April 2010

David the King: The Tragedies of David

The family unit is perhaps the most frequently recurring motif in the Torah. From the first story of Genesis to the most recent supplementary texts of the Mishnah, everything comes down to fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. At every turn, the greatest joys are those that focus on the simple triumphs of kin while the darkest tragedies are stories of when families fall apart. For King David, the loss of his crown or his country would not hurt as much as the systematic destruction of his family. Following his sin with Bath-Sheba, his punishments all revolve around losses within his own house.

David the King: Bath-Sheba

Given the detached, matter-of-fact language of Old Testament scripture, it's easy to overlook the humanity of the individuals in the stories. We are so quick to derive morals and explanations from the text that we skip some of the most important elements of Torah. As the sage Nachmanides encouraged, it is essential to interpret not just the law of Torah, but the heart as well. In the telling and re-telling of King David's rise and fall, his inexplicably selfish pursuit of Bath-Sheba (or Bat Sheva as the Hebrew reads) is a favorite passage. It is often taught as a moment of weakness, hubris or outright corruption, but there's so much more to it than that. While David's seduction of Bath-Sheba and the indirect killing of her husband are indeed David's greatest sins, they don't come out of nowhere. In fact, looking at David's entire history, such an episode seems practically inevitable.

David the King: Mercy to Mephiboshet

When the people of Judah first demanded a king, it was out of desperation. There was a sense that everything was chaotic and that the entire civilization was on the brink of extinction. Foreign powers constantly assaulted the country with impunity, the fundamental laws of the society were being ignored or circumvented by the privileged and it seemed that even God had abandoned those who considered themselves chosen. Even for us readers, the disorder of this period becomes so commonplace that we forget just how savage everything was. Saul's reign did little to fix this state of perpetual decline. In chapters eight and nine of Second Samuel, it becomes increasingly clear that David's time on the throne isn't about improvement so much as it's about returning his nation to a livable condition.

David the King: David's Perpetual Throne

What do we do with biblical passages the forecast something that we know isn't true? In Chapter 7 of Second Samuel, God says that the throne of David will last forever, a statement that ceased to be true thousands of years ago. This passage has been co-opted into other faiths beyond Judaism in an attempt to make it seem true. For example, in Christian theology the matrilineal line of Jesus is traced all the way back to David, establishing the central figure of that religion as a rightful heir to monotheistic leadership and, by merit of his rule in heaven, maintaining the veracity of God's message to David through the prophet Nathan. For those who don't ascribe to tenets of Christianity but still value Bible study, this particular passage can be a real sticking point.