This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Affairs of State*

News Item:

News Item: Washington D.C. 1998. The United States is shocked by the revelations about President Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky and the untiring campaign of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Star to bring about the President's impeachment.

What a dramatic story it is! Truly, it contains all the ingredients of a classic tragedy!

Our hero is a charismatic head of state who rose to power from humble beginnings. He is admired by his people for his successful political administration, as well as his intellectual attainments. He seems to have everything going in his favour.

Somehow, however, he cannot overcome his weakness for women. Though he tries to keep his indiscretions from becoming public knowledge, a relentless critic appears on the scene who will not be silenced. Eventually the leader’s private vices are brought to light, to the humiliation of himself, his family and his country.

Such, in brief, was the tragedy of David, the beloved King of Israel. He was a simple shepherd boy who rose to the throne, the author of magnificent Psalms and the first to declare Jerusalem our national capital. Ultimately, however, his inability to resist the allures of Bathsheba led to him to cross the lines of acceptable personal morality. His private transgression was brought to light by Nathan the Prophet, and David was obliged to make public confession.

In contrast to the adulation that characterizes the epics and religious scriptures of other peoples, the Bible is not usually squeamish about pointing out the flaws of its protagonists. Nobody, not even Moses himself, was above being taken to task for moral shortcomings.

This uncompromising honesty was not always shared by the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash. Many of them seemed to prefer a world in which the good guys and the villains were clearly distinguishable, without any confusing shades of grey to complicate the issue.

There are many explanations for this change of attitude, but it would appear that the phenomenon is rooted principally in the settings where Midrash usually originated. Most of the Biblical interpretations that make up the literature of the midrash were probably taken from the texts of sermons that were preached in ancient synagogues. The sermon, as we know, is a literary-form with well-defined objectives. It is not designed to teach objective historical truth, but to inspire the congregation to virtue. With this noble goal in mind, the preacher must present the listeners with clear role models, easily recognizable heroes and scoundrels whose attributes they can learn to emulate or eschew. The straightforward Biblical narrative, populated as it often is with flawed heroes and sympathetic villains, does not lend itself naturally to such didactic purposes.

Furthermore, as a vulnerable minority, Jewish teachers had additional reasons to be zealous for the honour of their past leaders. Anti-Jewish polemicists, especially among the Christians, would frequently hold their contemporary Jews accountable for the sins of their predecessors.

In the case of David, whose transgressions were delineated so unambiguously in the Biblical narrative, the midrashic preachers had their work cut out for them in presenting them in a favourable light. His sins fell into the gravest categories known to Jewish tradition: Not only did he commit adultery, but he also brought about the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, by sending him on a dangerous military mission.

Some of the rabbis preferred to minimize David’s guilt by means of legal technicalities. As regards the charge of adultery, they introduced some new mitigating factors into the case: Before going to battle, they insisted, Uriah had given Bathsheba a conditional bill of divorce that would take effect retroactively upon his death; so that she was not technically a married woman at the crucial moment.

As for David’s complicity in Uriah’s death, it was argued that Uriah had it coming to him for treasonous activities. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the Biblical account that would suggest that Uriah was anything other than a loyal and devoted subject of his monarch. According to some, however, this was precisely his weakness: He was too devoted. When the king invited him to prolong his furlough, the soldier Uriah pleaded to return as quickly as possible to his buddies at the front. Hardly the sort of disloyalty that we would expect to earn a person a death sentence!

Even the rabbis who were most determined to protect David’s good name were not all satisfied with such legalistic excuses. In some instances this led them to even more farfetched claims of innocence. Rabbi Johanan went so far as to deny that the king, who was ever in complete control of his passions, had been at all attracted to that Bathsheba woman; insisting that the whole affair had been staged (as had Israel’s equally incriminating misdeeds in worshipping the golden calf) in order to furnish posterity with models of repentance under the most hopeless circumstances.

Ultimately, in spite of attempts to put a favourable spin of David’s indiscretion, he emerges as a flawed and quintessentially human being. He came to acknowledge the gravity of his sin, and in contrition begs for forgiveness. He was made to suffer, at the death of an infant son, and in the uninterrupted sequence of domestic quarrels and uprisings instigated by his sons.

A passage in the Talmud notes with consternation how lightly David was let off for his offenses when compared with the tragic fate that befell his predecessor, Saul, for what would appear to be a lesser sin of sparing the life of Agag. king of Amalek. For all the torments and disappointments of David’s later years, he was not deposed from the throne. He was allowed to die peacefully while still in power, and the monarchy remained in the hands of his descendants. Saul, however, was declared unfit to rule, and the kingdom was transferred to David.

The medieval Spanish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo confronts this question, and offers an intriguing solution: David’s sins were manifestations of personal weakness, but did not affect his ability to govern. Saul’s sin, on the other hand, had occurred in the exercise of his political office, and hence he was disqualified from that office.

Perhaps in medieval Spain people were ready to forgive their rulers for private indiscretions, as long as it did not interfere with the business of government.

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, November 12 1998, pp. 12-13.

  • Bibliography:
      Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968.
    • Garsiel, Moshe, "The Story of David and Bathsheba: A Different Approach". Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 (1993):244-62.
    • Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Temple Books, New York: Atheneum, 1969.