Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Uriah the Righteous: A Tale of Betrayal – Part 8 in a series on 2 Samuel 11 & 12

The only hard facts we have about Uriah the Hittite are contained in 2 Samuel, in the Hebrew Bible. They describe him as a competent and loyal warrior in King David’s army, listed as one of the thirty mighty men who first served in David’s guerilla band and, after David’s kingdom was established, in an elite force under the direction of David’s hardboiled nephew and army commander, Joab. We learn further that he was married to a woman, Bathsheba, whose beauty attracted the king, leading to a tryst between them, Bathsheba’s pregnancy, an attempt to enlist Uriah unknowingly in a cover-up, and, when that failed, in the murder of Uriah at King David’s command.

The facts we have are just enough to reveal something of the character of the man, but also raise questions about which we can only speculate. One obvious question is why a Hittite had associated himself with a Hebrew renegade army. In reading the list given of David’s mighty men we see that there were other non-Hebrews among them. Uriah and the others very likely were fugitives from their own nation just as David was from his. But why did Uriah choose to join David’s force? Why did he become so loyal to David’s cause? Was he equally loyal to Yahweh, the Hebrew God? Was the beautiful wife he ultimately lost to David also a Hittite woman, or was she a daughter of the Hebrews. And the most haunting question of all, unanswerable, did he ever know that he had been betrayed?

The one thing that shines out unmistakably in the story of Uriah the Hittite is that he was a man of character. From the start he served faithfully in the personal guard of king-to-be David, being designated as one of the “thirty” (actually thirty-seven), a band of men whose exploits became legends in Hebrew lore. But his character was revealed most fully in the last days of his life when King David attempted to enlist him in a scheme to cover up David’s tryst with his wife, Bathsheba.

David had called Uriah back from the siege of a city, purportedly to get a report on how the battle was going. He then suggested that Uriah spend the night with his wife before returning to the battlefield. If Uriah had accepted David’s offer and slept with Bathsheba it would then appear that the child she had conceived during her night with the king was actually that of her husband. Thus, David’s sin could not be proven. Uriah balked at the suggestion that he should enjoy the pleasures of wife and bed while his fellows were engaged in life-threatening combat.

David plied Uriah with food and drink, suggesting again that he spend a night with his wife, but to no avail. Finally the king composed a note to his cousin Joab, instructing him to put Uriah in the most dangerous position on the battle line and then have his fellow soldier’s fall back leaving Uriah to die at the hands of the enemy. If the treachery of that plan were not enough, the king gave the note to Uriah to deliver to Joab, knowing that his integrity and loyalty would prevent him from looking at the message before giving it to his commander.

Given what we know of the man’s bravery and integrity it is not hard to imagine that, even in those last moments, as Uriah stood alone where he had no business being, bearing the full force of the enemy, he never suspected that he had been betrayed, only that he was caught in a desperate situation.

The treachery of the betrayal of Uriah, a life-long servant and friend, was not lost on either David or Joab. When David had been assured that Uriah was dead he sent the following “comforting” message to Joab, “Don’t let this thing upset you, the sword devours one as easily as another: get on with the battle against the city.” So, with a wink and a nod, Uriah was dispatched. Bathsheba grieved appropriately, and David had a new queen.

David’s mighty men were undoubtedly a rough and tumble group, and Uriah was no doubt as bloodstained as the rest. But in this instance he stands out with Nathan the prophet as one of the two participants with real integrity.

In 2 Samuel 22 & 23 there is an interesting juxtaposition of two of David’s psalms. The first, composed by David after the death of Saul, in which David declares, perhaps with some justification, but not without some apparent spiritual hubris, his righteousness before God:

                  The  Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness,
                  according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
I have not done evil by turning from my God.
All his laws are before me,
I have not turned away from his decrees.
I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin.
The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight.

David’s self-adulation may have had some merit at that early point in his life. It is sad, though, to read in the next chapter, David’s “last words,” and think, in light of all we know of his flawed character, how hollowly they ring:

Is not my house right with God?
Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant
arranged and secured in every part?
Will he not bring to fruition my salvation
and grant me my every desire?

If one, more righteous than David, had not come forth to pick up the shards of that covenant and make it eternal through His faithfulness, it is impossible to believe that David’s “righteousness”, nor that of any of his successors, could have sustained it.

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