King David is often held up in Jewish texts as an ideal monarch and is traditionally said to be the progenitor of the messianic line. But if you read the Bible (without the benefit of post-biblical spin), David doesn’t seem like a particularly nice guy. Chapter 21 of 2 Samuel relates that he handed Saul’s blameless descendants over to the Gibeonites to appease them for Saul’s murderous conduct. As we read back on Yevamot 79, the Talmud tries to justify this behavior, but frankly it’s not entirely convincing.
Today’s daf takes on another example of David’s questionable conduct. In 2 Samuel 11, David sees the beautiful Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a soldier in David’s army. David summons her, has sex with her, and when Bathsheba becomes pregnant, he sends her husband into battle to be killed. Once Uriah is dead, David marries Bathsheba.
Needless to say, all of this is horrible.
This vignette surfaces in a discussion about a woman whose husband accuses her of not being a virgin when they consummated the marriage. Rabbi Elazar says that by accusing his wife of infidelity, the husband renders her forbidden to him. However, the Gemara is a bit unsure as to what Rabbi Elazar actually meant:
And did Rabbi Elazar say that? But didn’t Rabbi Elazar say: A woman is forbidden to her husband (due to adultery) only over matters of jealous warning and seclusion, and as it was in the incident that transpired involving David and Bathsheba?
Rabbi Elazar’s position is that a woman is guilty of adultery only if her husband warned her beforehand about secluding herself with another man — and not just any man, but a specific man. Since Uriah didn’t warn his wife against secluding herself with David, Bathsheba was not guilty of adultery and David did not sin with her.
Writing in the 14th century, the Ritva points out the absurdity of this rule: Husbands don’t go around issuing warnings to their wives about seclusion with specific men, so accepting this statement at face value would make almost any instance of adultery irrelevant to the ongoing legitimacy of the relationship. The Gemara seems unsure too, pointing out another problem if Bathsheba and David committed adultery:
Furthermore, did the sages render Bathsheba forbidden to her husband?
Adultery renders a woman forbidden not only to her husband, but also to her paramour. So if their initial intercourse was improper, David’s later marriage to Bathsheba would be too.
In the face of this, the rabbis continue to come up with possible reasons for why this isn’t actually adultery.
For what reason did the sages not deem her forbidden? There it was rape. And if you wish, say as that which Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who goes to a war waged by the house of David writes a conditional bill of divorce to his wife.
Now things go from bad to worse. First the rabbis suggest that David raped Bathsheba, which would permit them to marry because the original assault didn’t count as adultery. Alternatively, the conditional divorce Uriah is assumed to have granted Bathsheba when he left for battle retroactively applied to his initial drafting into the army — before David had sex with her. Again, the result is that it wasn’t truly adultery.
The rabbis’ attempts to justify this are pretty awful and, to my mind, weak. Moreover, if David’s conduct was acceptable, why does the Bible specifically say that God “was displeased with what David had done”?
There’s no happy conclusion here. No matter how we approach this, David doesn’t come out looking great, and it feels like the rabbis are engaged in a cover up. Perhaps we’d be better off accepting David’s shortcomings along with his positive contributions instead of trying to explain them away.
Read all of Ketubot 9 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 15th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.