What Really Happened?
[Adapted from David and Bat Sheva by Yair Davidiy]
Uriah the Hittite was one of the thirty chief warriors of Israel (1-Chronicles 11:41).
10 Now these are the heads of the mighty men whom David had, who gave him strong support in his kingdom, together with all Israel, to make him king, according to the word of the LORD concerning Israel.11 These constitute the list of the mighty men whom David had... 41 Uriah the Hittite....
We are told how,
Daivd awoke from his sleep towards evening, strolled around the rooftop of his palace, and chanced upon a woman bathing. He inquired about her.Â He was told she was Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite (2-Samuel 11:3). She was brought to him and they had intercourse. She then sent to tell David that she was pregnant. Uriah was away at war with the army under Joab who was fighting against the Kingdom of Ammon in the east. David sends to have Uriah come to him.
7 When Uriah came to him, David asked concerning the welfare of Joab and the people and the state of the war. 8 Then David said to Uriah, 'Go down to your house, and wash your feet.' And Uriah went out of the king's house, and a present from the king was sent out after him. 9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10 Now when they told David, saying, 'Uriah did not go down to his house,' David said to Uriah, 'Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?' 11 Uriah said to David, 'The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.' 12 Then David said to Uriah, 'Stay here today also, and tomorrow I will let you go.' So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. 13 Now David called him, and he ate and drank before him, and he made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his bed with his lord's servants, but he did not go down to his house.
David sends a message to Joab,
'Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die' (2-Samuel 11:14).
After this Uriah was killed by the Ammonites in war.
16 So it was as Joab kept watch on the city, that he put Uriah at the place where he knew there were valiant men. 17 The men of the city went out and fought against Joab, and some of the people among David's servants fell; and Uriah the Hittite also died.
Later David is condemned for having brought about the death of Uriah:
2 Samuel 12:
9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. 10 Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.
Simple and straightforward is it not?
We are not so sure.
That David sinned grievously is obvious. He was punished for it. A curse and threat of punishment was to lie over his head and that of his descendants for ever. He must have done something wrong. The Bible describes what he did.
There is a principle however that "Saintly people are judged by a hairbreadth" (Yebamot 121;b) i.e. even minor offences that look grievous are computed to them as to how they look and not necessarily as to how they really were.
Most people sympathize with Uriah. There are those who make excuses for David but very often the impression is that their exculpatory explanations are not really accepted.
I discussed the case of Uriah with one of my sons, Orial Pinchas Davidiy, and with my study partner, Shmuel ben-Yaacov. I also read books and articles on the subject. They all feel empathy with Uriah. They all express more or less the same sentiment, saying "I would not want it to be done to me."
We will see that the marriage of Bath Sheba with Uriah had not been consummated. It was a marriage on condition and perhaps could have been annulled retroactively. Bath-Sheba had just reached puberty when David came on her. Uriah was probably not even a fully-fledged Israelite. Bath-Sheba was bonded to Uriah but by publicly denying him entry to their house it would have been made public that she was no longer his wife and in reality never had been.
Uriah was guilty of rebellion and of causing defeat and of other offences. He should have been executed BUT due to the involvement of David with Bath Sheva this could not be done. Uriah was a loose cannon and the commandment was to let his own impetuosity lead to his death BUT in practice this did not happen, etc. Nearly all this and much more (though inspired by commentators and Oral Tradition) is actually in the text itself.
This is important knowledge and worth knowing and being known.
For almost three thousand years David King of Israel and Judah, author of the Psalms, has been given a bad name he may not have deserved over this issue.
We will show the sources for all this and discuss the text in the light of these extraneous considerations.
For the moment let us consider one point alone.
How did Uriah really die?
David had commanded:
'Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die' (2-Samuel 11:15).
Josephus tells us:
(2) After this had taken place Joab sent messengers to the king, instructing them to tell him that he had made every effort to take the city quickly, but that, after an assault on the wall, he had lost many men and had been forced to retire; they were, he said, to add to this, if they saw that the king was wrathful, the news of Uriah's death. But when the king heard the messengers' report, he was greatly displeased and said that the army had blundered in assaulting the wall, whereas they ought to have tried to take the city with mines and engines, especially as they had before them the example of Abimelech, the son of Gedeon, who, in his attempt to take the town of Thebaed by force, had been struck down by a rock hurled by an old woman and, in spite of being so very brave, had ignominiously perished because of his unfortunate method of attack. And with this in mind they ought not to have approached the enemy's wall, for it was best to have in mind all things that had been tried in war, whether successfully or otherwise, under the same conditions of danger, in order to imitate the one and avoid the other. But when, while he was in this humour, he was further informed by the messenger of Uriah's death, he ceased being angry and ordered him to go back and tell Joab that what had happened was human destiny, and such was the nature of war that now one of the opposing sides happened to be successful therein, and now the other; for the future, however, they should look to the siege and avoid meeting with another reverse in the course of it. They should rather besiege the city with mounds and engines and, after forcing it to surrender, raze it to the ground and destroy all those within it.a So the messenger hastened to carry back to Joab the commands of the king, while Beethsab , the wife of Uriah, learning of her husband's death, mourned for him many days. But, as soon as she had ceased grieving and weeping for Uriah, the king took her to wife, and had by her a son.
The Bible tells us:
22 So the messenger departed and came and reported to David all that Joab had sent him to tell. 23 The messenger said to David, 'The men prevailed against us and came out against us in the field, but we pressed them as far as the entrance of the gate. 24 Moreover, the archers shot at your servants from the wall; so some of the king's servants are dead, and your servant Uriah the Hittite is also dead.' 25 Then David said to the messenger, 'Thus you shall say to Joab, 'Do not let this thing displease you, for the sword devours one as well as another; make your battle against the city stronger and overthrow it'; and so encourage him.'
What had happened?
David told Joab to put Uriah in danger, then have his companions retreat and leave Uriah in the lurch so that he be killed in action.
We learn that Uriah as a military commander had been placed along with many others in a section of the front where the enemy had "men of valor" (Hebrew: "anshei chail", 2-Samuel 11:16).
This may have been the occasion for a raising of eye-brows but in itself was not necessarily exceptional. Uriah was one of the leading warriors. He was a dedicated to Joab and "gung-ho" for the task. He could be relied upon. It was his job. The enemy came out of the city and engaged the Israelites. At first the foe began to prevail but the Hebrews drove them back, up against the wall, and into the gate. There may have been a chance that with one big push the city could be taken and the war ended. The Ammonites archers fired from the walls killing many of the Israelites. It was a disaster. Uriah was among the slain (2-Samuel 11:23).
Joseph Atntiquities 7:
1 ...he [Joab] set Uriah in that place where he knew the enemy would be most troublesome to them; and gave him for his partners some of the best soldiers in the army; and said, that he would also come to their assistance with the whole army; that, if possible, they might break down some part of the wall, and enter the city. And he desired him to be glad of the opportunity of exposing himself to such great pains; and not to be displeased at it; since he was a valiant soldier, and had a great reputation for his valour, both with the King, and with his countrymen. And when Uriah undertook the work he was set upon with alacrity, he gave private orders to those who were to be his companions, that when they saw the enemy make a sally, they should leave him. When therefore the Hebrews made an attack upon the city, the Ammonites were afraid that the enemy might prevent them, and get up into the city: and this at the very place whither Uriah was ordered: so they exposed their best soldiers to be in the fore front, and opened their gates suddenly, and fell upon the enemy with great vehemence, and ran violently upon them. When those that were with Uriah saw this, they all retreated backward, as Joab had directed them beforehand. But Uriah, as ashamed to run away, and leave his post, sustained the enemy: and receiving the violence of their onset, he slew many of them: but being encompassed round, and caught in the midst of them, he was slain; and some other of his companions were slain with him.
Josephus says that the companions of Uriah had left him to face the enemy alone as they have been commanded and that was how Uriah was killed. This however does not ring true. It is not consistent with the rest of the account, unlike the rest of what Josephus says here. It jars with the text. Josephus is apparently extrapolating from the instructions of David to Joab and writing according to them what he supposed must have happened.
We learn however that an unusually large number of Israelite warriors had been killed. Joab was afraid that David would be angry about it as indeed he was. Joab had prepared the messenger in advance to allay the wrath of David by informing him at the crucial moment that Uriah was among the dead. The event had been unexpected.
Uriah had not been killed according to the instructions of David. The directions however had been given. An element of culpability was involved but less than a superficial reading of the text would have led us to suppose.
This brings us to a related point. Uriah had participated in an unauthorized attempt to seize the moment, take advantage of their own momentum, penetrate the defences and take everything. They may well have had a chance to do this if the enemy archers had not have reacted as they did in the fatal moments. Perhaps this was a characteristic of Uriah. It seems to have been typical of Joab. Uriah considered himself a loyal follower of his "Lord" Joab (2-Samuel 11:11). We may assume that Uriah carried out the will of Joab, and imitated his behavior. The instructions of David assume that when faced with antagonists Uriah would engage the enemy and that his companions would be able to pull back from him, i.e. Uriah could be relied upon to be in the front.
The Zohar tells us that Uriah had been responsible for previous defeats. He was a foremost warrior, one of the top thirty.
Perhaps he was also "a loose cannon" i.e. a warrior who could not be controlled, who takes the initiative even against general directives and common sense.
These types exist. Sometimes they may be responsible for outstanding and unexpected successes and at other times just the opposite.
Rulers who wage wars at times have to use such characters and hope for the best. They cannot however leave them hanging around for long.
Joab was also such a person.
David however needed Joab for the time being.
There was nothing much he could do against him.
David could however curtail the power of Joab to do damage by forcing Joab to eliminate one of the leading executers of his own will.
This was what David did. Uriah had to go.
We shall examine the rest of what happened in the Beth Sheba episode. In light of what we shall see it should be realized that the above account is the rational one.