In this section more of David’s internal character contradictions are revealed, along with their consequences for his family and his country. Like Paul, 10 centuries later, he can say, “I am the chief of sinners, and yet for this very reason God showed mercy to me, so that through me, the worst of sinners, God might give hope to all (I Timothy 1:15).” David will have no more claim to God’s favor than Saul before him, nor that of the penitent thief on the cross, also a “man of blood,” except that the latter had the faith to repent and pray, “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Nor will we, the readers, have any greater claim. Unlike Saul before him, David will show the necessary repentance, faith and surrender after Nathan confronts him over his adultery and murder. David also shows such surrender to God’s will, after his son, Absalom, leads a coup d’etat, and David must flee Jerusalem, even while he does what is within his power to survive and reclaim his throne. When the priest, Zadok, and his retinue show up with the Ark of the Covenant, ready to follow David “into the wilderness,” (ch. 15), David bids them stay in Jerusalem. “If I find favor in the LORD’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”
In his response to the prophet Nathan (“You are the man!” 12:7), and in other stories in this section, David also shows a concern for social justice (even in the breach of it), for the common people, and for equal standing under God’s Law that were radically unlike the sense of entitlement, exceptionalism and even divinized identity that were common among among Middle Eastern imperial despots of the time, e.g., in Egypt or Assyria. Nathan also demonstrates the difference between prophets and prophecy in ancient Israel, and among their neighboring royal courts. In the latter, priests and prophets often served as religious arms of the royal regime, giving divine sanction to imperial policies and conduct in what was effectively religious propaganda. We’ll see such “court prophets” appearing later in Israel and Judah.
But David is still “a man of blood” and a womanizer, a collector of a harem like any imperial despot of his time. His campaign to acquire Baathsheba and dispose of her husband, similar in strategic skill and perseverance to his military campaigns, is a sorry follow-up to the opening words of the chapter 11: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war….” Instead, “David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army.” He was soon engaged in a safer, but more appealing conquest. Though his forces win a political and military victory over the Ammonites and their Aramean allies, this victory and its fruits are soon annulled and undone by David’s stunning and all-consuming moral and spiritual defeat. This revelation of his character, and its moral/spiritual fallout, is itself stunning and subversive in its contrast with the usual royal and religious histories of Israel’s contemporary neighbors, whose emperors were above all moral constraints, and yet could do no wrong.
“Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.” I Samuel 13
The visual images imprinted upon our imagination, of Tamar leaving the chamber of her half-brother, Amnon, in total devastation and desolation, could not be more clear nor striking. Again, the Old Testament surprises and confronts us with details—not just a plot line—that speak with power and poignancy that only the subject of the story, or close, sympathetic eyewitnesses, can give. And, as in the case of Abigail, Hanna, and the woman of Gibeah, they are sympathetic to women; they even give a woman’s point of view. In the disturbing story of the rape of Tamar, we are confronted with more fallout through the generations of David’s own moral and spiritual contradictions. How far beyond his own father did Amnon have to look for an example of men taking women as objects of conquest? Amnon’s sudden change from love (desire) to hate should not be surprising. Just as it is true that we treat people the way we feel about them, it is equally true that we feel about them the way we treat them. This is also a case study of the difference between lust and true love. Amnon confused the former for the latter.
This outrage is also fallout from the Fall into sin in Genesis 3 and the rupture of the original harmony, mutuality and equality intended by God for men and women. This event also unleashes the cycle of fratricide and even the attempted patricide of Absalom, Tamar’s avenger, in part, because of David’s unwillingness to punish Amnon. David’s care for Absolom’s life, and his debilitating grief upon his death (which almost did as much damage to the nation as did Absolom’s revolt), reveal the fatal internal contradiction built into the heart of every human monarchy: the needs of the nation, and loyalty to it, may conflict with the needs and attachments of the royal family, so that the royal family usually wins, to the detriment of the people. For Jesus alone are his family and his citizens one and the same.
PSALM 26 describes many aspects of the godly life: trust (“I live in reliance upon your faithfulness”); worship; avoidance of evil, which would imply active justice. But in keeping with the historic Christian idea that Jesus walks and talks in the Psalms, that in praying them we are joining him and his saints (Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), some of these words only Jesus himself can say for us, in truth: “I have led a blameless life (v.1)” and “I wash my hands in innocence” (v.6).