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David, Bathsheba, and the Justice of God

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord;

for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

So says Psalm 96. God is the eternal Creator, holy and just. Righteousness and truth are foundations of his throne. His compassion and faithfulness are toward all who fear him. He is good, and it is good to sing his praises.

So what of the case of David and Uriah? God himself was prosecutor, jury, and judge through Nathan the Prophet.

The penalty for adultery and murder is death by execution. This is known to all who study the Hebrew Scriptures. It was certainly known to King David. Yet he does not die. Do we find God righteous in his judgments, or do we find tarnished the quality of his mercy?

With a bit of gallows humor, Rava (Abba ben Joseph bar Hama, c. 280 – 352 CE, in Sanhedrin, 107a) offers an anecdotal commentary on Psalm 35:15. He explains that as David was studying capital cases in the Torah, his companions would say to him, “David, what is the death penalty of him who seduces a married woman?" He would rely to them, "He who commits adultery with a married woman is executed by strangulation, yet has he a portion in the world to come. But he who publicly puts his neighbour to shame has no portion in the world to come."

Gallows humor? Wise words. It must have eaten at David – “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” (Ps. 32:3) It takes little imagination to envision the capital his enemies made of his crimes. Yet his doom was pronounced by God. Shall we call it just?

There are competing interests in this case. Uriah's blood demands blood as payment, which normally would be the blood of his killer David. Granted that Uriah had no children with Bathsheba, his line has no heir and will die out. Bathsheba herself has been violated and adultery carries a capital sentence. She is carrying David's child and should not be left without a husband or child. David is the king, and Israel needs him to maintain national unity, defense, law and order. God himself has an interest in the case – the royal line of his Son is to come through David, whose line he proclaimed an eternal line. What does justice look like?

Here is God's verdict. David will not die: Israel will not be left without a king in a state of political unrest, Bathsheba will not be left a widow with a bastard child, and Solomon in due time will be born and made king. In the ever-amazing ways of God, the line of Uriah the Hittite line will be merged legally with that of David through Bathsheba and their son, so that Solomon will be heir of Uriah and continue his name. (Thus, Matthew records Solomon's mother as the wife of Uriah, so that his name is remembered.) Uriah's widow will be repaid for her suffering and exalted to highest position in the land as Queen Mother, sitting on a throne at her son Solomon's right hand (1 Kings 2:19). And though civil unrest will touch the nation, it will arise within the house of David. The nation will remain united in allegiance behind that house.

David, however, must be brought to full public repentance. God will forgive his sin, continue to use him as prophet and poet, and continue to bless his reign (2 Samuel 12: 24-31). Instead of payment coming through his personal death, the sword will fall on his children. As his lust brought the sword upon the house of Uriah, so lust will bring the sword on his house. His child with Bathsheba will die. Amnon will bring horror upon Tamar, and her brother Absalom will exact just revenge upon Amnon. Absalom will battle his father for the throne, and how great will be the grief of David at his death. Blood will be shed for David's crimes.

And the royal line of Jesus Christ marches on through Solomon. We are treading on questions of divine sovereignty whose answers go beyond our choice and understanding. Consider the ways of God already in the royal line. God chose Perez to be the heir of Judah, to be born of Tamar. To arrive at that pairing, two sons had to die and Tamar resort to deception to gain what was rightfully hers. The sons died because they were evil, and Judah had to be tricked because he refused to carry out his duty. These failings arose from human agency, from wickedness. Yet, to echo the famous words of Joseph, what was meant for evil God worked out for good. How do we square divine will and pleasure with human sin?

Obed was to be the grandfather of David, born to Ruth and Boaz. To arrive at that pairing, Elimelech had to die, as also Mahlon and Kilion. Three women were left widows. Boaz also presumably lost a wife and endured years of childlessness. All of this death and sorrow, faith and triumph, was woven into the unfolding royal line. As tempting as it might be, we cannot believe God is “winging it on the fly.” Somehow destiny is mingling with human responsibility to produce the royal line.

Consider another rabbinic dialogue about David and Bathsheba (Sanhedrin, 107a). Raba is considering Psalm 38:17, “For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me.” He explains, “Bath Sheba, the daughter of Eliam, was predestined for David from the six days of Creation, but she came to him with sorrow.” The school of R. Ishmael added a similar conclusion: “She was meant for David from the six days of Creation, but that he enjoyed her before she was ready.”

Both are wrestling with this very problem. The destiny of God from the creation of the world cannot be questioned, that King Solomon would come from the union of David and Bathsheba. Yet there was great evil and sorrow. The suggestion of R. Ishmael is astute: did David jump the gun? Had he waited, would Uriah have died and Bathsheba come to David righteously? Was that a more perfect form of God's will?

This is far from academic. Tamar endured sorrow, abuse, and neglect. Had God turned his back on her? Had evil turned aside his blessing? Naomi cried out to God in her bitterness. Faith demanded that God was still in control. There had to be a plan. In each case there was. We saw ultimately the will and triumph of God. But this is an existential question.

All we can say here is that God remained faithful and just amidst human failings. He had destined the royal line of our Savior Jesus of Nazareth through Abraham, Judah, Boaz, David, and Solomon. Granted that crime is an evil to be endured, Uriah and Bathsheba received justice and protection, and awaited glory in the world to come. Mercy was shown to David, but payment was made for his criminal actions. The will of God marched onward, in mercy and truth.

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