Literary Corner

What was Dovid's error in the incident with Bas-Sheva?

by Rabbi Yonason Goldson
From the book "Dawn To Destiny". Reproduced with permission.
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

According to tradition, Dovid complained that the Jewish people would call out to Hashem as the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, but not as the G-d of Dovid. Hashem replied that He had tested the patriarchs, but had not tested Dovid. "Test me, too!" Dovid exclaimed.

Dovid's request resulted in the incident with Bas-Sheva

The subject of tests itself requires some explanation. Since Hashem knows the future, He knows whether or not we will pass the tests He gives us. If so, why test us at all? Hashem tests us not to discover whether or not we will succeed, but to give us the opportunity to realize our personal potential. This is the reason Hashem always tested the patriarchs against their strengths rather than their weaknesses: By overcoming obstacles, each grew to his highest possible spiritual level.

Nevertheless, one should never ask for a test or seek to place himself in a situation where he risks catastrophic failure. Dovid himself ultimately came to the realization that he failed his test the moment he asked for it: He should have been patient and, if Hashem intended to elevate him to the exalted status of the Avos, a test would have presented itself to Dovid when the time was right.

Understanding the details of Dovid's sin requires a careful investigation into the character of the man and the circumstances of the time. Throughout his entire life, Dovid demonstrated almost superhuman mastery over his temper and his impulses. Let us cite only a few examples.

Golias (Goliath). As a young man, unknown and untried in warfare, Dovid insisted upon going out to battle Golias, the Philistine giant, rather than standing by and witnessing the continued humiliation of the Jewish army. It was the giant's brazen desecration of Hashem's divine name that gave Dovid faith in the inevitability of his own victory, not confidence in his own military prowess or spiritual merit. Dovid even refused the king's armor to impress upon the rest of the Jewish soldiers that it was his trust in Hashem alone that would assure his victory.

Avigayil and Naval. As a captain in Shaul's army, Dovid was outraged when Naval, a wealthy landowner, casually neglected the period of national mourning for Shmuel Hanavi. Dovid decided to avenge the slight to Shmuel's honor by seeking a legal pretext for putting Naval to death.

Requesting food for the king's soldiers stationed to protect Naval's own property, Dovid used Naval's refusal to indict Naval as a rebel against the crown. As Dovid advanced to carry out this execution, however, Naval's wife, Avigayil, interceded and beseeched Dovid to spare her husband.

Avigayil cited a technicality in the law that forced Dovid to reconsider his legal justification for executing Naval. Impressed by Avigayil's unconditional loyalty to her unworthy husband, Dovid resolved on the spot to marry her once Naval was dead. Yet in spite of Dovid's eagerness to punish Naval for his disloyalty and to marry
Avigayil himself, Dovid acquiesced to her arguments and abandoned his plan to take Naval's life.

Remarkably, Dovid's encounter with Avigayil closely parallels his later encounter with Bas-Sheva. In both cases, Dovid desired a married woman, and in both cases, Dovid found a legal justification for executing the woman's husband. That Dovid exercised such extraordinary self-restraint in the first case forces us to reexamine the likelihood that he could have yielded so easily before temptation in the second.

Aas a fugitive from shaul. At the moment Shmuel Hanavi anointed Dovid as king, Hashem's spirit departed from Shaul and settled upon Dovid, casting Shaul into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Eventually, convinced that only by killing Dovid could he save his own kingship, Shaul pursued Dovid relentlessly with all the military resources of the crown. Yet Dovid never answered back and never retaliated. Even when Shaul wandered into the cave where Dovid and his men were hiding, Dovid refused to harm Shaul and physically restrained his men from doing so. Later, Dovid risked his life to sneak into the Jewish army camp to steal Shaul's spear and flask as proof that he had held Shaul's life in his hand and spared him. "Now, please, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant," Dovid cried, beseeching Shaul to recognizing his loyalty (I Shmuel 26:19).

The one time Dovid did raise his hand against Shaul, when he cut off a corner of Shaul's cloak to prove that he could indeed have taken Shaul's life had he wished to do so, Dovid later castigated himself for maligning the honor of the king.

Finally, after Shaul's death in battle, Dovid did not rejoice over the death of the man who had hunted him like an animal. For all the anguish inflicted upon him by Shaul, Dovid recognized that Shaul was not in his right mind, was not fully responsible for his actions, and remained an individual of unparalleled greatness despite his failures and his unfortunate end. Dovid mourned not merely the loss of the King of Israel, but the tragic fate of a giant of a man. Even then, despite his earlier anointment by Shmuel, he did not presume to assert his claim to the throne until he received Hashem's permission to proceed.

Yoav's execution. After Shaul's death, Dovid sought to make peace with Shaul's son Ish-Boshes. Employing Shaul's general Avner as an intermediary, Dovid hoped to prevent further bloodshed and unify the nation.

But Dovid's own general Yoav, either distrustful of Avner or protective of his own position, lured Avner into a trap and murdered him, thereby destroying Dovid's credibility in the eyes of the people and prolonging dissention and strife among the tribes.

Although Dovid had every justification to execute Yoav, as well as the personal and political desire to do so, he concluded that it would be an unconscionable display of ingratitude to put to death the man who had served him with such loyalty through so many crises. Dovid waited almost four decades until, upon his deathbed, he charged his son Shlomo with executing Yoav — not out of vengeance for Yoav's ultimate betrayal of Dovid by supporting Avshalom's rebellion, but to exact the justice that Yoav deserved and to allow him atonement so that he should have peace in the World to Come.

These episodes, together with many others recorded in Scripture and the Talmud, portray Dovid as a man never given to acts of impulse or personal self-indulgence. Therefore, the superficial image presented by Scripture of Dovid as a man who flung himself into adultery at the mere sight of a woman bathing, who conspired to commit murder and risked the destruction of the Jewish monarchy, is irreconcilable with the way we see Dovid throughout the rest of his life before and after.

We have already explained (in Section 3.4) that Scripture sometimes presents seemingly contradictory information that forces us to evaluate the misdeeds of extraordinary people in the context of their times and circumstances. To warn us against superficially interpreting Dovid's episode with Bas-Sheva, the Talmud records the oral tradition that, "Anyone who says that Dovid sinned is in error."

Even without the Talmud's admonition, it is impossible to reconcile the simple reading of the text with Torah law. According to halachah, an adulteress is forbidden to marry a man with whom she committed adultery, even after divorce or the death of her husband. Any descendant from such a union would be a mamzer, i.e., illegitimate, and would thus be disqualified both from reigning as king and from marrying into the general community of permitted Jewish women. Because Dovid remained married to Bas-Sheva after the incident without reprimand, and because their son Shlomo was allowed to rule and perpetuate the messianic line, we have no choice but to conclude that Dovid, whatever his sin may have been concerning Bas-Sheva, did not commit adultery.

A number of details concerning Bas-Sheva are not addressed by Scripture. Early in his reign, Dovid had decreed that every soldier must give his wife a get, a divorce document, stipulating that if he did not return after the war, the woman would be considered divorced retroactively to the giving of the get. Dovid instituted this practice to protect every soldier's wife from the unfortunate status of an agunah, a woman prohibited from marrying because her husband is missing in action but not confirmed to be dead.

Consequently, when Uriah, a soldier in Dovid's army, did not return home from the war, the get he had given to his wife Bas-Sheva rendered her technically divorced from before the time of Dovid's first involvement with her.

Furthermore, Uriah and Bas-Sheva had never consummated their marriage, indicating some severe dysfunction in their relationship. Although this would not by any means justify adultery, it does suggest a motive — other than Uriah's stated reason of empathy for his fellow soldiers — for Uriah's refusal to comply with Dovid's order to return home to his wife.

When Uriah was called before Dovid, he made reference to his general as "my master, Yoav" (II Shmuel 11:11). Although this form of address would have been proper in the presence of his commanding officer, referring to anyone other than the king as master in the presence of the king himself constituted an act of rebellion punishable by death. Uriah also disobeyed Dovid's order to return home to his wife. on two separate counts, therefore, Uriah placed himself in the category of moreid b'malchus, a rebel against the king. As such, Uriah forfeited his life immediately since the extralegal powers of the monarch include the authority to invoke the death penalty upon rebels without the due process of law.

Undeniably, the law gave Dovid the right to bring Uriah before the Sanhedrin and demand his execution. Nevertheless, Dovid worried (for good reason) that the people would question the integrity of a king who ordered a man's death and immediately married his widow, and Dovid sought to avoid the public appearance of conspiracy and impropriety when he married Bas-Sheva. Therefore, rather than demanding Uriah's execution from the Sanhedrin, Dovid instructed his general Yoav to arrange Uriah's death in battle.

It is clear, therefore, that Dovid was neither an adulterer nor a murderer. Indeed, when the prophet Nasan presented Dovid with the parable of the rich man who stole the poor man's sheep, he alluded to theft but to neither murder nor adultery. Had Dovid been truly guilty of murdering Uriah, what possible explanation could there have been for the prophet to employ a parable that implied theft but not murder?

So what was Dovid's crime? Some say Dovid erred by arranging Uriah's death himself and circumventing the formal process of indictment and sentencing. Although Dovid had the authority to invoke the death penalty, he should have gone to the Sanhedrin and confirmed that Uriah's actions constituted moreid b'malchus before executing justice. According to this, it was Dovid's desire to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing that, ironically, resulted in his real transgression. But this is only a partial answer, since it fails to address the underlying reason why Dovid embarked upon his whole adventure with Bas-Sheva to begin with.

The Sages teach us that before Adam was cast out of Gan Eden, Hashem showed him all the generations that would descend from him. When he saw Dovid, he exclaimed, "Such a beautiful neshamah!" Hashem told him that Dovid was destined to survive only three hours, whereupon Adam offered seventy years of his life so that Dovid might live.

The Talmud records that the union of Dovid and Bas-Sheva had been predestined from the six days of Creation, and that Dovid sinned not because he took what was forbidden to him but because he took "unripe fruit." From here, some understand that Dovid was a gilgul, a reincarnation, of Adam, and infer further that Bas-Sheva was a gilgul of Chavah.

Both Adam and Dovid faced similar tests: Hashem placed Adam in a perfect world and commanded him to keep it perfect, whereas Dovid was presented with the opportunity to restore the world to perfection by establishing the dynasty that would produce Mashiach. It seems plausible that, just as Hashem had revealed to Yehudah the messianic destiny he shared with Tamar, so too did Hashem open Dovid's eyes to the messianic potential he shared with Bas-Sheva. Just as Adam erred by trying to accelerate his own self-perfection by taking evil inside himself and conquering it from within, similarly did Dovid err by attempting to accelerate the establishment of the messianic line; rather than actively taking Bas-Sheva for himself, he should have waited for Hashem to arrange the proper time and manner of their union.

So why does Scripture leave Dovid's innocence so concealed and elusive? Let us recall that the stories recounted in Tanach often magnify the sins of great people so that later generations can appreciate the severity of their transgressions. For a spiritual giant such as Dovid, his indiscretions with Bas-Sheva and Uriah were indeed comparable to adultery and murder. However, to believe that Dovid actually committed either adultery or murder is to miss both the greatness of Dovid and the real lessons of the biblical record.

Despite his failure, Dovid came through his test better than Adam did in two respects. First, whereas Adam violated the letter of the law in an attempt to fulfill the spirit of the law, Dovid compromised the spirit of the law but never transgressed the letter of the law.

Second, and most important, whereas Adam tried to shift the blame onto others when confronted with his sin, Dovid immediately accepted responsibility for his actions with the words, "Chatasi LaShem — I have sinned against Hashem" (II Shmuel 12:13). Although innocent of adultery and murder — sins against man — Dovid had nevertheless sinned against Hashem when he failed to uphold the Divine will by manipulating the intent behind the law.

For his transgression, Dovid endured the most severe punishments: the death of his first son from Bas-Sheva, and the rebellions of his sons Avshalom and Adoniyahu. But because of his spontaneous and unqualified repentance, Dovid retained his distinction as founder of the messianic line. It was he who prepared Israel for its crowning glory, the building of the Beis Hamikdash.

Moreover, Dovid becomes an eternal symbol of the power of teshuvah. Through sincere repentance, Dovid demonstrates for all future generations that anyone, no matter how grave his sins, can find redemption if he truly regrets his misdeeds and commits himself with all his heart and all his soul to correct them.

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