The Common Good
July-August 1997

Abuse of Command

by Walter Brueggemann | July-August 1997

Exploiting power for sexual gratification

The sorry spectacle [in the 1990s] of U.S. Army drill sergeants preying upon female recruits raises important questions about military culture. It also invites a reread of some parts of scripture for Jews and Christians. Here I consider the well-known narrative of David in 2 Samuel 11.

THE NARRATIVE LINE OF THE story is well-known, attracting continual attention because it is a powerful rendition of illicit sex. David the king spots Bathsheba and asks her over. He is the king; it is a command performance. After only a single rendezvous (so far as we know), she sends the characteristically devastating two-word message: "I'm pregnant." That entire narrative report takes only four verses.

Pregnancy is not what the king intended. And so the cover-up begins. David is prompt. He mandates a furlough for one of his commanders, Uriah by name, who is the husband of Bathsheba (verse 6). David intends, by a furlough for the commander, to encourage visible contact between husband and wife, so that the pregnancy can be understood, or at least publicly presented, as authored by Uriah. Unfortunately for David, Uriah—a non-Israelite!—is a man of high military principle who will not enjoy his wife while his mates are at risk in combat. The relatively benign strategy of the king fails.

But David is undeterred. He goes deeper into the morass of royal manipulation. He sends a written order to Joab, his second in command, ordering the death of Uriah by a calculated, mistaken military strategy (verses 14-15). This time the plan works. Uriah is dead; nobody knows who caused the pregnancy. David's sexual "error" is adequately covered.

The story ends with a cunning report from Joab to the king that the mission is accomplished. Uriah is dead; the cover-up is complete. David emerges as a ruthless, unprincipled, exploitative leader who will stop at nothing to protect himself. A sexual venture gone amuck requires a cover-up, even a violent one.

I HAD PAID NO ATTENTION, until the ... triggering by the report of the drill sergeants, to the fact that David's narrative of sexuality is framed militarily. The entire Uriah-Bathsheba narrative, including the reprimand of Nathan the prophet, the death of the illicit child, and the birth of the legitimate son Solomon, stretches from 2 Samuel 11:2 through 12:25. The narrative has a series of distinct episodes, but it is a coherent narrative moving from David's initiating lust to Solomon's birth.

But as always, the biblical narrative hints at more than we easily recognize. The narrative of sexuality is framed by a larger military narrative, a framing that brings it close to the patterned narrative of the drill sergeants. The opening frame is a brief one in 11:1: "In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem."

It is often noticed that "David remained in Jerusalem." For our purposes, it is to be noticed as well that it was the combat season and Joab was hard at it on behalf of David against the Ammonites. The verse is an isolated comment. It is, however, picked up in 12:26 as a continuation: "Now Joab fought against Rabbah of the Ammonites, and took the royal city."

The narrator has forgotten nothing. There is still combat, still Joab, still the Ammonites, still the active verbs of conquest. The closing frame provides a massive victory for David, who arrives at the battle site just in time to be decisive as a military man of the hour. All the heavy lifting was done by steady, unflappable Joab, who misses nothing.

The framing of a narrative of sexuality by a narrative of the military is complete: military (11:1); sexual (11:2-12:25); military (12:26-31). The victory is immense for David. And within the presentation of David's military victory is the presentation of David's sexual indulgence, cover-up and all. The public in Jerusalem sees only the military drama. We privileged readers know about the story within the story. The narrator offers it all to us, without any comment.

BUT NOT ONLY IS the sexual narrative itself framed by the military. If we take the framing of 11:1 and 12:26-31 seriously, we begin to notice that the internal narrative is also saturated with military nuance. There are in fact only three principle actors in the narrative—David, Joab, Uriah—excluding Bathsheba, who is not in fact an actor but only acted upon, only permitted two words, albeit decisive words. She is the object in the narrative, not a subject.

The three male characters are fully military. David is the commander. And he acts like a commander:

  • He sends for Bathsheba (11:4).
  • He sends word to Joab to give Uriah leave (11:6).
  • He sends the fatal order for Uriah's death (11:14-15).
  • He offers a dismissive verdict at the end of the narrative, the verdict of a hard military man (11:25).

Uriah is no less a military man whose work is trusting obedience. He is obedient to his king, a man under orders. He comes home from the front on command (verse 7). He returns to combat on command (verse 14). He resists the will of his king only to honor the higher loyalty to his men in the field (verse 11).

And Joab, no less than Uriah, is a military man, with the same readiness to obey as exhibited by Uriah; Joab dispatches Uriah home on command (verse 6). And then he dispatches Uriah on orders (verses 16-17). He dispatches a messenger with a carefully created press release, enough for public consumption, with a hidden reassurance for the king (verses 18-21).

The entire narrative is a transaction among military men who understand each other and who know how to conduct themselves. The sexual act in the end requires a killing. But it is not a big moral trauma. Killing is what happens. So the king, who needed the death, provides a terse military summary of the necessary act: "Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it" (verse 25).

The framing of 11:1 and 12:26-31 calls attention to the military saturation of the internal narrative of sexuality. The narrative of sexuality and cover-up is not something different. It is of a piece with the framing. The premise of violence legitimates the violence of sexuality, the violence of cover-up, the violence of required killing.

I suspect that the drill sergeants, even convicted, [were] no odd or exceptional characters. They [were] an articulation of military culture that breathes the legitimacy of power, lust, violence, and exploitation. The drill sergeants, like David, like Joab, like Uriah, live[d] in an atmosphere of legitimated, required violence. That atmosphere of legitimated violence does not limit the violence to the enemy, but includes whomever one may find compelling.

The immediate context of military culture, moreover, is sustained by a larger context of greed and exploitation, brutality and economic promiscuity that is without neighborliness, a culture into which we are all more or less inducted. David, Uriah, and Joab are not actors in a vacuum, but participants in a military culture that the narrator lets us see and enter.

The violence in both arenas, ancient and contemporary, soon or late works against all those who are vulnerable. Even would-be strong ones, in special circumstance, turn out to be vulnerable and victimized, as Uriah discovered belatedly. When one reflects on the larger David story that begins in the Goliath episode (1 Samuel 17) and ends in the Solomonic blood bath (1 Kings 2), the entire story has an ominous undercurrent of violence that makes none immune.

THE VIOLENCE GIVEN sexual expression in a military culture is given free play in the narrative. The account of sexual violence stands on its own and proceeds in an unchecked narrative. We may, however, notice two critical responses to the indulgence of the king. At the end of chapter 11, David's cynical response to Joab on the required death of Uriah is: "Do not let this matter be evil in your eyes" (verse 25). This is followed in a verdict that Gerhard von Rad long ago saw as subtle but decisive: "But the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of Yahweh" (verse 27b).

The eyes (meaning the capacity for judgment) of military culture are profoundly indulgent. It is clear, however, that the indulgent verdict sent by David to Joab is at best penultimate. The "eyes of Joab" and of David are trumped, according to the insistence of the narrative, by that other eye (also meaning the capacity for judgment), the eye of Yahweh, the one who sees evil for evil, without euphemism.

The second, more direct critical response is on the lips of Nathan in his bold address to David:

Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is "evil in his sight"? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife (2 Samuel 12:9-10).

"The sword" has done in Uriah. It was an Ammonite sword, willed by a Davidic strategy, motivated by David, but in the end wielded by no one. It is a sword done remotely, passively, without direct agent. There were no real actors, only Ammonites who are scarcely culpable in the event.

But that sword, and the corruption that authorized it, are forever. The vicious cycle of violence, here triggered in the arena of sexuality, will remain uninterrupted in Jerusalem until David's family is destroyed, brother against brother, finally Solomon against Adonijah (1 Kings 2:23-25)...until David's people are laid low by the sword that does not depart: "Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon" (2 Kings 24:3-4). It may not be accidental, moreover, that one of the agents of this ultimate destruction are "bands of Ammonites" (2 Kings 24:2).

The drill sergeant may [have been] simply the point man for the common violence pervasive among us, a strange mixture of innocence and cunning. It did not seem ominous that afternoon on the roof. It never does. It is ominous only in the context of the larger narrative that places everyone in endless jeopardy.

When this article appeared, Walter Brueggemann was professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and a Sojourners contributing editor.

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