act of rebellion punishable by death.7 Uriah also disobeyed David’s order to return home to his wife.8 On two separate counts, therefore, Uriah placed himself in the category of mored b’malchus, a rebel against the king. As such, Uriah forfeited his life immediately since the extralegal powers of the monarch include the authority to invoke the death penalty upon rebels without the due process of law.9

Undeniably, the law gave David the right to bring Uriah before the Sanhedrin and demand his execution. Nevertheless, David worried (for good reason) that the people would question the integrity of a king who ordered a man’s death and immediately married his widow, and David sought to avoid the public appearance of conspiracy and impropriety when he married Bathsheba.10 Therefore, rather than demanding Uriah’s execution from the Sanhedrin, David instructed his general, Joab, to arrange Uriah’s death in battle.11

It is clear, therefore, that David was neither an adulterer nor a murderer. Indeed, when the prophet Nathan presented David with the parable of the rich man who stole the poor man’s sheep, he alluded to theft but to neither murder nor adultery.12 Had David been truly guilty of murdering Uriah, what possible explanation could there have been for the prophet to employ a parable that implied theft but not murder?

What was David’s crime? Some say David erred by arranging Uriah’s death himself and circumventing the formal process of indictment and sentencing. Although David had the authority to invoke the death penalty, he should have gone to the Sanhedrin and confirmed that Uriah’s actions constituted an act of rebellion before executing justice.13 According to this, it was David’s desire to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing that, ironically, resulted in his real transgression.

So why does scripture leave David’s innocence so concealed and elusive? Let us recall that the stories recounted in the Bible often magnify the sins of great people so that later generations can appreciate the severity of their transgressions. For a spiritual giant such as David, his indiscretions with Bathsheba and Uriah were indeed comparable to adultery and murder. However, to believe that David actually committed either adultery or murder is to miss both the greatness of David and the real lessons of the biblical record.

Despite his failure, when confronted by the prophet with his sin David immediately accepted responsibility for his actions with the words, “Chotosi LaShem—I have sinned against God” (2 Samuel 12:13). Although innocent of adultery and murder—sins against man—David had nevertheless sinned against G-d when he failed to uphold the divine will by manipulating the intent behind the law.14

For his transgression, David endured the most severe punishments: the death of his first son from Bathsheba, and the rebellions of his sons Absalom and Adonijah. But because of his spontaneous and unqualified repentance, David retained his distinction as founder the messianic line. It was he who prepared Israel for its crowning glory, the building of the Temple.

Moreover, David becomes an eternal symbol of the power of repentance. Through sincere repentance, David demonstrates for all future generations that anyone, no matter how grave his sins, can find redemption if he truly regrets his misdeeds and commits himself with all his heart and all his soul to correct them.15

1. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 56a

2. Ibid., Sotah 25a

3. Malbim on 2 Samuel 11

4. B.T., Kesuvos 9b

5. Zohar 1:8b

6. See note 43 below.

7. B.T., Shabbos 56a

8. 2 Samuel 11:7ff; see Malbim ad loc.

9. Maimonides, Laws of Kings 3:8–10

10. Malbim on 2 Samuel 11:15

11. 2 Samuel 11:14ff

12. 2 Samuel 12

13. B.T., Shabbos 56a and Tosfos there, divrei hamaschil: Sh’hayoh lecha lidono b’sanhedrin

14. Zohar 2:107a

15. Sifri, Va’eschanan 1

Excerpted from Dawn to Destiny: Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom by Rabbi Yonason Goldson.  Click here for more information.

  1. #1 by Joshua River on December 13, 2011 - 12:22 pm

    Is that some kind of joke?

    [Is this any better than] Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of the word “is” and claiming he wasn’t lying when he said he was never alone with Paula Jones in the hotel because technically, there were other people staying in the hotel.

    Uriah was guilty of a death penalty offense by staying with his men instead of returning to his wife, the intent of which could ONLY be to cover David’s impregnating of Bathsheba?

    In what twisted world do you live?

  2. #2 by Rick Luczak on December 13, 2011 - 9:33 pm

    I agree this essay is provocative. I am in no way a Torah scholar. With my thin veneer of knowledge, I’d question whether all of this legalism was known and applicable in David’s day, given that conventional scholarship says that the scrolls of the Torah were not finalized until Ezra’s time.

    I see David’s confession in Psalm 51 — I have sinned against G-d. Yup, there’s a lot of circumstantial support for the thesis in this essay.

    It is interesting, and I thank you for presenting it.

  3. #3 by Joshua River on December 14, 2011 - 1:57 pm

    I respectfully disagree.

    The essay may be provacative, but it’s simply wrong.

    If we’re going to discuss circumstantial support, then let us truly take a legal approach to this.

    The intent of David’s deception in telling Uriah to bed his wife while his men were at battle was at whom . . . Uriah, or G-d?

    Clearly, as David had already bedded Bathsheba, as David had already impregnated another man’s wife, a living man who was still very much married at the time, the idea was to deceive Uriah into thinking he was the father of the child she carried.

    Nathan’s rebuke of David, in 2 Samuel 12 . . . In verse 9, “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.”

    The child born of David’s sin dies by the seventh day of his birth . . . he wouldn’t have even had his bris by then.

  4. #4 by torahideals on December 14, 2011 - 4:07 pm

    Well, it is daunting to attempt any rebuttal of so eloquent an argument as “it’s simply wrong.”

    It’s also difficult to understand what point you are trying to make with the “legal approach” you bring. In any case, I have already explained why David is not guilty of either adultery or murder. I have also explained that his is rebuked by the prophet for his attempt to circumvent the normal channels of justice, a crime so serious for a king of David’s stature that he would have deserved the death penalty had he not repented at the moment of his denunciation, and for which he suffered for the rest of his life.

    And the relevance of the child being too young for its bris when it died is…?

  5. #5 by Joshua River on December 14, 2011 - 4:48 pm

    It’s simply wrong is a pithy summary.

    The point of the “legal approach” is that the entire piece is written in legalisms . . . the contortions you go through in order to explain why “David is not guilty” is the apotheosis of legalism.

    And so I asked the obvious: in a legal trial, intent is a major contributor.

    David was not guilty of murder directly, but was rebuked by Uriah for exactly that, striking down Uriah with another man’s sword.

    Uriah wasn’t receiving justice for disobeying the King’s orders to bed his wife in an attempt to cover up the illicit affair. David never said such. He didn’t order Uriah to the front lines because he wouldn’t sleep with his wife to cover the tryst David had with Bathsheba.

    The relevance of the child being too young for his bris when it died means he never received the mark of the covenant G-d had with Abraham.

  6. #6 by torahideals on December 14, 2011 - 10:17 pm

    I may have to end this thread here, since it is getting tedious making the same points over and over.

    As I have already explained, the Torah and the prophets often presented narratives in a way that did not render the whole story. They did this for two reasons. First, because the figures involved were so great that a literal description of their subtle errors would often fail to communicate the magnitude of their transgressions relative to their extraordinary spiritual levels; consequently, scripture magnifies their sins so that we can better learn from them.

    Second, to remind us that truth lies beneath the surface, and that a surface reading leads to superficial interpretations, in the same way that we cannot appreciate the complexity of our world until we look through a microscope.

    This is not my own opinion. This is what Jewish tradition has taught for over 3300 years. One who dismisses the collected wisdom of our sages and scholars with a wave of his hand is like a six year old arguing with Einstein. He can’t understand the concepts and doesn’t recognize the genius that authored the ideas, so he argues. A professor of physics knows better and assumes that if he doesn’t understand Einstein, the inadequacy lies within himself.

    David did commit a monstrous transgression — monstrous on his own exalted spiritual level. What he did not commit was adultery or murder, although his sin on his level might be compared to adultery or murder if committed by someone on ours.

  7. #7 by Rick Luczak on December 18, 2011 - 3:10 am

    I linked this page on a Catholic website for comments and it came back with a couple issues that went over my head. Nathan’s rebuke about theft was a reference to David’s theft of Bathsheba from her husband, was it not?

    “whatever his sin may have been concerning Bathsheba” — was this not the sin of coveting? You tell me, is coveting worse than adultery? or vice versa?

    While the ‘get’ may be effective retroactively, David was not in that “space” yet. Uriah had not been killed or missing in battle yet, so the “retroactive” stuff wasn’t operative? How could it be? If Uriah had returned alive from the battle, the ‘get’ would not have been effective, no? He would still have been married to Mrs. Uriah.

    I can’t punch my way out the mamzer paper bag yet; I’m still working on that.

  8. #8 by torahideals on December 19, 2011 - 7:04 pm

    One of my rabbis, Rav Zev Leff, offers the following allegory:

    Two shoplifters come before a judge. The judge asks the first about his background. The man answers that his father was a mafia hit man, his grandfather was an axe murderer, and his great-grandfather was a serial killer.

    The judge says, “And you’re only a shoplifter? You’ve really come a long way!” Then he lets him off with thirty days in the local jail.

    When they judge asks about the second man’s background, the man answers that his father was a priest, his grandfather ran a homeless shelter, and his great-grandfather was president of the United Way.

    The judge screams, “With such an illustrious family you became a shoplifter? How dare you!” Then he sentences him to five years in the federal pen.

    Both men committed the same crime, but the severity of the crime was radically different for each.

    On David’s spiritual level, his actions circumventing the letter of the law were comparable to murder and adultery committed by a lesser person. Therefore the prophet’s and G-d’s condemnation.

    As far as the matter of the “get,” compare it to this case that actually happened to me. A neighbor had an object of modest value that he no longer needed. He gave it to me, on condition that I make a donation to the charity of my choice. The instant he gave it to me, it was mine. However, if I had not subsequently given the money to charity, then retroactively I would have been a thief from the moment he gave it to me.

    David was wrong to assume that G-d would orchestrate events in order to bring him together with Bathsheba, and he was wrong to manipulate the normal process of jurisprudence even though Uriah was in fact guilty. Because of the “get,” he escaped an adulterous relationship because of a technicality. Nevertheless, he should have waited until Bathsheba was available to him without resorting to such unsavory tactics. For this he was chastised, punished with a life of troubles, and would have suffered death if not for his immediate and sincere repentance.

    I hope that helps.

  9. #9 by Joshua River on December 20, 2011 - 3:20 pm

    I know the author feels I’ve been a gadfly, but where exactly does it say that a get can be retroactive?

    From my memories in Kew Gardens, a get couldn’t be ex post facto . . . couldn’t be predated. It had to be given of the mans freewill (hardly something that could be commanded).

  10. #10 by torahideals on December 21, 2011 - 12:15 am

    The primary source, cited above in footnote 4, is Babylonian Talmud Tractate Kesuvos 9b, applied by, among others, Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim in his commentary on 2 Samuel 11.

    It’s been a while since I studied the laws of gitten, but post dating and predating would prohibit writing the get for a date other than the day on which it is signed. This is precisely the point. David instructed his men to write their wives gitten for they day the left, but on condition that they did not return. Consequently, each get was pending, and would go into effect (from the day given) only if the husband did not return but would become null and void if he did.

    David instituted this practice, which his men accepted willingly, to spare their wives the anguish of being unable to remarry in case their husbands were lost in battle. The stipulation of making each get conditional was a concession to the husbands who feared that their wives, if left alone and unmarried for too long, might choose to remarry while their husbands were away at war.

  11. #11 by Deborah G on May 28, 2013 - 6:27 am

    If Uriah’s marriage to Bathsheba had not been consummated, he should not have been sent to war (Deuteronomy 24:5). We should review the Jewish wedding ceremony. From whence does the cloth produced by parents to “prove” that their daughter was a virgin at the time of marriage consummation proceed from?

  12. #12 by torahideals on June 10, 2013 - 3:29 pm

    That the marriage remained unconsummated demonstrates how the relationship was dysfunctional, which does not excuse Dovid’s actions but helps us appreciate that he did not force himself on an unwilling woman.

    As for the “bloody sheet” — to the best of my knowledge, that is a myth. I have never heard that it was actually practiced.

  13. #13 by Littlerue on June 10, 2014 - 8:34 am

    I am very interested in this article, and I believe you hit some interesting points. Thank you for sharing this. But I have a few questions. If David did not commit adultery then why did he bring Batsheva’s husband back from war and try to get him to sleep with her? Why didn’t he just take Batsheva as his wife the moment he found out he got her pregnant.

  14. #14 by torahideals on June 12, 2014 - 10:00 am

    Because Dovid believed he was destined to bring the Messiah through BasSheva, he trusted that the Almighty would bring about her husband’s death and render her retroactively divorced. Dovid considered this an act of faith, and therein was his error. He should have recognized that the moment of messianic potential had not yet arrived and waited patiently for it to come.

    Once BasSheva became pregnant from him, he recognized his error. Since at that moment Uriah was still alive, BasSheva was still married — certainly Dovid could not marry a married woman. Realizing that he had made a terrible mistake, Dovid ordered Uriah back to his wife. Possibly, he suspected that Uriah would refuse and thereby provide Dovid an excuse to execute him as a rebel, which would fit with some commentaries’ explanation of Dovid’s crime as a misuse of power.

    My take is that Dovid wanted to cover up his guilt to preserve the integrity of the monarchy in the eyes of the people, even though he knew that by doing so he would make himself subject to divine punishment as an adulterer and forfeit his chance to establish the messianic line. However, once Uriah refused, his act of rebellion justified Dovid executing him. Since Uriah never did return to his wife, the divorce document (get) remained valid and BasSheva became retroactively divorced on account of her husband’s death.

    In the end, Dovid is indicted by the prophet and suffers terribly because of his actions, but since he did not technically commit either adultery or murder, and because he wholeheartedly confessed his sins and repented, he retained his destiny as progenitor of the messianic line.

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