Last time, we saw that after the whole incident of Bat Sheva and Uriah, ה׳ finally gets angry after the child is born:
So ה׳ sends a נביא with the famous parable of the rich man and the sheep:
Is this story part of the נבואה? Nathan doesn’t say כה אמר ה׳ until פסוק ז. As far as David knows, this is an actual case for David to deal with (and at this point in the text, we, the readers, are in the same boat) . We’ve seen before that Nathan wears two hats, as פוסק and as נביא:
But if this is not a message from G-d, what is Nathan asking? Is he asking David for help deciding the case? It’s an explicit law in the Torah; he doesn’t need the king for that:
The implication of the question is that Nathan doesn’t need a decision; he needs enforcement:
And that is why David is so angry. If Nathan is coming to him with a simple sheep stealing case, then things must have broken down so badly that the rich and powerful can ignore the law. That is opposed to everything that David stands for:
And in the context of ספר שמואל, it destroys David’s legacy. For the temple to be built, with all that implies, David has to have a peaceful transfer of power in a just society, a ממלכת כהנים:
If he has to personally get involved in a case like this, then there are no laws, no ממלכה, and no hope of a בית הבחירה.
But there is an entire פרק תהילים that, I think, ties into David’s attitude here:
ידותון is the name of one of David’s Leviim who sang in the משכן:
But Rashi gives it a more figurative meaning:
David says that rather than risk saying לשון הרע, he has been silent in the face of evil, muzzling himself:
But the enormity of what he is seeing makes him so angry, ויחר אף דוד באיש מאד in our story, that he cannot be silent. But his response is interesting. He doesn’t address the רשע לנגדי, but asks, “What’s the point of it all? I deal with this particular wrong, but evil keeps coming up. What is to be my legacy after I die?” It reminds us of קוהלת :
In fact, the Malbim reads this perek as an abstract philosophical discussion:
But I don’t see David as that philosophical; I would read it as a question of his own fate:
Artscroll translates צלם יתהלך as “walks in darkness”, parallel to the next phrase הבל יהמיון. Rashi likes that understanding:
But I would read it like Menahem ben Saruq, as two parallel phrases: “whether man acts as the צֶלֶם אֱלֹקִים, or acts wantonly, הבל יהמיון, the end is just as uncertain. Whatever he accomplishes, יצבר, who knows who will eventually inherit the results, לא ידע מי אספם?”.
David asks that he not be made a laughingstock: חרפת נבל אל תשימני. Then, in a parallel to the start of the perek, he says he will remain silent, but that silence was wrong. This is his silent acceptance of his fate, כי אתה עשית. He acknowledges that he is not perfect, but no one is. Man is flawed, mortal and finite; again, אך הבל כל אדם.
His prayer is not so much to be saved but just to know his fate. What will come of all his effort? We know that this perek is concerned with David’s legacy, because he quotes it in his final speech to the people, dedicating the materials for the בית המקדש:
So this is why David responds with such vehemence to Nathan’s story, and why he declares both בן מות האיש and את הכבשה ישלם ארבעתים. There is a halachic principle that a given act has only one punishment, the most severe one, even if multiple violations are involved:
But the עשיר has committed two crimes: stealing the sheep of the רש and the contempt of court that required it to be brought before the king:
But then Nathan tells David the truth: there is no rich man/poor man sheep story. It is a prophetic parable:
Now, we know what Nathan is talking about. וירע הדבר אשר עשה דוד בעיני ה׳; the rich man who deserves to be punished is David himself. But if we think about it, it’s not that obvious. David at this point doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. It’s been 9 months since the tryst with Bat Sheva, 7 months since Uriah died in battle. Nothing bad has happened; to the contrary, the promised child, the one of whom Nathan had said, הֲקִימֹתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ, has now been born. The thing that David feared, that there was injustice in his city, was only a parable. And David is האיש.
The question is, what איש? There are three איש's in the story: איש העשיר, איש הראש and איש הבא אליו. We know the answer. But Rav Medan points out that David very well may have thought of himself as the איש הראש. “רש” as a word for “poor” is very rare in תנ״ך; it only appears in שמואל, תהילים and משלי. The only person who is explicitly called איש רש is David himself:
(And as a “cute” hint, there is a קרי/כתיב here. The poor man is spelled איש הראש, which is spelled like “איש הַרֹאשׁ”, ”the chief“. David is both רָאשׁ and רֹאשׁ in his mind.) Also, the rich man is חמל לקחת מצאנו ומבקרו. The word חמל usually means “pity”, which doesn’t really apply here. It’s more “regret”. And there’s only one person who is described as ויחמל שאול עלהצאן והבקר:
Rav Medan summarizes:
David had lost his metaphoric lamb, his wife, twice to Saul’s dishonesty:
David knows what was supposed to happen. He was the son-in-law of the king and would be the crown prince. The kingdom would transfer to him, peacefully and lawfully, and he would have been the one to build the בית המקדש. Saul stole that all from him. And now, ה׳ is telling him that his story has come full circle.
In this way of looking at the story, David is at the top of the world. Nathan is here to tell him כה אמר ה׳ אלקי ישראל אנכי משחתיך למלך על ישראל, to acknowledge that this child will succeed him and fulfill David’s only desire. He expects the prophet to vindicate him, just as Yaakov said to Lavan after all the years of being cheated:
But we know the truth, and Nathan does not sugarcoat it: this child is not the fulfillment of David’s dreams; he is the symbol of David’s utter and complete failure. Everything that David has accomplished will be lost.
This line is where the gemara learns the limits to a king’s wives. The Torah says (דברים יז:יז) וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ נָשִׁים. At this time, David had only the wives he had married before he came to Jerusalem:
And Nathan is not claiming that David had taken Saul’s wives ואתנה לך את…נשי אדניך בחיקך; it is that only another king may marry a king’s wife. Having that right means that David is truly a king:
And when לקחתי את נשיך לעיניך ונתתי לרעיך it means that David has lost the kingship.
But what is interesting is the nature of the crime that David is guilty of: בזית את דבר ה׳. There was no technical crime for which David could be convicted. It was morally wrong but not prosecutable.
What David has done disqualifies him from being מלך ישראל, exactly parallel to Saul:
And Nathan does not denounce him for the adultery, but for having Uriah killed then taking his wife: אוריה החתי הכית בחרב ואת אשתו לקחת לך לאשה; ואתו הרגת בחרב בני עמון (note the order: first you killed Uriah, then you took his wife). The second אתו הרגת בחרב בני עמון, the Midrash understands as referring to the rest of his platoon that died in the charge:
The original affair was not as much a בזיון as marrying Bat Sheva afterward.
To help understand this, we need to understand the parable. Now, we could try to establish parallels for every detail in the parable, but that’s probably not right:
The rich man is David (אתה האיש), the poor man is presumably Uriah and the lamb is presumably Bat Sheva, but in the parable it is the lamb that is killed, not the poor man. And the lamb is כבת, like a daughter, not like a wife.
However, Tosafot infers from the gemara’s discussion of the “גט” that Uriah gave to Batsheva, that Uriah had no other children (I don’t want to get into the details of the halachic discussion, but basically the question was whether the גט was conditional on his death or not):
This assumption, that Uriah had no other children, will tie into our understanding of ה׳'s response to the birth of Bat Sheva’s child.
The main aspect of the parable that has no apparent parallel is the guest, for whom the rich man takes the lamb. The gemara has a very powerful interpretation: the guest is David’s יצר הרע:
But why have a parable at all? It seems clear that the goal is for David to cast judgment on himself. He needs to realize that the failure to create a kingdom where ויהי דוד עשה משפט וצדקה לכל עמו goes all the way to the top. But actually, we all have the opportunity to judge ourselves:
And he decrees two punishments: בן מות האיש and ואת הכבשה ישלם ארבעתים, and Nathan’s two-fold declaration, לקחתי את נשיך לעיניך ונתתי לרעיך and לא תסור חרב מביתך עד עולם hint to this: he loses his kingdom (which, for a king, only happens at the end of his life) and his children will die as well.
Ralbag himself thinks the parallel is the reverse: the fourfold payment is לקחתי את נשיך:
Now, this fits with the fourfold payment: the ewe is Bat Sheva whom he took, and the punishment is losing four of his wives. But according to those who count the fourfold loss of David’s children, what’s the metaphor? There’s another possible understanding of the fourfold payment for the lamb:
The first four children born in Jerusalem are born to בת שוע, which seems to be an alternate spelling for בת שבע (which happens all the time in דברי הימים).
The Gra points out that this implies that David and Bat Sheva had children before Shlomo:
Rav Medan says that four of David and Bat Sheva’s sons died in childhood. That was the punishment ואת הכבשה ישלם ארבעתים.
I would note a possible connection that explains the spelling בת שוע:
The original בת שוע was Yehuda’s first wife, who also lost all but her youngest son.
This may explain the text, but it still does not explain the parable of the sheep being paid back fourfold. If the lamb represents Bat Sheva, then how is the loss of four children a payment? Rabbi David Fohrman’s Tanach Yemei Iyun lecture suggests (as I understand him) that the lamb in the parable represents Uriah’s lost child. By killing Uriah and taking Bat Sheva, David has eliminated Uriah’s legacy, and he will pay by losing four of his own children. (This, of course, is only a powerful suggestion if Uriah does not have other children.) This also will explain why Shlomo is beloved while the others die in childhood, but that discussion lies in the future.
It also explains why the emphasis now is on כי בזתני ותקח את אשת אוריה החתי להיות לך לאשה as the essence of David’s sin. We’ve talked about the Biblical antecedents of the David and Bat Sheva story, and how they all revolve around the concept of יבום, and about the חסד implicit in raising a child על שם המת. But the marriage has to be for the sake of the מצוה:
If David had married Bat Sheva as a spiritual יבום and raised the child as Uriah’s legacy, then his sin, while not necessarily forgivable, could be redeemed. He needed not to act in his own interest, but as a מלך of the entire nation. But he failed: ותהי לו לאשה ותלד לו בן. And now the consequences of the whole sordid affair are inevitable.
The story sets up David, taking him from the highs of his expected ultimate vindication to the realization that he has lost everything he every dreamed of. The parallel to Saul is clear, and just as Saul died ignominiously and lost his kingdom, so too will David. But David’s response allows for the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.