The House of David: A Story of Familial Failure

A running thread throughout the Bible is the importance of faithful families. When Israel is preparing to escape the clutches of Egypt and partaking of the Passover meal, Moses instructs the Israelites to teach their children the meaning of what they are doing. He tells them, “When your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes,’” (Exodus 12:26). This command for fathers to teach their sons is repeated when Moses teaches Israel the Shema prayer in Deuteronomy 6; after telling Israel that they shall love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and might, Moses tells Israel that, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up,” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). It is telling that the failure of Israel in the book of Judges begins when, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel,” (Judges 2:10). The task of fathers raising faithful sons is one that a surprising number of positive figures in the Bible struggle with: Isaac’s favoritism with Esau and Jacob yields disastrous results, as does Jacob’s own favoritism. The unfaithful Levite of Judges 18 appears to be Moses’ own grandson, Jonathan. Even the righteous prophet Samuel raises two sons who are liars and cheats! It is, perhaps, unsurprising then that even David, the man after God’s own heart, struggles mightily with the task of raising faithful children. David’s failure as a husband and a father is one of the things that most directly leads to his sin with Bathsheba, as well as the ultimate collapse of his kingdom into division and chaos.

David’s first marriage is to Michal, the daughter of Saul, which he wins by paying a dowry of Philistine foreskins (which, thankfully, did not become the traditional gift!). As David flees from Saul’s household, however, Michal is given away to another man as his wife (1 Samuel 25:44). We are later told that David is blessed with marriage to Abigail, who is a picture of wisdom despite being initially married to the foolish Nabal. With the death of her first husband, Abigail joins the royal court. Right after we’re told this, however, we are also told that David has taken Ahinoam of Jezreel as his wife as well (1 Samuel 25:42-43). While the narrator does not explicitly condemn or condone this action, experienced readers know that polygamy rarely works out for the positive of families (Abraham, Jacob, Hannah, etc.). We later see that as David is enthroned and strengthens himself in the war against Saul’s house (2 Samuel 3:1), David’s harem expands: 2 Samuel 3:2-5 lists six sons born to six different women and 3:14-16 sees Michal returned to him (with her pitiable second husband weeping behind her for miles).  After the defeat of Ish-Bosheth and the conquest of Jerusalem as David’s capital city, we are again informed that David is being strengthened by God (2 Samuel 5:10, 12). Again, we are informed then that David “took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron; and more sons and daughters were born to David. Now these are the names of those who were born to him in Jerusalem: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada and Eliphelet,” (2 Samuel 5:13-15).

Why is the narrator of Samuel telling us this? It’s possible this is just meant to reinforce that David is growing in status and is being blessed by God. While our modern sensibilities are offended by polygamy, certainly it was not illegitimate for OT characters to engage in such behavior. It is also true, however, that Deuteronomy 17:17 explicitly says, “[the king] shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away.” Moses warned Israel, even before there was a kingdom, that a king engaging in the building of a harem (a royal collection of wives and concubines) was putting himself in danger of losing his faith in Yahweh. It certainly seems as if David is in direct violation of this directive. While his wives are not pulling him towards idolatry, the presence of this harem seems to indicate that David has at least bought into the cultural idea of a king’s strength being measured by the number of wives, concubines, and sons he has; this notion was widespread in the Canaanite and surrounding cultures, and it is troubling to see David engage in such behavior.

This pattern of David becoming strengthened by God and then accumulating more wives tragically comes to a head in 2 Samuel 11. After achieving great military success in chapters 8 and 10, we would expect another report of David’s harem expanding. Tragically, it does. David’s abuse of royal power against Uriah and Bathsheba confirm what we have fear reading the previous sections: his success and position as king has swelled his pride, and now nothing will deny the king what he desires. The word translated as “took” in 2 Samuel 11:4 when describing how Bathsheba is taken to the King is the same word used in his descriptions of taking wives for his harem (1 Samuel 25:39-40, 43; 2 Samuel 3:15; 5:13). David’s lust and desire for women has indeed turned David’s heart just as Moses had predicted in Deuteronomy, and turned the mighty king of Israel into a slave to his own passions.

When David is confronted by Nathan the prophet, he returns to his senses and confesses his great sin before the Lord. God’s promise to keep David on the throne is irrevocable, despite David’s wickedness, and Nathan reassures David that he will not die for his sins. The consequences for this sin, however, will be terrible indeed: the sword will never depart from David’s house, and evil will arise from within David’s own house that will take David’s wives for themselves. By David’s own words, the subject of Nathan’s story in 2 Samuel 11:1-4 should “make restitution to the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.” For the murder of Uriah and theft of Bathsheba, David will indeed pay fourfold with the death of four of his sons: the unnamed son of 2 Samuel 12, Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah will all die prematurely for David’s ruinous behavior.

The rest of the text of 2 Samuel shows the terrible consequences unfold. Just as David lay (shekab) with Bathsheba, the crown prince Amnon violates and lies (shekab) with his sister Tamar – a fate that David himself sent Tamar to (2 Samuel 13:7-14). Amnon’s crime, almost identical to that of his father’s, is not punished by David despite his anger towards Amnon. The Septuagint text of this chapter explicitly states that this is because David loves Amnon as his firstborn son. Just as David’s mistakes with women will influence his sons, David’s failure to correct and instruct his sons on how to live faithfully before God will influence them as well. His second son, Absalom, is apparently more influenced by David’s solution of violence towards his problems: just as David ordered Joab to draw back from Uriah so that he would be “struck down and die,” Absalom orders his men to “’strike Amnon,’ then put him to death,” (2 Samuel 13:28). Absalom will also be the one to fulfill Nathan’s prophesy of David’s wives being taken by another: in 2 Samuel 16, Absalom “went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel,” in order to strengthen his claim to the throne over his father. Later, when Absalom’s rebellion ends in his defeat before David’s army, Joab and his armor bearers “struck and killed him,” (2 Samuel 18:15); the echoes of both Uriah’s death and Amnon’s death in Absalom bring to focus the continuity of David’s sinful actions. Unfortunately, David does not learn his lesson from the terrible failure to educate his two oldest sons on following the Lord properly.

The beginning of the book of Kings shows David, many years later, as an old and weak man. David’s inaction has led to confusion over who exactly is to succeed him on the throne. Adonjiah exalts himself as the heir, and David “had never crossed him at any time by asking, “Why have you done so?”” (1 Kings 1:6). This failure to confront a son is, again, reminiscent of David’s failure to confront Amnon or Absalom. David’s failure to take charge of his family leads to Nathan and Bathsheba, fearing for the life of Solomon, manipulating David to put Solomon on the throne rather than Adonijah. As Solomon prepares to ascend the throne on David’s death, David gives him wise counsel to “keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies,” (1 Kings 2:3). This advice is undercut, however, by his advice to then murder David’s political enemies Joab and Shimei. Unfortunately, Solomon takes hold of this advice and charges forth with it; the first victim, however, is neither Joab nor Shimei, but David’s own son Adonijah! Even after David’s death, his example and influence on his sons is being felt and destroying his household. The most obvious example of this is Solomon; despite being gifted with Godly wisdom, he too falls prey to the lust of a harem and magnifies himself through a massive number of wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:1-3). Tragically, Solomon’s fall is even great than his father’s; while David had kept his faith amongst the temptation of his wives, Solomon turns away from the Lord due to his love of his wives just as Moses had warned Israel in Deuteronomy! The rest of the story of David’s line sees many of his grandsons and descendants failing to uphold his legacy of faith, but instead choosing to emulate David at his worst behaviors of lust, violence, and pride. We are told repeatedly of David’s love for all of four of his sons who appear as main characters, yet he failed to realize one of the most important aspects of love for a child: the willingness to reprove and rebuke when they do wrong, and the necessity of discipline and instruction for molding them into faithful followers of God.

So what can we learn from David’s failures regarding his family? First, that a person’s possessing great personal faith does not mean it will automatically pass on to their children. Conscious and distinct efforts must be taken to raise children in the faithful admonition of the Lord. The consequences of not doing so can result in terrible consequences for our families. On the other hand, a father’s failure of faith does not automatically result in similar failures of the son. While Solomon’s son and grandson, Rehoboam and Ahaz, are both unfaithful, his great-grandson Asa is regarded as a good king and faithful to the worship of the Lor1dThe consequences of not doing so can result in terrible consequences for our families. On the other hand, a father’s failure of faith does not automatically result in similar failures of the son. While Solomon’s son and grandson, Rehoboam and Ahaz, are both unfaithful, his great-grandson Asa is regarded as a good king and faithful to the worship of the Lord! Second, it gives us perspective on the difficulty of raising faithful children. It is a fascinating thing to realize that Paul’s qualification for elders, which includes being a “one-woman man” and “one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity,” (1 Timothy 3:2-4), would disqualify many of the heroes of the Old Testament, including David himself! This should give comfort to the parents amongst us today: the task of raising children faithfully is not an easy one, and even some of the champions of faith have failed miserably at such a goal. It also reminds us, however, of how serious the responsibility of parenthood is. Are we striving with our full heart and effort to teach our children of the Lord? If we simply assume that they will be faithful because we are, we are assuredly tempting fate and setting ourselves (and our children) up for a sorrowful reckoning. He who has ears, let him hear!