Barbara Ellison Rosenblit
The Traditional Text
First Reading: An Apologia for the King
Second Reading: for Two Voices
Psalm 51 is traditionally interpreted as a psalm of confession and renewal. Its poetry has contributed to the daily Jewish prayer liturgy as well as the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service. Two verses, 13 and 20, have been set to music; one verse, 17, is repeated three times a day as a prelude to silent prayer, and verse 20 is sung in unison four times each week as the Torah is removed from the ark. A psalm so resonant is worthy of notice at a linguistic level at the very least.
Once inside its linguistic web, the possibilities for exploration captured me. My examination of psalm 51 begins with a new translation, but ends, surprisingly, with a set of radically contrasting interpretive readings. The first is based on classical medieval commentary. The second is an original drama which calls forth the silenced voice of Bat Sheva herself.
This psalm encourages such interpretive tampering. It is one of only nine psalms with an ascription tying it to a specific historical event. David composes it, we are told, after Nathan chastises him for taking his army general's wife to bed and later arranging for this loyal general's death. This great drama, summarized below, is found in 2 Samuel 11-12; it is among the most riveting accounts in the Bible.
This biblical drama opens as David, feeling pleasure at the news that his armies have defeated Ammon and Rabbah, strolls onto his rooftop balcony. From there he spies a beautiful woman bathing. Even though he learns that she is married to one of his generals, he sends after her for sex, then sends her home again.
After learning that she has become pregnant, the general's wife, Bat Sheva, sends word to the king of her situation.
David concocts a plan to free himself from the consequences of his indiscretion. He calls Bat Sheva's husband, Uriah, from the front , scheming to make Uriah think this adulterous child his own. To David's surprise, Uriah refuses to go home to his wife to sleep, saying that he cannot indulge himself in such pleasures while his men are left in the battlefield. David resorts to making Uriah drunk, yet he still resists the comfort of his wife's bed, sleeping instead with other officers bivouacked outside the palace.
Having failed at his attempt to dupe Uriah, David moves a step deeper into the morass. He instructs Uriah to deliver a letter to his own commanding officer,Yoav,instructing Yoav to place Uriah in the front lines where fighting is fiercest and let him be killed there. Uriah is doomed. In the battle, many innocent soldiers die needlessly, but David is pleased because Uriah is among those killed.
On hearing the news of her husband's death, Bat Sheva laments. After her period of mourning is over, David sends for her, and she becomes his wife. David's son is born.
It is at this point that Nathan, the prophet and David's chief advisor, comes to chastise David. Nathan does confronts the king indirectly recounting the story of a wealthy man who raids a poor man of his one treasured possession, a sheep, rather than go for food to his own abundant flock. David flies into a rage at hearing this story, declaring that the rich man should pay the poor man four times over. Further, David declares, the rich man deserves to die because he lacked pity for his poor neighbor. Nathan responds to David's rage with the powerful indictment, "That man is you!"
David's punishment, Nathan tells him, will be public calamity in his own family, and the death of the son borne to Bat Sheva.
At this moment of awareness and calamity, David brings his sins before God, struggles with his passions and the deep grief he feels, and composes psalm 51.
This drama leaves hard questions in its wake. How do the rabbinic sages, committed to painting David as a man of holy devotion and progenitor of the messiah, confront issues of deception, adultery and murder in their beloved king and psalmist? Can our sages face a complex and powerful man whose intensity is extreme--in his bold and passionate actions and in his equally bold and emotional poetic repentance? And where is Bat Sheva's voice? Who is she? What of her? She does not speak in the text from 2 Samuel. If we listen closely, do we hear her weeping? Or rejoicing?
In this analysis, I offer two contrasting readings of this psalm. The first is based on medieval rabbinic interpretation. These rabbis turn away from the raw, impulsive, complex David of the Samuel text and construct, instead, a hero-puppet, manipulated by God. In this first reading, a classical apologia, the rabbis do whatever is necessary to keep David ever the hero, never the sinner, by contorting thought and reframing action. They whitewash David's sins and the result is a holy figure whose elliptical nature, whose burning passions and poetic soul is purged, lobotomized.
In the second reading I call forth Bat Sheva herself and compose a radical reading in two voices, hers and David's. Though both speak, they are separated by a wall. David, inside his chamber, composes this psalm, unaware that Bat Sheva is listening from outside the room. You will recognize David's voice in the second reading. It speaks most of the text of the psalm itself. Bat Sheva's dilemma--an adulterous affair, a murdered husband, and a dead child--are not David's issues as he approaches God for mercy and forgiveness. "Before You and You alone I sinned," he tells God.
Bat Sheva's voice, unheard by David, is given ear by only us. Some of David's psalm infuriates her, some of it becomes hers, some of it she takes for her own and changes.
As she tries to approach God, whose Presence is distant yet whose punishment she knows, hearing David's psalm for her expresses not renewal but unremitting suffering. Yet, parts of the psalm I have given to Bat Sheva to own and to speak. Listen carefully.
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When exactly does Nathan chastise David, and when is this psalm written? Feuer dates the encounter with Nathan as much as a year after the sinful acts, saying that although much time had passed since the seduction of Bat Sheva and murder of Uriah, David repented only after Nathan's rebuke.
In a further disturbing note, Feuer remarks that God had withheld David's punishment for these crimes because of His deep love for David; once Bat Sheva's child was born, its death could atone for the crimes and David himself would not then have to die. (Feuer, p.651)
To establish the inevitability of these events, the sages say Bat Sheva was designated as David's mate from the first six days of creation, but David took her before the proper time. (Sanhedrin 107a)
Elohim is the name of God which refers to God as Judge rather than Adonai, which evokes God's merciful Name, YHVH. God's name Elohim is used six times in this psalm. The medieval commentator Radak comments that crimes is plural here, referring both to the taking of Bat Sheva and to the death of Uriah. (Feuer, p.651)
Different categories of sin are noted in this psalm. Het is translated as "sin," often an unintentional offense; atonement is relatively easy. Pesha, which I translate variously as "crime" or "transgression," is a clear-cut readily identifiable offense. Ahvone, which I translate as "iniquity," is a more subtle, covert, ground-in sin, removed only by repeated "laundering." (Feuer, p.652) It is a distortion of the intellect, resulting in the neglect of a Torah commandment. (Malbim in Feuer, p.652)
Compare David's acknowledgement of guilt as the first step in the process of repentance with the story of Cain. When asked by God, Cain feigns ignorance of his brother's whereabouts, saying, "lo yadati" -- I do not know. (Gen 3:9) David says, "ani eda" --using the future-present tense "to know" (I translate "acknowledge") implying that he knows now and will always know, never able to forget. (Alshich in Feuer, p.652)
See 2 Samuel 12:13, where David says, "I sinned before God," in response to Nathan's accusation. Here critics find some textual proof that the speaker was the Nation Israel rather than David because David's sin was against Uriah. Other commentators leap over the human suffering of those against whom David sinned, explaining that David's sin is ultimately against God. Cohen comments, "...all sin, even that by which man is most grievously injured is, in its ultimate nature, against God...."
In 2 Samuel 12:9, Nathan uses the phrase `evil in your eyes' to chastise David.
This apologetic displacement of David's guilt continues full steam ahead. Feuer states that Bat Sheva was, in fact, legally divorced, and so David could not have committed adultery, and Uriah, insubordinate by not obeying the king's command to sleep with his wife, was therefore deserving of death. (Shabbat 56a) Rashi comments that David's sins were therefore only against God. There is conjecture but no textual basis for this apologia, though there is great energy put into justifying and, in fact, condoning David's behavior toward Bat Sheva and Uriah. Divorce,Feuer assures us, was customary between soldiers in battle and their wives, (p.xxxix), but nothing in the text of 2 Samuel informs us that Bat Sheva was, in fact, divorced. To the contrary, the text in 2 Samuel refers to Bat Sheva as "Uriah's wife", (11:3, 11:26) states that on learning of Uriah's death, Bat Sheva mourns "her husband", (11:26) and has Nathan accuse David directly, saying, "...you took his wife and made her your wife and had him killed by the sword...." (12:9-10)
In Shabbat 56b, the sages teach that David's sin with Bat Sheva and his conduct toward Uriah were violations of the spirit rather than of the letter of the law. Raba, in Sanhedrin 107a, commenting on David's acts, assures us that David could have controlled his lust for Bat Sheva, but because God had told him he was not yet capable of this self-control, he chose to act as God expected him to act. Rashi, commenting on Sanhedrin 107b, likewise explains that God had told David he would be unable to withstand the temptation of Bat Sheva, and so David capitulated, though he would have been able to do so if left to his own devices. (Feuer, p. 654) So, in verse 6, David reminds God of his obedience when he says, "so that Your words would be justified/ So that You will be right in Your verdict." David now merits God's forgiveness because he did as God expected. According to Rashi, David demonstrates the cycle of sin, sincere repentance, and forgiveness, as a model of hope for the penitent sinner.
Surely the most inventive apology for David's behavior is found in a midrash that Feuer cites. (p.651) From the midrash we learn that when David slew Goliath, Uriah the Hittite, not yet converted, came forward. Young David, unsuccessful in stripping the chain mail off Goliath, was aided by Uriah in exchange for an Israelite wife. Because God was angry at David for promising an Israelite woman to a gentile, He decreed that Bat Sheva, preordained to be David's wife, would first be given to Uriah. (One must ask --who gets punished in this midrash?)
Ahvone ( iniquity) is written here with two vavs, while written elsewhere in the psalm with one vav. Feuer suggests that this second vav emphasizes man's (sic) great tendency toward sin. (p.654) I see the two vavs as parallel partners in this illicit sexual act.
In both Baba Batra 17a and Shabbat 55b, Jesse, David's father, is counted as one of the rare individuals completely innocent of personal sin. Here, it seems that David isolates his mother's sexual act as sinful. Maharal says that David here pleads with God to consider that he is but human, full of the human tendency to sin. (Davis, p.99)
The root of yehematni is cham -- heat, warmth, hot, which I struggled to translate.This interesting verb is usually translated "conceive", as in Gen.30:38, where this same verb describes the mating of sheep in heat (!). It is this animal act of appetite, not passion, that David chooses to describe his own conception in verse 7. In Genesis, just a few verses beyond the sheep mating, a different verb, tahar, is used to describe human mating; in Gen 30:5-23, tahar is repeated five times to describe the attempts of Bilhah and Zilpah and Leah and Rachel to conceive the children of Jacob. In these verses, in this human mating, duty replaces passion. In the psalm, I settled on `heated passion' as a translation of yehematni, to give expression to the root of warmth while giving equal weight to the human (passion), as well as animal (heated), nature of David's conception.
Toochot are kidneys, which I translate as `innermost being'. Kidneys are thought to be the seat of the human intellect. (Job 38:36; Ps 7:10; 16:7) Concealed by protective fat and covered by the husk of the body, the kidneys represent the the inner part of the person, the intelligence masked, hiding sexuality, physical and moral faculties.
Radak comments that until rebuked by Nathan, David felt his action were justified. David himself was not aware of the crime(s) that he was committing, Radak assures us, saying, `Until Nathan rebuked me, I had felt that my motives for taking Bat Sheva were completely noble and pure'. (Feuer, p.656)
Rashi reminds us of the didactic purpose of David's sin and the qualities necessary to learn from such actions. Awareness followed by confession, he tells us, require great wisdom. (Feuer, p.655)
Those defiled by contact with the dead (Num 19:6) or leprosy (Lev. 14:4) were cleansed of impurity with a mixture sprinkled on the infected person with cedar bark and hyssop. In Sanhedrin 106b commentators assert that David himself was leprous for six months after his transgressions.
Hitui is "disinfectant" in modern Hebrew. Note its connection to het -- sin. Azove--hyssop-- is a blue flowered plant of the mint family, whose twigs were used for sprinkling in Biblical purification rituals.This plant is ground and used in Israeli cuisine today.
"Whiter than snow" is a phrase found also in Isaiah 1:18. Note that the letters lamed bet, which is the Hebrew word for "heart," is visually embedded inside the word for "to whiten" -- albeen.
Vilna Gaon distinguishes between simcha and sason, two different words for joy. Simcha, he says, means gladness at the beginning of an undertaking, and sason is joy at its completion. In the song Ale Adon, the poet writes,"Glad in their going, joyous in their return." This verse asks first for the joy of knowing that atonement is complete (sason --joy) and then for the chance to begin anew (simcha --gladness). (Feuer, p.657)
In Ps.38:9 and 42:11, "bones You crushed" is used as an idiom expressing the effects of grief or conscience.
See Ps. 27:8-9, in which the psalmist begs God not to turn His Face away. "My heart echoed You saying, `Seek My Face."/ I do seek Your Face, Lord / Hide not Your Face from me.'" Here the psalmist is addressing the merciful God (Adonai) in a psalm in which he reaches out for healing through closeness and comfort. (Blumenthal, p.176). Psalm 51 cries out to the Judgmental Face of God (Elohim) and admits shame and humiliation at being seen by God as a sinner.
Sforno says nachon (proper, correct) is synonymous with muchan ( prepared) in this verse.
In 1 Sam 16:14, we read, "The spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul," and so he degenerated. David begs that he not be similarly fated.
This verse is sung (in the plural) as part of the selichot service, a late night service preceding Rosh Hashana which signals the beginning of the High Holidays, and are also part of the liturgy of Yom Kippur.
Verse17 is repeated three times daily, preceding the recitation of the shemona esray, the daily silent prayer. These words are also found in the Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur liturgy.
Lips, (sefatai) Ramban tells us, are related to the banks of a river (sefat hanahar) which confine the river in its narrow channel. To encourage the soul to surge beyond the finite boundary of its narrow channel--the body--this verse is recited before the silent prayer. (Rav Gifter; Berachot 4b)
Because prayer has replaced the animal sacrifices to God of the Temple period, this passage logically follows the words that introduce the daily silent prayer.
Cohen quotes midrash in stating that a broken limb disqualifies an animal from being a sacrificial offering, but a broken spirit in man (sic) means that his obstinacy and pride have been subdued. (p.164)
God's Name of Judgment is used six times in this psalm. When sacrifices are offered for unintentional sins, God's more merciful aspect is summoned with a call to Adonai. Because intentional transgressions, such as David's, require complete repentance before God as Judge, so the name Elohim is used. (Tanya)
There is some disagreement concerning the dating of these last two verses. One theory is that these two verses were appended to the original 19 by an editor who felt that verses 18 and 19 might be misinterpreted to mean that animal sacrifice was contrary to God's will. Those who prefer to maintain that these verses are part of the original psalm refer to this verse as a foreshadowing of the necessity for a protective wall for the city, later supplied by Solomon. (I Kings 3:1)
These verses are sung four times each week, just before the Torah is removed from the ark.
Korban, sacrifice, is related to the Hebrew root karov, to draw near. Bullocks symbolize deep repentance in the sacrificial system. (Rabbenu Yonah)
Bat Sheva's psalm of unremitting suffering
David's psalm of confession and renewal
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I hate him. Rushing about. Howling. Shrieking. I despise him. Nathan is gone now and suddenly, he cries out, all contrition and tears. And I am left to mourn my dead husband, and to nurse this child of sin. His lips won't suck, his eyes are hollow. His tiny fingers cannot grasp my shaking hand.
God, what have You done to me?
From within the chamber she hears his voice, filled with weeping and remorse. He prays:
How dare his guilty lips give voice to such a cry. He knows how to cry for forgiveness, while I live with this guilt. I know the guilt of women. I know the bargain we strike. I know my choices.
I, too, acknowledge my crimes because my sins haunt me endlessly.
Is there no comfort from my grief?
Before You and You alone!? Who? Before whom? Before God --and not before me!? Before whom will I repent? When you summoned me forth to sin, to whom should I have appealed? Let him never forget!
I will never forget.
I will never forget that day. Air so clear. I had gone to the ritual bath late, as the sun began to set behind the Judean hills. The ritual waters surrounded me--they cleansed me.
It was the last time I felt clean.
Could I have known? I was dressing when I saw the king's guard inquiring of the bathhouse attendant. She cast a glance my way and whispered to him. He grinned--it was a leer-- when he looked my way.
I had rounded the corner to my house when they approached, those three men, snickering under their stinking robes. "Dress quickly, lucky lady. You have been chosen to warm the king's bed tonight."
He cries to You for mercy?! He cries to You for compassion, to make him pure?!
Who can make me pure?
Look! In iniquity was I born. Sinful was my mother's heated passion.
And in sin this baby was conceived with the guilt of heat. Through me my sins have borne such sickly fruit.
There is not water enough on earth to wash this stain from me.
I can still feel the blood leak down my legs. It stains me forever. I carry my sin in my arms. Blood pulsates through those tiny veins, that pallid flesh.
My shame envelops me, as once You did.
As both speak "from my sins", David's voice fades but Bat Sheva's rises.
From my sins, too, erase all my iniquities.
A pure heart create for me.
O God, don't let my hatred consume me. Don't let my grief press me into the earth. Don't let this baby suffer for my sins. You love his father. Then love him. Save this child for his sake, if not for mine.
Surely not for mine.
Are You so cruel?
David: His voice grows stronger.
A proper spirit renew in my inner being
I deserved Your cruelty. For some sin of mine that I know not, God, forgive me. Don't leave me.
Don't send me away from Your Presence.
Bat Sheva weeps , for her blasphemy, for her sorrow, for the innocent child who she fears will be sacrificed to atone for her sin, for her dead husband, for her arrogant lover .
David: His voice stronger still.
Your lips are golden. How sweetly they form the words.
And yet you dare to exclude me from your prayer? Those honeyed lips that dared to call me to your bed, that dared to call for the murder of my husband. What remorse did your lips form then? You. You! You will teach sinners!?
Nathan came to tell you a children's story so you could understand what you had done. A story about sheep, so you could understand. You shepherd, in king's robes--You arrogant self-centered killer! What were your prayers when you sent Uriah away, his own death warrant in his hand? Did nothing, no one, none of the deaths count to you until Nathan came and told you a story he made up? And oh, to watch you fly into a rage over a rich man who took another's sheep! It was comical, your anger so easily aroused. You! Too selfish to notice anyone or anything. Or to see yourself. What you had done.
Rescue me from this blood!
Rescue me from this blood.
Bat Sheva falls to the ground, clutching the child in her arms. He does not cry out.
The slaughter offerings of God are a broken spirit and a broken, battered heart. These God will not reject. My broken spirit, my battered heart I bring before You. I have only that to offer. Can I heal from this sorrow? O God, open my lips too, that my sorrow will give way to...to what? What? I cannot even say the words. As he opens his heart, so do I yearn for comfort. But You have turned from me. Taken from me to give to him.
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Malbim-- an acronym for Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yehiel Michal, a 19th century developer of halakhic midrash,whose initials spell MaLBYM
Radak--a 13th century French Rabbinic commentator, Rabbi David Kimchi, whose initials spell RaDaK.
Ramban--also known as Nachmonides, a medieval Biblical commentator from Spain, 1194-1270
Rashi--RAbbi SHomo Itzchaki, 11th century French scholar of enormous breadth and renown commentator on the Bible and Talmud.
Sanhedrin, Baba Batra, Berachot, Shabbat, followed by a number and letter--refers to specific pages, e.g., 107a, in the specified tractate of the Babylonian Talmud.
Tanya --commentary written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, spiritual leader of Lubavitcher Hasidim
Vilna Gaon--17th century Lithuanian scholar
Blumenthal, David R. Facing the Abusing God. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
Cohen, Rev. Dr. A. The Psalms. London:The Soncino Press, 1965.
Feuer, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim. Tehillim. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1991.
[*] This appeared in Cross Currents (Falll 1995) 326-40.
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