Today I conclude my study of the death of Bathsheba’s child. It is important that you read Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the explanations below within the whole context of the affair of David and Bathsheba.
The issue I have tried to address in these three posts is how to understand the death of Bathsheba’s child. Scholars have proposed three different ways to explain the death of the child.
The Child Was Sick
The most popular way of explaining the death of Bathsheba’s child is that the child was sick at birth and seven days later the child died. The Bible says that when the child was born, the child “was very sick” (2 Samuel 12:15). In primitive societies, infant mortality was a fact of life. The number of children who died at birth or soon after was very high. The number of newborn babies dying before their first year of life has declined in recent years because of the development of better prenatal care. So, it is possible that Bathsheba’s child was born very sick and his death was attributed to David’s sin.
Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 2:259 wrote: “Any misfortune can be regarded as the work of divine wrath, just as undisturbed good fortune is the mark of the divine favour. In particular, any unexpected and terrifying disaster is described as . . . a ‘blow’, a sign of Yahweh’s displeasure.”
The Child Was a Mamzer
Some scholars believe that the child died because he was a mamzer. A mamzer is the child born out a forbidden relationship, as in the case of adultery or incest. According to the laws of Deuteronomy, “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:2).
Some scholars believe that because Bathsheba’s child was a mamzer, he would not be allowed to enter the temple, thus, he would be unfit to become a king in Israel, since the king had an important role in the religious life of Israel.
However, Daniel Sinclair, in his article “Mamzer,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 469, wrote: “The inheritance rights of a mamzer are the same as those of any other heir and he may be appointed to high public office.”
It is doubtful that Bathsheba’s child was killed because he was a child born out of a forbidden relationship. In this case, no one knows whether Bathsheba’s child would eventually become a king after David. David had several other sons who could become his successor.
The death of Bathsheba’s child may be an example of the way God deals with sins. At times God may transfer the sins of a person upon another person. This view was developed by Yochanan Muffs in his book Love and Joy: Law, Language, and Religion in Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
Muffs wrote: “God does not punish the sinner himself, but transfers punishment to another human being in the same generation” (p. 41). This action of God is called “transferral.” When David acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba, Nathan told David: “God has transferred (he‘evir) your sins. You shall not die.” Although David was pardoned, his sin was not requited but transferred to his son (2 Samuel 12:14-15).
Muffs gives several examples of “transferral” in the Hebrew Bible. One example was the case of Solomon: “Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of your father David I will not do it in your lifetime; I will tear it out of the hand of your son’” (1 Kings 11:11-12).
Another example is found in the case of Ahab’s sin and his repentance: “When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house’” (1 Kings 21:27-29).
Probably, the classical example of vicarious suffering is found in Isaiah 53 in the person of the Suffering Servant: “He bore our suffering and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4). “He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Writing from a Jewish perspective, Muffs (p. 42) wrote: “The doctrine of punishment and its transference to another constitutes the basis of Christian faith. This doctrine is distinctly Jewish. For us, however, it is not the ultimate principle, but a secondary idea which is, nevertheless, a perfectly legitimate one, and there is no purpose in repudiating it.”
People may say that the attitude of God towards David’s sin was not just because the law God gave to Israel says that the adulterer should be stoned. David’s life was spared, but his sin had to be requited. Nathan told David: “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13). Notice that the text says that David’s sin was “put away.” The Psalmist wrote: “As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
In the sacrificial system, the sins of the sinner was placed upon the innocent lamb. On the Day of Atonement, the sins of Israel were placed upon Azazel. On Calvary the sins of sinners were placed upon God’s Son.
The concept of vicarious suffering may not explain the death of Bathsheba’s child but it offers an explanation that is both Biblical and finds support in Christian doctrine. Personally, I believe that the child was sick at birth and died because of his illness. His death then was attributed to David’s sin.
This was the situation Jesus faced when he healed the man born blind. His disciples asked him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
David’s sin was so serious that God could only reopen fellowship with David by making him live through the abyss of judgment. Modern sensibility would say that God’s action was an example of “disturbing divine behavior.”
The death of Bathsheba’s child must also be understood in the context of Exodus 34:6-7: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”(Exodus 34:6-7).
The Psalmist wrote: “You were a forgiving God, though you punished their offenses” (Psalm 99:8). How can we reconcile God’s grace which is demonstrated in his forgiveness of sin with God’s justice which is demonstrated in his punishment of the sinner for his sins?
How can the God who forgives also be the God who punishes? God is gracious to the righteous and to his children for one thousand generations. But God also wants to be merciful to the sinner. Muffs wrote: “God also wants to treat the wicked in a kind fashion. God bears their sin but does not expunge it entirely” (p. 20).
God bears their sins. And this is what God has done for us in Christ. The only way to reconcile God’s justice with God’s grace is by understanding what God has done on the cross. “The wages of sin is death.” We have sinned, but we did not die because God transferred our sins and placed them upon his Son.
Posts on David and Bathsheba
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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