The narrative of 2 Samuel 11 is known traditionally as the Story of David and Bathsheba. Preachers, artists and musicians have exploited their encounter and used it to moralise about the dangers of sexual lust. Uriah, if mentioned at all, is seen as the victim of David’s desire for his wife, and his murder plays second fiddle to the adultery between Bathsheba and the king. In reality, however, Uriah plays a much more significant role than his wife in this story. She will perform on centre stage later, when she manoeuvres her son Solomon onto the throne. But here, she is in the background, the beauty who is used and abused by David. The focus is on her husband Uriah, who is a foil to David. As Lot is to Abraham and Esau is to Jacob, so Uriah is to David in this episode. His function is to form a contrast to David, and to reveal the true nature of the king. We cannot consider one without the other.
Hebrew narrative is famously sparing in its explicit assessment of characters. Characterization is conveyed indirectly through a number of strategies. The ones most prominent here are those of contrast and repetition. The first sentence tells us that the action takes place at the time of year when kings “go out” (v. 1, “... to battle” is not present in the Hebrew). His men might be out on the battlefield, but King David stays in – in bed to be precise. The indolence of David who finally gets out of bed late in the afternoon contrasts disturbingly with his soldiers who are risking their lives. Even more disturbing is his callous attitude to Bathsheba. The internal chronology of the book suggests David is about forty-seven years old. Yet advancing years have produced neither wisdom nor integrity, but simply an awareness of his power. He sees her, ‘sends” for her, sleeps with her (vv. 3-4). He had previously ‘sent” Joab and the army off to war. The verb “to send” is used no fewer than twelve times in the chapter, mostly to underline that David is in control. So we are entitled a wry smile when, in contrast, Bathsheba ‘sent” and told him, “I’m pregnant”.
Undeterred, David “sent this word to Joab: ‘send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent him to David.” This repetition underlines that whatever happens in this story is the result of David’s conscious planning and detailed strategy. And, the reader might well ask, for what reason could David have sent for Uriah? To confess his reckless behaviour? To ask for forgiveness? To bribe Uriah to keep quiet? To warn him off? The extended conversations between David and Uriah not only suggest David’s motives but also contrast the two men so that their characters stand out crystal clear.
David begins with Plan A, urging Uriah to “go down to your house ...”. Why he wants Uriah to do so is not stated explicitly, but hinted at when he adds, “... and wash your feet” – “feet” being an occasional Hebrew euphemism for the genitals. Even so, the narrator never tells us why David should want Uriah, above all else, to spend time with his wife. However, this indirect innuendo makes the unfolding plot all the more intriguing for the reader, especially when, through repetition once again, we read that Uriah “did not go down to his house”. David can’t believe it and asks for an explanation. Uriah simply states that his colleagues are in danger in foreign parts; in these circumstances how could he possibly sleep with Bathsheba. Come to think of it, David, how could you?
So David has to move on to Plan B. At a palace reception he gets Uriah drunk – surely alcohol will remove the man’s principles. But once again, Uriah “did not go down to his house”. The repetition sets up this disturbing contrast: Uriah, drunk, has more principles than David, sober. And those principles are the undoing of Uriah.
David moves on to Plan C; simple, efficient and deadly. Uriah must die. And other people will have to die as well if this is to look like an accident. The heartless nature of this ploy is magnified when David signs Uriah’s own death warrant and hands it over to the unsuspecting man himself to deliver to Joab, who will devise the military ruse which kills him. David and Uriah part, never to meet again. But enough was revealed when they were together, through contrast and repetition, for us to assess their true characters.
Once Uriah is dead, our narrator employs another technique of Hebrew narrative art – delay. Up to v. 17 the story has been told with typical Hebrew economy and events have followed quickly one after another. Beginning in verse 18, however, the pace slows considerably. We are provided information that is not essential in a verbose style, concerning what should be told to David, all the way to v. 24. This is a deliberate strategy used by Hebrew narrators to delay the climax, so that when it is finally reached we recognise it as the point from which we may reflect on the narrative. The specific climax being delayed is David’s response to Uriah’s death, finally reached in v. 25: “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another”. In other words, “Don't worry, these things happen”.
“These things happen”. Yet as any reader can see, what transpires in this story did not “just happen”. It is a story of injustice from beginning to end. And all of this injustice – sexual exploitation, adultery, murder, pitiless scheming, barefaced lies – the whole lot, is dismissed by David with a wave of his hand. “These things happen”. But they wouldn’t have happened without David being in control from beginning to end.
“These things happen.” They do. People of integrity like Uriah often suffer. Living according to high moral standards frequently does not result in blessing. While on the other hand, amoral manipulators such as David get away with murder – a truth observable in the Church as well as in the world.
“These things happen.” What does happen in this story, of course, is that Uriah stands head and shoulders above David as a person of integrity. In a story full of careful contrasts, a frequent suggestion is that immoral David contrasts with Uriah the man of faith. While Uriah certainly has integrity, to claim he has faith in God goes beyond the narrative. He mentions neither God nor the law. His refusal to “go down to his house” appeals to a commonly held ancient code of military honour, not to specifically biblical ethics. The insistence of the narrator in calling him Uriah the Hittite, in light of the above, suggests that while Uriah might fight in Israel’s army, and has adopted an Israelite name, he is not necessarily a follower of Israel’s God. If so, then Uriah might be an early, but certainly not the last, example of a person outside the community of faith who witnesses to those inside.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2745