The Bible’s story of King David has unexpected surprises.
In the Biblical tradition, King David is a pre-eminent hero. He is presented as Israel’s greatest king. As expected with such a hero, the Bible tells many tales of David’s prowess as a warrior, conqueror, and political leader. It lauds him as a great poet. And it celebrates his magnanimity, as in his compassion to Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth.
I say “expected” about these tales because they fall into the genre for royal propaganda in the ancient world. Kings regularly expected their scribes to trumpet their exploits to the world. Pharaohs carved them in hieroglyphics on temple walls. Assyrian kings engraved them into the sculptured walls of their palaces. King Darius of Persia surpassed them all. He had an account of his accomplishments inscribed on the towering side of a mountain.
One thing is usually missing in all these ancient annals of the kings. We rarely find any acknowledgement of a king’s flaws, defeats, and abuses of power. If we find them at all, we find them in the insults hurled at them by their enemies.
Acknowledging an Abuse of Power
So that is what is so odd about the Biblical accounts of King David. Amid all the wonderful tales of his exploits, we find the scribes including 2 Samuel 11-12–a shocking account of David’s abuse of power.
This segment of David’s story tells of how he seduced and committed adultery with Bathsheba while her husband is off fighting David’s war. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. To cover up the scandal, David arranges that her husband gets killed in battle. Though the death is meant to appear accidental, it is really arranged murder.
Here is an account of sexual abuse that could hold its own in any news accounts coming out of the #MeToo movement. David has used his superior power not only to seduce a woman, but also to murder one of his own loyal troops. If we had accurate accounts of life in other royal courts throughout the ancient Near East, such behavior might be excused as the normal risks of living within royal circles. David would not be unique.
But the cover-up does not work. The prophet Nathan confronts the king with his abuse of his power and pronounces God’s judgment on his behavior. This is the first thing that is odd about the Biblical story. In ancient courts, prophets were expected to provide divine blessing on royal desires, not condemnation. Nathan is clearly outside the boundaries.*
The Marvel of a Repentant King
When confronted with his sin, David does the next odd thing. He acknowledges the wrong he has done and expresses deep remorse. We would expect any ancient king to do otherwise. It would have entailed a serious loss of face.
He might have expelled Nathan from court for lèse majesty or even executed him. He might have denied he did any wrong, singled out others for blame, or created a diversion to deflect attention away from his sin. Or he might have asserted that as king he is above the moral law.
Instead he admits his sin. How extraordinary of a king! He shows real humility in the face of the wrong he has done. And when Nathan announces that the child conceived with Bathsheba will die, David beseeches God in fervent prayer and fasting to spare the life of the innocent child.
Yet, despite David’s remorse, the child does die. David does not escape the consequences of his sin. This death is just the beginning of his troubles. Nathan also announces that David’s abusive behavior will unleash further devastation in his family, including rape, murder, and rebellion.**
This leaves us the readers in awe of the authors/editors who composed the account of King David. They, most likely royal scribes, are fully aware of his greatness–and of their duty to magnify that greatness. Yet great as King David is, he remains in their tale a human being, with his own share of serious flaws, character defects, and atrocious moral lapses.
The same can be said of the stories they tell about the magnificent Solomon and all the other kings that follow him both in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Grand as the trappings of monarchy may be, the Biblical authors never let themselves be blinded by that grandeur. Kings remain human beings accountable to God just as does any laborer in the fields or beggar in the city streets.
That’s why the Bible remains a double-sided resource when we turn to it for guidance about our dealing with political power. On the one hand, we have the apostle Paul admonishing Christians to submit to the authorities in power because the existing institutions of state are ordained by God (see Romans 13:1-6).
And yet on the other hand, we have the whole Old Testament witness with its deep suspicion of power, especially as exercised by kings.*** That witness models for us how to challenge abuses of power.
Maybe this is why the Bible can never provide us a simple and unvarying blueprint for dealing with power. The pages of the Bible are as mixed and complicated as the political situations each of us deals with every day.
* For more on Nathan the prophet, see my previous blog posting Prophets and Power.
** In this respect the literary work that comes closest to the pathos of the Biblical story is the cycle of stories about King Oedipus in the tradition of Greek tragedy.
*** That suspicion of royal power begins early in the Old Testament with the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.