Rebuke, Repentance, and Renewal: A Literary Analysis of David’s Character in II Samuel 12

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Natan Levin



The twelfth chapter of II Samuel focuses on the direct ramifications of David’s wrongdoings in the previous chapter, including his adultery with Batsheva and unjustified demand that Uriyah — her husband and a soldier in the king’s army — be put to death.[2] A close reading of the chapter reveals the essential role that its obscure details play within the narrative’s progression, allowing for a greater appreciation of David’s character development and sympathetic persona.

The chapter can be naturally divided into five distinct sections, providing a useful framework for analysis:

i) The prophet Natan’s parable and David’s response (12:1-6)[3]
ii) The revelation of the parable’s referent and Natan’s rebuke of David (12:7-12)
iii) David’s confession and Natan’s response (12:13-14)
iv) David’s first child’s death and Shlomo’s birth (12:15-25)
v) The People of Israel’s war with Ammon (12:26-31)

Several questions immediately jump out at the reader upon encountering the text: (1) Conceptually speaking, why does Natan give a parable to David? Would it not be preferable to offer direct admonition instead of an oblique critique? (2) A closer look at the parable reveals an exclusive emphasis upon the upper class’s oppression of the lower instead of sexual immorality and the value of human life, which at first glance would seem to better reflect David’s misdeed. Why does the parable ignore the actual sins that David commits? (3) Furthermore, despite the conspicuous absence of David’s adultery and indirect murder, it remains obvious to the reader that David is the parable’s true subject. However, David himself is completely oblivious to that fact. How is he so ignorant as to not realize that the parable reflects upon him? (4) In the third section of the chapter, David’s response to Natan’s rebuke is ambiguous when analyzed in a vacuum: “I have sinned to the Lord” (12:13). How should this confession be evaluated? (5) The chapter’s fourth section includes many details that are prima facie superfluous, including an exhaustive recounting of David’s plea on behalf of his sick child and an extended dialogue between him and his servants. What is the greater symbolic value of these minutiae? (6) Finally, assuming the significance of their juxtaposition, what is the thematic relationship between the war with the nation of Ammon, completed in the fifth section, and the rest of the chapter? This article will attempt to address these questions in pursuit of a coherent and comprehensive account of David’s character development throughout the chapter.

Above the Law  
To address the first number of questions, the parable requires further consideration. First, a quick synopsis is in order: To feed a visiting guest, a wealthy man steals a poor person’s lone sheep instead of taking one from his own sizable flock. The wealthy person represents David, the poor man Uriyah, and the sheep Batsheva,[4] highlighting David’s effective thievery of Batsheva from her first husband Uriyah. Delving deeper into the parable’s message, we can first analyze the original descriptions of the two men. In verse two, the rich person receives a concise summation of his plentiful possessions: “The rich man had very large flocks and herds.” In stark contrast, the text embellishes the poor man’s connection to his “only” lamb, even claiming that it was “like a daughter to him” (12:3).[5] This distinction reveals the discrepancy between the two protagonists’ views regarding their surrounding society. The rich person towers over the rest of the world, treating it as his dominion, whereas the poor man creates an authentic bond with his environment and relates to it on a human level. Further emphasizing this theme, the three verbs relating the poor person to his sheep are a-kh-l (tokhal), sh-t-h (tishteh), and sh-kh-v (tishkav)— eating, drinking, and lying (12:3). These same three verbs are used to connect Uriyah to his household and to Batsheva in the previous chapter. Responding to David’s demand that he reside in his home while the rest of the military carries on with its attack, Uriyah exclaims, “How can I go home and eat (le’ekhol) and drink (ve-lishtot) and sleep (ve-lishkav) with my wife?” (11:11). This repetition emphasizes the contrast between Uriyah’s intimate relation with his environs and David’s artificial separation from his. Continuing in the parable, Natan originally terms the visitor for whom the wealthy person eventually steals the poor man’s sheep a heilekh — “walker” (12:4).[6] This is reminiscent of the impetus for David’s sin with Batsheva. He first encounters Batsheva’s beauty while va-yithaleikh al gag beit ha-melekh — “he was walk[ing] on the roof of the king’s house,” thereby highlighting the guest’s function in the parable as a catalyst for wrongdoing (11:2). Just as the parable’s “walker” precipitates the rich man’s thievery, David commits adultery with Batsheva as a direct result of his stroll upon his roof.[7] An interesting hermeneutical discourse in the Babylonian Talmud arrives at a similar conclusion through an astute observation regarding the varied terms used in reference to the guest in verse four. Rava points out that the text initially refers to the guest in the parable as a “heilekh” – “walker,” later an “orei’ah” – “guest,” and finally an “ish” – “man,” and asserts that this progression reflects the rise to prominence of the rich man’s evil inclination.[8] In the parable’s conclusion, Natan relays that “vayahmol lakahat mitzono… vayikah et kibsat ha-ish ha-rash” — “[the rich person] was loath to take anything from his own flock… so he took the poor man’s lamb” (12:4). The verse twice uses the root (l-k-h) – “take,” emphasizing a theme that appears throughout the book of Samuel — oppression and self-absorption via immoral seizure of property.[9] This word choice again hints at David’s self-perception of being above the law, as his counterpart in the parable abuses the poor nonchalantly.

A final note about this section of the chapter: as previously mentioned, the parable enigmatically focuses upon the abstract idea of oppressing the underprivileged as opposed to David’s actual sins of murder and adultery. This can be readily understood in light of the parable’s larger insight regarding David’s persona elaborated upon in the preceding paragraph. David’s hubris and abuse of power are best represented by the mistreatment of society’s lower class, and the specificities of his wrongdoing are natural manifestations of his self-centered worldview.[10]

Under the impression that the parable is a court case upon which he is expected to provide a ruling, David metes out a harsh punishment to the parable’s antagonist, saturated with moral indignation. In fact, as the text records, “David flew into a rage against the [wealthy] man” (12:5). At first glance, this reaction should surprise the reader. After all, David has committed the highest degree of sexual immorality and unjustifiably ordered the assassination of a fellow Jew. Why is he suddenly appalled by unethical behavior?[11] The text accentuates this irony through a parallel between David’s response to Natan’s parable and Uriyah’s categorical rejection in the previous chapter of David’s demand that he remain at home while the rest of the military continues battling.. Firstly, both David — “as the Lord lives” (12:5) — and Uriyah — “as you live, by your very life” (11:11) — use the language of an oath in expression of their passionate indignation.[12] Furthermore, both heed moral intuitions in their responses, acting beyond their basic responsibilities. Instead of prescribing the typically imposed fine of four times restitution upon the thief,[13] David both orders that “the man who did this deserves to die,” and that “he shall pay for the lamb eight times over” (12:5-6).[14] Similarly, although he has the permission to abandon his fellow soldiers at war and retire to his house, Uriyah follows his ethical sense and insists against doing so:

Uriyah answered David, “The Ark and Israel and Judah are located at Succoth, and my master Joab and Your Majesty’s men are camped in the open; how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife? As you live, by your very life, I will not do this!” (11:11).

This parallel to Uriyah reflects two interesting character traits that David possesses. On the positive side, David has clearly inculcated the moral values of compassion and kindness, as he is genuinely appalled at the rich man’s oppression of the poor. On the negative side, however, David fails to notice the obvious relevance of his ethical beliefs to his own actions. Once again, the confluence of these two attributes lends itself to the understanding that David unconsciously places himself on a different moral plane than the rest of society.[15]

Reversal of David’s Standing
In his response to David’s ruling, Natan reveals the purported court case’s true meaning and subsequently doles out punishments for David’s transgression. Throughout this second section of the chapter (12:7-12), David’s previously established self-perception is completely reversed on the thematic and literary planes. First, Natan asks David,  “Madu’a bazita et devar Hashem?” – “Why have you flouted the command of the Lord?” in critique of David’s behavior (12:9). This usage of a rhetorical question and of the word “madu’a” as an expression of castigation echoes David’s own question to Uriyah in the previous chapter. In reaction to Uriyah’s refusal to heed his instruction, David asks, Madu’a lo yaradta el beitekha? – “Why didn’t you go down to your house [as I commanded of you]?” (11:10). Using Natan as a medium, God ironically alludes to David’s behavior towards Uriyah, in effect asking: How could you think that you have the right to demand the obeisance of others when you fail to obey a Divine mandate? The punishments’ specificities and the language Natan utilizes when relaying them to David hint at this same point through the device known in the rabbinic literature as middah ke-neged middah, measure for measure. The first component of David’s punishment is that “the sword shall never depart from your house,” mirroring David’s assassination of Uriyah:“You have struck Uriyah the Hittite with the sword” (12:9-10). Its second component, that “I [God] will take your wives before your very eyes,” reflects David’s taking of Batsheva: “and you took the wife of Uriyah the Hittite [Batsheva] to be your wife,” while simultaneously emphasizing David’s willingness to “take” without authority or moral right (12:10-11).[16] Additionally, God rescinds the provisions he had previously given to David. Natan tells David in God’s name,

I gave you your master’s house and possession of your master’s wives; and I gave you the House of Israel and Judah; and if that were not enough, I would give you twice as much more (12:8).

But now, in light of David’s sin,

Thus said the Lord: ‘I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house; I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun (12:14).

God originally “gave” to David, and as punishment “give[s]” to his neighbors from him, constituting another revocation of David’s power. Natan’s concluding remark, that David has acted “in secret,” whereas God will exact retribution “in the sight of all Israel and in broad daylight,” explicitly picks up on this theme of reversal (12:12). Finally, returning to the chapter’s first verse, the text records that “the Lord sent Natan to David,” which mimics David’s own “sending” throughout the previous chapter.[17] However, while chapter 11 portrays David as a ruler meting out orders to his messengers, God reveals himself to be the true King by “send[ing]” Natan in chapter 12. In sum, as demonstrated by the many thematic and literary reversals of David’s self-image throughout Natan’s reproof, God effectively belittles David and downgrades his status from that of almighty king to normal civilian.

David and Sha’ul’s Confessions
At the chapter’s climax, David admits to his wrongdoing, exclaiming, “I have sinned to the Lord” (12:13). As mentioned previously, this admission appears somewhat cryptic at first glance. One might claim that the brevity of David’s confession testifies to a deficiency in his internalization of Natan’s admonition; instead of emotionally soliloquizing about his immorality, David limits his repentance to the minimum requirement. However, upon further analysis, this reading proves untenable. Instead, David’s admission constitutes a watershed and reflects a truly significant internal moment.

A natural comparison comes to mind between David’s confession in II Samuel 12 and Sha’ul’s in Ⅰ Samuel 15, serving as an illuminating frame of reference in order to understand David’s confession on a deeper level. In Ⅰ Samuel 15, Sha’ul, David’s predecessor, ignores God’s command to completely eradicate the nation of Amalek by leaving its king and cattle alive, which leads to an intense rendezvous with Samuel. When comparing these two narratives, a clear parallel emerges. Thematically, both chapters feature a prophet harshly reprimanding the king for failing to adhere to a Divine command, eventually leading to an admission of wrongdoing. Similar to David, Sha’ul is originally unaware of his misdeeds, exclaiming, “I have fulfilled the Lord’s command” (I Samuel 15:13). Also similar to David, he performs an act of seizure against God’s will: “and [he] took… from the spoil[s of Amalek] some sheep and oxen” (I Samuel 15:21). The parallel is further manifest within each of the prophets’ rebukes. Indeed, Natan explicitly links David to Sha’ul, pointing out that “[The Lord] rescued you from the hand of Sha’ul” (12:7). Additionally, Natan prefaces his critique of David by emphasizing that “I [The Lord] anointed you king over Israel,” as does Samuel with regards to Sha’ul, claiming, “The Lord anointed you king over Israel” (12:7; I Samuel 15:17). Furthermore, both prophets rhetorically ask “why” each king committed his misconduct as well as stress that the king had performed “that which displeases The Lord” (12:9; I Samuel 15:19). A final component common to the two chapters finds expression in the kings’ punishments, as each contains the motif of God’s appropriation of the king’s possessions to his fellows. As noted earlier, God relates that he “will take [David’s] wives and give them to another man” (12:11), and Samuel explains that “God has this day torn the kingship over Israel away from [Sha’ul] and has given it to another who is worthier than you” (I Samuel 15:28).

Against this background of textual and topical similarities, a number of differences clearly stand out. As previously argued, David has a strong — albeit inconsistent — moral instinct, as evidenced by his recognition of the problematic nature of the rich man’s conduct in the parable. In contrast, Sha’ul — either in earnest or in an attempt to deceive Samuel — does not realize his wrongdoing even after Samuel explicitly hints at it:

“Then what,” demanded Samuel, “is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of oxen that I hear?” Saul answered, “They were brought from the Amalekites, for the troops spared the choicest of the sheep and oxen for sacrificing to the Lord your God…” (I Samuel 15:14-15).[18]

As opposed to Sha’ul, David has successfully cultivated an ethical sense, paving the way for his full repentance. Additionally, David immediately confesses his error when confronted by Natan, in contradistinction to Sha’ul’s initial insistence that “I did obey the Lord! I performed the mission on which the Lord sent me” (I Samuel 15:20). Even after admitting to his transgression, Sha’ul attempts to absolve himself of blameworthiness by diverting it to the nation: “I was afraid of the troops and I yielded to them” (I Samuel 15:24). Furthermore, after acknowledging his sin, Sha’ul demands that God  “bear [his] sin now” (I Samuel 15:25).[19] David makes no such request, effectively bowing his head in submission to the Divine judgment. Through this lens, the conciseness, immediacy, and absoluteness of David’s confession reflect his genuine internalization of God’s critique.

A New David
The apparently superfluous length and detail in the chapter’s fourth section (12:15-25), which describes the death of David’s first child and Shlomo’s birth, can be better understood in light of David’s character renewal. The text relates that “he entreat[s] God on behalf of [his son],” signifying David’s acknowledgement of God’s omnipotence (12:16). The imagery of David fasting and sleeping on the ground symbolizes his lowering himself down to the level of his subjects, indeed lower than them (12:16). Furthermore, we are told that “he refuse[s]” the servants’ attempted comforting “and [does] not partake of food with them,” remaining firm in his abstention from any form of physical pleasure (12:17).[20] Most instructively, in response to his servants’ question regarding the apparent irrationality of his mourning for his child while his child was alive and his subsequent cessation once he died, David explicitly acknowledges God’s absolute power and his own limitations:

He replied, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept because I thought: ‘Who knows? The Lord may have pity on me, and the child may live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? …” (12:22-23).

In this final rhetorical question, “can I bring him back again?” David demonstrates a categorical acceptance of God’s total supremacy over the natural world — including his own self and child. David’s self-resignation to God’s will and power again points towards his authentic growth.

This positive reading of David is further bolstered by a thematic parallel to his heroic ancestor, Yehudah, in Genesis 38. In both narratives, the protagonist originally separates himself from society, engages in questionable sexual behavior, and eventually recognizes his wrongdoing immediately after having been admonished for it (Genesis 38:26; II Samuel 11:1).[21] Furthermore, Yehudah and David father children who ultimately contribute to the kingship of the Jewish people in a meaningful way as a direct consequence of their original missteps. Peretz, a recognizable symbol of the Davidic dynasty, is born to Yehudah as a result of his sexual relations with Tamar (Bereishit 38:21);[22] Batsheva, after her first son with David passes away, gives birth to Shlomo, David’s eventual successor and the builder of the First Temple . In fact, the text highlights Solomon’s uniqueness directly following his birth, as “the Lord favored him” and “he was named [by Natan] Yedidyah [i.e., ‘Beloved of the Lord’]” (12:24-25). This similarity demonstrates that, when evaluated holistically, the transformation David undergoes in chapters 11 and 12 is constructive and beneficial.

War with Ammon: Reversion or Continuation?
As touched upon previously, the chapter’s most perplexing section is arguably its final one, consisting of the Israelite people’s battle with their rival nation Ammon (12:26-31). What is the connection between David’s character progression and a military victory over Ammon? Some of this episode’s details hint at David’s regression to his former, egoistic self. David unhesitantly accedes to his general Yo’av’s suggestion that David strike the final blow in order to attain honor and glory (12:28). Additionally, David “took” the Ammonite king’s crown as well as their loot, both echoing the theme of “taking” that appeared prior to David’s confession and symbolically highlighting David’s willingness to place himself above others (12:30-31). However, when considered more broadly, David corrects for the original cause of his sin by joining his fellow brothers in battle (12:29). In the verse preceding David’s original observation of Batsheva’s beauty, the narrator records the nation initiating its battle with Ammon in the city of Rabbah while “David remained in Jerusalem” (11:1). This self-imposed removal from the rest of his nation foreshadows his self-centeredness in the remainder of the chapter, as he commits adultery with Batsheva and narcissistically murders Uriyah. On this backdrop, David’s physical entrance into the war symbolizes his rejoining society and humanity on the psychological and spiritual planes. As such, the war with Ammon functions as a further stage in David’s religious and interpersonal maturation.

In summation, we may view chapter 12 as depicting David’s transformation from an egotistical and apathetic ruler to a religiously submissive man of the people. Aside from the literary value in the text’s apparent meaning, reading the chapter as a presentation of David’s complex and nuanced character allows him to function as a true role model to whom the reader can relate. Despite his missteps along the way, a holistic account of David’s journey reveals that he simultaneously serves as a paragon of virtue deserving of praise as well as someone who is ultimately human with whom the reader can identify.

[1] I would like to express my immense gratitude to Rabbi Chanoch Waxman, who contributed to the development and refinement of the ideas presented in this article.

[2] While some strains within the rabbinic literature read these events otherwise — as will be noted later — I contend that the reading presented here is the text’s simple meaning.

[3]  All unspecified citations are from II Samuel, and translations are from Sefaria, unless otherwise noted. 

[4] The imagery of a lamb personifying Batsheva is reminiscent of the foremothers Rachel and Rivkah, both of whose names are used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in reference to sheep (see Genesis 32:15, for example). This provides an additional layer of meaning to an otherwise strange detail, hinting at Batsheva’s innocence and righteousness.

[5] In Megillah 13a, R. Meir posits that the word bat — “daughter” in this verse can also be read as bayit — “house” (which in this context connotes a spousal relationship), highlighting its reference to Batsheva, Uriyah’s wife.

[6] I prefer this literal translation than the more commonly used “traveler” in order to emphasize the parallel expounded upon in the following sentences.

[7] Another interesting detail to note is that David “looks down” upon Batsheva, providing symbolic imagery of David’s perception that he is “above” the rest of society.

[8] Sukkah 52b.

[9] The verses notably use this root in the contexts of the lead priest Eli’s corrupt sons and the mishpat ha-Melekh, “King’s Code” that Samuel uses to deter the nation’s request for a king in the second and eighth chapters of I Samuel, respectively. Interestingly enough, the text hints at a parallel between Eli’s sons and David, using the grammatical roots n-a-tz, meaning “spurn” and b-z-h, meaning “desecrate,” in relation to each of their behaviors towards God, further suggesting the conception of David’s character presented heretofore (I Samuel 2:17, 30; II Samuel 12:7, 14).

[10] It should be mentioned that some commentators read the omission of David’s adultery and murder as an expression of Natan’s desire that David not determine the parable’s true meaning.

[11] Shmuel Klitsner notes this irony in his essay on the chapter as well. In fact, many of the insights offered in this article overlap with Klitsner’s analysis. I would like to express my appreciation to Rabbi David Fried for bringing this to my attention. Shmuel Klitsner,  “Victims, Victimizing and the Therapeutic Parable: A New Interpretation of II Samuel Chapter 12.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 46, no. 1 (2013): 25-42.

[12] Blane Conklin, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew (Penn State Press 2011), 24-25.

[13] While most rightfully associate the keifel penalty, or twice the value, as punishment with regard to a thief, one incurs an additional punishment of four or five times the value by stealing sheep or cattle (Exodus 22:1).

[14] I am following Radak’s interpretation (four times two), though some read arbatayim as the usual four-times payment. Others read it as sixteen times the amount he stole (four times four).

[15] Returning to the parable, the verses describe the rich man’s unwillingness to give his own sheep to the visitor as “he was merciful towards his own flocks and herds and did not take them” (12:4; translation mine). During his castigation of the rich man, David explains that the rich man deserves punishment because “he showed no mercy” to the poor man (12:6). In effect, David points out that the rich man’s “mercy” is misplaced: instead of exhibiting it in his conduct with his livestock, he should have done so in his dealing with the poor man. By highlighting this flaw in the rich man — who represents David in the parable — David ironically incriminates himself: he too misplaces his mercy, showing it to the imaginary poor man by giving him justice through punishing the wealthy person but failing to live up to that standard in his real-life treatment of Uriyah.

[16] Additionally, Natan’s appendage to this second component, that it will be done “before [David’s] very eyes,” highlights David’s inability to take action against God’s retribution, again hinting at a reversal of David’s god-like self-perception.

[17] The motif of David sending others surfaces six times over the course of chapter 11 (11:1, 4, 6, 12, 14, & 27).

[18] The theme of misplaced mercy again surfaces in this context, as Sha’ul and the nation “took mercy” on the Amalekite livestock in direct violation of God’s command, providing another support for this parallel (refer to footnote 15 above).

[19] In other words, acquit him of consequences.

[20] Interpreted from another angle, through taking these steps, David overcomes his hedonistic desires for instant gratification that originally caused him to err with Batsheva.

[21] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik terms Yehuda’s repentance as “the great cathartic act, which cleansed him and redeemed his life,” highlighting the significance of this process in Yehuda’s development (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Catharsis,” 54).

[22] For example, the fourth chapter of the book of Ruth records a genealogy beginning with Peretz and concluding with David (Ruth 4:18-22).

Natan Levin is currently a sophomore at the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors program in Yeshiva College, after having spent the past two years studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He can be reached at