Read: 2 Samuel 11
Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing” (2 Samuel 11:11, NRSV).
Uriah does not get top billing in most people’s memories of 2 Samuel 11. His character gets crowded out even in the way the story is referenced. Case in point: have you ever heard this infamous chapter referred to as the story of “David, Bathsheba, and Uriah”?
In spite of this, Uriah the Hittite is arguably the most admirable character in the story. (Bathsheba gets honorable mention, in my opinion, but I will save her time in the spotlight for another day.) David, on the other hand, comes across as anything but admirable. The contrast between the two makes this a classic case of the “faithful foreigner” motif.
To summarize: While General Joab and the army are out risking life and limb, King David is back at the palace getting up to no good. While pacing on the palace roof, he plays peeping tom. Although he knows full well that the object of his admiration is “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (v. 3), he sends the royal messengers to bring her to the palace.
I know that I promised to save Bathsheba’s time in the spotlight for another day. But an honest analysis of the story really requires that she get a “Me Too” moment. Try to see the story from her perspective. Her husband is at the front. She is taking a ritual bath in what she almost certainly assumes is the privacy of her own courtyard. The next thing she knows, the palace guards are at the gate. What would you think? Maybe there is news of Uriah. In any case, she has no choice but to go with them. What happens after than says much more about David than it does about Bathsheba. The poor woman barely even gets an active verb until she sends to David and tells him she is pregnant. Since the punishment for “adultery” is stoning, we can hardly blame her for that. She is literally between a rock and a hard place. If you doubt her innocence, read ahead to the prophet Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 12. Bathsheba deserves no more blame than the “little ewe lamb.”
I suppose we ought to give David some credit for responding to her message, although the response itself does not cover him in glory. After three failed attempts to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba—and thus solve the paternity problem—David finally sends word to Joab to get Uriah killed. In what is the story’s most poignant bits of irony, David entrusts the murderous message to Uriah himself. David knows he won’t open it. Uriah is the epitome of a straight arrow, after all. Unfortunately, he ends up on the receiving end of the same.
Why won’t Uriah “go down to his house”? There must be some reason he disobeys a direct order from his commander in chief.
If you take Hollywood’s word for it, Uriah is a prig and a fanatic. But perhaps we shouldn’t look to that 1951 film starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward for excellence in exegesis. The truth is that Uriah—even though he is a foreigner—is abiding by the law that prohibits soldiers from sexual intercourse before a battle. The fact that King David urges him to violate that law—three times, no less—says a great deal about where David’s loyalties lie.
There is an annual insurrection in my Old Testament class over what some students see as my “disrespect” for David. My plea to them—and to you, dear readers—is to get David down out of the stained glass window. The Bible does not whitewash this story, and neither should we. Second Samuel’s David is deeply flawed. Uriah the Hittite—or perhaps we should call him Uriah the Loyal—is the foil that helps us see David’s sins.
Ponder: Why do you think this story is included in the Bible? What are we meant to learn from it? What do we lose when we participate in a cover-up? What can we learn from Uriah’s loyalty?
Pray: Gracious God, our sins are ever before us (Psalm 51). Help us to be honest about all the ways we have failed you. Thank you for your forgiveness, and for being willing to work through imperfect people. Give us leaders who put the welfare of others before their own selfish desires.
Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series
Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.
In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.
The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!
As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!