Of Lambs and Lambasting: The Message in Nathan’s Parable to David
One spring, King David sends his soldiers to besiege the Ammonites, but he remains in Jerusalem (2 Sam 11:1). While walking on his roof one afternoon, he spies Bathsheba bathing, and despite learning that she is married, he sends for her, and sleeps with her (v. 4).
When Bathsheba informs David that she is pregnant—the only words she utters over the course of this episode—the king first attempts to manufacture a scenario of plausible deniability by recalling Bathsheba’s husband Uriah from the battlefront. When Uriah refuses to go home and sleep with his wife, David instead arranges for Uriah to be killed in action and then marries Bathsheba himself (vv. 11, 14–15, 27).
Only after the child’s birth does YHWH send the prophet Nathan to David, and Nathan tells him a parable:
שמואל ב יב:א וַיִּשְׁלַח יְ־הוָה אֶת נָתָן אֶל דָּוִד וַיָּבֹא אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים הָיוּ בְּעִיר אֶחָת אֶחָד עָשִׁיר וְאֶחָד רָאשׁ. יב:ב לְעָשִׁיר הָיָה צֹאן וּבָקָר הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד. יב:ג וְלָרָשׁ אֵין כֹּל כִּי אִם כִּבְשָׂה אַחַת קְטַנָּה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה וַיְחַיֶּהָ וַתִּגְדַּל עִמּוֹ וְעִם בָּנָיו יַחְדָּו מִפִּתּוֹ תֹאכַל וּמִכֹּסוֹ תִשְׁתֶּה וּבְחֵיקוֹ תִשְׁכָּב וַתְּהִי לוֹ כְּבַת.
2 Sam 12:1 YHWH sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. 12:2 The rich man had very large flocks and herds, 12:3 but the poor man had only one little ewe-lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.
When a visitor arrives to meet the rich man, instead of slaughtering one of his own animals, he makes a meal of the poor man’s lamb:
שׁמואל ב יב:ד וַיָּבֹא הֵלֶךְ לְאִישׁ הֶעָשִׁיר וַיַּחְמֹל לָקַחַת מִצֹּאנוֹ וּמִבְּקָרוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת לָאֹרֵחַ הַבָּא לוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת כִּבְשַׂת הָאִישׁ הָרָאשׁ וַיַּעֲשֶׂהָ לָאִישׁ הַבָּא אֵלָיו.
2 Sam 12:4 One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
It is unclear how David is meant to understand this story. Many commentators assume that he would have heard it as a legal case that he was expected to judge. For example, Radak (R. David Kimchi, ca. 1160–1235) explains: ודוד לא הבין כי משל הוא, “David did not understand that it was a parable.” In contrast, Jeremy Schipper of the University of Toronto has argued that David understands Nathan’s story as a prophetic parable whose words are fraught with meaning beyond their literal sense. David is tasked with interpreting, rather than adjudicating, its details.
Echoes of David’s Life in the Story
David’s origins as a humble shepherd would have sensitized him to the plight of the owner of the lamb. In addition, the pastoral setting subtly echoes the prophet’s previous speech to the king. When David wanted to build the Temple, YHWH sent Nathan to decline his offer, and Nathan reminded David about his past:
שׁמואל ב ז:ח וְעַתָּה כֹּה תֹאמַר לְעַבְדִּי לְדָוִד כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֲנִי לְקַחְתִּיךָ מִן הַנָּוֶה מֵאַחַר הַצֹּאן לִהְיוֹת נָגִיד עַל עַמִּי עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
2 Sam 7:8 Further, say thus to My servant David: Thus said YHWH of Hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be ruler of My people Israel.
These parallels with David’s life may help to explain David’s angry condemnation of the rich man upon hearing Nathan’s story:
שׁמואל ב יב:ה וַיִּחַר אַף דָּוִד בָּאִישׁ מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל נָתָן חַי יְ־הוָה כִּי בֶן מָוֶת הָאִישׁ הָעֹשֶׂה זֹאת.
2 Sam 12:5 David flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As YHWH lives, the man who did this deserves to die!”
At this point, however, Nathan reveals that David is the rich man—אַתָּה הָאִישׁ, “You are the man!” (v. 7)—and delivers YHWH’s judgment (vv. 7–12). David then immediately acknowledges his sin, and YHWH spares his life but not the child’s:
שמואל ב יב:יד אֶפֶס כִּי נִאֵץ נִאַצְתָּ אֶת אֹיְבֵי יְ־הוָה בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה גַּם הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד לְךָ מוֹת יָמוּת.
2 Sam 12:14 However, since you have spurned the enemies of YHWH by this deed, even the child born to you shall die.”
The parable condemns King David, who had a large harem of wives with whom he could have consorted, for choosing instead to take Bathsheba, Uriah’s only wife, and for killing Uriah to cover up his sin. From the perspective of one-to-one correspondences, the lamb may represent Bathsheba, taken from her husband, or Uriah, unnecessarily sent to his death. Reading beyond these correspondences, however, the depiction of the lamb also subtly highlights the child conceived from David’s exploitation of Bathsheba.
The Adopted Lamb and the Rejected Child
The ewe-lamb is not just a sheep to the poor man, but is described as an adopted daughter:
שמואל ב יב:ג ...וַיְחַיֶּהָ וַתִּגְדַּל עִמּוֹ וְעִם בָּנָיו יַחְדָּו מִפִּתּוֹ תֹאכַל וּמִכֹּסוֹ תִשְׁתֶּה וּבְחֵיקוֹ תִשְׁכָּב וַתְּהִי לוֹ כְּבַת.
2 Sam 12:3 …He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.
The verse uses several terms related to adoption:
וַיְחַיֶּהָ (va-yeḥayyeha) – “he caused her to live,” is a semantic equivalent of an Akkadian term bulluṭu, meaning “to keep alive,” which appears in Babylonian contracts in which parents gave their children up for adoption during times of siege and hunger to ensure that they would be fed. This is highlighted in the details that the lamb “used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup.”
וּבְחֵיקוֹ תִשְׁכָּב (u-vecheqo tishkav) – “she would nestle in his bosom”; adoptions could involve the placement of a child upon the breast. For example, Naomi holds Ruth’s child to her bosom and her neighbors all declare that a child was born to Naomi (Ruth 4:16–17).
וַתְּהִי לוֹ כְּבַת (va-tehi lo kevat) – “she was like a daughter to him,” is an expression of adoption. A similar expression is used when Pharaoh’s daughter adopts Moses: וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן, “he was like a son to her” (Exod 2:10). (Here, the term בַּת (bat), daughter, also plays on Bathsheba’s name.)
Had David’s first scheme to cover up his actions worked out—had Uriah returned to his home, as his king had instructed him to, and slept with his wife—then everyone would have assumed that the baby Bathsheba gave birth to several months later was Uriah’s. Uriah would thus have unknowingly treated the biological son of the king as his own offspring. The extent to which the lamb in Nathan’s parable is so thoroughly and lovingly adopted by the poor man shines a harsh light on David’s attempts to evade responsibility for the child and make Uriah the child’s father.
It is only after David’s plan fails and he arranges for Uriah to be killed that he marries Bathsheba himself and acknowledges the child as his own, as the narrative underscores:
שמואל ב יא:כז וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ בֵּן.
2 Sam 11:27 She became his wife and she bore him a son.
David’s Heir Will Be Adopted by YHWH
The adoption language also resonates with YHWH’s earlier promise that David’s heir would be metaphorically adopted by YHWH:
שׁמואל ב ז:יד אֲנִי אֶהְיֶה לּוֹ לְאָב וְהוּא יִהְיֶה לִּי לְבֵן אֲשֶׁר בְּהַעֲוֹתוֹ וְהֹכַחְתִּיו בְּשֵׁבֶט אֲנָשִׁים וּבְנִגְעֵי בְּנֵי אָדָם. ז:טו וְחַסְדִּי לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנּוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר הֲסִרֹתִי מֵעִם שָׁאוּל אֲשֶׁר הֲסִרֹתִי מִלְּפָנֶיךָ. ז:טז וְנֶאְמַן בֵּיתְךָ וּמַמְלַכְתְּךָ עַד עוֹלָם לְפָנֶיךָ כִּסְאֲךָ יִהְיֶה נָכוֹן עַד עוֹלָם.
2 Sam 7:14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will chastise him with the rod of men and the affliction of mortals; 7:15 but I will never withdraw My favor from him as I withdrew it from Saul, whom I removed to make room for you. 7:16 Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever.
The child is thus a candidate for the son who will succeed David as king. Might the king, upon seeing Nathan approach following the birth of this son, have wondered if the prophet had come to confirm the covenant?
David is Punished
After Nathan finishes telling David his parable and identifying David as the rich man, he concludes with YHWH’s judgment:
שׁמואל ב יב:יא כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה הִנְנִי מֵקִים עָלֶיךָ רָעָה מִבֵּיתֶךָ וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶת נָשֶׁיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ וְנָתַתִּי לְרֵעֶיךָ וְשָׁכַב עִם נָשֶׁיךָ לְעֵינֵי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ הַזֹּאת. יב:יב כִּי אַתָּה עָשִׂיתָ בַסָּתֶר וַאֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
2 Sam 12:11 Thus said YHWH: “I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house; I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun. 12:12 You acted in secret, but I will make this happen in the sight of all Israel and in broad daylight.”
David, the rich man, has destroyed a family; he alone has perpetrated the wrongdoing in question. Therefore, David’s family will be destroyed as well. It is for this reason that YHWH waits until after the child’s birth to send Nathan to David.
David finally acknowledges that he sinned, and Nathan reassures him that YHWH has forgiven his sin. David will not die, but his child will (vv. 13–14). As Nathan departs for his house, YHWH strikes the child:
שׁמואל ב יב:טו וַיֵּלֶךְ נָתָן אֶל בֵּיתוֹ וַיִּגֹּף יְ־הוָה אֶת הַיֶּלֶד אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה אֵשֶׁת אוּרִיָּה לְדָוִד וַיֵּאָנַשׁ.
2 Sam 12:15 Nathan went home, and YHWH afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and it became critically ill.
Though David fasts and weeps in hopes of saving his son, the newborn dies (v. 18). David’s adulterous actions have rendered untenable not only the possibility of this child succeeding him, but even of the child surviving; this first child dies as a punishment for his father’s actions. The child’s death ties up loose ends in the narrative, allowing for the episode of the rocky start to David and Bathsheba’s union to come to a close, while paving the way for a fresh start to the king’s dynasty.
Juxtaposing the Fates of Two Sons
It is David and Bathsheba’s second child, Solomon, who will instead fulfill the promise of 2 Samuel 7 as the biological son and heir of David and the metaphorically adopted son of YHWH. His dual naming—as Solomon and Jedidiah—as well as the statement that YHWH ʾahevo, “loved him” or “favored him” (2 Sam 12:24–25), further highlight the entanglement of biological and adoptive parentage with respect to the king’s sons, the unnamed child who dies, and the doubly named child who not only lives, but lives on as a legendary link in the chain of the Davidic dynasty.
Solomon survives, both in the biblical story and in public memory through today, while the first child’s story is easy to quietly forget. Yet the use of an adoption metaphor in Nathan’s parable may remind the reader that this forgettable child was terribly wronged as well. The king’s abuse of his royal power had far-reaching effects, and this child’s fate, contrasted with that of his more-famous brother, serves as a caution to the monarch who may take what they want—since after all, they can—irrespective of consequences.
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Dr. Yael Landman is Assistant Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She holds a PhD from Yeshiva University, and is the author of Legal Writing, Legal Practice: The Biblical Bailment Law and Divine Justice (Brown Judaic Studies, 2022).
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