In a previous post, I mentioned that the Bible itself includes multiple interpretations of the same passage from earlier in the Bible. Update: the technical term for narrative plasticity (my own term) is intentional ambiguity.
Now I want to see if I can demonstrate a moral ambiguity in a Biblical story which is meant to lead to reflection upon more than one moral issue. Below is the story of David and Bathsheba:
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
(2 Samuel 11:1-5 ESV)
Immediately we’re led to suppose that there is a moral problem on David’s part: “In…the time when kings go out to battle…David remained at Jerusalem.” Now, David is married and so is Bathsheba. So both sin with respect to the law of God if we assume that each character is sexually interested in the other from the beginning. So from the get go, there is the “adultery is sinful and difficult to hide, even for kings and the wives of powerful, presumably rich soldiers.” But there are two more angles, all of which can be supported by the text and all of which are moral failures the Bible warns against:
- Simple adultery (mentioned above).
In this scenario, both parties are guilty and the question of who initiated the affair is moot. But as I said above, the story can be seen from more than one angle.
- The Royal Rape Angle
This interpretation is more popular today. The idea is that David, when he “sent messengers and took her” sent messengers to seize her and because she knew from whence they came, she acquiesced to avoid being murdered. So in that respect, the passage is purely an indictment of David’s character and a criticism of the very idea of a human king without checks and balances. And indeed, in the story it takes a seer with an advisory role to correct David and that seer is nervous enough that he uses a parable. And so the idea is that David did what the law said kings should do, he allowed his heart to be exalted above his countrymen (Deut 17:19-20)
- Don’t Give Your Strength to Women
It could also be the case that Bathsheba bathed on the roof specifically to tempt David. This scenario is also familiar to the Biblical authors (Proverbs 7). It also matches up with the potential to be tempted to cheat on a husband hypergamously, with which the Biblical authors are familiar (Genesis 3:16). It’s also a direct warning in several places that men should not marriage idolatrous wives and that kings should not give their strength to women (Proverbs 31:3). And so the story, read from this angle, is about the fact that if you do not manage power correctly, and use your resources to avoid responsibility, then temptations which might have otherwise been easy to withstand become impossible to resist. In this version, both parties are complicit, but Bathsheba initiated.
All three versions provide useful warnings:
- Generally, don’t commit adultery.
- Don’t trust kings to be morally perfect and never allow political power to be absent accountability, especially moral/spiritual accountability.
- Seduction is real, but the moral failures that come from attempted seduction are usually the result of the situation the target placed themselves in.
Any of these interpretations is defensible from the text and all of the warnings that come from them can be found elsewhere in Scripture. Also, the exact details to say which version happened or which version did not happen were available to the writer.
If the goal had been to limit “the moral of the story” to an absolutely clear point, he would have. We know this because he does at other points (Eli’s sons, for instance). So either the story ends with the child of the union dying without any clear moral reason (obviously untrue), or the exact reason other than sexual sin of some sort leading to murder was left partially ambiguous for the moral education of the reader.
Update: I found this article Fraught with Background: Literary Ambiguity in II Samuel 11.
I had no idea that anybody had written about this particular issue before. My practice is usually to come up with my theories based on primary sources, then check the secondary literature. In this case all I looked up was “literary ambiguity in ancient literature.” Apparently this passage is a major test case.