David and Bathsheba

I have been studying the Book of Samuel and I was really shocked when I read the story of David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 11). How could David, King of Israel, take another man's wife like that?! Wasn't he supposed to be a holy person? Did he really slip so far?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that the story, after a cursory reading, appears shocking. The Talmud, however, makes a sweeping statement regarding David's behavior: "Whoever says David sinned is only in error" (Shabbat 56a). As critical as the Torah was of David's terrible slip, it was not nearly as bad as it seemed, as we'll see now.

The Talmud explains that it was standard practice for Jewish soldiers to divorce their wives before going out in battle – lest they disappear in war and their wives become permanently unable to remarry. This was the practice throughout Jewish history until as recently as World War II. (The Israeli army considered adopting the practice as well, but decided against it because it would be harmful for the morale of the soldiers. In any event, the possibility of disappearing indefinitely in distant lands is much more remote today.)

As a result, King David technically did not commit adultery. He took an unmarried woman. My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig likewise points out that when Nathan the Prophet afterwards came to criticize David, he depicts David's sin as one of stealing (in the metaphor of the rich man who takes the poor man's one little lamb). David sin was one of taking what he should not have, but not, God forbid, one of actual adultery.

Even so, such behavior was infinitely beneath the king. Bathsheba was hardly a single girl free for the taking. Naturally she would have remarried Uriah had he returned home. And for this God was exceedingly critical of David. For a man as great as he, such an act was tantamount to true adultery. And the Torah, in its typical emphatic style, describes David's sin in such a light – a description we might have taken literally had our Oral Torah not elucidated the matter for us further.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) makes another fascinating statement about David's sin, which sheds much light on the true characters of the people involved. It states that Bathsheba was destined for David from the Six Days of Creation but that he took her as an "unripe fig." David rightly sensed that Bathsheba was meant for him, and in fact, the future King Solomon would eventually be born from them. (The Talmud describes further how she became exposed to him via a fluke – an errant arrow which broke the window behind which she was bathing.) David, with his divine inspiration, knew that Bathsheba was meant for him. (There is a Kabbalistic notion that David was a reincarnation of Adam and Bathsheba of Eve.) But the time was not ripe. He acted too hastily on his correct instincts.

The Talmud elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 4b) writes that David's sin was actually extremely atypical of him. God made the trial unnaturally hard for him. Under normal circumstances David should have withstood it. God ordinarily gives people challenges they are up to handling. But in this case God made it especially hard - and He did this so that David would show the way of repentance for all future generations. David spent his remaining years in an almost constant state of repentance, saying that his sin was before him constantly (Psalms 51:3). (Of course David did have free will and was certainly faulted for failing his test, but God did give him a harder challenge than He normally gives people. Challenges are to make us grow, not to crush us and to (virtually) bring us to sin.)

Finally, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) explains that God did this to David in part because David specifically asked God to test him (Psalms 26:2). David wanted to show his love, that he could aspire to the level of the Patriarchs. From this the Talmud derives that we should never ask God to test us, allowing us to prove ourselves. God knows when the right time for tests are.

So yes, David sinned and the Torah was quite critical of his behavior. But the sin was nothing like the simple reading of the Prophet implied. As always, one can understand the full meaning and import of the Torah only after studying it in light of the interpretation of the Sages.

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