Whoo, boy! Two months! Sorry about that; I was busy getting ready for the move, then moving, then without internet for a week, then dealing with several ministerial crises that popped up. Baruch Hashem, though! The crises actually opened up some wonderful opportunities. I’ll have to get everyone’s permission to share the events some day soon.
In any case, it has indeed been far too long since I posted, so it’s time to get back into the swing of things. I thought I’d start with commenting on a rather provocative article from Torah Ideals on the affair between David and Bathsheba. The whole article really needs to be read to understand my responses to it, but here’s the flavor of it:
It is a convention of biblical scholarship that scripture sometimes presents seemingly contradictory information that forces us to evaluate the misdeeds of extraordinary people in the context of their times and circumstances. To warn us against superficially interpreting David’s episode with Bathsheba, the Talmud records the oral tradition that, “Anyone who says that David sinned is in error.”1
Even without the Talmud’s admonition, it is impossible to reconcile the simple reading of the text with Torah law. According to Jewish law, an adulteress is forbidden to marry a man with whom she committed adultery, even after divorce or the death of her husband.2 Any descendant from such a union would be a mamzer, i.e., illegitimate, and would thus be disqualified both from reigning as king and from marrying into the general community of permitted Jewish women. Because David remained married to Bathsheba after the incident without reprimand, and because their son, Solomon, was allowed to rule and perpetuate the messianic line, we have no choice but to conclude that David, whatever his sin may have been concerning Bathsheba, did not commit adultery.3
This article was post on another forum I hang around the fringes of and naturally generated quite a bit of controversy. After all, the plain sense of the text seems to be that David committed outright adultery and murder, but found grace in the eyes of Hashem so that his life was spared. However, in addition to the problems such a reading brings to the legitimacy of Solomon’s reign–not to mention letting him build the Temple!–but the fact is that David committed not one, but TWO capital crimes under the Torah if we take the simplest reading of the text. The Torah also does not allow the murderer or the adulterer to atone by way of repentence and sacrifice; his life is forfeit, plain and simple. Therefore, to look deeper to understand just why this penalty wasn’t applied to David is not only warrented, but necessary.
Let me take a minute to explain the rationale behind the rabbis’ assertion that David could not have legally married Bathsheba if they had indeed committed adultery, and that therefore Solomon would have been a mamzer, illegitimate and uneligible to even enter the Temple, let alone have built it (Deu. 23:2). I wanted to comment on this particularly because it is an excellent example of just how the rabbis interpret Scripture.
The prooftext cited in the Torah Ideals article is the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 25a:
Said R. Judah of Disqarta, “No, it is to prohibit the woman to marry her lover as she is prohibited to remain wed to her husband. For we have learned in the Mishnah: Just as she is forbidden to her husband, so she is forbidden to her lover.”
A better proof comes from Mishnah Yevamot 2:8:
He who is suspected [of having intercourse] with a married woman, and they [the court] dissolved the marriage with her husband, even though he [the suspect] married [the woman], he must put her out.
Both Sotah and the above passage from Yevamot are commenting on the ceremony of the bitter waters described in Num. 5:11-31. The text describes in detail what to do if the woman goes through with the ceremony, but what do you do if she refuses to finish it? The rabbis understood that to be a de-facto admission of guilt. Such a self-confession is inadmissable in a Jewish court for the purposes of invoking the death penalty (Judaism’s version of the 5th Amendment–no one can be convicted solely out of their own mouth), so what is to be done with the woman?
Numbers 5:14 specifically states that a woman who commits adultery “defiles herself” (nit’ma’ah), lit. “is made ritually unclean.” The rabbis interpret this to mean that she is in the same state of ritual impurity as she is when niddah (having her period; see Lev. 15:19-24)–which only makes sense, since why should someone who committed adultery be less unclean than a woman who was simply having her period? (This would be a prime example of a kal v’chomer argument, a type of argument that Yeshua Himself used often.) Therefore, from the time a husband made an official statement of jealous suspicion to the time the woman was cleared by fulfilling the bitter water ceremony, she was forbidden to him just as if she were unclean from her period. Therefore, if she refused to complete the ceremony, she would become permanently forbidden to her husband as unclean and they would have to divorce.
And if a woman were forbidden to her husband by adultery, how much more should she be forbidden to her lover?
So yes, the principle that David would have been forbidden to marry Bathsheba following an outright act of adultery is definitely Biblical, though the Torah doesn’t come out and state it. It is a perfectly valid derived law.
Having said that, I could see the case made that the husband is not required to divorce his wife in all cases, since Scripture is clear that Hashem did not divorce His adulterous wife, Israel. However, forbidding the wife to the adulterer, as Hashem continued to forbid Israel to the pagan gods, would still stand.
And again, even if that weren’t so, we would still have the problem that a pair of adulterers and a murderer were not put to death despite the clear commandment of the Torah.
The article does a good job of explaining how David gets off the hook by a pair of technicalities: Uriah was horrendously disrespectful and disobedient to a direct order from the King–most likely because he knew or at least suspected what was up–and in that time, either was considered worthy of death. And if the giving of a retroactive get (divorce document) was indeed a practice in David’s time–which is by no means proven, but very plausible–then that would explain why David’s affair would not necessarily de-legitimize and disqualify Solomon.
The Torah Ideals article does go a bit far in its exoneration of David, but I think it gets to the meat of the matter when it states, “Although innocent of adultery and murder—sins against man—David had nevertheless sinned against G-d when he failed to uphold the divine will by manipulating the intent behind the law.” I would add just one word to that sentence: “Although technically innocent . . .” Not that I think David was wholly exonerated in Hashem’s eyes, but that being an expert in the Torah itself, David would have used the above machinations to try to get off technically rather than just flaunting his adultery and murder. After all, most humans try to find “technical” ways to justify their actions.
Hashem’s response could then be seen as basically saying, “Okay, if you want to play legal games with Me, let’s see you pass judgment on yourself.” That is why Nathan’s story involved theft rather than adultery or murder. And since David pronounced (correctly, from Exo. 22:1) that a thief must pay back fourfold, the Holy One pronounced, “Okay, you’ve stolen one life from Me, so you owe me four.” That is why David ultimately lost four sons, one in infancy, the other three to the sword.
While Torah Ideals–and the rabbis–may go too far in exonerating our fathers and heroes, nevertheless their willingness to look past the surface details of the story and struggle with apparent contradictions is something that my Sunday brethren should admire. Even if we disagree on the actual nature of the sin, I think the rabbis’ explanation gives us a valuable insight into David’s mind–and into the kinds of rationalizations even the man after Hashem’s own heart can fall into when stumbling into sin.