Understanding the Episode of Dovid and Batsheva

A cursory glance at the pesukim of Shmuel Beis perek 11 seems to portray Dovid Hamelech in a blindingly bad light. We are told that Dovid was on his roof and saw Batsheva bathing via a window in her house. Dovid then sends for her, makes her pregnant, and ‘bumps off’ Batsheva’s husband Uriyah by putting him in the front line in war. That’s the pesukim. Yet Rebbi in the Gemara [1] tells us that ‘anyone who says that Dovid sinned is mistaken.’ So what happened; did Dovid sin or not, and how to we reconcile the pesukim with this statement of Chazal?

The achron the Abarbanel [2] writes rather strongly that Dovid did sin here in taking a married woman, but Dovid fully repented and was forgiven for his sin. And what about the aforementioned Gemara? He writes that Rav’s immediate retort that ‘Rebbi is defending his ancestors’ (Rebbi was a descendant of Dovid Hamelech) is to be taken to mean that Rebbi’s explanation is not to be adhered to. Though the Abarbanel is rather radical in this view, he is not fully alone; there is a Rishon who says similar things. The Rivan (published in Teshuvos Chachmei Provenzia siman 71) writes that here one cannot ignore the principle that the simple reading of the pessukim is never fully negated (though the Ran and Ibn Ezra argue with this when it comes to sins of great people, as we shall see). See also the Radak Shmuel Beis 11:4 who seems to cite two opinions here. Yet according to these sources, whatever Dovid might have done wrong he certainly repented fully for his actions. Some have also pointed out that the gemara in Kesuvos which writes that Batsheva received a divorce get from Uriyah before war is only one of two answers in the gemara there. But this is not necessarily a proof; see footnote[2b]. Though the mitigating factors and motivations cited later on in this piece from Rav Neventzal and others have to be taken into account. As we shall see, this approach of the Abarbanel is fraught with difficulties, and the vast majority of the authorities disagree with him; Rishonim amongst them.

The Malbim [3] argues vehemently against the Abarbanel’s approach. He cites the Abarbanel’s approach and argues vehemently against it; asking many searching questions in the process. Firstly, Dovid davens wholeheartedly and publicly for the child born from Batsheva to be healed. Yet if Batsheva was a married lady at the time of this impregnation then the child would have been a mamzer (illegitimate child) and Dovid would not have davened so much for the child’s survival - and he would certainly not have made it public news that this child was his. Similarly, how could Hashem have accepted Dovid’s repentance if Batsheva was a married lady at the time he initially took her; it is forbidden for such a couple to live together after having committed adultery, and thus Hashem would never have accepted Dovid’s Teshuva as long as they were still living together b’issur. And thirdly, it just does not make sense! Dovid was a genuinely holy person who reached a high level of spiritual purity. Besides, Dovid was 57 (years old) at the time (an age when most physical urges have weakened) and Batsheva was 6 or 8 years old [4] - it just doesn’t make sense to posit that Dovid would go for such a married lady who was forbidden to him. And as for the Abarbanel’s reading of the statement of Rav in the Gemara to say that Rebbi is simply defending his ancestors and should therefore be ignored, that too is untenable. For just a few lines later in the Gemara we find Rav too defending Dovid and explaining his actions to be perfectly acceptable by law.

Further, with regards to the ‘reading the simple text implying that Dovid sinned’ argument, the Ran (Drashos Ha’Ran drush 6) writes that though Dovid did not sin, the verses make it out as if he sinned here for two reasons. The first is in order to teach us how effective Teshuva can be, whilst the second is that since greater things are expected of greater people, on Dovid’s level this was as bad as a great sin. The Ibn Ezra in Vayishlach echoes this latter idea of the Ran.

Therefore, we are going to need a new understanding of this entire episode. And our discussion needs to cover two bases; the halachic and the hashkafic. In halacha, how was it permitted according to the letter of the law for Dovid to do what he did? And even if it was permitted according to the letter of the law, how do we explain the fact that Dovid, the saintly king of Israel, seems to have behaved in a morally reprehensibly manner which defies everything we know about him?

The halachic plain is rather easy. The gemara[5] explains that all Jewish soldiers would give their wives a divorce document (a get) before they went out to battle; lest they not return from the battlefront and their wives be agunas - not being able to remarry due to inconclusive evidence that their husbands had actually died. [There was a debate at some point as to whether the modern-day Israeli army should follow such protocol.] According to Tosafos, this was a full, normal divorce, and the soldiers would all remarry their wives when they came home from war safe and sound. According to Rashi, however, the divorce was conditional upon the soldier husband not returning home from the warfront. If the soldier did not return then the divorce would retroactively take effect from the time it was given (before he went out to war); if he came back from war there would thus be no need for a new wedding - for the divorce would be rendered invalid retroactively. Either way, Batsheva was perfectly permitted to Dovid. For according to Tosfos, Uriyah (Batsheva’s husband) had completely divorced her before heading out to war. And according to Rashi, the fact that Uriyah did not eventually return from war retroactively activated their divorce. Either way, at the time Dovid impregnated Batsheva she was not a married lady, halachically speaking.

At this point it’s crucial to point out that the words of Chazal are not one large ‘cover-up operation.’ The Torah and Chazal have no qualms about declaring that someone sinned; the Torah even speaks about Moshe Rabeinu’s sin. Therefore, if Chazal tell us that Dovid did not sin then Chazal are absolutely spot on. Moreover, as the Ibn Ezra[6] writes, the Torah (and Nach) makes it out as if tzadikim committed much worse sins than they actually did because more is expected of them, and thus any small fault is considered to be the most nefarious crime on their level. And let’s not forget the golden statement of the Netziv [7] that we cannot begin to understand the written Torah without the Oral Torah (Chazal), for this gives us the full context, background, and deeper understanding regarding the events of Tanach. The Chidah,[8] the Zohar,[9] and the Maharal[10] all go out of their way to write that Dovid did not sin with a married lady here. The Maharal proves this from the fact that Dovid is called a true servant of Hashem, as well as the fact that (unlike when Shaul sinned) the kingship was not taken away from Dovid after the Batsheva incident. And besides, adds Rav Avigdor Neventzal[11] if Dovid really took a married lady wouldn’t it have made sense for Dovid to try and cover up his actions? Yet Dovid sent messengers to fetch Batsheva for him in the first place, and he publicly prayed for their child to survive - he makes no effort to cover-up this act whatsoever. So even a simple (thinking) reading of the pesukim shows us that Dovid didn’t commit adultery here.

Consequently, knowing that Dovid’s actions were halachically sound, we now need to approach the harder part of our task; what were Dovid’s motives here in a moral sense? And why he was ultimately berated by Hashem in perek 12 if his actions were clean? Furthermore the Gemara in Yoma (22b) indicates that indeed Dovid sinned in manipulating events so that Uriyah was killed in battle; a matter discussed and debated by the gemara in Shabbos. There seem to be three different approaches here (at least that I have found); each centred around a different statement of the Gemara on the topic.

The first is from a Rishon called Rav Me’ir Ben Reb Moshe;[12] the Rav of the Shibulei Haleket. He bases himself of the statement of the gemara[13] that ‘Dovid Hamelech was not worthy of committing such an (relatively lowly) act, but Hashem made him do so in order to be a lesson for us across history that one can always repent.’ To point out one illustration of this, the Midrash[14] reveals that when Dovid Hamelech was on his rooftop the Satan came to him in the form of an appetising dear. As Dovid shot an arrow to kill the dear, it missed and instead smashed through Batsheva’s window, thus revealing Batsheva (in her unclad state) to Dovid. In other words, the Satan made sure that Dovid would sin by employing various tactics to achieve this ends. And Hashem consented in order to teach the power of Teshuva to the people. Again, Dovid’s actions were halachically fine, just that the Satan forced him into something which looked morally unfounded in order to teach us the power of repentance (tzadikim must repent for things which are below them). Yet, if Dovid’s actions were both halachically and morally fine (the Satan forced him into it), why did Hashem berate him in perek 12? For, as the gemara[15] and Midrash tell us, this whole event was caused by Dovid asking Hashem to test him. Dovid wanted to reach the level of the Avos (who achieved their perfection by passing their hard tests) and thus he asked Hashem to test him too. It was this request which triggered the entire Batsheva episode, which is why he was shouted at by Hashem. That’s explanation number one.

Explanation number two is courtesy of the Maharal.[10] Basing himself on the gemara’s[1] statement that Dovid ‘wanted to sin but he did not actually sin,’ the Maharal writes that Dovid sinned in thought as opposed to in action. Dovid did not take the necessary precautions in making sure everything was halachically acceptable here. Yes, Batsheva was permitted to him because of her divorce. But (according to Rashi’s view above), when Dovid had relations with Batsheva he was risking Uriyah coming back home from the front and consequently rendering the divorce retroactively invalid - thus turning Dovid’s act into adultery. True that Uriyah did eventually not return home and the divorce went through, meaning that Batsheva was not a married lady at the time she had relations with Dovid. But Dovid should have waited and avoided any risks. Therefore, the root of Dovid’s wrongdoing here (and the reason he was Divinely berated) was because he did not take enough care regarding the potential prohibitions here. But why, indeed, did he not take the requisite care to avoid any slight chance of sin? The answer is something which Rav Tzvi Veisfish[16] and Rav Avigdor Neventzal[11] both reveal; again, based on a gemara.

The gemara[15] writes that ‘Batsheva was destined for Dovid from the day the world was created. But Dovid took her before the necessary time came.’ The truth is that both Dovid and Batsheva knew this; and even Uriyah knew it too. For there is an amazing Midrash[17] which reveals that Uriyah was the arms-bearer of Goliath. After Dovid struck Goliath down with his Divinely-guided slingshot, Dovid could not draw Goliath’s sword to chop off his head. Amazingly, Uriyah, Goliath’s arms-bearer, helped Dovid finish off the job. At that point Dovid promised Uriyah that even though there was a girl who Dovid was destined to marry, he would give her to Uriyah. This girl was Batsheva, and Uriyah readily converted and married her. Not only this, but Uriyah never had relations with Batsheva for this reason, as the Zohar[18] writes, for he knew that she was really ‘Dovid’s girl.’ And if that’s not amazing enough, Chazal tell us that even during Batsheva’s ‘marriage’ to Uriyah, she would try and catch Dovid’s attention by walking past her window several times a day wearing her finest jewellery; conveniently reminding him that the time would come when they would be married - as they knew Hashem had in store for them. As the Radak[19] implies, Dovid and Batsheva knew exactly who each other were; they knew that they were destined for each other for a good reason. And they were right. Dovid was destined to marry Batsheva in order to give birth to Shlomo Hamelech, from whose lineage Moshiach will come.[20] This is why Dovid was prepared to ‘risk it’ somewhat; for he knew via ru’ach ha’kodesh that Klal Yisrael’s eventual saviour was going to emerge from this union. So why did Hashem criticise Dovid then? The Arizal writes[21] that Dovid was entrusted with the task of fixing up any spiritual errors made by Rachel and Leah. This is why he reigned for seven years in Chevron and then seven years in Yerushalayim; his reign in each place was to correspond to Rachel and Leah respectively. And part of this task of fixing up the spiritual errors of Rachel and Leach was to marry Batsheva. But the time had not come for this yet; Dovid took Batsheva too early, thereby missing out on the full correction of the errors of our holy mothers. Alternatively, Rav Neventzal writes that Hashem’s criticism of Dovid was because of the chillul Hashem caused by Dovid’s actions. Dovid should have realised that people would misconstrue what he did in mistakenly thinking that he committed adultery; thus creating a chillul Hashem as the king of Israel.

So in summary, we have proved that Dovid did not really sin whatsoever in taking Batsheva; his actions were fully halachically acceptable. And any error on his part lay in either his asking to be tested, taking less care than he should have done, taking Batsheva too early to effect a full correction of Rachel and Leah’s errors, or not taking into account how the scoffers would perceive his actions.

To echo Rav Neventzal’s closing line in his piece here, ‘in the merit of our seeing others in a favourable light, may Hashem judge us in a favourable light.’

[1] Gemara Shabbos 56a [2] Abarbanel Shmuel Beis perek 11 [2b] Rav Neventzal in his sefer deals with this view of the gemara (and remember that the gemara Shabbos only does not cite this view at all); even if no get was given he says that Dovid still understood to have relations with Batsheva in order to create Moshiach; it was like Yaakov marrying two sisters really (what Chazal call an aveirah lishmah). Also, the first view of the gemara is not necessarily arguing with the facts of the ibayis eimah regarding Uriyah giving a get to Batsheva – it’s just saying that we can even answer why she was not assur to Dovid via the pure fact that it was oines – we don’t even need to come onto the fact that a get was given. [3] Malbim Shmuel Beis perek 11 [4] Gemara Sanhedrin 69a [5] Gemara Shabbos 56a, Kesubos 9a. And regarding the first view in the gemara Kesubos there that the reason Batsheva was permitted to Dovid was because the act was performed be’ones, see Rav Neventzal’s sichos Bereishis sichah 36, who explains that Dovid knew via ru’ach ha’kodesh that Moshiach was going to come from this relationship with Batsheva. And Dovid held that it was ok to sacrifice the prohibition of eishes ish in order to produce Moshiach who would ultimately save Klal Yisrael. It was a rare case of an aveirah li’shmah mention in the gemara Nazir 23b. This is similar to the Me’iri’s explanation (Sanhedrin 74b) of the Esther and Ya’el episodes - they were allowed to forgo the prohibition of adultery in order to save Klal Yisrael. According to the second view in the gemara Kesubos (which is the only view brought in the gemara Shabbos - seemingly the one we go with at the end of the day) Batsheva was fully permitted to Dovid. [6] Ibn Ezra Bereishis 32:9 [7] Netziv Shemos 13:9 [8] Ben Yehoyada Shabbos 56a [9] Zohar Mishpatim 107a [10] Be’er Hagolah Be’er 5. [11] Sichos al HaTorah, Bereishis sichah 36 [12] Teshuvas Rav Me’ir Be’Reb Moshe b’inyan zeugma [13] Gemara Avodah Zarah 4b-5a [14] Yalkut on Shmuel perek 11 (148) [15] Gemara Sanhedrin 107a [16] Dibros Tzvi, ma’amar 6 [17] Brought in Me’am Lo’ez on Shmuel Beis perek 11 [18] Zohar 1:8 [19] Radak, Shmuel Beis 11:3 [20] Rambam, hakdama to perek Chelek [21] Sha’ar Ha’psukim Sefer Shmuel