“Are the Consequences of Sins Inherited?”
Homiletical Reflections on the Death of the First Child of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:13-25)
Proverbs: Shared Cultural Milieu as the Starting Point
We love proverbs. We delight in quoting them. Being short and rhythmic, they infuse life and appeal to our communication. For the present purpose, permit me to rehearse a couple of Tamil1 proverbs:
Thaayaipola Pillai, Noolai Pola Saelai (As the mother, so the child; as the fiber so the saree2)
Appanukka Pillai Thappamal Pirakkum (A father inevitably begets a child he deserves)
It is worth noting that the underlying assumption of both these proverbs is the intimate link, which is posited between parents and their children. Such an assumption underscores that good works of parents bear fruit in the wellbeing of their children while parents’ wrongdoings take their toll on their children. Today’s first reading, which speaks of the death of David and Bathsheba’s unnamed first child, seems to echo and assert the negative pole of the said assumption. The text declares that the child became ill and eventually died as a direct consequence of David’s sin (2 Sam 12:14). In short, David sinned and, hence, lost his child!
But, an Uneasy Feeling Lingers on
However, it does not take too long for us to be aware of an uneasy feeling that lingers on. It is a feeling which protests against the untimely death of a little child. Such a protest may be expressed in many possible ways:
- Why must the child die for the sin of its father? Why is this displaced fulfillment of divine judgment (Quesada 2010, 14)?
- The text says, “The Lord struck the child … and it became very ill” (v.16). “On the seventh day the child died” (v.18). Does a loving God stoop down to strike a little child with illness, leading to its death?
- Nathan tells David, “[T]he Lord has put away your sin” (v.13). Given the gravity of David’s sins, how could he be let off the hook so easily?
Extreme Options: Unsatisfactory and Inadequate
Faced with such a difficult text, interpreters have responded in myriad ways. There are some who choose to focus only on the preceding literary unit where prophet Nathan confronts David and brings him to realize the enormity of his sins. But, then, they conveniently bypass this pericope because the biblical god who visits sins of a father upon his children and, worse, uses the children as the instruments of their father’s punishment is a terrifying god (Exum 2010, 255). If attempting to bypass the passage is an extreme reaction, the other extreme consists of those who try and justify. The sober reality that this child was the product of a sinful union is highlighted by the fact that the mother is referred to as “Uriah’s wife.” Immediately the newborn son “became ill” (Bergen 1997, 374). Neither extreme – bypassing or justifying – is a satisfying answer to the questions posed. Fortunately, these two extremes are not the only possible options of appropriating this challenging text.
An Attempt at Making Sense
Starting with the last question, given the gravity of his sins, was David let off the hook so easily? If we continue to read the subsequent narrative units, it becomes obvious that the consequence of David’s failure was severe to himself, his family, and the nation (Minirth, Hawkins, and Vogel 2004, 80). Indeed, sin affects at all levels. And David’s case was no exception. In the case of David, it becomes all the more remarkable because in the Ancient Near East a king could do these things (adultery and murder) without being called into account. However, that was not to be in the case of David. Human conduct was made answerable (Brueggemann 2000, 50) through a prophetic confrontation.
Moving on to the second question, does a loving God stoop down to strike a little child with illness leading to its death? Let us attempt a close reading of our text. At the end of the confrontation, Nathan tells David, “[B]ecause by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (v.14). The prophecy declares the eventual death of a child. It does not say as to who would cause the death. However, the following verse affirms, “The Lord struck the child … and it became very ill” (v.15). Thus the Lord becomes the active agent who caused the illness of the child leading to its death. It is to be noted that this verse, which portrays God as the cause of child’s death, is not part of Nathan’s prophecy. It is the narrator who jumps in to provide his/her interpretation of the events. The narrator, not the prophet, underscores the Lord’s hand in the death of the child.
Why, then, should the narrator add such a problematic note? There are at least but not exhaustively two possible ways of understanding this. The first pertains to the general worldview of the ancient writers. Ancient writers sometimes confused primary and secondary causes. They believed that the all-powerful God ultimately caused everything (Hiesberger 2007, 121). The narrator, operating within such a worldview where everything was attributed to have been caused by God, would naturally understand that even the death of the child was the handiwork of God.
The second one has to do with the context of the composition of the text in question. The second book of Samuel is part of what is called the Deuteronomistic history. Scholars alert our attention to the fact that the Deuteronomistic history tells us more about Israelites in the late monarchy and early Exile than it does about the historical David (Carvalho 2009, 21). Israel, tormented by the unpleasant effects of divided monarchy and the shattering experience of Exile, was disenchanted with the idea of monarchy. Hence anti-monarchy sentiments are not rare in this composition. This child, born to David and Bathsheba, was a symbol of inherited monarchy and, therefore, was unwanted. As a result, the narrator was swift in attributing the death of the child to God’s definitive act towards getting rid of the progeny that embodied the despicable institution called monarchy!
And finally, revisiting the first question, why should the child be afflicted unto death for the sin of its father? Such a question is our way of protesting against the untimely death of a little child. We cry out, “If David sinned, let him be punished!” Thus, we refuse to accept any causal link between parent’s wrongdoing and the fate of their children – at least in this case. Our protest is certainly legitimate. Interestingly, however, when we quote the proverbs which we rehearsed at the start, we affirm exactly that which we now protest against: the causal link or the inheritance of the consequence of parents’ sins. Going further, even in quoting these proverbs, our consistency is far from praiseworthy. We use them as our tool of approval for someone whom we like. The same tool becomes our weapon of ridicule or taunt when used in the context of those with whom our relationship is far from warm.
From Asking Right Questions to an Awareness of Questioning
It took us just a close and critical reading to uncover the narrator’s distorted interpretation of the event. Similarly, a critical analysis of the way we frame our questions and an awareness of the cultural underpinning of those questions can open new avenues to us. True, the text narrates painful elements: violated individuality of a woman, death of a little child, silence of a bereft mother. And the text does not provide us with readymade answers to all our questions. A clear-cut answer continues to elude us.
All the same, there is something to be gained if we focus on the way we question. For instance, while we are right in protesting against the causal link, our continued use of proverbs, which in fact affirms the contrary, betrays our way of operating under two standards. Hence, the very awareness of our questioning process brings to light the cultural stereotypes that are at play in using these proverbs. The text and the consequent protest from within us is a call to be aware of and to name such a bias.
There remains, however, a note of caution. We may be on the right course in denying a causal link between parents’ doings and the fate of their children. However, it is not same as a total denial of any impact between parents and children. That would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. A causal link is not same as granting a provision for impact. Mature parents who conduct themselves well can be an excellent basis for the blossoming of a healthy and wholesome child. All the same, it is not an absolute guarantee. The reverse is true, too! It would be an uphill task for a child born in a hostile environment of the parents to grow up into a physically and mentally mature person.
What are some of the take-home messages from our reflection on this text?
We read the word of God prayerfully and reverentially, which is a right thing to do. In addition, we need to read it responsibly. Our close reading showed us how a narrator’s twist can make an ideological bias appear under the guise of the word of God. It pays to cultivate an openness to let our cultural elements – including proverbs – and the word of God to be in dialogue with each other in order that, together, they challenge and enrich us!
Dominic S. Irudayaraj S.J. STD