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Samuel: The Personal Failings of Our Greatest Leaders
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Once again, before listening to this shiur, I strongly encourage you to read 2 Samuel 11 and then return to the shiur. You will gain so much more from just having the story at your fingertips.
We think about a superficial read of the whole Book of Samuel where you would have thought that David is absolutely flawless until this great sin of Bath Sheba and Uriah. But in light of our discussion of the Abigail and Nabal story, it appears that David displayed the roots of this sin already but stopped short of sinning that time. Unfortunately, this time, he sinned big time.
Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful and the King send someone to make inquiries about the woman. He reported that she is Bath Sheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite. He knows she is married. He should just stop right there, but unfortunately, David’s passion got the better of him, and David sent messengers to fetch her. She came to him and he lay with her. She had just purified herself after her period, which as several commentators explained, means she is usually prone to getting pregnant. And then she went back home. David obviously was hoping for a one night affair and then it’s over. It’s horrible, it’s adultery. But, David is hoping that that is the end of the saga. But then, verse 5.
“The woman conceived and she sent word to David, ‘I am pregnant’.” In Hebrew, it’s harah anochi, two words; those are the only two words that Bath Sheba says in this entire story, but those two words explode on poor David. He is now stuck with the consequences of the affair. Now, she is just a little pregnant, but soon, she will start to show. And once she starts showing pregnancy, the neighbors will realize, “wait a minute, Uriah is up north on a battle front, he’s been away for months. How could Bath Sheba could is pregnant? It must be that some other man is involved.” And don’t forget David had sent his palace guards to bring Bath Sheba over. Somebody knows something. And this is the kind of thing where rumors are going to swirl, the scandal might very well get out, and King David will be in a whole lot of trouble. How does David respond to this urgent problem? He has to take care of the situation before Bath Sheba begins to show her pregnancy. His solution, which is not meant to be impressive, is to try cover up the whole thing.
He quickly summons Uriah back from the battle front, even though Uriah is one of David’s great military heroes. He sits him down and says, “Uriah, why don’t you have a drink? Why don’t you have another drink? How about another?” He relaxes with his hero and then he says, “Uriah, you know, you are such a faithful soldier, why don’t you just go home, be with your wife, take the night off, and then you can be with the battle front?” What’s David trying to achieve? If Uriah is known to be in town in Jerusalem and he goes home to his wife, and then subsequently Bath Sheba shows pregnancy, people will say “oh yeah, Uriah was in town. What a great break that he’s in for one night and impregnates his wife.” But Uriah destroys David’s plans.
Uriah answered David, “The Ark in Israel and Judah are located at sukkot and my master, Yoav, and your majesty’s men are camped in the open. How can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife? As you live, by your very life, I will not do this.” What a faithful, trustworthy, excellent soldier is Uriah. He is as pure as pure can go; in fact, he sounds a lot like King David in the earlier narratives when Saul is trying to kill him and in fact this is a role reversal that seems to be going on.
David is stuck. Because of Uriah’s nobility, because he is such a truly trustworthy, loyal, excellent man, he doesn’t feel right about going home and taking the night off and being with his wife while all of his comrades, the people whom he’s risked his life with time and again, through every battle on behalf of David and Israel, they are out there risking their lives and I am just going to take the night off? I don’t think so. I am going to stay right here and go right back to the battle front. David tries again; fails again. Ironically, David feels that he is left with no choice. He has to have Uriah killed immediately and he has to marry Bath Sheba right after that. Because then, if Bath Sheba shows pregnancy, and people aren’t watching their calendars too closely they can say, “oh, this child is from David”, which actually is correct, but they will think this child came from David after they already were legitimately married. And that’s what happened.
Because Uriah is so trustworthy, David writes a death warrant to Uriah to bring to Joab the General and actually seals it and puts it in Uriah’s hand and Uriah delivers it back to the battle front. David knows that Uriah is so trustworthy, he will never think of opening this decree which says “Please make sure that Uriah is placed in a very dangerous spot in the battle, and let him get killed that way.” And that’s what Joab ends up doing. Uriah is killed, soon as the mourning period is over, David marries Bath Sheba.
In the Abigail and Nabal story that we discussed in the previous segment, David thankfully stopped in his tracks and actually never sinned. He talked marriage with Abigail while Abigail was still married, but there was no affair. He wanted to murder Nabal and his family, but Abigail stopped him. This time unfortunately, David has had an affair with a married woman, and he has bumped off Uriah, this faithful, loyal and certainly underserving of death, soldier. God is furious and that’s what the very last verse says. “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.” Simple, it’s powerful and you feel the pain of the prophetic narrator who has the courage to describe these terrible sins of one of our most beloved and great heroes of all time.
Nathan the prophet is sent by God to give a parable. He says, “Look, once upon a time, there was a rich man, he had so many sheep, he could have served up any sheep he wanted to his guests, and there was a poor man who had one little sheep and he loved it so much and he took such good care of it. And one day, a guess came to the wealthy owner, and the owner didn’t feel like wasting any of his sheep; so he stole the poor man’s sheep and served it up for dinner. What should have been the judgment?” David is steaming! “What kind of injustice is this? What kind of rich man is that? He had so many sheep and he steals the one beloved sheep of this poor man! He has to pay four times the value of the sheep”, which actually is the law for stealing and slaughtering the sheep of another in the Torah, “but he should also be killed.” And this is where Nathan gets at him; and he says, “atah ha’ish” – “That man is you”, in verse 7. He just looks David right in the eye, and this is the beauty and courage of prophecy. “It was you all along. You can have any woman you want, and you took a married woman away from this beloved Uriah. How could you do that? God is furious at you and you are going to suffer the consequences.” How should David respond? Should he continue to follow in the sinning pattern? Should he burst out in anger at Nathan or even have him killed? Should he make excuses? Lot of people already made excuses; Adam and Eve already made excuses, King Saul made some excuses at Amalekite. David says two of the most powerful words in the entire Tanach. David, here is the criticism, and he says chatati laHashem – “I stand guilty before God; I have sinned. I have nothing more to say, there is no ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ or ‘buts’. I have no excuses for you or for God. I have done the terrible thing.”
David sin with Bath Sheba and Uriah led to the immediate unraveling of David’s family and set the stage for the breakdown of the kingdom several generations later. The next eight chapters deal with all of this unfolding. First the son that came from the affair dies. Then Amnon, David’s son, rapes his half-sister Tamar. Absalom who is also a son of David, is furious at this and kills Amnon in revenge. Then Absalom flees and ultimately rebels against David, bringing about a whole civil war within the in the country.
After that happens, Absalom is killed in battle by Joab, David’s general. Then, there is another rebellion, this time between the northern tribes and the southern tribes, and this rebellion actually is echoed when the monarchy finally splits later on; we see a very similar type of rift in the nation that actually begins at the time of King David.
But the narrative of David is teaching us that David’s righteousness as king kept the entire nation together and elevated it. And simultaneously when he sins, that affects him, his family, and the entire nation and also undermines the kingdom; exactly what the prophet Samuel feared, that a sinful king could cause harm to the kingdom, unfortunately it happened right here.
If we compare and contrast these two stories that we’ve been considering in these two segments, the Nabal-Abigail story – David almost sins, but then he stops before he does anything. In the case of Uriah –Bath Sheba – David does have Uriah killed and he does commit adultery with Bath Sheba. Nabal was a bad guy, but he did not deserve death. Uriah, who David does get killed, is innocent, excellent, what a super hero; and it’s all the more painful when David has him killed. With Abigail, there is talk of marriage while she is still married, but with Bath Sheba, there is an affair that leads to a pregnancy, which leads to an affair, which leads to a very harmful series of consequences. In the case of Nabal and Abigail, it does not say that God is angry at David, because David in the end did not do anything. But in the case of Uriah and Bath-Sheba, God most certainly is angry which is why he sends Nathan the prophet to him. In this instance, David’s model of teshuvah, repentance, is very different from the Abigail story. Here, it’s regret after sin. Confronted by Nathan the prophet, David immediately realize that what he did was absolutely wrong, and he understood that there were damages and consequences to his actions. He is shattered by his sin, and by the consequences. Chatati laHashem – “I have sinned before God.”
But David picks up the pieces and becomes a much more compassionate person through it. When son dies from the affair, he immediately accepts God’s decree; he understands that he is the one who immediately brought this all about. Later on there was a man named Shimi ben Gerah who was from King Saul’s family, who mocked David during the Absalom rebellion. David’s soldiers were outrage and wanted to kill Shimi ben Gera as somebody disgracing the throne. And David said, “You know, maybe this is God’s will. Let’s leave him alone. He might deserve it, he might not deserve it”, but David understood it’s all because of him.
For the rest of his life, David is haunted by his sin, and understands that he bears a lot of the responsibility for everything that went wrong in his own family and throughout the kingdom. So what has King David teach us? King David on the one hand teaches about the incredible heights that one can rise to and what a positive influence a great leader can have on his kingdom or his society. It also teaches the fallibility of every single person, even great ones, but that God is open to remorse and repentance.
Avodah Zarah 4B-5A – “When we sin, and we all do, we should look to King David to learn teshuvah.” David is the model. His sins are larger than life, but his teshuvah is also larger than life. There was no hesitation about it, there were no excuses.
We need to remember the two components of teshuvah that we should discuss in these two segments. Our best bet is to avoid sin before it happens, to be open to criticisms before anything takes place. Imagine what would have happened if David would have kept Abigail’s musar in mind, when he was thinking about how to approach the Uriah – Bath-Sheba situation. It would have been great if that was at the forefront of his mind, because then he would have paused and not sinned. So too, we need to be conscious of our negative tendencies, so that we can avoid errors before they happen. David also shows that he was open to Abigail’s criticism in the first place. He stopped in his tracks, despite being incredibly worked up and willing to murder Nabal and his family. That’s the first model, and that’s the ideal model. Second model is sometimes we fail, sometimes we make a mistake or we make a lot of mistakes, big or small. Once you fail, what do you do? We should embrace our faults just like David said, “I have sinned” to God. Humble yourselves and apologize to those whom you have harmed, and attempt to re-build from there.
This story, more than any other probably in Tanach teaches the profound honesty of the prophets. Even though we are dealing with King David, one of our most beloved figures in all of Tanach, he is so admired, he is so excellent in so many ways, and prophecy praises him for all of his achievements, at the same time, when he sins against God and other people, prophecy spares no criticism; there are no favorites before God. Precisely through this honesty and through David’s process of repentance, we are able to learn eternal lessons and apply them to our own lives as well.
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