Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A 3,000 Year-Old Story of Lust, Sex, Murder, and Redemption

Keith here.

You never know where you’re going to find a compelling crime story.

Saturday I was at the synagogue where we were studying the prophet Nathan. He’s not mentioned much in the Bible, but he does pop up in a key role in a famous story of lust and murder. Whether this is true crime or crime fiction I’ll leave up to you and the theologians, but what a story either way!

David, the charismatic King of the Jews, is taking an afternoon stroll on the roof of his palace. He spots a beautiful woman bathing and sends “someone to make enquiries about the woman.” The man reports, “She is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam [and] wife of Uriah the Hittite.” (2 Samuel 11:3)

David sends for her. Bathsheba has just finished her period (yes, the Bible lets us know that). They have sex and she sends word back to the King that “I am pregnant.”

Then David recalls Bathsheba’s husband Uriah from the wars. David asks him how the fighting is going and then tells Uriah to return home. When David finds out Uriah did not go home, he investigates. Because his fellow soldiers are still on the battlefield, Uriah asks, “How can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?”

David takes the decisive step then. He tells his general to “place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed.” Uriah is killed in battle. Bathsheba laments over her dead husband. When the period of mourning is over, David marries her. She has her son.

God is displeased with what David had done (no kidding!) and sends the prophet Nathan to the King. Nathan tells a parable of a rich man with many sheep stealing the one lamb of a poor man. David says the rich man should die. Nathan says “That man is you.” Through Nathan, God says to David, “I gave you the House of Israel and Judah.... You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword; you took his wife and had him killed....” God curses David and says “I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun.”

Because David owns up to his sin and repents, God shows some mercy. Still David is told his son with Bathsheba will die as punishment.

The story is told in barebones, Dragnet (“Just the facts”) fashion. We need to draw our own conclusions. Why are we told Bathsheba had just finished her period? So that when she becomes pregnant, she and David (and the reader) know it is David’s child. Why did David want Uriah to go back home? So the pregnancy can be attributed to Uriah. Because that scheme doesn’t work, David turns to murder. The loyalty of Uriah to his king is repaid with death.

Now to me, a crime fiction writer, this all seemed reminiscent of a James Cain novel. In his Double Indemnity Phyllis Nirdlinger uses her sex appeal to manipulate an insurance salesman to fix her husband up with an accident policy then murder him so they can collect $100,000. (If you’ve ever seen the movie of Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck twisting that Fred MacMurray around her finger, you’ll understand why the poor sap had no chance.) Couldn’t the story of David and Bathsheba be seen the same way? What was Bathsheba doing in the bath in clear view of the palace anyway? Why not move up in the world and beguile the king and get rid of that husband who was holding her back? David is so bewitched he doesn’t even know that he’s done something wrong till Nathan breaks the spell.

When I spelled out my theory, my friend Sylvia gave a contrasting interpretation. She figured Bathsheba was rousted from her bath by royal procurers and hustled over to the king’s. How could she not accede to the most powerful man in the kingdom? Even if force was not used, David’s sleeping with her was tantamount to rape. To Sylvia the story of David and Bathsheba was a story of male power and oppression. And I had to admit that her theory was as good as mine.

We know what happens to our adulterous couple. They have another son, Solomon, who inherits the throne and builds the Temple in Jerusalem. David is to be the ancestor of the Messiah and for that reason the gospels of Matthew and Luke take time to show that Jesus is descended from him.

So what do we have here? A three thousand year-old story of lust, adultery, murder, and redemption. Not bad, considering the shelf life of even a bestselling crime novel today is measured in weeks and months.


Julia Buckley said...

Interesting parallels! But I'm with Sylvia. This describes a time period when women were property, and even God's punishment of a man is to give away his women to another man. Very reflective of the culture, sure. But all about oppression.

I doubt that Bathsheba had much say in the matter, although it's interesting to me how many Biblical women are blamed for men's actions.

G.M. Malliet said...

All I can think, looking at that painting, is how nice it is that a plump, to say the least, Bathsheba was the object of so much male attention. AND she was confident enough to bathe in public - an odd choice, as you point out, but hey! If you've got it, flaunt it.

Josh said...

Keith's friend, Sylvia, here. My theory about the "public" bath is that David's palace is higher than any other building around. In some Middle Eastern architecture, the second story and roof are actually the women's domain. My guess is Bathsheba thought she was taking a private bath on her roof according to local custom, but the king gets to build his house as high as he wants.

Keith Raffel said...

Gin, Well, that's how Rembrandt saw it (her).

G.M. Malliet said...

p.s. Thinking about this some more, and what Double Indemnity really reminds me of is Body Heat. Many similarities there: wicked female leading the not-so-honest-anyway guy astray.

Keith Raffel said...

Gin, a new recipe for inspiration writing crime fiction: read the Bible.

G.M. Malliet said...

Keith - Starting with Cain & Abel, there's no shortage of crime stories, is there?

Julia - I have to agree, Bathsheba comes across as a pawn in somebody else's game.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I'm with Julia and GM on this - Bathsheba got a bum rap. I don't recall hearing of women having the luxury of saying "no" during that period in history, especially to a king.

If this were a modern story, King David would be considered a powerful peeping Tom/rapist without self control or conscience. Bathsheba would bide her time until she could carry out her clever plot for revenge. In the end, David would be dead, doing jail time, or, at the very least, forking out cash for a damn good lawyer.

Can you tell I went to a Bible college? Yes, I really did.

Keith Raffel said...

Sue Ann, Of course we could tell. How else could you come up with so many different criminal plots?