Uriah the Hittite

I have written several posts on Bathsheba, her affair with David, and the death of Bathsheba’s child which occurred after David brought her to the palace. One character that has been missing in all these posts is Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. So, today I want to say a few words about this man who is practically ignored by most people who read this story of lust, betrayal, and murder.

King David Handing the Letter to Uriah
Pieter Lastman, 1619.

The story of David and Bathsheba is well known by people who read the Bible, but few people know much about Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Uriah is called the “Hittite.” This appellation has several implications. If Uriah was a true Hittite, then he was a foreigner serving in the army of David. This is a possibility because many foreigners were employed as professional soldiers.

It is possible that Uriah was an Israelite whose ancestors were Hittites. After the collapse of the Neo-Hittite empire in Anatolia, many Hittites fled to Canaan and lived there prior to the entrance of Israel into the land that would become their home.

One of David’s companions was Ahimelech the Hittite (1 Samuel 26:6). His name is a Semitic name meaning “my brother is king.” Uriah’s name means “Yahweh is my light.” If Uriah was a Hittite, then he was a convert to Yahwism. Thus, either Uriah was an Israelite with Hittite ancestors or he was a Hittite who lived in Canaan. Uriah was not a Hittite from the Hittite empire in Anatolia.

Uriah was one of David’s “mighty men,” an elite force of warriors known as the “Thirty” (2 Samuel 23:39). Uriah was married to Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam (2 Samuel 11:3). Eliam was one of David’s mighty men. Eliam’s father was Ahithophel of Gilo (2 Samuel 23:34). Bathsheba was the granddaughter of Ahithophel (2 Samuel 23:34).

Ahithophel was one of David’s most important advisors. Ahithophel was angry at David because of his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. When Absalom revolted against David, Ahithophel betrayed David and joined Absalom as a way of punishing David for his affair with his granddaughter. David’s adultery with Bathsheba was a case of betrayal and disloyalty. As Cartledge writes, “The adultery David is about to undertake involves not only Bathsheba herself, but also the wife and daughter of men who had devoted their lives to David’s service” (Cartledge 2001:499).

After Bathsheba became pregnant as a result of the affair with David, she sent word to David to let him know that she was with child. In order to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, David sent a messenge to Joab requesting that Uriah return to Jerusalem. At that time, Uriah and the army of Israel were besieging Rabbah, the capital city of the Ammonites (2 Samuel 11:1)

At the request of David, Uriah returned to the capital and went to the palace to give a report about the battle. David asked him how Joab and the troops were doing and how the war was going. After Uriah reported the battle situation to David, David told Uriah “Go down to your house and wash your feet” (2 Samuel 11:8 NIV). According to Walter Brueggemann, David was using a euphemism, telling Uriah to go home and have sexual intercourse with his wife (Brueggemann 1990:274).

But Uriah did not go home. He slept at the entrance of the royal palace among some of the soldiers who had remained in Jerusalem. When David discovered that Uriah had not gone home, he asked him, “Why didn’t you go home?” It is possible that Uriah was suspicious of what David had done. Uriah said that he was fighting a war and he needed to remain in a state of holiness, committed to fighting a holy war, “how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife?” (2 Samuel 11:11).

David asked Uriah to stay in Jerusalem another day. David brought him to the palace, ate with him and deliberately got him drunk. Even though he was drunk, Uriah still did not go home to have sexual intercourse with his wife. David’s first two plans to cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife did not work. In desperation, David sent a letter to Joab by the hands of Uriah, instructing Joab to find a way for Uriah to be killed in the battle.

David’s instructions to Joab were as follows: “Station Uriah on the front lines where the battle is fiercest. Then pull back so that he will be killed” (2 Samuel 11:15 NLT). David’s instructions to Joab reveal his concern that the affair would become public and that he would be exposed for what he did. So, without any compulsion, David ordered the death of Uriah, a soldier who had served in his army and had been faithful to his duties.

Joab followed the orders of David as the king had requested. Joab put Uriah in a place close to the city wall where he knew the best soldiers of the Ammonite army would be stationed. When the Ammonite warriors came out of the city to fight, the army of Israel suffered heavy casualties. Many of David’s soldiers died, including Uriah the Hittite. After a brief period of mourning, Bathsheba became David’s wife.

The affair of David with Bathsheba affected many people. The affair brought shame to Bathsheba because she was a married woman who had a sexual affair with a man who was not her husband. The affair cost the life of Uriah, a soldier who was loyal to David and who had served with distinction in his army. The affair also cost the life of an untold number of soldiers who died because of Joab’s decision to place them where there was no hope for survival.

One issue which the biblical writer does not reveal is whether Uriah knew that David had an affair with his wife. Nicol (1998:142) believes that Uriah knew of the affair and that was the reason David brought him to the palace and urged him to go back home to have sex with his wife. Uriah understood that by having sexual intercourse with his wife, he would provide an alibi for David, would cover David’s affair, and would protect David by keeping the affair a private matter.

By refusing to go home to be with his wife, as David had urged him, Uriah refused to provide a way out for David and refused to be part of the conspiracy to protect the king. By doing so, Uriah knew that his fate was sealed and that he probably would be put to death by the king.

By keeping silent, Uriah once again showed that he was a loyal subject of David. Although Uriah knew the motives behind David’s request, his refusal to obey the king demonstrated Uriah’s loyalty to the king (Nicol 1998:142). If Uriah knew about the affair, then Uriah did not go to his death unaware of the affair but as one who would not compromise his own moral values and as one who would not betray the king whom he served (Nicol 1998:145).

Uriah’s decision not to go home shows that he was a loyal soldier and a man of character who would not violate the vow he took before going to war. On the other hand, David’s decision to have Uriah killed shows that he was willing to abuse his power as a king to gratify his sexual desires and betray a man who was one of his best soldiers (Yee 1988:243–244).

Because of Uriah’s refusal to have sexual relations with his wife, David had no other way out of his situation but to have Uriah killed. With Uriah’s death, David then would be able to protect himself and Bathsheba’s honor.

Although Uriah died fighting a war for Israel, his death was not the result of an army’s defeat; it was the result of a ruthless display of royal power. David knew that his decision to put Uriah in harm’s way would cause his death. David’s decision took the life of a warrior who was a loyal servant and a warrior who had decided to abide by the traditions of holy war. Uriah was faithful to the ways of Yahweh while David, a man after God’s own heart, was disloyal to Uriah by forcing his death and disloyal to God by violating Uriah’s marriage. David, as king, was the guardian of the people’s rights (Psalm 72). However, instead of acting as a righteous king, David murdered his loyal servant and caused the death of other faithful soldiers. David did all this to cover up his sin and to protect his reputation.

The affair of David with Bathsheba, and the death of Uriah the Hittite is a story of lust, deception, and murder. While the story is focused on David and Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite was not a minor character in this story. He was an important man in the army of Israel. He was a member of the elite warriors who served in the army of Israel, and he was a loyal soldier who died a soldier’s death. Uriah was a man who had made a commitment to follow the ways of Yahweh even though he was a non-Israelite.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brueggemann, Walter. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Cartledge, Tony W. 1 & 2 Samuel. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.

Nicol, George C. “David, Abigail and Bathsheba, Nabal and Uriah: Transformations within a Triangle.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12 no 1 (1998): 130–145.

Yee, Gale. “‘Fraught with Background’: Literary Ambiguity in 2 Samuel 11.” Interpretation 42 no 3 (July 1988): 240–253.

This entry was posted in 2 Samuel, Adultery, Bathsheba, Book of 2 Samuel, David, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Uriah the Hittite

  1. To postulate Uriah’s loyalty to King David as superseding his desire for vengeance if Uriah knew about the King’s affair is speculation. If the assumption is made that Uriah knew of the affair, an as likely explanation might be the family connections of Bathsheba being the granddaughter of Ahithophel. If this is seriously considered, the fact that Uriah did not murder King David had to do with the stability of the nation. Such ideas are speculation. Contrary to any speculation, the text provides the reason Uriah did not avail himself to his house and wife.

    Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” (2 Samuel 11:11 ESV).
    Dr. Mariottini’s comment on this verse seems to be the better explanation. “Uriah said that he was fighting a war and he needed to remain in a state of holiness, committed to fighting a holy war . . . ”

    Mighty men of the army of Israel were either mythical or phenomenal in that they were similarly as devastating upon an enemy as was Sampson. Two possibilities. First, the possibility that the Spirit of the Lord came upon the mighty men during battle. One ought to ask why upon just the mighty men and not all the army? Second, the possibility that the mighty men were motivated to fight a holy war as commented on by Dr. Mariottini. The power of the righteous cause cannot be discounted. In these modern times such fanaticism is common among certain Islamic factions. The belief in the righteous cause transforms an outstanding soldier into a nearly unstoppable force. From the 2 Samuel 11 text, it seems this was Uriah’s source of power for being one of the mighty men. Likely, Uriah would not go to Bathsheba or his house so that he could retain his power derived from the righteous cause rather than suspicion concerning adultery. Pure in heart requires pure in mind.

    Every prolonged battle has its righteous cause soldier who is pure in heart and mind. Ask any veteran of battle. They might as well be called mighty men as to be called heroes.

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    • Dear Friend,

      I believe I said that the idea that Uriah probably knew what had happened was one possibility that explains the reason he did not go home to his wife. Two things you said, I believe do not apply here. First, it is the connection with Ahithophel. This would come into play only after Uriah was dead. Second, you wrote, “the possibility that the Spirit of the Lord came upon the mighty men during battle.” This finds so support in the text.

      Uriah, like many soldiers in the Ancient Near East, would take a vow of purity as they fought wars. This was the reason Uriah did not go home to his wife; he did not want to break the vow that he and the other warriors had made before they went to fight a battle.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

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  2. Rather than “affair,” some scholars are using the term “power rape” to describe what happened. Do you agree with that assessment or not?

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