by Rabbis Mendy Gutnick, Avrohom Wineberg
[Ed. note: With any study there are two approaches: the easy way, and the academic way. The easy way is to take a quick glance, automatically factor in your personal life experiences and preconceived notions, and draw quick conclusions based on how you would relate to that situation. The academic way is to examine and reexamine the subject matter. To do that is it necessary to take yourself, and your own biases, out of the picture. You must view the subject matter through the life experiences of the subjects involved, and open your mind to new ideas.
This is all the more true when it comes to understanding concepts in the Torah, a Divine book intentionally written enigmatically and euphemistically. Following is a deeper academic look into this Biblical personality and story. Pause, clear your mind, and take it from the top.]
Known as the “Melech Hamoshiach” (anointed king), David not only lead his generation in G-d’s ways, but he also merited to be divinely inspired and compose the Psalms, a book which we recite in our prayers (and many other occasions), until this very day! Amongst the Jewish greats of all times he is listed in the “Big 7”, a group that in many contexts is known as the pillars of Judaism. For example, the traditional “Mi Sheberach” prayer on behalf of ill people begins with the following words: “May He who blessed our fathers, Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, bless the sick person…”
Is it conceivable that we would invoke the name of a murderer and adulterer in an attempt to elicit divine mercy?! Is there a shortage of Jewish greats? The authors of this prayer were well aware of the Bible and all its stories, including the story of David and Bathsheba, yet they did not hesitate to include David in this prayer, where he shares such illustrious company!
Holiness and impurity do not go hand-in-hand! Maimonides tells us that one can only become a prophet if he has the ability to completely overcome his temptations. Among the prophets listed1 is King David. It is, therefore difficult to assume that he simply succumbed to his temptations. Indeed, the righteous David had no worldly desires, as he testifies in the Psalms2 that “My heart [i.e. my passions and desires] has died within me.”
There is a dispute in the Talmud3 whether or not Bathsheba was technically a married woman at the time. The Talmud rules that she was not. The law was that before a man went out to war he was required to divorce his wife. This was a necessary precaution taken to protect the wife. In case the husband would die in battle and no one could testify to the fact, the wife would not be an “agunah” (chained to her possibly deceased husband) and would be free to remarry. If, however, the husband did return from the battlefield safe and sound – the couple was free to remarry. Uriah, too, issued this divorce to his wife and thus, according to Jewish law, King David had relations with a divorced woman.
Please note, that before King David summoned Bathsheba he “sent and inquired about the woman.”4 If David, the absolute monarch, desired this woman and was willing to go to any length to fulfill his “fantasy,” why did he first send messengers to inquire regarding Bathsheba? He should have sent messengers to “summon” the woman. It is evident that before David summoned her he wished to determine her marital status. Only after ascertaining that she was, in fact, the (divorced) wife of Uriah, did he make his advance.
Furthermore, the verse testifies that David only had relations with Bathsheba after “she had been cleansed [i.e. immersed in the mikvah] from her [menstrual] impurity.” Would an adulterer be concerned about such details?
The Talmud tells us Uriah was guilty of treason—a capital offence. When Uriah addressed David, he referred to his general Joab as “my lord.” Referring to any person as “my lord” while in the presence of a king is extremely audacious. The lack of respect which Uriah exhibited towards David is also alluded to in another verse:5 Uriah told David: “By your life (chayecha) and the life of your soul I will not do such a thing.” Generally, the Hebrew word “chayecha,” (your life), is written with two yuds after the chet. In this verse it is written with only one; one yud is missing—as if the life of the king has less value to him.While these may seem to be fairly trivial points, an understanding of the Torah’s view of monarchy further clarifies the issue: On the verse6 “you shall set (“som tasim”) a king over you,” the Talmud7 notes that the words used have the same root as the word aymah—fear. First and foremost, a king’s dominion must be predicated on fear and total reverence.
This concept is so vital that according to Jewish law, “one who signals to another person while in the presence of a king is punished with death”! We must treat a king of flesh and blood in the same manner as we would treat the King of kings, the Almighty Himself, for the earthly monarch is His representative. Furthermore, the very stability of the entire nation hinges on the absolute submission of the nation to its leader. Allowing even the slightest act of disrespect to slide can lead to bigger and worse forms of rebellion.
Since Uriah showed signs of treason by ignoring Judaism’s laws of reverance for the King he was deserving of death. Thus David ordering Joab to send Uriah to the frontlines where he would meet his death did not contravene any Torah laws.
Truth Be Told
Let us now examine the “inside story” behind the story of King David and Bathsheba:
A glaring question which must be asked is: why wasn’t David, the valiant warrior, at the frontlines of the war, leading his subjects in battle — much as he had done by so many of the other battles of Israel? The answer to this question is that at the moment David was dealing with a more important problem; he did not have a fitting heir to succeed him–a son who would be worthy of being the antecedent of Moshiach. That is why David was on the roof of his palace, a place where one goes to have peace of mind to ponder a serious issue (see I Samuel 9:25).
At that time G-d — via a prophetic vision — shows Bathsheba to David. A king’s palace is not next door to other homes, but is surrounded by gardens, orchards, parks and walls. She was immersing herself in the Mikvah (an area which is always completely enclosed, without any windows to the outside), and David perceived that she was “extremely beautiful.” This term, used by the Torah to describe our holy matriarchs, primarily refers to spiritual inner-beauty. David was a man of action, and he had found the woman who was worthy of being the grandmother of Moshiach. He immediately dispatched messengers to ascertain that she was divorced from Uriah, and did not hesitate to consummate the union.
Afterwards, David realizes that, despite his pure intentions, this story would make for a wonderful front page story in the “Jerusalem Enquirer”. After all, he had plenty of enemies who would relish the opportunity to destroy his reputation. He, therefore, summons Uriah from the battlefield, and tells him to go to his “wife.” His intention was for Uriah to respond: “Your Majesty, Bathsheba is currently not my wife. I divorced her before leaving in the King’s service!” For some reason, Uriah refuses to do so, and instead insults the king, incurring the death penalty. David, perhaps taking in to consideration Uriah’s courageous service in his army, chooses to allow him to die an honorable death on the battlefield rather then be executed for treason.
Why then was King David chastised by Nathan and punished for this incident if technically he followed the strict letter of the law?
The story wasn’t so smooth. While David did not commit adultery or murder, a number of other things went wrong.
King David prophetically knew that Bathsheba was destined to be his wife8. His Chet (shortcoming) was his lack of patience; his unwillingness to wait. It is true that technically Bathsheba wasn’t a married a woman, but in appearance the whole thing looked like an extra-marital affair. David needed Bathsheba because he knew that the Moshiach was destined to descend from his union with her. Had he waited, he would have been able to have Bathsheba without having Uriah killed. His error was simply not weighing all the factors, not realizing that since she was destined to be his wife, he did not have to rush the process by taking matters into his own hands.
The “sin” (in Hebrew: Chet, lit. translated “shortcoming”) of David was not exercising the proper judgment expected of a man of his stature. To quote the Talmud: “Whoever says that David sinned is simply mistaken!” For if Bathsheba had gone to another man it might have been cunning or obnoxious9, but it would not be a sin. It is only because of David’s great status that the Prophet and G-d consider David’s lack of judgement “sinful”.
The Zohar maintains that David’s principle sin was: “him [Uriah] you have killed by the sword of the children of Ammon”10. David ought to have brought Uriah to the Sanhedrin where they would have executed him in accordance with Jewish law. Instead, by having him killed in the battle against Ammon, David caused a “chillul Hashem” – a desecration of G-d’s name. The children of Ammon were now able to take credit for killing a Jew, and give honor and praise to their deity for this “triumph.”
Considering the potential of David it was upsetting to G-d that he summoned Bathsheba in this discreet roundabout way, and that he had Uriah killed by the hands of enemies. Thus G-d resented, the Prophet rebuked, and David repented.
Back To The Future
We will conclude with a statement of our sages: King David was too holy to have erred in the incident of Bathsheba. He only stumbled in order to teach us a lesson, to set a precedent of a Tzadik who does sincere repentance. As is known, David spent thirteen years repenting for his “sin.” Many of the most beautiful psalms were composed by King David during this period. The Midrash testifies that for those thirteen years, King David’s pillow had to be changed seven times every night for they were drenched with his tears!
When we look back at G-d’s anger and David’s repentence through our paradigm, we quickly assume that it must have been a grave sin. But when we view the story through the lense of Torah’s guide-for-the-future we soon learn that even circumstantial mishaps require ample repentance.