How does biblical narrative depict the exploitation of power?

James Bejon writes: Below is an anonymised version of a biblical narrative. I suspect it’ll soon ring a bell.

It came to pass in the days of Israel’s kings, after an important battle between Israel and Syria, that a little-known Israelite acquired an important ‘possession’. That possession was very dear to him. He valued and cherished it. In many respects, it was all he had. By contrast, the king of Israel was a man of great wealth. (Oddly, however, at the outset of our story, we find him in bed in the middle of the day.) He had a whole array of possessions like the possessions of the little-known Israelite. None of them, however, satisfied him. The king wanted more. To be precise, he wanted what his subject, the Israelite, had.

The king therefore made enquiries to see how he could acquire the relevant possession, but it turned out to be unlawful for him to do so. And so there the matter was laid to rest. Or at least it was for a while. Sadly, however, the king refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. Consumed by envy, he sent a letter to a man of influence in Israel and had his subject, the Israelite, killed in the course of duty—a nasty business to be sure, but then the Israelite shouldn’t have been so stubborn.

With the Israelite out of the way, the king promptly took ownership of the Israelite’s possession, which he could at last enjoy as his own. Or so he thought. God, however, had other ideas. While the king’s helpers had turned a blind eye to his deeds, God had not. God had seen. God had taken notes. And God would now bring the king to justice.

With that end in mind, God dispatched one of his prophets to announce the king’s fate. The prophet confronted the king on his property and declared his sins to him—sins of unlawful acquisition and murder. Despite the king’s backslidden state, however, the words of the prophet pierced his conscience. The king confessed his sin and began to fast and pray before God. And, remarkably, God chose to have mercy on him. God said he would spare the king from disaster in the king’s own lifetime. Nevertheless, the blood shed by the king would not go unpunished. The king’s death would be borne by his son, and violence would plague the king’s house for many years.

So, whose story is this? David and Bathsheba’s, right? In part, yes. But it’s also the story of Naboth’s vineyard! (Read back over it and see.) The parallels between these two stories are no coincidence. And they run deep. Even some of the more peripheral and unusual aspects of the parable which Nathan tells David (compare 2 Sam. 12.1–4) resonate with Naboth’s story. For instance, the parable explicitly locates the rich man and the poor man ‘in the same city’ (2 Sam. 12.1)—a detail which is of limited relevance to David and Bathsheba’s situation yet is central to Ahab and Naboth’s. The poor man in the parable is said to ‘acquire’ (קנה) a ewe which ‘grows up’ (גדל) alongside him and his children—a detail which doesn’t fit Uriah and Bathsheba’s situation very well, yet makes sense if the man is Naboth and the ewe is his vineyard, since Naboth ‘acquires’ (קנה) a vineyard which he ‘cultivates’ and ‘tends’ (גדל; compare the sense of גדל in Jon. 4.10). And the parable depicts the king’s victim as a lamb which is slain, which only relates to Bathsheba tangentially/metaphorically, yet finds a clear correspondent in Naboth. Meanwhile, at the end of 1 Kings 20, a prophet tells Ahab a parable, which he later reveals is a portrayal of Ahab’s own life (just as Nathan does in David’s case). And certain lexical points of contact underline the connection between the two narratives: specifically, both involve a victim whose place of origin is constantly repeated (compare ‘Naboth the Jezreelite’ with ‘Uriah the Hittite’), and both involve a king who’s encouraged to ‘arise’ and ‘eat bread’ by those close to him (albeit to no avail: compare 2 Sam. 12.17 with 1 Kgs. 21.7).

So what?

Suppose I’m right in my identification of various intertextual connections between David and Ahab’s stories. What difference does it make? What do we gain when we consider the two stories as a couplet rather than as isolated incidents? Here are some suggestions.

First, it brings out the precise nature of the two mens’ sins. The counterpart of Bathsheba in Ahab’s story isn’t a person, but a possession, which is highly instructive. While the apostate Ahab idolised a mere possession (Naboth’s vineyard), God’s chosen man, David, objectified a person (Bathsheba), which was much worse. From David’s point of view, Bathsheba was merely a part of his kingdom—a possession to be acquired/taken (compare 2 Sam. 12.4, 9–10), and one which became all the more attractive to him once he found out he couldn’t have it (just as Naboth’s vineyard did). Indeed, although we learn Bathsheba’s name in 2 Sam 11.3, it remains unused in ch. 11’s narrative; Bathsheba is referred to merely as ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘the woman’, or ‘the wife of Uriah’.

That Bathsheba is treated like an object is underscored by her lack of agency in the narrative. Bathsheba isn’t primarily an ‘actor’, but an individual who is acted upon (Bathsheba is not, however, entirely without agency; in response to David’s message, she is said to ‘come’ to him, 2 Sam 11.4). And, although some commentators portray her as a seductress, neither ch. 11’s narrative nor Nathan’s parable does so. Bathsheba doesn’t seek the attention of David, whom she wouldn’t have expected to be in the palace at the time of ch. 11’s events (compare 2 Sam 11.1) (and her bath is part of a purification ritual, not an attempt to seduce anyone); rather, David sees, seeks out, and sends for Bathsheba. Meanwhile, Nathan’s parable portrays Bathsheba as a woman of lamb-like innocence (and his speech lays the blame for ch. 11’s events squarely at David’s feet: 2 Sam 12.9–10).

The intertextuality between David and Ahab’s stories further underscores the point. Insofar as Bathsheba is the counterpart of Naboth, she shouldn’t be seen as an adulterer, but as a woman caught in a self-indulgent king’s crosshairs. Like Naboth, she initally attracts the king’s attention because of her adherece to the Torah, which the kings in the two stories grossly transgress.

Second, our stories’ intertextual connections highlight each man’s inability to ‘manage’ his sin in the absence of accountability. As awful as it is, the focus of 2 Samuel 11–12 is not Bathsheba’s ordeal, nor is the focus of 1 Kings 21 Naboth’s execution. Both narratives’ central burden is to describe the collateral damage caused by sin. Just as the cost of Ahab’s lust is borne by Naboth, so the cost of David’s is borne by Bathsheba and Uriah. Indeed, David’s mistreatment of both Bathsheba and Uriah is described in its full horror at the conclusion of Nathan’s parable.

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, while the poor man had nothing but a little ewe lamb which he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his sons. It would eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now, there came a traveller to the rich man. And the man was not ready to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.

In general, Nathan’s parable is well understood. In 12.1, we’re introduced to a rich man with many flocks and a (comparatively) poor man with a single ewe. The ewe is said to ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ with the poor man and to ‘lie’ in his arms (2 Sam 12.3), which is exactly how Uriah describes his relationship with Bathsheba in 2 Sam 11.11. The ewe, then, is Bathsheba, in which case the poor man must be Uriah and the rich man David. So far, so good.

In 2 Sam 12.4, however, things get more complicated. A traveller arrives at the rich man’s door, and, in order to provide for him, the rich man chooses to slaughter the poor man’s ewe (rather than an animal from his own flock), which doesn’t have an obvious correspondent in David’s story. In what sense is David’s sin spurred on by the arrival of a traveller? And in what sense does David have to choose whether to provide for the traveller out of his own pocket or at the expense of the poor man and his ewe (i.e., Uriah and Bathsheba)? My guess is as follows.

The traveller who arrives on David’s doorstep and, despite David’s efforts to dissuade him, stays at David’s house is Uriah. Uriah is thus represented by two different characters in the parable—the poor man and the traveller—which makes sense since Uriah has two different roles in ch. 11’s narrative: he’s both the husband of Bathsheba and the servant of the king. As Bathsheba’s husband, he’s the poor man, with only a single ewe to his name (in contrast to the rich man’s flocks). Meanwhile, as David’s servant, he’s the traveller—a man who travels to Jerusalem from a foreign land and is in need of a place to stay. (He can’t stay at his own house while his fellow men are out on the battlefield: 11.11.) Indeed, when Uriah arrives at David’s house, David asks him about the ‘journey’ he’s been on (11.10), which explicitly frames him as a traveller of some kind (compare. 24.21, Josh. 9.11–13, Judg. 17.8, etc.). That Uriah is both the poor man and the traveller also explains the slightly unusual ‘ABA’ structure of 2 Sam 12.9b, where Nathan says to David,

A: ‘You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword!’

B: ‘You have taken his wife to be your wife!’

A’: ‘And you have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites!’

Why, in his condemnation of David, would Nathan first describe David’s sin against Uriah (in A), then describe David’s sin against Bathsheba (in B), and finally rewind in order to describe David’s sin against Uriah a second time (in A’)? My suggestion is as follows: because Nathan describes the evil David has done to each of the parable’s characters in their order of appearance—first to Uriah the poor man, then to his ewe (Bathsheba), and finally to Uriah the soldier-traveller (hence Nathan’s mention of the Ammonites in A’).

The arrival of the traveller thus corresponds to the arrival of Uriah at the palace. Up until that point, little has happened in the parable; the scene has merely been set. But the arrival of the traveller forces the rich man to make a decision (namely, how to provide for the traveller). And, in the context of David’s story, the arrival of Uriah puts David in a similar position; indeed, it marks the pivotal moment of ch. 11’s narrative. David must either sacrifice an animal from his flocks—that is to say, he must own up to what he has done and pay the price for his actions—or he must make a third party foot the bill, namely the poor man and his ewe. Tragically, the rich man decides on the latter course of action, and no one tries to stop him. Despite his great riches, David permanently separates the poor man and his ewe (by means of death), and the poor man thus foots the bill for the traveller’s stay (per the parable).

Ahab’s sin is very similar in nature. Like David, Ahab has designs on a possession he cannot have. Yet, rather than accept he can’t have it—or, better still, accept it’s better for him not to have it—he takes it by force (at the expense of an innocent party). And the reason he’s able to do so is his status as a king. Like David, Ahab is beyond the law, and accountable to no-one, and his lust is hence able to become ‘full grown’ (Jas. 1.14–15).

Our stories’ intertextual connections thus bring out an important point. Sin flourishes in a society not only because of the power of a few ungodly individuals, but because of the silence-cum-complicity of a much larger multitude. Theoretically, both David’s and Ahab’s schemes could have been stopped on any number of occasions. No shortage of people were aware of and/or involved in them (e.g., Jezreel’s elders, Jezebel’s false witnesses, Joab, David’s messengers), and any or all of those people could have put a halt to their king’s scheme (or could at least have tried), but, whether due to weakness or some warped sense of loyalty, they took the path of least resistance, and innocent parties paid the price for their inaction. To expose a man’s sin, however, is not to be disloyal to him; it’s to seek his good. What ultimately destroys a man is not correction, but a lack of correction.

Third, our stories’ intertextual connections allow us to form a fuller picture of the ministry of Christ than would otherwise be possible. Jesus is not the Bible’s first victim; on the contrary, he is the culmination of a long line of innocent sufferers, in which sense he combines (and fulfills) aspects of all three of our stories’ victims. Like Uriah, he is sent to the battlefield with his own death warrant in his hand, and, loyal to his brethren, heads straight into the heart of enemy territory, where the fight is at its thickest (2 Sam. 11.16–17), ultimately to die abandoned and alone. Like Bathsheba, Jesus enters his enemy’s crosshairs due to his faithfulness to God’s law. The object of man’s envy, he is led like a (ewe) lamb to the slaughter (Isa. 53.7), and yet, because of his mistreatment, his seed will inherit a royal throne (1 Kgs. 1–2, Rev. 3.21). And, like Naboth, Jesus is the heir of a vineyard, for which he is slain. He refuses to surrender to an unjust regime; he is slandered by two false witnesses (at a religious assembly); he is condemned by his enemies as a blasphemer and law-breaker; and he is left to die an ignoble death outside Israel’s capital city.

Yet, although Jesus’ life shares certain similarities with those of the victims mentioned above, his death has an efficacy far beyond their deaths. Whereas the blood of Naboth brings condemnation on all those who have been stained by it, the blood of Jesus brings both condemnation to his enemies and redemption to his people. The day will come when the earth will be ruled with a rod of iron by Israel’s Messiah, who will combine a greater righteous than that of Uriah and Naboth with a greater authority than that of Ahab and David, and power will never be exploited on the earth again.

The world’s tyrants may think blood is merely blood, and they may think voices are silenced when their owners are disposed of. But the God of heaven can hear the voice of the blood which has been shed on the earth, and the pages of Scripture preserve its memory, and every drop of it will ultimately be recompensed. Let us not deceive ourselves in life. God is not mocked. His justice will surely be done.

James Bejon is a junior researcher at Tyndale House—an international evangelical research community based in Cambridge (UK), focused on biblical languages, biblical manuscripts, and the ancient world.

The artwork above is David and Nathan by the Swiss neoclassical artist Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807)

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17 thoughts on “How does biblical narrative depict the exploitation of power?”

  1. One could hang their hat on the “Exploitation of the poor by the powerful.” I think, though, that one would do better to entitle the story as, “The Collateral Damage of Sin,” or, “Lust, Adultery, Murder, and Pride Rear Their Sinful Heads.” “The Exploitation” angle is just a symptom of something more sinister, SIN.
    The analysis of the two stories by using comparison and contrast is excellent. Both do involve kings of Israel. One of the United Monarchy; the other of the Divided Monarchy. One who is known as “a man after God’s heart;” the other who “did evil in the sight of the LORD.” What I did find missing is that there was no discussion of Jezebel’s role versus the role of Bathsheba (although you did mention her in her role with David). Jezebel, being the daughter of the King of Tyre, and Ahab’s wife and Queen, would not be squeamish in using that authority to her benefit. Bathsheba does get the last laugh. She is the mother to Solomon and is one of the Gentile women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.

  2. Thanks for this, a very interesting comparison. I got to read on the consequences in 2 Samuel 11: Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for[a] the Lord, the son born to you will die.”
    The Son of David died for David’s sin. How prophetic that all the sins God overlooked he paid for eventually as the Lamb of God.
    David is now in Paradise with Naboth drinking the New Wine of Christ.
    What, if any, is the comparison between the ‘dogs’ repast and communion?

    • David now in Paradise? When did that happen? Peter’s argument to his fellow Israelites at Pentecost implies that he had not as yet risen (Acts 2:29-34).

      • Is not the comparison in Acts, between David and Lord Jesus, the Messiah, the
        Resurrection of Jesus? Indeed
        Acts 2
        31 (David) Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.

        Are there not echoes here of this:
        Whereas Jesus speaking about the resurrection said this,
        Matthew 22
        31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

        And followed up with, Matthew 22

        41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

        44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
        “Sit at my right hand,
        until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

        45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

        I’d suggest that the resurrection of Jesus was retro-active for all Old Testament Saints who believed God and his promises , as do we for the future eschatological realisation.

          • I used the word ‘paradise’ because of the paradox of the dead being alive to God but dead to us. … but Geoff has put it perfectly

    • Paradise – a future place, situated on earth (Rev 22) – is not inhabited by people who are dead to us but alive to God; they will be fully alive. Until the resurrection, the dead are dead. You do not say where you get your ‘paradox’ from. If from Matt 22:32, the context of that verse is a discussion in which the resurrection, the reality of which Jesus affirms, is yet in the future. When it happens, the dead will rise from the earth, having previously been ‘asleep’ (unconscious) in Sheol/Hades, not Hades. That is the significance of the verb ‘rise’. Only then will they come to life (Rev 20:4).

      • When a bereaved relative asked me recently if their wife was looking down on them I replied I did not think so. The dead are dead, sleeping, awaiting the resurrection. But the thief on the cross was given the hope of immanent paradise. I think that David and Naboth are in a very real way alive in Christ but not in anyway able or desirious of ‘looking down on us’. But I went too far to say they were drinking wine together. After all Jesus said he would not be drinking wine until after the resurrection. But, Jesus life IS the New wine and if David and Naboth are in Christ they have already drunk the wine of everlasting life.

        • As you know, Jesus did not rise until the third day and did not ascend to his father – if you think Paradise is in heaven – until 40 days after that, so Luke 23:43 should not be read in a way which contradicts these facts. It’s a matter of punctuation: “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Compare e.g. Deut 8:19.

          “I am the new wine” is not one of the “I am” sayings in the NT and I would caution against extending your theology that far, especially with capital letters. I acknowledge Eph 5:18 of course, but the Spirit we drink now is only a foretaste of what is to come. If you mean your last sentence in a purely metaphorical sense, well and good, though Naboth, unlike David, did not have the Spirit of Christ in him.

          • Ah, yes. The punctuation. I agree with you. Jesus words were meant as assurance to the thief beside him.
            On another point regarding David and Jonathan’s friendship being one sided. It reminds me of how Jesus calls his disciples ‘friends’ but they always call him Lord. Not vice versa. Jonathan is therefore a model for all relationships with Him. The relationship between Jonathan and David is recorded as it is to show that the House of Saul is completely subordinate to David’s House; to scotch any future attempts to reestablish Saul’s line.

  3. Thank you for the great article and the comments from Bryant and Steve.
    I’m grateful that our Triune God’s redemptive plans, promises and twin-track -covenant -terminus are not and will not be derailed by our mono-rail sin destination.

    • Ahg!
      Quite so.
      Jesus’ words therefore were carefully chosen to satisfy the thief’s understanding and few under the circumstances. Not to be used as a proof text for us to hang doctrine on.

  4. Looking, Ian, a the biblical account of the life of David (the ancestor of Jesus in the Scriptures), there are many difficulties needing a careful hermenuetical interpretation certainly from the perspective of ‘Sola Scriptura’. There are two sides to the love-life of David that are exposed:

    1. His love for Jonathan (“exceeding that of women”*), and;

    2. His love for Bathsheba (obviousy, exceeded by that of his love for David*)

    We don’t hear anything derogatory about his love for Jonathan (apape, or eros?)
    We do, however, hear quite a bit of condemnation for his adulterous love for Bathsheba (eros!)

    Despite the earnest attempts by moralists to describe David’s love for Jonathan in ways that would suggest pure ‘brotherly’ love; the question remains: did it contain any hint of eros?

    Now his erotic activity with Bathsheba brought severe punishment to Bathsheba – with the loss of the child of their union; and the subsequent loss of her lawful husband in battle. Neither of these circumstances, however prevented David from being still considered the God-given Patriarch of the Jews – to the point where he is still considered to be the forbear of The Christ.

    One wonders whether the patriarchy that dominates the ‘Sola Scriptura’ School of theology might have been more concerned if David’s love for Jonathan had been analysed by modern psychology to have been homoeritic? Would that have been more of a problem for them than the fact that his sin with Bathsheba was at least that of (pure?) heterosexual lust?

    The real problem with any kind of erotic loving is when one of the two parties exercises their power over the other person, in order to achieve their desired result!

    • I’m all in favour of careful hermenuetical interpretation. However, a key hermenutical point of the relationship between David and Jonathan is that although the narrator often illustrates Jonathan’s love for David (which should not be assumed to be erotic) there is no mention of David’s love for Jonathan.

      Here is a very interesting discussion of this:

      His following post about David’s personality is interesting to put into conversation about this context of power.

      Anyway, it is the Muslims who hold David to be a prophet and so be without sin. Jews and Christians have no such illusion. The story of David and Bathsheba is not there to show us how we should behave, quite the opposite.

    • “if David’s love for Jonathan had been analysed by modern psychology to have been homoeritic?”

      But there is no evidence that it was. So this is no more than “what ifery” and pointless.


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