The son of David has no name, none that the author of Second Samuel thought to record. Yet this son of David will die for David’s sin. (2 Sam. Chapters 11-12)
The story of the unnamed son of David is a disturbing one, and disgusting in scale. It starts with David, great king of Israel, and it ends with him, him and his son of no name.
Usually the whole tale is told as David and Bathsheba, as if it this nasty saga―horrific in extent and consequence―was a love story. The one cinematic treatment depicts Bathsheba as David’s stalker, and her strategic bath beneath the palace window a temptress’s enticing lure.
But that is not indicated in the biblical reading. The wife of the loyal Hittite Uriah is a victim of David’s lust. Who was she to refuse the king when his messengers escorted her to the palace for David’s one-night sport? Had he done this to others? Had the king a reputation? He did once tell a daughter of Saul the slave girls liked seeing him dance naked (6:22), but we do not otherwise know. We only know of Bathsheba, that she was summoned to David, and we know she was made pregnant by David.
We know too that David attempted to disguise the child as Uriah’s, summoning Bathsheba’s husband from the battle front, urging him to sleep with his wife. He would think the child his, had Uriah done it. Bathsheba would have upheld the lie, covering her shame at what David had done to her. David would have clapped Uriah on the back, “You old dog.” But had Uriah left his post, his men at the front, those sleeping in tents or on open field, would no longer have regarded him as a fit comrade. With his companions still arrayed against the enemy, he had little choice but to ignore David’s urgings.
So David, compounding adultery with murder, gave orders to the general, Joab, to see to Uriah’s death by abandoning him before the enemy. Following his orders, Joab did exactly that.
“But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” (11:27)
Nathan, the prophet, possibly risked his own life when confronting David. Nathan’s audacious parable of a rich man who slaughtered and served a poor man’s ewe lamb for a dinner party provokes David to outrage and he unwittingly utters his own sentence of death: “The man who did this deserves to die.” “As surely as the Lord lives,” David is that man.
It is left only for Nathan to speak as God directs. “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says.” Calamity will fall over David’s life and the lives of those around him, and the sword will never depart from his house. It happened as Nathan said, beginning with Bathsheba’s unnamed son, her first born son.
The Lord, Nathan said, took away David’s sin; he would not die. Yet blood cries to blood: “The son born to you will die.” (12:14)
An innocent child must die? The son dies for the father’s sin, for David’s sin?
This outcome threatens our sense of justice, mercy, compassion, of elementary fairness. It calls the character of God into question. Who is He to make a divine decree of manifest, disproportionate excess? This act of a “displeased” god is proof that Israel’s God is arbitrary, nonsensical and, sometimes, unutterably cruel. The death of this guiltless son is the act of a feral deity. One critic lays it out bare: “God slowly killed David's baby boy to punish David for adultery.”
God does have his defenders. They offer several explanations, apologies for God. None are very satisfying, not even to believers.
David violated the honor of God, bringing His name into contempt among Israel’s enemies. The child’s death says that God in His law will not be scorned. Another made a Planned Parenthood argument: The child’s death was best for the child, else, being illegitimate, he would be subject to possible abuse; his death saved him from an unhappy life. Or this: “The baby was an intruder in the Royal Messianic line. God's plan could not be obstructed as the entire future of mankind was at stake―in order for God's plan to succeed, this situation needed to be removed for the good of all mankind.” One commentator called it all a case study in reconciliation and grace. Given all that befell David in the aftermath, not to forget the unnamed son, that’s a bit of a push.
This, remember, is how some apologists for God explain it. Fine, but we still have a dead baby to bury.
God’s mercy, his justice, even his compassion—as we think we understand it—is tossed about by the death of David’s son. I can neither defend nor accuse God. I can say I do not understand Him. I am never so sure as to say who or what God is or is like, but I am certain God is no friendly therapist helping us to guiltless good times. God may be love, to echo St. John, but to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, so is your dentist as he drills.
Here is where I do end up. God is Other. We are warned not to think God is like us (Ps. 50:21), and He scoffs at Jeremiah (Jer. 16:8): What makes you think I will not do with you as the potter does with clay? “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
I do not believe, then, there is any possible explanation for the death of this son of David, none that fits our inclinations to embrace a “tame” deity, one we might cuddle and pet. We have only Second Samuel starkly telling us that through David’s sin, a son of David dies.
Our hope is ultimately christological. Christ, Christians understand, is God explaining Himself, explaining Himself even to David’s unnamed son and to all the other innocents, and to us. The world awaited God’s final Word, and to us a child was born, great David’s greater Son.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous First Things contributions are here.