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No. 114: Structure and Typology of the Bathsheba Incident

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 114
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons February, 1999

2 Samuel 11-12, which record David’s sin with Bathsheba and its aftermath, is structured chiastically:

A. 11:1: Joab is on the field besieging Rabbah, but David has stayed behind in Jerusalem.

B. 11:2-5: David sleeps with Bathsheba and she becomes pregnant.

C. 11:6-25: David arranges for Uriah’s death.

D. 11:26-27: Bathsheba mourns for Uriah.

E. 12:1-15a: Nathan confronts David’s sin.

D’ 12:15b-17: David mourns for his infant son.

C’ 12:18-23: David’s son dies.

B’ 12:24-25: David sleeps with Bathsheba and she becomes pregnant.

A’ 12:26-31: David goes to Rabbah and finishes the siege, then returns to Jerusalem.

This arrangement highlights several things about the episode. It reinforces what is obvious from even a casual reading, that the transition in the story occurs with Nathan’s confrontation of David’s sin and David’s confession. Up to that point, we have learned of David’s sin and his attempts to cover it. After Nathan uncovers the sin and pronounces the Lord’s judgment, the rest of the passage focuses on the initial outworking of that judgment. The Word of Yahweh delivered by the prophet is a sharp sword, dividing to joints and marrow. Through the Word of Yahweh, the course of events is turned in a new direction.

The specific transition effected by the Word is indicated by the two D sections, which raise the key typological theme of the passage. The end of David’s mourning is elaborately described: "So David arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of Yahweh and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate" (12:20). David rises from the dust, and moves from fasting to feasting. We can also note the two B sections at this point. David’s adultery with Bathsheba brings forth death, but after his repentance he fathers a child who will be called a "son of God" (see 2 Samuel 7:14).

David’s servants comment on the oddity of David’s lamentation (12:21). The C-D sequence in the first half of the passage is the expected pattern: a woman loses her husband and then mourns for him. By contrast, David mourns before and then rises from mourning after his son dies. This is a good proof text against the practice of praying for the dead, for David reasons that there was a chance that the Lord would relent so long as the child was alive, but death closed that possibility (12:22-23). Within the chiastic structure, however, another dimension of David’s behavior is implied. The two C sections bring the death of Uriah and the death of the child together. In strict justice, the death of Uriah should be connected to the death of his murderer, a reflection of the lex talionis woven into the text. Instead, the child pays for the father’s crime, and the father rises to new life, which points to the substitutionary death of a greater Child of David. David can rise because he sees, through the shadows, that his Son has paid for his sins. What turns the C-D into a D-C pattern is, again, the Word of Yahweh. David submits himself to the Word of judgment, acknowledging its truth, and so is delivered from death through the death of his Son.

The political dimensions to this whole episode are highlighted by the framing references to the siege of Rabbah. In 11:1, David remains behind in Jerusalem while Joab leads the army. The irony of David’s absence from the field is indicated by the introduction to the verse: this happened "when kings go out" ("to battle" or "to war" is an interpolation). "Going in" and "going out" are sometimes used to describe the scope of a king’s duties (1 Samuel 8:20; 1 Kings 3:7; 2 Chronicles 1:10), so a king who does not "go out" is failing to act like a king. Uriah’s refusal to go in to his house and to his wife further spotlights David’s unfaithfulness (11:11). David’s initial failure leads to more serious breaches of royal responsibility; instead of "coming in" to protect the brides of Jerusalem he stays behind to prey on them, and instead of "going out" to lead his men into battle, he arranges for the death of one of his mighty men. After the restoring Word corrects and disciplines him, however, he "goes out" (12:29) to capture Rabbah, receive its crown, and pile up the spoils, and the passages ends with David "coming in" to Jerusalem, leading the victorious procession back to his throne.