David, Bathsheba, and the Dangers of the Letter of the Law

Cover of "David and Bathsheba"
Coming to a steamy romance near you!

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

Abishag at the bed of David, with Bathsheba, S...
If David and Bathsheba were adulterers, this scene should never have happened.

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.

English: A complete set of the Babylonian

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.

Shalom

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13 Replies to “David, Bathsheba, and the Dangers of the Letter of the Law”

  1. Interesting.
    I find myself disagreeing with both camps here. I believe that David was required to marry Bathsheba, that it was, indeed, the right and Godly thing to do. The adultery and murder were wrong… indeed the lusting after her was wrong… but I have always found the marriage not only right but commanded.

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  2. By implication from the passages concerning sexual sin. See the rape of Tamar, for example, and her response. Or the law of the non-betrothed virgin.

    To be clear I find David’s lust after her on the roof to be wrong. His failure to immediately take refuge in one of his wives or concubines was wrong (see I Cor 7:1-5), his asking her to come over was wrong, the adultery was wrong, his attempted cover-up was wrong…

    I believe Uriah’s response was wrong on his part. It was, as I see it, a false spirituality. It denied his wife what was her due, and would have put improper pressure on all other soldiers called back, temporarily, from the battlefield.

    David then sinned greatly in getting Uriah killed.

    (On the subject of the civil death penalty, I don’t believe it applies, since the law required two witnesses to the act, as I read it, and neither crime would have had the requisite two witnesses.)

    However, her husband dead, and Bathsheba having slept with him and having his child, I believe his obligation to her was to marry her, sleep with her, and provide for their children. If we look at it as a privilege (ie getting to marry her) then it might seem not. But looked at as an obligation I think the case is otherwise.

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    1. First, let me thank you for the stimulating conversation, Vaughn. I always enjoy wrestling with the Scriptures with those who disagree but who can both keep the focus on the Scriptures themselves and who are willing and able to explain their disagreement in a way that furthers the conversation.

      Now on to your proofs: I don’t think you can use Tamar as a proof that a man had to marry someone he had committed adultery with. First, the incident happened before Sinai, just like Abraham marrying his half-sister, for example. Second, you’ll note that while Judah was given the promise of the Messianic line in Jacob’s prophecy (Gen. 49), it was exactly ten generations before David was raised up to the throne (Ruth 4), suggesting that Hashem considered the line tainted by being born of a *mamzer*anyway. And third, while Judah provided for Tamar, the text does not mention marriage per se, and is clear that they never had relations again. In Jewish thought, the relationship would be more of a father providing for a daughter than a husband providing for a wife, since the Torah is explicit that a husband may not withold sex from his wife, even if she were purchased as a concubine (Exo. 21:10-11).

      Regarding the death penalty issue, you’re partially right. In the murder of Uriah at least, it was the king’s right to order soldiers as he wills, and even to sacrifice them for the good of the nation. Given the provocation Uriah arguably gave David in his disrespect and disobedience, no court in the land could convict David of a crime worthy of death in putting Uriah where he wished on thei field of battle.

      But Hashem could. So why did Hashem not carry out the sentence that He Himself had decreed? After all, David already had children through whom the Messianic line could be carried.

      Now in the case of adultery, the Torah does generally require two witnesses, but in the case of this particular crime provided for “forensic evidence” to be used to convict a woman of adultery (Deu. 22:13-21)–the witnesses would be the husband and the unspotted sheet. Having a child that everyone knew Uriah could not have fathered and Uriah’s accusation would likely be enough to put Bathsheba at risk. (I say “likely” because we, like the rabbis, have to make some suppositions about the specific rulings in David’s day. I’ve not yet looked up the rabbinic rulings in such a matter.)

      But again, Hashem Himself held court against David and Bathsheba. He took away the child born of adultery, but that leaves the question of whether He Himself would consider the marriage after the fact to be legitimate. Based on the example you yourself have given of Judah and Tamar, that seems very questionable–*if *Hashem passed sentence based on the sin being adultery.

      Just to clarify, I agree with you on all points on the nature of David’s sins. My interest in the rabbinic analysis in this passage is that I think it gives us valuable insight into David’s mindset and attempt at justification–and the way the Holy One chose to deal with it: “Oh, you want to play legalistic games, huh? Okay, let’s treat this as a far lesser offense and let you pass judgment on yourself.”

      Which I think in many ways gives us a far better lesson. Few of us have committed adultery and murder, but all of us have played legalistic games to claim innocence.

      Shalom

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  3. OK, further answering:

    >>So why did Hashem not carry out the sentence that He Himself had decreed?

    You are changing jurisdictions here. Hashem is able to carry out any punishment, at any time, for any crime… indeed sin. The smallest sin is worthy of *that* death penalty. So the answer to ‘why didn’t G-d kill person X for sin Y’ must always be ‘for His own good pleasure and purposes’ and cannot be rationally related to any law designed for sinful human beings to administer.

    >>Now in the case of adultery, the Torah does generally require two witnesses, but in the case of this particular crime provided for “forensic evidence” to be used to convict a woman of adultery (Deu. 22:13-21)

    Deut 22:13-21 is irrelevant to this discussion, unless one assumes that Bathsheba had been merely betrothed, not actually married, to Uriah. And if she had been betrothed, Uriah would have been forbidden, by the law, from going to war… making him disobedient to the Torah himself.

    The law concerned is in the very next verse, Deut 22:22, and requires that they ‘be found’… ie that there be two witnesses.

    I am glad we are agreed as to David’s crimes. I disagree with much that the Rabbis say in this case, but I disagree, perhaps even more strongly, with many of the Christian commentators.

    I think we miss, indeed deny, in today’s age, that sex both confers obligations, and that sex often *is* an obligation. Most couples I know deny I Cor 7:3-5, either outright or by weaseling their way past it illogically. And the Catholic church does so even more strongly: basically making disobedience to I Cor 7 an act of righteousness.

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  4. While the idea of a “retroactive get” did exist, it would only take effect AFTER the husband was dead. Tosafot (in the Gemnara where the Rashi is quoted) complains about Rashi’s use of the term to have it take place BEFORE the husband is dead. Rashi is wrong here and most mepharshim and baali midrash contradict him.

    First, if a Kohain would return from a dangerous place alive, his wife would be forbidden to him, and she would have sinned by eating t’rumah if her father was not a kohain. After all, the Rashi retroactive get has her divorced and is reinstated as married if he returns. This idea makes no sense nor has any support.

    Second, the very idea that a woman is shielded from punishment while committing adultery because of a retroactive get is nonsense. The idea was that if the husband did not return by a particular date, then she would be divorced as of the date that they had agreed upon as the cut-off date of his return. THAT is really what a retroactive get was designed to do and how it operated.

    But those who love to have King David as sinless (Artscroll, which has its own agenda, makes this same mistake in many places) will quote the Rashi, while ignoring all of the other commentators, such as Abarbanel and Ibn Ezra (in sefer Shmuel where Rashi is also quoted) who respond with “I cannot understand where Rabbi Shlomo even considers this…” (Judaica Books of the Prophets even goes so far as to chastise the Abarbanel for his chutzpah!)

    The majority of the Midrashic literature and the commentators agree that this was a bad sin, so bad that the baby born from this illicit union was caused to die by God (which would have been a problem for a king to have a child with an unknown father). That was David’s payment for the sin.As for how can a King get away with things…well, read Shmuel’s speech to the Jewish people when they beg for a king.

    In short, anyone who considers Rashi would do well to read the Abarbanel who uses this very story to express why a Monarchy is always a bad idea. (His point was that the only good king that Israel ever had was the son of king Uzziayahu, and only because Scripture only mentions him passively with a hand full of words, so we don’t really know anything about him!) Granted, his experience with Queen Isabella of Spain would have him predisposed against all royalty!

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    1. Thank you for bringing the counter-argument to the table. I agree with you that Artscroll’s material works too hard to make the Patriarchs, prophets, et al. sinless, or next to it. But what do you do with the argument that if David and Bathsheeba had “technically” committed adultery, then their marriage would be illegitimate and Solomon would be a mamzer?

      Shalom.

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  5. I did a long shiur on this ssome time ago, but I will give you the primary bullet points.

    1) In 1-Shmuel chapter 8, we have God telling Shmuel that by wanting a king “They are rejecting Me, not you” (the short version. I won’t be cutting and pasting verses). The reason is that they wanted a human to be their ultimate authority. And ultimate authorities can do whatever they want, and Shmuel gives them an inkling with his long list.

    2) For political reasons, chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) gave David a pass but Shlomo they ripped to pieces. Some of many of his sins, of violating specific Torah edicts were having too many wives, too many horses, sending Jews to Egypt, participating in some degree with avoda zera (idolotry), and marrying an Egyptian woman (explicitly forbidden).. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. And yet, he could still be king because he was the ultimate authority and could make permitted that which was forbidden.

    3) King David also did many things that a non-king would have been put to death for. When he was announced as king, he has the messenger killed because he didn’t care for his attitude when bringing bad news. But the Bat Sheva incident was the biggie.

    4) Several things occurred from that event. First, the child was killed by God (died shortly after being born). This was considered an atonement. David admitted that he sinned, but chazal go to lengths to redefine it, when the atonement should be a clue to the sin – adultery. Having Uriah killed was no problem, because as king he had done that before just because he felt like it. As the ultimate lawgiver, kings are nasty pieces of work.

    5) Also, Achitophel, the grandfather of Bat Sheva, who saw all of this going on, defected and sided with Absolom. Chazal turn Achitophel into the worst villain, listing him as one of the hand full of people who deserve no World to Come. And don’t think that the marriage did not have consequences, because the result of that caused a split in the kingdom, the rape of his daughter by her brother, wars, and the giving over of the kingdom to someone who would build a Temple that would only be in use for a few years (6 or 7) because of his excesses and divisiveness when it came to material goods..

    6) So Bat Sheva was not forbidden to him because he said she wasn’t. “It’s good to be the king” as Mel Brooks once said, but it is never good to have one. Now, chazal did have some problems with this, and so became apologists, making up reasons to annul the marriage of Uriah and Bat Sheva. The most bizarre that contradicts the text is that he was a non-Jew who hung around Shaul, and when David couldn’t figure out how to behead Goliath, he made a deal with David that he would show him how in return for a Jewish bride. None of that makes sense, and there are other fables that they try to assign to Uriah.

    So, in summation, David was guilty of “depraved indifference” (a legal term of causing someone to die without lifting a finger), and adultery, and coveting his neighbor’s wife (literally, a neighbor in this case), and several other violations. But he was the king, and kings can do whatever they want. When the prophet Nathan pointed out the silliness of it all, that a king would be so deceptive just to take something that he could have made his own with a simple decree, he wept, knowing of his character flaw. And when the prophet told him that his payment for this would be the death of the child, it was clear that the reason for God’s displeasure was not only David’s lack of acting like a king, but of his illicit affair. And so, the general opinion is that since a king can marry any woman he wants, and declared her to be his, she was permitted to him by his word.

    And then everything goes to hell. Shlomo becomes king, and it becomes so much of a mess that the Midrash says that Shlomo left his throne, and a shayd (a demon) that resembled him sat there in his place. It is not being historical, but is expressing a metaphor to how far he fell.

    So in short, a monarchy has never worked, and never will. The Abarbanel saw this during the Spanish Inquisition when he worked for Queen Isabella, and roasted nearly every king who ever existed, with the exception of Yotam ben Uzziayahu, of which nothing is known!

    I live in Israel, and if a monarchy ever arose, I’d get out of here so fast that you’d think I was auditioning to be the Road Runner!

    Anyhow, I hope that helps.

    Enjoy, and all the best.

    Eliyahu Grossman
    Efrat, Israel

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  6. Thank you for that input. I don’t think our positions are that far apart, since my point wasn’t to exonerate David, but to try to backtrack what he thought he was trying to pull beyond saying, “It’s good to be the king.”

    Just a few thoughts:

    1) We’re mostly agreed here, though the Torah anticipated this and made it clear that when Israel chose a human king, he would still be under Melekh haOlam’s authority. That being the case, Hashem certainly could’ve rejected Solomon as a mamzer regardless of what David wanted–it wasn’t like David didn’t have other sons from other wives to choose from.

    2) Agreed. As a matter of fact, I thought the original article that I got this idea from went much too far in exonerating David.

    3) Are we talking about the guy who claimed to have killed Saul? As I recall, he put the guy to death for regicide, since the genius claimed to have killed Saul in the hopes of getting a reward from Saul’s enemy.

    4) Actually, David lost four sons, but I get your point and largely agree with it.

    5) Agreed on all points.

    6) This is the only real point of disagreement between us. Hashem was completely capable of declaring that none of Bathsheba’s children could ever inherit the throne.

    Thank you again for taking the time to write. I really appreciate your input.

    Shalom.

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    1. If you read the story of the end of David’s life, he is dying and he is approached by Batsheva and a Prophet. As far as David was concerned, his other son, who was in the local pub celebrating with his chums, was going to get it, but they reminded him of a promise. If the prophet was at hand, his alignment with Shlomo appears to assign approval.

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  7. Agreed, which gives us only a few options:

    1) The sages are just flat-out wrong when they state (unanimously, as far as I can tell) that a relationship that begins with adultery can never be legitimized with marriage after the fact.

    2) Hashem agrees that “it’s good to be the king”–but if that’s the case, why would He strike Solomon with foreign enemies, Uriah with leprosy, or Josiah with an arrow for their sins? (Of course, the real problem with this option goes far deeper than that.)

    3) Hashem disagrees that it’s good to be the king, but allowed Solomon to take the throne anyway because of His own plans. That’s certainly possible, but a) would seem to go against Hashem’s Justice (Din) and b) really didn’t work out very well, did it?

    4) My solution above–David had stayed within the letter of the law by grossly perverting its intent, leading Hashem to send Nathan to trick David into passing judgment on himself. Nevertheless, for His own purposes, Hashem allowed Solomon to inherit under David’s legal loophole.

    Again, I’m not arguing that David did not morally commit adultery and murder–obviously, any get Uriah might have given Bathsheba wouldn’t have been in effect until Uriah died or otherwise disappeared. I’m arguing that David justified everything he did by exploiting loopholes in the law and his own right as king to position his troops as he saw fit. Even kings like to justify themselves.

    I’d argue that far from exonerating David, understanding his self-justification (and self-delusion) highlights David’s slide into corruption even better than simply assuming that he jumped off the slippery slope all at once. In addition, the narrative becomes a condemnation not just of adultery and murder, but of the “legal” abuses of power so common to our own time.

    Shalom

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