Reading the Story of King David

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In King David, the Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, Jonathan Kirsch observes:

At the heart of the Book of Samuel, where the story of David is first told, we find a work of genius that anticipates the romantic lyricism and tragic grandeur of Shakespeare, the political wile of Machiavelli, and the modern psychological insight of Freud.  And, just as much as Shakespeare or Machiavelli or Freud, the frank depiction of David in the pages of the Bible has defined what it means to be a human being:  King David is “a symbol of the complexity and ambiguity of human experience itself.”[1]


No two-dimensional pious character, David “played exquisitely, he fought heroically, he loved titanically,” as historian Abram Leon Sachar notes.  “Withal he was a profoundly simple being, cheerful, despondent, selfish, generous, sinning one moment, repenting the next, the most human character of the Bible.”[2]  Like everyone else, from Samuel to Saul to Jonathan—to God himself—when we encounter David we are charmed by him, and we fall under his spell. 

As a work of literature, the David story is one of the most complex and subtle narratives in the Bible, and it is among the greatest stories in world literature.  When we approach it, we do well to bring all of our critical reading skills, sharply honed.

To understand any literary work, we have to answer several questions in the course of our reading:  What is happening in the story?  Why is it happening?  What connects the present event to the preceding and following actions?  What are the characters’ motives?  How do they view their fellow characters?  What are the cultural and social norms that govern the world of the narrative?  The answers given by each reader enable him or her to reconstruct the reality devised by the text and to make sense of the world represented in it.[3]

Michelangelo's David, Galleria dell'Accademia de Florence

Michelangelo's David, Galleria dell'Accademia de Florence

Yet, a close look at a story often reveals how few answers the text explicitly provides.  In most instances, the reader provides the answers, some temporary, partial or tentative, others wholly and completely.  The act of reading fills in the gaps created by the narrative itself.  This “gap-filling” may involve simply arranging textual information in a linear sequence, or it may be more complex, demanding that the reader develop an intricate network of associations, laboriously, hesitantly and with constant modifications as additional information is disclosed at later stages in the story.  The placement of the gaps and their size are a direct function of the narrator, who chooses what to tell the reader, when to tell it, how much to reveal and in what sequence.

Take for instance, the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22.  After the intricate and complex story leading up to Isaac’s long-anticipated birth, we read in Genesis 22: 1-2—

Sometime later God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”  “Here I am,” he replied.”  Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

As readers, we know that God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12: 2-3, in which he says, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  We also know that the blessing will be transmitted through Isaac, not Ishmael, for when Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, God says, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21: 12).  We can only imagine, then, Abraham’s shock when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac, and we can only stand puzzled—along with Abraham—at God’s motive for issuing such a command.  Then, in the next two verses we read, “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.  He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.  When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about” (Genesis 22: 3-4).  Clearly, the narrator has inserted a large gap between verses two and three.  Between these two verses an entire night passes, and by morning Abraham has determined to obey God’s command.  As readers, we are left to puzzle over Abraham’s thoughts during that dreadful night, to imagine the depth and pain of his struggle and to reconstruct the reasoning that leads him to obey God’s command.

As the story continues, “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there.  We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22: 4-5).  Again, our narrator inserts a gap between verses three and four, a gap that spans three days, from the time Abraham leaves his home until he arrives at Moriah to sacrifice his son.  During that time, does he question his decision?  Does he vacillate?  Does he speak with Isaac, or does a grim silence shroud the three-day journey?  The reader can only speculate, and in doing so, fill in the gaps, drawing from previous information about Abraham and his relationship with God, about his decision-making processes, and about what he has learned of Abraham’s personality.  Then in verse 5, Abraham remarkably says, “We will worship and then we will come back to you” [italics mine].   With this additional information, the reader may now conclude that Abraham determined either:  1) God would intervene and stop him from actually sacrificing his son, or 2) he would go through with the sacrifice and God would raise Isaac from the dead.[4]  In either case Abraham confirms the decision he had made during the night prior to leaving for Moriah. 

As Abraham and Isaac trudge together toward the mountain, another gap occurs until Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here . . . but where is the lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22: 7).  At this, Abraham’s composure cracks; he replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  In a dazzling moment of grammatical ambiguity, our narrator strikes a near-fatal blow at Abraham’s resolve, when we are unable to tell if—grammatically—“my son” is an appositive or a vocative; that is, will God provide an offering other than Isaac, or will he provide “my son!”

We could continue reading the gaps in the Abraham/ Isaac story, but you get the idea.  As readers, it is up to us to fill in the gaps, and we do so by drawing from what we have previously learned of the characters, context and action, and we are forced to revise our conclusions as we learn what follows in the story.  This is brilliant narrative technique, and all imaginative literature engages in it to one degree or another.  At a structural level, the gaps enrich our experience of the text as we collaborate with the narrator in constructing the story’s narrative world and the characters that populate it. 

To emphasize the reader’s collaborative role in constructing the narrative by no means implies that “gap filling” is an arbitrary process.  Quite the contrary.  For the process to be valid, it must be legitimized by the text itself and not by subjective concerns, personal desires, or by introducing later historical or theological thinking that is outside the narrative world.  In the New Testament, for example, the Gospels present Jesus’ virginal conception as a fact of the narrative, but it does not support the perpetual virginity of Mary:  this is a later development, which draws upon centuries of theological inquiry; it is not a part of the narrative world presented in the gospels.  To impose the perpetual virginity of Mary on the gospel narrative is to introduce an anachronism, to distort the narrative and to produce a misleading reading. Please understand that I am not questioning the perpetual virginity of Mary, but I am saying that such a relatively modern doctrine cannot be introduced into an ancient text to fill the gaps and produce a sound reading of the narrative itself.[5]

Likewise, in the David story, to which we will turn shortly, the rabbis confronted a formidable and very emotional problem:  How could Israel’s greatest king—and a writer of the psalms, at that—be an adulterer?  The most frequent solution imposed on the text is that David did not commit adultery with Bathsheba, for her husband Uriah the Hittite had divorced Bathsheba before leaving for the war!  As Rabbi Shmuel bar Nakhmani argues, “Whoever says that David sinned is totally mistaken. . ..  How could he fall into sin while the Divine Presence rested upon him? . . .  Under the house of David, whoever went forth into battle would give his wife a letter of divorce” (Shabbat 56a).  Besides, argue the rabbis, the alluring Bathsheba seduced David, not the other way around.  Such argument is pious and well-intentioned, but it has no support whatsoever from the immediate narrative—never mind Nathan’s sharp rebuke of David in chapter 12 and David’s own confession in Psalm 51.  Again, for a legitimate reading, the gaps must be filled in a manner congruent with the text, not according to one’s wishes or to beliefs that postdate the narrative world.

This concept of “reading the gaps” is essential to reading all literature; it is especially important in reading the Bible; and it is critical in reading the David and Bathsheba episode.  I would like to work through the episode in some detail to illustrate the process.

As we read the David story in 1 & 2 Samuel, David is God’s “golden boy” through 2 Samuel 10:  God has anointed him king to replace Saul; David has triumphed again and again in his battles against Israel’s enemies; he has conferred with God at every crucial moment; he has proven himself to be a brilliant strategist and tactician; and he has shown himself an altogether magnificent warrior/king. 

And then we encounter 2 Samuel 11. 

Let me present the first five verses of 2 Samuel 11 in a literal translation of the Hebrew to emphasize their diction, grammar and syntax:

In the spring, at the time when kings go out to war, David sent Joab and the king’s men and all Israel and they destroyed the Ammonites and they besieged Rabbah and David was sitting in Jerusalem.   

And it happened at evening that David got up from his bed and was walking about on the roof of the king’s palace and he saw from the roof a woman bathing and the woman was very beautiful and David sent and inquired about the woman and the one he sent said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite?”

And David sent messengers and he got her and she came to him and he lay with her (now she was purifying herself from her uncleanness), and she returned to her house and the woman conceived and she sent and told David and said, “I am pregnant.”

Most modern translations eliminate the repetitive words and smooth out the syntax to make the verses more palatable to our modern stylistic tastes.  It is important to retain the sense of the original, however, if we are to understand how our author crafts his narrative.

Notice several elements in these five verses.  First, they recount a terrible failing on David’s part.  In every chapter leading to this episode, David is the warrior par excellence; he leads from the front; he is the tip of the spear:  after all, that is why the people wanted a king to begin with, “a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20).  Here, David sends out “Joab and the king’s men and all Israel and they destroyed the Ammonites and they besieged Rabbah.”  In sharp contrast, “David was sitting in Jerusalem,” is wholly uncharacteristic of David, if we may judge from everything we’ve read to this point.  The very structure of the sentence highlights the sharp contrast.  We may view it in two parts:  1a) “In the spring, at the time when kings go out to war, David sent Joab and the king’s men and all Israel and they destroyed the Ammonites and they besieged Rabbah;” and 1b)  “and David was sitting in Jerusalem.”  In the first part, the Hebrew consists of twenty-three words that pile up the action, beginning with “Joab” and moving to “the king’s men” and “all Israel” (from one person, to many, to a multitude), who “destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.”  In purely informational terms, this may make an appropriate prelude to a war story centered on Joab and his army, but this is not a war story; it is a story of David’s intimately personal life.  As readers, we reach this realization abruptly in part two of the sentence, when we read, “and David was sitting in Jerusalem.”  In Hebrew, the verb “was sitting” is an active participle, indicating that as the action in 1a is taking place, David “was sitting in Jerusalem” the entire time.  The contrast between Joab and his men “going out” and “destroying and besieging” with David “sitting” in Jerusalem is magnified by the sharp contrast between the twenty-three words in the first phrase and three words in the second.  The dynamic action of the first phrase spotlights by contrast the static action of the second.  As readers, the abruptness stops us short.  It catches our attention.  Something is wrong.[6]

In addition, the information our narrator gives us is purely objective, with no probing of motive or thought.  Admittedly, biblical narrative is often sparse to the point of frugality, but the glaring omission of David’s motives and thoughts (the very information we want) prompt us to ask, “Just what is David doing in Jerusalem while everyone else is out fighting a war?”

The answer arrives in the next four verses.  Verse two intensifies the contrast between David and his men with a movement from general to specific (“In the spring” to “and it happened at evening”) and an “innocent” telling of a sequence of events:  David rises in the evening and strolls about on the roof of his palace, where he sees a beautiful woman bathing.   Such “objective” information causes the reader to fill in the gaps that we clearly sense:  while Israel fights a war, its king lounges in luxury, napping in the late afternoon, rising in the evening, strolling about on the palace roof on a balmy spring evening and watching a naked woman bathe.  Although the narrator remains objective about the scene, we don’t.  Clearly, the narrator has led us ever so subtly to begin making judgments about David, about his motives and about his actions, rather than impose them upon us.

The technique continues in verses three, four and five as we follow David’s actions: “. . . and David sent and inquired about the woman and the one he sent said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite?” And David sent messengers and he got her and she came to him and he lay with her . . . and she returned to her house and the woman conceived and she sent and told David and said, “I am pregnant.”  The string of coordinating conjunctions “and” highlights the linear action, as does the sequence of verbs: “sent,” “inquired,” “sent,” “got,” “came,” “lay with,” “returned,” “conceived,” “sent,” and “told.”  The narrative’s objectivity seems stunningly inappropriate, given the content of David’s actions, causing the reader to probe beneath the surface.  Just who is “Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite.”  It is up to us to investigate.  In 2 Samuel 23 we find a list of David’s “mighty men,” thirty-seven in all:  Eliam, Bathsheba’s father, is the son of Ahithophel, who himself will play a pivotal role in the rebellion of David’s son, Absalom, later in the story, and Uriah the Hittite is the last in the list of David’s “mighty men,” one of his key officers (vv. 34-39).  In these verses—withheld from us by the narrator at this point in the story—we learn the magnitude of what David is about to do:  He not only “takes” another man’s wife, but he also betrays one of his own officers and sets in motion a series of cascading consequences that will manifest themselves later in the story.

As the episode continues, I quote from the NIV translation:

So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.”  And Joab sent him to David.  When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.  Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.”  So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him.  But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.”

 When David was told, “Uriah did not go home,” he asked him, “Haven’t you just come from a distance?  Why didn’t you go home?” 

 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields.  How could I go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife?  As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”

 Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.”  So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next.  At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk.  But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.

Here, David summons Uriah from the battlefield to Jerusalem.  But why?  Again, the narrator confines himself simply to reporting events, offering no hint at motive and making no judgments.  He leaves that to us.  When we read, “So David sent word to Joab: ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite,’” the motive may be either benign or malignant:  perhaps David wants to confess to Uriah and make right the wrong he has committed; perhaps he wants to make restitution; or perhaps his motive is darker. 

When Uriah arrives, David seems polite enough, asking, “how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.”  Again, our narrator simply reports the conversation: “how . . . how . . . how,” offering no motive and no judgment, leading us down a path that can go in either direction, a path that continues when David tells Uriah to “go down to your house and wash your feet” and sending a gift after him (literally, “and the king’s provisions came out after him”).  David’s suggestion entails a delicious double entendre:  washing one’s feet is customary after traveling on hot, dusty roads; it is tantamount to saying, “go home, clean up and refresh yourself”; but “washing your feet” is also a euphemism for having sex, since “feet” in biblical usage also refers to the male genitals, a suggestion that is reinforced by David sending—in effect—a catered dinner of food and wine to create a romantic evening! Is this simple kindness to a loyal soldier?  Or is it something else? 

When David learns that Uriah did not go home, he asks, “Haven’t you just come from a distance?  Why didn’t you go home?” and Uriah replies, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields.  How could I go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife?  As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”  So, the ambiguity continues:  if we follow a positive interpretation, Uriah appears noble and rather innocent; if his men are in the field, he couldn’t possibly avail himself of marital pleasures at home in his own bed.

David then asks him to stay a little longer, and he invites him to dinner and he drinks with him before sending him back to the field.

As we move from David’s sending for Uriah to sending him back to Joab, the narrator’s simple reporting of facts, while withholding motive and judgment, lulls us into following a benign interpretation of David’s actions.  Yet, as the narrative proceeds, an uncomfortable awareness emerges:  David has summoned Uriah on a long journey from Rabbah, and no substantive conversation transpires between them, only polite banter that moves over four days from general conversation to a night of dining and carousing. 

The very lack of substance raises troubling doubts about David’s motives, doubts that are then confirmed like a thunderbolt when we next read: “In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah.  In it he wrote, “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest.  Then withdraw from him so that he will be struck down and die” (11:14-15).  Here, a positive reading of the narrative boomerangs upon us as David’s diabolical plot snaps into sharp focus.  David had sent for Uriah in order that he would go home, have sex with his wife, and cover up what David has done.  When the plot fails, David blatantly orders Uriah’s murder.

With this sudden realization, we can now go back and fill in the gaps that our narrator has left open.  Clearly, David recalls Uriah from the front, solely to cover up his own crime.  What seemed like innocent banter, now becomes inane prattling to get Uriah in his wife’s bed.  When Uriah doesn’t go home, we must ask: “Does he know what David has done?”  Recall the number of servants involved in the story:  1) David sends a servant to find out who the woman is, and the servant returns with an answer (11: 3); 2) David sends servants (plural) to get Bathsheba (11: 4); 3) Bathsheba sends a servant to David telling him that she is pregnant (11:5); 4) David sends a servant to get Uriah, who then returns with him on the two-day journey from Rabbah to Jerusalem (11: 6); and 5) a servant (or servants) bring a gift from David to Uriah’s home (11: 8).  The more people involved in a conspiracy, the greater likelihood that the conspiracy will be made known.  If it is, then we must see Uriah—and David—in a very different light.  If Uriah learns of David’s actions before he arrives in Jerusalem, then David’s inane conversation on his arrival and his suggestion that Uriah go home and “wash his feet” along with the gift he sends reveal David as a genuine scoundrel.  And if Uriah learns of David’s actions after he arrives, then we must see Uriah’s transformation during the night from a noble and rather innocent soldier to a wronged husband and a warrior betrayed by his own king.  In either case, both David and Bathsheba clearly know the truth, and if David could see from his roof Bathsheba bathing, then both David and Bathsheba can see each other, and both can see Uriah sleeping at the king’s gate. If such is the case, and if Uriah knows what David has done, then his words to David take on new and dramatic meaning: “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents [as opposed to you, who are lounging in your palace], and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open field [as opposed to you, who dally in your bed].  How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife [as you have done]?  As surely as you live [which may not be much longer], I [as opposed to you] will not do such a thing!”

When David orders the murder of Uriah, any possibility of a benign reading on our part vanishes; we are propelled back into the narrative to fill in the gaps, given the new information we have; and David is revealed as a particularly loathsome villain.

This is dazzling narrative technique—a work of genius—which offers insight into how we should approach all of Scripture.  “Reading the gaps” is a fundamental skill we should develop if we are truly to understand Scripture.  Reading the gaps requires a thorough knowledge of narrative technique; a comprehensive understanding of context; a close reading of the text itself; and the ability to dismiss preconceived ideas and operate solely within the world of the narrative. 

Such is the task of becoming an educated reader.



[1] Jonathan Kirsch, King David, the Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel (New York:  Ballantine Books, 2000), pp. 1-2.

[2] Abram Leon Sachar, A History of the Jews, rev. ed. (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 34.

[3] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative:  Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 186.

[4] The previous occurs, in fact, in verse 12 when the angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand as he is about to slit Isaac’s throat.  The latter may also come into play during the dreadful three-day journey, for in Hebrews 11: 19 we read, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

[5] The perpetual virginity of Mary was proposed officially at the first Lateran Council in A.D. 649, and it was defined as church doctrine in Constantinople at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 681.  As a Roman Catholic, I happily adhere to the teaching of the Church on this issue.

[6] As Robert Alter observes, “The verb for ‘sitting’ also means ‘to stay’ . . . but it is best to preserve the literal sense here because of the pointed sequence:  sitting, lying, rising, and because in biblical usage ‘to sit’ is also an antonym of ‘to go out’” (The David Story, p. 250).