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In this story, the young boy, David, who had killed Goliath has grown up and after many twists and turns has become the King of Israel and Judea. He has established the city of Jerusalem as his Capital city. He has become very rich and powerful, and like rich and powerful men of that time, he had many wives. He believed, and the people of his country believed, that David was God's favorite. Because David had always showed great faith in YHWH (Yahweh), YHWH (Yahweh) had always blessed him with military victory, wealth and power.
But David had taken the wife of one of his soldiers, a man named Uriah. David had arranged for Uriah to be killed in a battle, so that he could marry his wife Bathsheba.
Nathan was "the oracle or prophet" in David's court. (An oracle or prophet was a person who was supposed to interpret signs and tell the King what God wanted.) God tells Nathan to tell David that what he did to Uriah and Bathsheba was unjust. Nathan confronts David by telling him the parable that we read today. The story is about a rich man who has many sheep and lambs but who takes the single lamb of a poor man. Nathan asks David, "What should happen in a case like this?" Even David can see injustice of the rich man's action. David says that this rich man should have to give the poor man four sheep to pay the poor man back for what he has done. David even states that the rich man who taken the sheep from the poor man deserves to die.
Nathan replies: "You are that man!" and confronts David about his wrong-doing, accusing him of arranging for Uriah to die in battle and marrying Uriah's wife.
The story of David, of course, continues for many years after this incident. But from this point on, things do not go as well as they have for David. The child that David had fathered with Bathsheba dies at an early age. The way that the Hebrew scripture tells the story of David, this is the turning point in his life. King David has lost the favor of God and he grows old and troubled.
But notice that God used Nathan, the prophet, to speak to David.
A prophet is not a king who rules the government or state. A prophet is not a priest who is the leader of a religious institution. The prophets of the Hebrew scripture hold an unusual place in the social order.
In the Hebrew scripture, Moses is the last person who talks face to face with God; after that, God speaks to people in dreams or visions. The people to whom God directs these visions are the prophets.
Today, we are skeptical about anyone who claims to hear directly from God through dreams or visions. But that is not what was remarkable about this story of Nathan and David. In a world in which the power of kings was absolute; this story argues that God, through the prophets, judges even the mightiest king and calls him to account. The story teaches that the critic of the king, or the demonstrator in the street, might be speaking for God and for justice. God is not on the side of the powerful, but through the prophets, God holds them accountable.
The stories of King David and his son, Solomon, are among the first written stories of the Jewish scriptures. Scholars believe that what we now call the Bible was a project started in the court of King David, in which some writers and historians were assigned the task of writing down the biography of King David and the history of the Hebrew people.
The scriptures tell the story of where their people came from: how they were slaves in Egypt before Moses led them out to the Promised Land. And they tell how the people came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place: the story of Joseph and his father, Jacob, and his father, Isaac, and even his father, Abraham. And woven through all these stories was YHWH, their God, who was still their God and whose strength had put king David in power.
So it is remarkable that they also tell this story about David committing a sin, and how God turned against David and rebuked him through the prophet Nathan. And by doing so, they made the Bible a radical book, one that tells of a God who is not on the side of kings, but is on the side of justice.
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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.
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