Shabbat 56

Exonerating biblical heroes.

A mnemonic: Reuben, the sons of Eli, the sons of Samuel, David, Solomon, and Josiah.

This statement, found at the bottom of yesterday’s page, is the organizing principle of today’s material. These biblical characters, some of them among the greatest heroes of the Tanakh, were all guilty of egregious sins: adultery, idolatry, murder. And yet, on today’s page, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani marshals “proof” from the biblical text that each of them was not guilty of the sins the Bible records.

For example, let’s look at the case of David, who coveted a beautiful woman named Bathsheba who was, most unfortunately, married to David’s loyal soldier Uriah. But with Uriah conveniently away at war, David takes Bathsheba to bed and impregnates her, then invites her husband Uriah home in the hopes that he will sleep with her and give the illusion that the child was in fact his. When this plan fails — Uriah is far too noble to indulge in the pleasures of his marital bed while his fellows are away in combat — David sends Uriah to the front lines of battle to ensure that he is killed. With Uriah permanently out of the picture, David marries Bathsheba and claims the child. Hard to spin that as the behavior of a righteous person. And yet:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who says that David sinned with Bathsheba is nothing other than mistaken, as it is stated: And David succeeded in all his ways; and the Lord was with him (I Samuel 18:14)

What follows is a convoluted argument that relies on a great deal of fancy exegetical maneuvering to exonerate David from the double crimes of adultery and murder. For instance, in the Bible, the prophet Nathan angrily confronts David with his many sins against Uriah, and his tirade includes the following accusation: And you have taken Uriah’s wife as your wife. (Samuel 12:10

The plain meaning of this verse is that David has committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. But the Talmud gives it a hyper-literal reading, arguing that David never committed adultery, but in fact made Bathsheba his legitimate wife before sleeping with her. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani explains that in biblical times, men who went to war would give their wives conditional divorces, which would allow them to remarry should their husbands fail to return from the front lines (but were not confirmed dead). Since Uriah did in fact die in battle, the conditional divorce was applied retroactively to the entire time he was away from home, and therefore Bathsheba was technically divorced at the time that David slept with her. And therefore, David was not guilty of adultery.

The reading makes no sense with the rest of the biblical text — which is clearly a wrenching exploration of David’s sin. So why does Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani do it? To exonerate an ancestral hero? As an intellectual exercise in creative textual reading? The Talmud doesn’t say.

Read all of Shabbat 56 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 1, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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