David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes
By Joel Cohen
HiddenSpring, 2007, $16.00
When the prophet Nathan woke up in the morning and saw his to-do list for the day – rebuke the king of Israel for his sin with Bathsheba – did he hit his snooze alarm and try, like the prophet Jonah, to shirk his duty? Did he dress in the normal way and eat his breakfast, or did he deny himself his regular routine to get a head start on mourning his solemn duty and David’s imminent punishment?
As Joel Cohen’s new book, David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes, correctly points out, “We will never know if, when Nathan condemned the King of Israel, the forebear of Messiah, the Prophet coarsely pressed his finger to the warrior’s chest, or spoke to the King in discreet privacy, whether tears rolled down the Prophet’s cheek when he spoke, or whether Nathan was so repulsed by the sinful conduct of David that he simply ‘pronounced sentence’ on the King, and turned his back to walk away.”
Book jacket. Photo courtesy of Meryl Zegarek Public Relations.
The Bible simply does not find it necessary to give its readers these sorts of details. To Cohen, a partner at the New York law firm, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who has recently published several “creative non-fiction” memoirs from the perspectives of biblical characters, “only the human imagination can be invoked to suppose what actually transpired beyond the sparse words delegated in the text – and no one man’s imagination is better than another’s in furnishing, for him, that which remains unstated.”
Just because the Bible does not describe every detail in every narrative episode, does not mean that it insists (or even encourages) its readers flatten the characters in their minds. Biblical characters were human and, as such, exhibited personalities. And yet some of their deeds are solidified in the Bible, while others are left to the reader’s imagination.
Notably, the thoughts and actions of women in the Bible are likewise reserved for readers’ imaginations. The Bible offers no words on what went through Bathsheba’s mind when David approached her. Surely, she must have known that if she refused the king’s wishes she might be put to death. And yet, adultery is a sin that is considered so terrible that one must choose it over death. Some say that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, would have surely served her a conditional set of divorce papers called a “get l’mafrayah,” which would effectively declare that if Uriah never returned from war, the divorce would retroactively have begun from the moment he left. (This strategy was designed to avoid allowing the wife to become an agunah or a woman who must remain faithful to her husband whose whereabouts are unknown.) But the situation is far more complicated, for if that were the case, Bathsheba could not yet have known that Uriah would not return from war, even if David was already considering his plot to abandon him to enemy fire on the front lines.
A cursory examination of commentators yields very little discussion of Bathsheba’s role in the story. There seems to be unanimous agreement that she has not sinned and is not punished for any sin, though the death of the baby surely punishes her as much as it does David – if not more so. Cohen’s book tangentially addresses Bathsheba’s thoughts (to date, Cohen’s books have focused exclusively on male biblical characters), focusing instead on another relatively quiet and mysterious biblical character, the prophet Nathan.
Cohen conceived of the idea for his book on the morning of the unveiling of his father’s gravesite. His father was named Nathan, and “he too was a very disciplined man willing to ‘speak truth to power,'” as the prophet Nathan did to David. “On the morning of the unveiling of his gravesite, I looked for the hallmark of the prophet Nathan’s life to find something to say about my father in the context of his namesake. And there it was: precisely how my father would go about getting someone to admit his wrongdoing,” Cohen said over e-mail.
Joel Cohen. Photo courtesy of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
In Cohen’s book, Nathan considers playing hooky – like Jonah. “And who is he who dared condemn David? Just a wrinkled man who arrogantly pointed his finger to the King’s chest and told the King who might so easily have killed him as he did Goliath, Uriah the Hittite, and so many others, that the King is an adulterer and murderer,” says Cohen’s self-conscious Nathan. “Why must these visions be placed in my eyes? And, again, do I sin to quarrel with G-d’s plan for me?”
Not only does Nathan wonder why he has received prophecies, but he also wonders why G-d sends him to rebuke David and condemn his family, rather than delivering the prophecy directly to David – himself a prophet. And yet Nathan tells David what he does not know himself, namely that he has sinned to G-d. Cohen’s Nathan recounts the moments after he levels the accusation, “You are the man!” – connecting David with the parable about the rich man who steals the pauper’s only lamb.
“Decades, it seemed, passed during which the King’s silence deafened me. Perhaps, while I still stood before him, the great psalmist would compose those lofty words for which he was so much heralded. Or perhaps he would continue to say nothing. Perhaps, he would simply dispense with me and ask to be left to his thoughts or other duties of state – all the while maintaining a bold exterior. But, in an instant, the words came quickly without embellishment: ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ There was nothing else to say. Nothing else worth saying! And to reveal, at that moment, my own sadness in having told David his punishment would detract from my duty as G-d’s messenger.”
But more ambitiously, Cohen allows Nathan to reflect upon the very nature of receiving a prophecy. “But as the nighttime approaches, I wonder about my role in all of this, and the role of prophecy,” Nathan thinks, as David lies on his deathbed. “In describing to him some of the bleak future that lay before David, both in his lifetimes and thereafter, I offered no ability to right his wrongs, and possessed none. All I imparted was the ability to reject my parable, or to acknowledge that he was the loathsome ‘rich man’ I had described.” Cohen’s observation captures the reason why biblical kings so often despised the prophets – seeing them always as harbingers of evil and a dark future, as part of the problem without any advice for a solution.
This surely affected prophets when they were charged with a vision. When he is told to deliver water to the Jews in the desert, Moses epitomizes this when he tells G-d he fears them. “In just a little bit, they shall kill me.” He must have known he was untouchable and still indispensable in the divine plan of redemption, but part of the human condition (as opposed to, say, the angelic one), is the doubts and tricks of the mind that surface. This is regardless of the presence of convincing arguments indicating that all is well. In that light, one can now better understand Jonah’s fear in telling an entire city that it was doomed. The Book of Jonah makes very clear that G-d was dissatisfied with Jonah and punished him through the solicitation of a whale. But it is vital to remember that prophets, despite their extraordinary gift of vision, remain men and are not divine. Any other perspective would be idolatrous.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.