Sunday, July 29, 2007

The "Uh-oh" principle: sin and its consequences

The world of the Old Testament has a predictable moral order. Good deeds turn God into an ally, resulting in spiritual and material gains. Conversely, bad deeds turn God into an adversary, resulting in spiritual and material losses.

Moral cause and effect are rarely so straightforward in the "real" world, the world of our personal experience. Nonetheless, the Old Testament insists that the moral order exists, even if our personal experience often contradicts it.

With the negative part of the cycle in mind, we might speak of the "Uh-oh" principle. Sin has negative consequences. If you do the crime, "Uh-oh!" — you're gonna do the time.

David's sin and its consequences:

Which brings us to 2 Samuel 11-12, which tells the story of David's great moral failure and its tragic consequences. I won't display the whole text, but here's a summary of 2 Samuel 11:
  • David commits adultery with Bathsheba, who becomes pregnant as a result (vss. 1-5);
  • David attempts to manipulate Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) so that he will later assume the baby is his (vss. 6-13. Verse 8, "wash your feet", evidently is a euphemism for "enjoy the pleasures of your wife's company".);
  • When David's first scheme fails, he resorts to more drastic measures:  he arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle. (vss. 14-27)
The chapter ends with the ominous words, "The thing that David had done displeased the Lord."1

Uh-oh. The reader who is familiar with the Old Testament worldview knows:  David is in deep doo-doo.

Sure enough, the prophet Nathan turns up at the palace door.2 He bears bad news:  somewhere in David's kingdom, someone has committed a grave injustice:
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him."

Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."

Nathan said to David, "You are the man!" (2Sa. 12:1-7a)
David stood self-condemned.

So do we all. It isn't just that we violate other people's standards; we violate our own. It is a demoralizing fact of life. I suspect most of us have shed tears at one time or another when we found ourselves in David's shoes:  self-condemned.

We resist the truth, of course. We stretch our principles as taut as a high wire when we pass judgement on other people's conduct, and we slacken them into mere skipping ropes to evade the truth of our own misconduct. That's why Nathan dressed up his message in the form of a parable — to circumvent David's defence mechanisms.

And then Nathan tightened the noose:

past experience
of God's grace
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, "I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.
moral failure
Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.
Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife."

Thus says the Lord, "Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun."

David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord." And Nathan said to David, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die." (2Sa. 12:7b-14)

I have displayed the text as a table to supply an outline for Nathan's oracle.

We have already discussed the second and third segments of the outline. David's sin ("present moral failure") turns God into an adversary, resulting in spiritual and material losses ("impending consequences"). It is the "Uh-oh" principle at work.

But there's another factor here that must not be overlooked.

God's grace toward David:

Nathan's starting point is David's past experience of God's grace. The Lord tells David, I blessed you very greatly in the past, and I would have gladly continued doing so.

God always makes the first move. God's grace is the foundation of the biblical worldview:  everything else rests on it. It isn't always mentioned explicitly, as it is here; but it is present in the background of every biblical command and every biblical narrative.

I can't emphasize this point too strongly. You will misunderstand the Bible if you don't begin here.

The religion of ancient Israel was, like Christianity, a religion of grace. To be sure, the Old Testament strongly emphasizes obedience to the Law of Moses. But Israel's obedience to the Law is properly set in the context of God's grace.3

Nathan evaluates David's disobedience from the same perspective. He considers David's sin in the context of God's grace, and concludes that David has shown contempt for the Lord (12:9, 10, 14).

In accordance with the "Uh-oh" principle, David suffers terrible consequences for his sins:
  • "the sword shall never depart from your house";
  • "I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives" (a reference to the rebellion of David's son, Absalom (see 2Sa. 16:22), which forced David to flee for his life and ended with Absalom's death);
  • "the child who is born to you shall die".
These are terrible consequences. Even so, David doesn't quite get what's coming to him.4 The penalty for adultery in the Old Testament is death. The penalty for murder is death. And note David's spontaneous response to Nathan's parable:  "the man who has done this deserves to die."

Thus David deserves to die. But in the last few sentences of the narrative, God's grace reasserts itself. Nathan's message is delivered so effectively that David repents on the spot:
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord." And Nathan said to David, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.
We might say that God's grace is the Alpha and the Omega of Nathan's oracle. Nathan's opening statement rehearses God's grace toward David, and his closing statement promises a further manifestation of grace in response to David's repentance.

Conclusion: the "too good to be true" principle

The "Uh-oh" principle is not the only power at work here. The principle of God's grace shields David from the full application of the "Uh-oh" principle.

David's transgressions were extremely grave and the consequences were necessarily grave as well. Even the principle of God's grace didn't allow David to get off scot-free. But David's life is spared. And he is allowed to remain king.

We might call this the "too good to be true" principle. I'm thinking of those occasions when someone does something extraordinarily generous for you. Your emotional response may be, Is this for real? It's simply too good to be true!

The idea of extraordinary generosity is beautifully illustrated in one of Jesus' sayings:
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:37-38; emphasis added)
Imagine that you are purchasing a bushel of wheat. The shopkeeper fills a bushel measure and then says, "That's not generous enough!". So he shakes the basket to get the wheat to settle; then he presses the wheat down into the basket to make room for more; and finally he keeps pouring until the wheat overflows. This is extraordinary generosity indeed — why, it's too good to be true!

That's Jesus' description of God's grace toward us.

David paid a terrible price for his sins. It's difficult to say too good to be true in his case.

And yet … David's life and his throne were preserved. At least in part, the "too good to be true" principle shielded David against the full application of the "Uh-oh" principle.

The same two principles are at work in our lives, even if our perception of them is dim.

(More to come: I intend to take another run at this text to analyse it from a different perspective.)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2An aside:  I don't believe it's necessary to assume a direct revelation of David's sin from the Lord to Nathan. Various people would have been aware of Bathsheba's visit to the palace (beginning with the messengers who approached her at David's behest) and David's subsequent machinations with Uriah. It would be enough information to start tongues wagging, so that a rumour might find its way to Nathan. In general, I think it is accurate to say that the prophets began with a known incident into which God gave them heightened insight.

3This is the great insight of E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion) who broke the mould of New Testament interpretation in 1977. Before Sanders, generations of scholars had caricatured Judaism as a legalistic religion, utilizing it as a foil against which to praise the superiority of Christianity as a religion of grace. The contrast is not completely unfounded, but the difference is not nearly as stark as Christians popularly suppose. Two texts from Deuteronomy are of particular note. They are downright insulting in making the point that Israel's election was an act of grace:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers. (7:7-8)

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, "It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land," whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. (9:4-7a)
4Arguably, Bathsheba suffers relatively more than David. It isn't clear to me that she was in a position to refuse the king's advances. She might have been acting out of (implicit) compulsion, in which case she was essentially innocent of wrongdoing. Her husband was murdered (presumably she loved him), and then her baby died. In sum, she paid a heavy price for being the object of the king's desire.


jayne bowers said...

Wow. This is a lot to read and of those blogs that I'll undoubtedly reread when I have more time to do so. For now, what pops into my mind is that God is ultimately forgiving to David. The first son of David and Bathsheba dies, and that is indeed a heartbreaking tragedy, and yet later they have Solomon.

49erDweet said...

Great work, Stephen. A couple of thoughts creep out from what passes these days for my 'brain'.

I'm not sure Bathsheba did'nt contribute - very quietly and demurely, of course - to David's original beguilement and sin. Not saying she had much choice once his interest was aroused. But I believe she had to know her 'bathing' ritual could be observed from the kings quarters, and if she had followed the normal customs of her times would not have allowed herself to be seen by him in that way. Ergo, a certain level of culpability.

Also, in my view I think the way God reacts to their heterosexual sin is likely the way he reacts to other's homosexual sins. Or hetero sins, likewise. Probably no more nor no less. I believe all sin saddens Him, thus believers should strive to avoid sin in their lives as much as possible. And as a side note since I don't really hate David and Bathsheba for their sinfulness, it is not really logical for gays to believe I as a Christian "hate" them for whatever sin might be in their lives, either. But some of this mindset may be emotional, so logic doesn't play much of a part, does it?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• To both Jayne and 49er:
Note that I've made some revisions to the last third of the post. I wasn't quite satisfied with it when I posted it, but I was mentally tired and impatient, so I posted it as it was. But I think it is a little more coherent now. Particularly my explanation of the "too good to be true" principle.

• Jayne:
I'm glad you stumbled across my blog. If you found the post a little hard to absorb, I'm at least partly responsible because the quality of the writing tailed off toward the end.

You make a relevant point about Solomon's birth. It is surely part of God's grace to both David and Bathsheba that they were granted another child together who ultimately ascended to the throne. Also, Solomon later received a promise that one of his descendants would always sit on David's throne.

• 49er:
I admire the respectful way you express your dissent with some parts of my analysis (here and with respect to an earlier post).

Re Bathsheba —
Unfortunately, the text tells us nothing about Bathsheba's perspective or motives. We can only speculate, whether we view her positively or negatively.

The inference you draw is a reasonable one: that Bathsheba knew she was visible from the palace, and took no precautions to shield herself from David's gaze. In other words, a deliberate seduction? Maybe she was an ambitious woman.

But my prejudice is, we should not make women responsible for men's unbridled lust. If the text explicitly said that Bathsheba had set out to entice David, then that would be that. But in light of the silence of the text, I prefer to assume her motives were innocent. Let's face it, men have been known to spy on women who would prefer not to have their privacy violated.

Re homosexuals —
I certainly didn't mean to imply that you personally hate them. I do think Christians sometimes cross the boundary between defending traditional mores and reacting so vehemently that it begins to look more like hatred.

The difference with heterosexuality is, there are provisions made for people to engage morally in heterosexual acts.

If some people are homosexual by nature (an ongoing controversy), no provision is made for them to act on their inclination.

David and Bathsheba sinned by stepping outside of the moral (marital) boundaries. But anything a same sex couple does is by definition outside of the boundaries. And celibacy is a pretty big demand to impose on someone, given the power of the sex drive for most of us. At the very least, if we aren't able to accept homosexual acts as moral, we have to view homosexuals with compassion.

49erDweet said...

Good points, and you could be spot on re: Bathsheba.

I fully acknowledge our human sex drive can be overwhelming. Never-the-less, abstinence sometimes might be the only course reasonably open to us regardless of the "sin" factor, and to posit otherwise seems to me to cast humans too easily as "victims". This goes for either side of the aisle, as it were.

But of course at 77 I'm too old to remember anything about such things, now, aren't I?


dan said...

Hey Stephen,

I'd been meaning to get to this for awhile -- not sure if you'll see this now but I'll give it a shot.

Basically, I'm not sure things work out for David as well as you seem to suggest in this post. Indeed, although his life is spared, I think that the episode with Bathsehba and Uriah is a major turning point in David's life. I think this comes through in three major elements that change before and after David's acts of adultery and murder.

Before that tragedy David is (1) defined by his confidence in God, and his certainty of what God wills (cf. esp. his words before his encounter with Goliath); (2) defined by his political savvy and military victories; (3) has things going (fairly) well with his family.

After the tragedy David (1) never exhibits the same confidence in God, or certainty in what God wills (in fact, he now says that God's will is inscrutable); (2) the military victories are won by his generals and his generals are those who are able to to maintain his political power and asasure his dynasty (indeed, just look at David in 1 Ki 1 -- he is a helpless pawn being acted upon by all sorts of other political parties); (3) David's family falls totally apart (to put things lightly!).

So, yes, I agree with you when you say that it is difficult to see how the "too good to be true" principle applies to David.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for the additional analysis, Dan. I must admit, it has been a while since I've considered some of these texts, and I may never have considered them in a very rigorous way. That's part of what my "Emerging from Babel" project is about.

Nathan is evidently making a concession to David when he tells him that he will not die. And, as I pointed out in passing, David retains his throne, which might have been at risk given the gravity of his sin.

The consequences you're describing are inward — psycho-spiritual in nature. It's an interesting observation: arguably nothing can shield us against the internal damage that results from sin.