Monday, March 13, 2017

I will give your wives to your neighbor, 2 Samuel 12:11

Does God force people to commit evil?

One Bible passage that seems to say "yes" is 2 Samuel 12:11-12; yet concluding that God forces evil behavior presses the passage beyond its intent.
11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." (NRSV)
(Special notice: Dr. John Goldingay has prepared a blog article on this passage. I encourage you to read it along with my comments here. His thoughts are far more concise. Read Dr. Goldingay's article).

Here is a brief contextual explanation. One day, King David was out catching some rays on his palace roof. He looked down and saw and saw a beautiful married woman taking a bath (2 Samuel 11:2-3). David had an affair with the woman and she conceived. Well, David tried to cover up the affair. His various efforts were frustrated but eventually he succeeded in the cover-up by having the woman's husband killed in battle. Then David married the soldier's widow (2 Samuel 11:27). Life returned to business as usual except that God sent a prophet named Nathan to David. Nathan exposed David's sin and announced God's judgment in the matter. There would be violence in David's house and rape of David's wives by a close companion of David's. Furthermore, the son that David's new wife Bathsheba bore was going to get sick and die.

What I find most disturbing about this passage is that God said that the trouble coming to David's house was going to be something that God was going to do.
"I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives and give them to your neighbor...."
This passage seems to be overtly describing God as one who decrees evil. Everywhere else I read in the Bible about God, he is not described as the cause of evil. Every scholar I know of is comfortable seeing the fulfillment of this judgment playing out in the following four chapters.

One of David's sons, Amnon, developed a crush on his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-2). He raped her. Now, Tamar was the full sister of Absalom. He patiently plotted revenge against his half-brother Amnon. Two years later, Absalom murdered Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28-29). Absalom, like his father David, was one for having things his way; and through a series of circumstances he managed to seize the kingship from his father David.

One of Absalom's first orders of business as king was to rape ten of David's concubines (2 Samuel 15:16; 16:21-22). The writer of the Book of Samuel does not describe Absalom's action as fulfillment of what Nathan said; but every scholar I read is comfortable linking the prediction of 2 Samuel 12:11 to 2 Samuel 16:22 as its fulfillment.

So, Nathaniel's prediction seemed to play out fairly accurately and according to his oracle in 2 Samuel 12:11, it was all God's doing. This conclusion is difficult on many levels. If God determines everything, then David's sin with Bathsheba was also determined and David was just doing what he was determined to do. If David was responsible for his own behavior, how could people like Amnon, Absalom and Ashithophel (David's and Absalom's advisor) own their own bad behaviors?

Those troubling questions are the reasons I find 2 Samuel 12:11 to be so difficult a text. I have been wrestling with this passage for a long time and in this article I will attempt to clear the difficulties.

How could God say that he will bring about the trouble in David's family but the trouble is still the doings of the individual actors of the trouble? As I see it, there are two solutions; and interestingly, the solutions don't overlap.
(1) The evil events that transpired in David's family were the natural course of events that should be expected given the history of events that led up to 2 Samuel 12:11.
(2) The Book of Samuel is great literature. Whatever Nathan actually historically said when he confronted David has been adapted to its reading and place at 2 Samuel 12:11 in order to anticipate the coming events of the account.
Solution (1) is the more comfortable explanation; but solution (2) ought to be considered. While literary adaptation is not obvious in this text, it is obvious in several other passages in the Bible, as I will explain below.

Solution (1): The trouble in David's family was easy for God to predict.

God often uses people's natural proclivities as judgments against other people's sins. While there are many examples, I offer what I see as clear examples.

The judgment against King Baasha is interesting. Now the chronology of 1 Kings 14-16:7 is kind of confusing. Piecing it together and focusing on the northern kingdom of Israel, Jeroboam died and his son Nadab became king in his place (1 Kings 14:20). A man named Baasha killed Nadab and became king in his place (1 Kings 15:27-28). His first order of business as king was to kill off the entire family of Jeroboam. Baasha's action against Jeroboam's house is one of the reasons for God's judgment against Baasha's house.
Moreover the word of the Lord came by the prophet Jehu son of Hanani against Baasha and his house, both because of all the evil that he did in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger with the work of his hands, in being like the house of Jeroboam, and also because he destroyed it. (1 Kings 16:7)
Jeroboam's house was to be cut off (1 Kings 14:10); but Baasha's actions were excessive. God was able to predict the fall of the house of Jeroboam although Baasha was not necessarily predicted as the one who would do it. When the time came, God would withhold his protection (1 Kings 11:38). When Baasha fulfilled God's judgment against the house of Jeroboam, his actions were his own and they were excessive.

A clearer example is with King Jehu (not the prophet of the same name in the quote above).

In 1 Kings 19:16, God told Elijah to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. Elijah's successor Elisha fulfilled that order in 2 Kings 9. He sent an apprentice to anoint Jehu. The young prophet seemed to have an oracle of his own in 2 Kings 9:7-10.
7 "You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. 8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish; I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. 9 I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah. 10 The dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and no one shall bury her." Then he opened the door and fled.
It seems that Jehu overstepped his marching orders. For one, he killed Ahaziah, king of Judah. Ahaziah was also King Ahab's grandson by his daughter Athaliah through a treaty marriage. Jehu also ordered all of Ahab's sons killed and he piled up their heads in two heaps at Jezreel. He then killed off everybody connected with Ahab in Jezreel. It really comes off as a total massacrer. Even the eunuchs who helped Jehu in 2 Kings 9:32-33 seem to have been killed.
So Jehu killed all who were left of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his leaders, close friends, and priests, until he left him no survivor. (2 Kings 10:11)
Apparently, Jehu's slaughter of everybody connected with Ahab's family was universally considered excessive. The prophet Hosea named his first son Jezreel as a judgment against the house of Jehu.
4 And the Lord said to him, "Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5 On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel." (Hosea 1:4-5)
In Jehu's case, he was divinely hand-picked to execute judgment on Ahab's family. In case he did not feel his calling, God sent a prophet (Elijah → Elijah → the young prophet apprentice) to nudge Jehu in the right direction. Jehu rose to the occasion and overstepped his orders.

Assyria was hand-picked to execute judgment against Israel. Consider these words from Isaiah 10:5-7 (NASB95):
 5 Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hands is My indignation, 6 I send it against a godless nation And commission it against the people of My fury To capture booty and to seize plunder, And to trample them down like mud in the streets. 7 Yet it does not so intend, Nor does it plan so in its heart, But rather it is its purpose to destroy And to cut off many nations.
God cleared the way for Assyria to go to Israel and plunder her. God withheld his protection to Israel and the Assyrians just did what Assyrians do. They did what was in their nature and culture to do.

I sometimes think of people's proclivities like a class of soda pop. It is in its nature to fizz. That's all well and good; but you can vigorously stir it and it will fizz a lot. God is not above nudging people to go ahead and do what they want to do. If there is just one obstacle stopping them from moving forward toward their desires, God is not above removing that obstacle.

Consider Micaiah's prophecy in 1 Kings 22. In that chapter, Judah and Israel made an alliance against Aram. The Israelite king Ahab marched out his favorite prophets who perceived that Ahab wanted to hear a prediction of victory over the Arameans and that is exactly the prediction they gave (1 Kings 22:6). Finally, they called in the prophet Micaiah. He was coached to give a prophecy predicting victory against the Arameans (1 Kings 22:13-14). Under pressure to give an accurate prophecy, Micaiah reported that God had provided all the prophets to prophesy what King Ahab wanted to hear rather than the truth. King Ahab did not want to listen open-mindedly to a prophet's oracle. He wanted a particular prophecy; and God let it happen. God saw the course of the two kings as opportune and God removed the one barrier preventing them from moving forward with their plans (1 Kings 22:23).

It is very reasonable to understand that this kind of divine action was at play with Nathan's oracle against David's house. There was a lot about David's house that was already dysfunctional, especially in light of what David had just done with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. David saw something he wanted and he took it. David's sons learned the lesson: Kill the husband. Say you're sorry. Get the girl. That's all Amnon did with his half-sister. He took her. Absalom learned the lesson too; but he may have already been a forcefully manipulative person. I am thinking of his actions with his "friend" Joab. Joab managed to talk David into bringing Absalom out of exile; but Absalom wanted more. Absalom asked Joab to arrange a meeting with King David. When Joab waffled, Absalom burned Joab's barley fields (2 Samuel 14:30-32). What kind of a person burns his friend's fields just to get what he wants? Absalom was the kind of person who got what he wants. Absalom may have already been that way and God saw it. Absalom may have learned from David that brutal force is a good way of getting what you want.

Add to the bad lessons learned by David's boys the fact that David never properly disciplined his favorite sons (2 Samuel 13:21; 1 Kings 1:6).

Trouble in David's house was ready to start. All God needed to do was get out of the way. That is how God could say (though Nathan), "I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun" (2 Samuel 12:11).

Solution (2): Nathan's actual words were adapted to the story.

It is possible that what Nathan said as is documented in 2 Samuel 12:11 is not an exact quote. Biblical quotes, especially oracles, are frequently, shall we say, paraphrased. This feature is brazenly true when comparing New Testament quotes of Old Testament passages. (Compare, for example, Acts 7:43 with Amos 5:26-27). There is a really good example of this kind of quoting in 1 Kings 13. When King Jeroboam was dedicating the new shrine at Bethel, a prophet came from Judah and prophesied against the altar.
While Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the LORD to Bethel and proclaimed against the altar by the word of the LORD, and said, "O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: "A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.' " (1 Kings 13:1-2)
It is interesting that the name of the as-yet unborn king Josiah is named in this oracle as the one would fulfill it. This prophecy was fulfilled in 2 Kings 23:15-16. The writer of the Book of Kings supplied Josiah's name into the oracle because he knew who the king was who eventually fulfilled it. I will prove it!

There was an old prophet in Bethel at the time of this oracle. He heard about what the Judahite prophet said. He caught up with the Judahite prophet who was returning to Judah. The old prophet persuaded the younger prophet to come back to Bethel for dinner―against the orders God gave to the younger prophet.

After dinner, the younger prophet headed home but he was killed by a lion. The lion and the prophet's donkey stood beside the body. The older prophet retrieved the body and gave it a dignified burial. He gave orders to his sons to bury his own body next to the body of the younger prophet.
After he had buried him, he said to his sons, "When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the saying that he proclaimed by the word of the LORD against the altar in Bethel, and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria, shall surely come to pass." (1 Kings 13:31-32)
The likeliest reason for the request was to prevent the older prophet's bones from being desecrated in the fulfillment of the oracle (2 Kings 23:17-18). But here is the most fascinating feature of this statement by the old prophet. He said that the prophet had spoken out against all the high places around Samaria! Samaria did not exist at the time of this oracle! It was just a hill out in the wilderness. Much later in Israel's history, King Omri (Ahab's father) bought the hill and named it after the man from whom he had made the purchase (Shemer, 1 Kings 16:24).

The young prophet's prophecies as finally chronicled in 1 Kings 13 are not exact quotes. They were updated to make sense to the readers at the time of the composition of the Book of Kings. What the young prophet is said to have said is placed here in the Book of Kings as a literary device to help the reader anticipate events later in the book. Adapting the oracle in this way is especially effective since the prophecy and its fulfillment are documented in the same book. (Another prophecy that is suspiciously precise, suggesting literary adjustment, is God's message to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16 regarding Israel's slavery in Egypt. I am nearly certain that a similar literary device appears at John 3:14 where the evangelist helps the reader anticipate the crucifixion of the Lord).

Since there are places in the Bible where a prophecy clearly has been adjusted for literary purposes, it is possible that such an adaptation is at play in 2 Samuel 12:11. After all, the fulfillment of Nathan's predictions begins almost immediately in 2 Samuel 13!

Literary adjustment of oracles is kind of uncomfortable for people who hope to find nothing but certainty in the Bible. It throws them off balance. They might wonder, "How can we trust anything in the Bible?" A rethinking must be done regarding the way we read the Bible. The writers of the Bible were teaching theology primarily and history secondarily. The theology is the goal. Historical precision is not the goal.

In any case, literary adjustment is not obvious in 2 Samuel 12:11. It is not even suggested. My point is that it is possible. It exonerates God as the cause of the evil actions of David's sons. Nathan's prediction is placed where it is in the Book of Kings as an introduction to the next four chapters.


I have offered two different solutions to how the Bible can say that God raised up trouble in David's house; but the actual authors of that trouble were David and his sons.

In the first defense, God is said in the Bible to withhold his protection to his covenant people in order for events to proceed to their natural conclusions. If God stepped back and let David's actions have their natural consequences, God took action by changing the way he operated with David's family; but the actual choices of David's sons were their own.

In the second defense, which is totally independent of the first, I noted that Biblical writers reserved for themselves the privilege to make moderate adjustments to prophetic oracles in order to help readers keep their place in the drama. The judgment on David's house in 2 Samuel 12:11 organizationally works to help readers keep their place. Perhaps (!) the actual oracle was adapted to that purpose.

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