How David Sinned with Bathsheba
When David slept with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:1-13), why was that sin?
David thought nothing was amiss, “but the thing that David had done displeased Yahweh” (2 Sam 11:27). Exactly why was God displeased? Despite common assumptions, the Bible does not portray David’s sin as breaking the 10 commandments and never mentions the Law. As God reveals through his prophet Nathan, David (1) was a shameful person (2) who shamed God, (3) so bears shame.
1. David acted shamefully (2 Sam 12:1-6)
From the outset, we are introduced to a rich man with very many flocks and a poor man with one sheep. These descriptions introduce the social status of the two people, not simply material wealth. A “rich person with very many flocks” would have functioned as a revered patron providing for the needs of others. After that comes the sharpest words of the text, “Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or heard to prepare for the traveler.” The rich man was stingy, cheap, inhospitable, and ungenerous—the worse possible characteristics in a collectivistic society. The thought of a rich person not butchering a sheep or goat for a distant traveler is an unspeakable disgrace. To explain how David acted shamefully , Nathan skillfully uses the image of rich host who resorts to shameless thievery to feed a guest. Naturally, such an anti-social action is despicable, even to David (2 Sam 12:5-6).
2. David shamed God (2 Sam 12:7-10)
But now the interesting part—How is that sin? The notes of ESV Study Bible explains how David’s action was a legal infraction:
“David started by breaking the tenth commandment (coveting, Ex. 20:17), then the seventh (adultery, Ex. 20:14), and then the sixth (murder, Ex 20:13), while the Lord silently watched his behavior. Here at last the LORD calls him to account for standing above the law. … Nathan apparently asks David to intervene in a legal matter.”
However, the text actually states David action’s “despised” (i.e., shamed) God three separate times. David’s action is not viewed as a failure to keep the law, but the failure to rightly honor God.a. “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in the eyes of the Lord?” (v. 9). First, “the word” here is not the Bible, the law, or legal commandments (something modern literates may assume as non-oral communicators). Rather, the “word of the Lord” is the promise God made to David in 2 Samuel 7:7-14—the covenantal relationship God initiated with David to make him a great king with a royal dynasty. God’s word, in this case, is his agreement, or pledge, to David.
David’s actions despise God’s covenantal promises. In the covenant, God offered to be David’s patron who would save and exalt David (in exchange for praise and loyalty from David). God had been faithful to honor David as promised, and so lists his benefactions: power, salvation from Saul, wives, and rule (2 Sam 12:7-8). . And that was not the end of God’s benevolence—“and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more,” God declares. Or in other words, God was not some tight-fisted, shameful rich man who refused to share with others, but gave generously (a nice rhetorical jab at David!). In light of that covenantal context, God asks, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” Taking Bathsheba was turning from the honor and relationship that God promised. David functionally says God cannot keep his promises; he’s incapable of being an honorable patron who provides. David is a disloyal client to the generous patron, turning away from that relationship to access resources through other channels.
b. “You have despised the Lord” (v. 10). This is the root of the problem, so repeated a second time.
c. “By this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord.” (v. 14) David’s actions utterly scorned the Lord. Do you ever understand and explain sin that way? This language appears so strong and reprehensible, the ancient scribes of the Masoretic Text changed it to read, “you have utterly scorned the enemies of the Lord.” The phrase “the enemies of” appears added, likely to avoid the notion that God was utterly scorned. The mere thought was repulsive.
David’s sin was foremost against God and his honor. He despised God’s name and dismissed his promises. Then comes the part Western eyes often read over.
3. David bears shame (2 Sam 12:11-14)
The consequence of David’s sin is his shameful humiliation. God uses David’s family—usually the source of one’s honor—to bring about the shame. The shame comes from his children and his wives.
- His children seek his throne and chase their Father out of Jerusalem. “I (God) will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.” The following chapters recount internal mutiny and family disloyalty against David’s throne. David’s sons are disobedient, irreverent, and disrespectful towards the father.
- Others will sleep with the king’s women—another unspeakable disgrace. “I (God) will take your wives before your eyes; and give them to your neighbor, and he shall like with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” Also, note the emphasis on the public nature of the exposing—it will happen in broad daylight, for all to see! The shaming intent of these words is obvious. When Absalom takes over the Jerusalem temple, his first act as “king” is sleeping with David’s wives on the rooftop (2 Sam 16:22).
The Main Point
David’s shameful actions shamed God, so he faces shame. This theological logic in 2 Sam 12 reflects the author’s larger theological framework. The opening two chapters of 1 Samuel contrast the lives of Hannah and Eli’s son to introduce a primary theological point of the book—“For those who honor me I will honor (i.e., Hannah), and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt (i.e., Eli’s sons)” (1 Sam 2:30). The double-sided reality plays out in nearly every character of 1 and 2 Samuel. David’s sin is another tragic example of this theological point—“those who despise God shall be treated with contempt” (1 Sam 2:30).
Related Post: Did Bathsheba Seduce David?
While I still think “the Word of the LORD” refers to law in 2 Sam 12:9, I thank you for this educational & eye opening post.
Thanks for the kind word.
About whether “the word of the LORD” is God’s commandment (i.e., Torah/Law) or God’s promise (i.e., covenant) in 2 Sam 12:9, a few words:
One, while it may be possible for it to mean “commandment,” that does not appear the most plausible reading when considering the logic of the passage (see below). Two, even if you read it v.9 in legal (and not relational/covenantal) terms, honor-shame dynamics still saturate the passage and the theological points made in the post are evident in the passage. With those qualifications, here are three reasons why it seems most plausible to read “the word of the Lord” as God’s promise in 2 Sam 12:9.
1. The rhetorical question “Why have you despised the word of the LORD?” must be read in light of the preceding two verses? What is the logic between 2 Sam 12:7b–8 and v. 9? Right before God says, “I anointed…I delivered you…I gave you this…I gave you that…and, I would have give you EVEN MORE!” So considered everything I have provided and offered you, “Why did you despise my word?” The preceding verses evoke God’s relational promises (2 Sam 7:7–14), not his commandments. If v. 9 refers to God’s Law, then it is not rhetorically or logically connected to the prior verses.
2.These words in v. 9 are clearly parallel to v. 10— “You have despised me.” “Despising God’s word” is synonymous “despising God.” David’s offense is directly against the character and veracity of God, not against an entity that is external to God.
3. There is simply no mention of the Law in this passage. I’ve heard many a Western commentators list the various commandments from the Decalogue that David violated here (e.g., see ESV Study Bible notes). Nathan could have easily done so as well to convict David. But, he doesn’t. Nathan does not appeal to legal infractions, but to the moral logic of honor-shame.
These comments are not for the purpose starting an online debate, but for something far more practical. A huge challenge for Westerners in honor-shame contexts is recognizing and confronting sin. For this, I believe 2 Sam 12 offers profound insights. Continuing to limit sin to “breaking God’s commandments” not only shades our reading of the Bible and theological framework, but also our relationships at a very practical level.
I can’t prove or disprove to you what God intended “the word of the LORD” to mean in verse 9 and I agree that honor and shame saturate the passage – thanks for pointing that out. I agree as Sandra says, “The foundational issue of sin is dishonour.”
But in context there is also a guilt/innocence aspect.
2 Sam 12:9 “Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.”
Was this not murder and adultery as mentioned in the law?
The punishments for these sins are legally equitably (as well as honor/shame based), sword for sword, adultery for adultery, death for death, 2 Sam 12:10-14:
10. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
11. “This is what the LORD says: `Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight.
12. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.'”
13. Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.
14. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.”
Thanks for disagreeing with me we can all learn more. I think the things we agree on vastly overwhelm those we don’t.
Great post – I think this passage really gives us an insight of how God defines sin since Nathan comes to David with the word of the Lord on the matter. So we can say that primarily God sees sin in the context of shame/dishonour.
While there is debate in relation to whether ‘the word of the LORD’ is the law or not, I would say it could be….but….how God terms David’s attitude to the ‘law’ is still in terms still of shame – God did not accuse David of ‘disobeying’ His Word but said that David ‘despised the word of the Lord’ v9 and David ‘despised Me’ v10.
David despised both what God said/commanded and despised God Himself. When we disobey the law, we have first despised/disregarded the law and thus despised and disregarded the Lawgiver.
The foundational issue of sin is dishonour.
Mmmm. It’s a fresh way to look at it that sin is first of all a matter of not honouring God. That is surely an aspect, and a helpful perspective, especially for those who are under exposed to shame/honour aspects of biblical culture.
However, I wonder how it is that the clear delineation of sin as the transgression of a commandment in the Bible, albeit that creational or legal fits in with that.
It is not mentioned, but likely assumed that David knows the law, and that the King is required to keep a copy of it and meditate and obey (shamar=listen/do) at all times. Thus his conscience (both personal and social) as well as the revelation of God’s word make him all the more culpable, defining his guilt even further.
Nonetheless it is interesting how this is primarily brought home by a story that pricks his social conscience. And this is perhaps where we miss it in western individualist cultures.
We don’t read the Bible aright and are not aware of the entire framework of Israel, the prophets, the law and the social structure, all of which were speaking in the story that Nathan brings to convict David.
Thanks for the post!
Thank you for pointing out the angle of honor and shame!
You are right that the Western point of view does not often take into account how weighted honor and shame are in the bible.
We miss too much if we solely look at these actions as a matter of breaking the law and its consequences. Without the additional overlaid template of honor and shame we conclude that God required the sacrifice of Jesus only to wash away our sins and appease an angry God.
Rather, we should note that Jesus was subjected to the world’s injustice and oppression, bearing the shame that was not due him for our sake that we too might be raised in honor with him by God. Provided we demonstrate honor to God; not sinning is only one side of the coin.
I appreciate your article and the whole tenor of this website. I totally agree that the cultural concept of honor and shame needs to be more widely shared and understood. Although, I agree that the immediate context suggests that “despising the word of the Lord” refers to the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7, I don’t think this has to be an “either/or” argument. David sinned by not honoring God’s covenant with him and he also sinned by breaking the Torah or 10 commandments. While it is important to highlight the neglected aspect of honor and shame, is the other viewpoint not also valid?
I have spelled out the significance of the statement in 1 Samuel 2:30 (“Those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed”) as one of the main themes of 1&2 Samuel in my recent book, “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” I think this is a much neglected theme in the book which connects with Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:1-10) about those whom God raises up and brings down.
Thanks again for this thought-provoking article.
Randy, thanks for the encouraging words. To clarify: yes, David did break some of the 10 commandments and that is surely as aspect of sin. However, I Nathan does not mention the 10 commandments. In this chapter, sin is not breaking a rule, but dishonoring God. The post was not developing an entire systematic theology of sin, but unpacking the theology of this one story.
I also wanted to let you know I enjoyed your youtube lesson: Honor & Shame 201. I will be using it in my class and having my students view it.
Great to hear; hope they enjoy it!
I’ve been thinking about this – “Is it possible to have true sin without true shame?” It depends on how you define the terms.
SIN. It is possible to think you have not sinned when you have – you still have truly sinned.
SHAME. It is possible to not feel shame when you should – you are still in a shameful state – God considers you shameful. It is possible to feel shame when you shouldn’t – God considers you to be honorable. Then true shame is a status not a feeling.
With these definitions, if you have sinned, you are in a shameful state before God (whether you feel it or not). If you are in a shameful state before God, there must have been some sin (disobedience or disrespect of God).
Therefore true sin and true shame always go together. You cannot have one without the other.
A respected NT scholar, after reading my take of this passage in my forthcoming book on patronage, kindly emailed me this….
To say that the ESV Study Bible misinterprets David’s sin along “legal” lines goes too far. The evidence you cite, that neither Nathan nor David mentions a law, overlooks Nathan’s response to David, “God has heard and you will not die.” He’s referencing the death penalty for adulterers which David deserved according to Mosaic law. God had mercy on David. I would suggest that you amend your comments to say something like, “If we look at this purely in legal terms we will miss a significant angle on understanding the story. Certainly, David had broken a law, but the egregiousness of his sin stems from his ingratitude toward God’s benevolence.”
My reply was such….
Several things do come to mind for now. The reference to “death” does not necessarily need to be a reference to the Mosaic penalty. Even before Torah/Law was given, sin brought death. Also, I think Nathan is referring back to David’s own comment in v. 5—” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!” I don’t think that David was referencing anything in Mosaic law about stingy hosts being killed, but was saying that such an person was so insulting he was an utter disgrace worthy of death–complete removal and shame. So it seems to make more sense, at least for me right now, to read Nathan’s comments about death as, “Even though by your own confession, such an ingrate should die for dishonoring God, the God who has provided everything for you will provide yet another thing for you—the covering of your sinful ingratitude so that he doesn’t need to avenge his honor/name by putting you to shame/death.” Death was a threat for David because God’s name has been utterly scorned God’s name (as the following words emphasize) and removal/death was a customary way for God to restore his honor. Again, that is my initial reading for now, but I’ll thinking on it more.
What do you think? I’m curious to keep more input on this.