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.