Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 2 Samuel

Messianic Expectations – 2 Samuel 7 and the “Jesse Tree”

Nathan brought God’s promise to David that the king would have offspring to replace him on the throne. Moreover, David’s royal line would never be taken away from his descendants, as it was removed from Saul’s family (2 Samuel 7:12-16). This notion was taken up by later biblical writers, who saw Jesse’s (David’s father) family tree as having been cut down, but nonetheless, sprouting new growth of a future anointed leader/messiah (Isaiah 11:1, 10; Psalm 89:3-4; Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38; Romans 15:12). The image of a tree springing forth from Jesse that led to Jesus was a frequent topic of art in the medieval period. 

A painting of two people

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The Winchester Psalter/Psalter of Henry of Blois (Cotton Nero C. IV): “Jesse Tree,” 1121 CE depicts a tree growing from Jesse’s loins. King David, Mary, and finally Jesus rise out of the tree. Prophets holding scrolls, representing the various prophecies of a messiah to come from David, support the tree on either side.  

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In the Siegburg Lectionary (Harley 2889, f.4): “Jesse Tree,” 1125 CE, though Jesse is in his coffin, a tree sprouts from his body. The tree bears the seven gifts of the messiah, depicted as doves: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, valor, piety, and fear of God.

David and Bathsheba in Art History

The encounter between David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 has long been open to interpretive differences. Frequently what one sees in the passage says as much about the interpreter as it does about the passage, due in large part to missing details and absence of discussion about Bathsheba’s agency. This diversity of interpretation is especially clear in visual depictions of the passage, several of which follow. 

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In the Book of Hours (M. 156, fol. 51r): “Bathsheba Bathing,” 1500 CE, there is no notion of rooftop space. David looks out of a ground floor porch to see Bathsheba bathing in a public fountain, unobscured by a lattice fence. Women look on as Bathsheba only partially covers herself while wading in, presumably, the public drinking water supply. Here, the unnamed artist imagines Bathsheba out of place, while David is restrained by a brick wall.  

David and Bathsheba

In “David and Bathsheba” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1534 CE, a modest Bathsheba has her feet washed by a cadre of servants. David looks down from a tower, accompanied by a cardinal and servants. One of Bathsheba’s servants notices the king, but Bathsheba and her main servant incline their heads so that their large hats block the king’s view. Nothing especially untoward or improper seems to be enacted by anyone in this restrained image. 

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Jan Matsys’ “David and Bathsheba” from 1562 CE is an intentionally erotic depiction of the female nude. Bathsheba’s servants look at Bathsheba’s form with mirth, and gaze at the viewer, ensuring that the viewer is “caught in the act,” complicit in David’s sin. The “little dog” of Bathsheba – Uriah – is in no way able to compete with the “hound” of David, a ribald commentary on the royal personage. The servant brings word to a still naked Bathsheba of David’s intentions, which Bathsheba seems entirely pleased to entertain.   

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Gentileschi Artemisia’s “David and Bathsheba” from 1640 CE seeks to subvert expectations from previous centuries’ depictions of the scene. Though nude, Bathsheba covers herself from the eyes of the viewer. The female artist depicts the struggle of Bathsheba as she turns away from a still-watching David and considers the female messenger who informs Bathsheba of the king’s desire. The solid grip of Bathsheba’s servant on her hair is perhaps meant to remind the viewer that Bathsheba is not truly free to turn her head where she wants. Bathsheba’s freedom is constrained, and she must choose from only a few bad options: betray her husband or provoke the king’s anger. Artemisia’s work is meant to be a commentary on the lack of agency experienced by even relatively powerful women in a patriarchal society. 

David’s Parenting

David’s parenting is part of a long lineage of poor parenting in the Bible. David’s lack of protection and failure to provide justice for his daughter Tamar when she was raped by his son – her brother – Amnon is the proximate cause of Absalom’s fratricide of Amnon, and then eventual rebellion against David (2 Samuel 13-19). Later, after Absalom’s death, Solomon and Adonijah vie for control of the throne, with Solomon eventually causing his brother’s death (1 Kings 1-2). David certainly is not alone in his raising of violent and disloyal sons. Earlier, the prophet Samuel’s children were so corrupt that they caused the monarchy crisis in Israel (1 Samuel 8). Solomon himself seems to have neglected to pass any of his legendary wisdom on to his obdurate son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). 

In the New Testament, Paul contrasts himself and his ministry with difficult or distant parents, like David seems to have been (1 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; 2 Corinthians 13:14-15). Though Paul records these instances that he has been a gentle parent to the congregations that he founded or co-founded, presumably the need for the reporting indicates that there were some in the congregations who felt the opposite.  

David is known as many things: the model king, a man after God’s own heart, the preeminent worship leader and composer of Israel, giant killer and the shepherd of Israel. His parenting and relationship with his children seem to have suffered from negligence, and provide an example of how not to parent. This seems germane to the church: witness the phenomenon of PKs, or “pastor’s kids,” some of whom feel abandoned by their parents whose duties to God and their congregations seem to be more important than child rearing. These parents  are sometimes referred to as “Davidic parents” in counseling circles. David’s model of living fully into a called position, while neglecting his own family, is still too common in the church today. 

David’s Dance

David’s dance before the ark in 2 Samuel 6:14-22 is a celebrated example of the “joy of the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10), and a scene for the judgment against Saul’s house as personified by Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife. There is a long history of depiction of David’s unabashed exuberance, including the immortal depiction of David by Richard Gere in the 1985 film, “David.” Contemporary worship songs advocate dancing like David, including in the song “Undignified” (Matt Redman, 1995). 1 Chronicles 15:27 remembers David with multiple layers of clothing in this episode. Nevertheless, the depiction of David in [only] a linen ephod seems to be the predominant image. 

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“David whirls with all his might before the Lord” by Ivan Schwebel (1983) depicts a colorful David dancing in modern downtown Jerusalem. 

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Richard Gere as King David, in David, 1985 

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The Morgan Bible (M.638, fol. 039v): “David Dancing Before the Ark,” 1245 CE depicts musicians following David as he plays on his harp, albeit fully clothed. Michal points down at him in disapproval. 

Absalom’s Revolt & Coups of Sons against Fathers

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Morgan Bible (MS. Ludwig I 6): “Absalom’s Revolt” 1245 CE

Upper Left: David hears news of revolt, Upper Right: Absalom consorts with concubines. Lower: David flees.

Absalom’s revolt exemplifies a perennial fear of kings: civil war waged by sons. Herod the Great of Judea killed many of his sons and relatives (along with many others) rather than surrender the throne. Peter the Great of Russia tortured his son Alexei to death rather than face a rival claimant. The case of the Safavid Shah, Abbas I, is possibly most interesting, and most closely related to the story of Absalom and David. 

In 1604, the Polish Cardinal Maciejowski gifted the Shah the Morgan Bible, shown above. It began as a pictorial Bible, depicting scenes from the life of David and other biblical kings, meant to instruct illiterate crusaders in their duties as kings and rulers. After the crusades, Latin inscriptions were added to the pictures. When the manuscript came to Persia from Poland, captions were added in Persian and Judeo-Persian to instruct the Muslim Shah in the stories of the images. The Shah was so horrified by the story of Absalom rebelling against his father, King David, that he removed several of the pages that described the event. Sadly, Shah Abbas became so worried about his sons acting as Absalom had that he killed one of his sons and blinded the other two. The story of Absalom and David, and images depicting that story, shaped early modern Persia, as well as other kingdoms in which fathers feared their royal sons. 

David as Musician/Author of Scripture 

David was noted as a gifted musician and lyricist. David first entered royal service to play the harp and soothe Saul’s negative experiences (1 Samuel 16:14-23). Here in 2 Samuel, David composed a eulogy for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:1-27), recited a beautiful prayer in response to God’s grace (2 Samuel 7:18-29), composed a hymn near the end of his life (2 Samuel 22:1-51) and framed his life and ministry with poetic last words (2 Samuel 23:1-7). 

Moreover, 73 of the Psalms are titled as “Davidic” [whether this means composed by David, or simply related to David or monarchy continues to be debated]. The New Testament authors ascribed additional psalms to David, including Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25) and Psalm 95 (Hebrews 4:7). David remains the composer of sacred music, par excellence. Statues, such as the one that stood outside David’s tomb until it was vandalized and removed in 2018, depict David with the harp, his trademark instrument. Leonard Cohen’s habitually covered song Hallelujah remembers David playing a secret chord that pleased the Lord. David remains in the popular consciousness as a gifted music and song leader. 

“Your love for me was better than the love of women” 2 Samuel 1:26

David’s words to Jonathan in his eulogy have given rise in the previous several decades to speculations that David and Jonathan were romantically and sexually involved, in addition to being sworn allies. Allusions to a romantic relationship were made in the medieval period, but do not seem to have been alleged earlier in Christian or Jewish writing, even in conversations around sexual expression. In 1326 CE, the Vita Edwardi Secundi records that King Edward II loved Piers Gaveston as Achilles loved Patroclus and Jonathan loved David, intending a blurring of lines between close confidant and romantic partner. Tom Horner’s 1978 Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times, John Boswell’s 1994 Same-sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Susan Ackerman’s 2005 When Heros Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David, and Theodore Jennings Jr.’s 2005 Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, among others, make the case that Jonathan and David seem to have been more than friends, and indeed were lovers. They argue that Jonathan’s instant attachment to David, including giving David his clothing and weapons (1 Samuel 18:1-4); Jonathan’s great delight in David to his own detriment (1 Samuel 19:1); Saul insisting that Jonathan’s attachment to David was in some way related to his mother’s perversity and a shame to his mother’s nakedness (1 Samuel 20:30); and David’s contrasting Jonathan’s love with that of women (2 Samuel 1:26) point to their romantic and sexual relationship. Jade Sylvan adapted this understanding of David and Jonathan’s relationship to stage in Beloved King: A Queer Bible Musical in 2020. 

Pushing back on this interpretation of David’s and Jonathan’s relationship are works like R.A.J. Gagnon’s 2001 The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Gagnon argues that Jonathan’s removal and transfer of clothing and weaponry to David should be understood as his relinquishing his claim on his father’s throne, as in the similar transfer of high priestly garb from Aaron to Eleazar in Numbers 20:26. Scholars Jon Levenson and Baruch Halpern argue in “The Political Import of David’s Marriages”  1980, Journal of Biblical Literature, that Saul’s mentioning of Jonathan’s mother’s nakedness is more likely an indictment of Ahinoam’s marriage to David than it is an indictment of Jonathan’s sexuality. Jonathan’s love (ahavah) for David is, according to these interpretations, to be regarded as covenantal faithfulness especially expressed in times of difficulty, rather than as romantic love, as the word is used elsewhere (Jeremiah 31:3; Hosea 11:1; Isaiah 63:9).   

The exact nature of David’s and Jonathan’s relationship continues to be a hotly debated topic in the world today.