Magazine article Tikkun

David, Bathsheba, Nathan, and War

Magazine article Tikkun

David, Bathsheba, Nathan, and War

Article excerpt

Richard H. Lowery is professor of Old Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In the spring of the year, when kings go to war, David mobilized Joab, his officers, and all Israel with him. They left the Ammonites in ruin and laid siege to Rabbah. David stayed behind in Jerusalem. At sunset one day, he got out of bed and took a stroll on the palace roof. From the roof, he saw a woman bathing. (2 Sam. 11:1-2)

With biting sarcasm, the biblical writer begins to narrate the tragic seduction of Israel's greatest political leader, King David. Enticed by his own power, David rides unprecedented success at home into armed conflict abroad. But victory in battle cannot finally mask the failure of moral and political leadership that led the nation to war.

The verses above introduce a long narrative that describes the unraveling of David's popular reign and charts the violent course that finally leads to the crowning of Solomon, David's unlikely successor.

The writer's deadpan assertion that spring is the time "when kings go to war" may be a simple statement of fact. But it also underlines the distinctly unnatural character of a political system that generates death and destruction at precisely the time Nature calls forth new life and hope.

We can't know for sure why David in this case sent his troops to fight on foreign soil. No enemy provocation is mentioned, no clear-and-present danger is defined. We're only told that this is the sort of thing kings typically do this time of year--perhaps a hint that David's war is motivated by economic interests and political prestige.

Though the rationale for war is unclear, these verses leave little doubt about how David's wartime conduct should be viewed. While the troops went out to battle, "David stayed behind in Jerusalem." Lest the reader miss the point, the writer continues: "At sunset one day, he got out of bed and took a stroll."

Trigger-happy with the lives of others, David loses little sleep over the risks they take on his behalf or the disastrous effects of the war he orders on the people of Ammon and Rabbah. In the comfort and safety of the Executive Mansion, the slayer of Goliath has become a "chicken-hawk," eager for war, but protected from its dangers and shielded from its consequences.

It is tempting to apply this ancient political critique narrowly against many of the politicians and pundits today who seem eager for war against Iraq. I am troubled, for example, that the president and many of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of war in the White House, Congress, and right-wing media used social and political privilege to avoid combat in Vietnam, a war they otherwise supported. Today they beat the drums of war, but their children are not the ones who will risk their lives in the Persian Gulf, in the air over Iraq, or moving door-to-door in Baghdad. Poor and middle-class kids from small towns, farms, and inner cities--decent, patriotic Americans who took the best chance they have for a college education and a decent job--they are the ones who will pay the price for this rush to war, not the sons and daughters of White House advisors, senators, and TV personalities who promote military action.

The biblical story, however, suggests that something more fundamental is at stake than mere political hypocrisy. The narrative issues a deeper, broader moral challenge. David has lost respect for the inherent value of other human beings. Removed from the consequences of his call to arms, David is desensitized, untroubled by the violence he unleashes.

In the paragraphs that follow, David uses the power of his office to force a sexual encounter with Bathsheba, the woman he sees bathing. When she becomes pregnant, he attempts to cover up the assault, summoning her husband Uriah from battle and encouraging him to sleep with her. Uriah's principled refusal to go home to his wife highlights David's shameful lack of empathy for those he puts at risk: "Israel and Judah are living in tents," Uriah says, "my lord's troops are camping in the field, and I should go to my own house to eat, drink, and lie with my wife? …

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