Monday, July 01, 2024

Anonymous Asks (309)

“Why did God punish David and Bathsheba’s innocent child with death?”

I came across this question at the GotQuestions website and was curious how they would answer, as it’s something I’ve reflected on at length. It’s a reference to the events of 2 Samuel 12, in which God afflicts the bastard child Uriah’s wife bore to David, who subsequently dies of the illness much to David’s sorrow.

The sad death of comparative innocents is one of the more perplexing mysteries we ever encounter, and the GQ writers usually offer solid, biblical answers to difficult inquiries. Moreover, scripture doesn’t tell us God’s motivation in this instance, it simply tells us what happened, which means the writer of the post was obliged to conjecture.

The writer dealt with several objections: that God didn’t deal harshly enough with David, that punishing an innocent is wrong, or that God should have killed David instead. Happily, he said things I won’t say, and he didn’t say any of the things I am about to. Hey, you may find you like his answer better. If so, you can find it here.

Now, let me take a crack at it.

The Relationship of Death and Punishment

First, the question assumes something that simply isn’t true: an early death at God’s hand is not necessarily a punishment of the person who dies. We all die at one point, and a timely demise is actually a great thing. It might be the best possible outcome. When God took Ezekiel’s wife, it was not about her sin or Ezekiel’s; rather, it was to send a vitally important message to a wicked nation that they could not easily misinterpret. When God took Abijah from the household of Jeroboam, it was because he pleased God, not because he had sinned. Something worse would have happened to him if he had lived. When Hezekiah received an extra fifteen years of life by request, he used it to bring judgment on others, tarnish his legacy and father one of the worst kings in Judah’s history. The early exit God had planned for him would certainly have benefited his nation.

So then, while death at God’s hand may be a punishment, it may also be a better deal than we would get anywhere else. It’s always preferable to fall into the hands of God, for his mercy is great, as David himself said. Anyway, I’m not going to spend too much time defending God’s actions against criticism. He’s God. He always knows best, and he always judges fairly. Nothing could be less significant than your opinion or mine about what God chooses to do. A day is coming when we will all agree about that.

The Messianic Line

The Bible is a book about Jesus Christ. Very little appears in it that does not have some connection to him. You may have noticed that one of the significant subthemes of Old Testament scripture is the miraculous preservation of the Messianic line, the means by which God purposed to bring his Christ into the world. That subject comes up again and again.

The Lord explicitly revealed to David that he would be the ancestor of Messiah, but the fact that Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah was evident much earlier. Jacob announced it in his blessing of his sons. I suspect Satan caught on at that point, if not before, and did the very best he could to mess with God’s plans. If it wasn’t Satan continuously interfering with the Messianic line throughout the Old Testament, then a remarkable number of people came up with the same idea independently.

That Messianic line passed through David, who received the unconditional promise of God that he would establish his throne forever. This is the significance of applying the title “Son of David” to Christ in the New Testament. Matthew does this ten times, because it’s critically important. Jesus’ right to rule his earthly people depended on it. The universal public acceptance of his claim to be the king of Israel turned on it. If the Pharisees and scribes who hated the Lord had any legal means of disqualifying him from Israel’s throne, they would have had no need to have him put to death.

The Dynastic Miracle of Judah

The preservation of an unbroken Messianic line throughout Israel’s history is one of the great miracles of scripture. If you have ever studied secular history, you’ll know exactly what I mean by that. Lengthy dynasties are spectacularly rare. None of the great empires of history had dynasties lasting more than a few generations. Not the Assyrians. Not the Babylonians. Not the Greeks and definitely not the Romans. After the division of Israel’s kingdom under Rehoboam, nineteen kings from nine different dynasties ruled Israel. The longest dynasty spanned a mere four generations, the shortest seven days.

Contrast that mess with David’s line. Ask yourself what are the odds of a dynastic chain of 22 kings lasting over 425 years during this same hyper-murderous period. It was so remarkable that even secular archeologists acknowledge the Judean line was called the “House of David” 300-plus years AFTER David had been buried with his fathers. In Israel, the servants, the head of the army, the generals and probably the royal plumber were queuing up in Samaria or Jezreel to take the throne away from its current occupant. But in Judah, even when one of David’s heirs was occasionally murdered, another somehow ended up right back on the throne to succeed him. Joash was murdered by his servants, and yet his son Amaziah was handed the throne. When Amaziah was later murdered by his people, they dutifully placed his son on the throne to succeed him. What kind of half-baked, amateur regicide is that?

Historically, David’s dynasty is a miracle. Only the sovereignty of God accounts for it.

Patrilineal and Matrilineal

If you know anything about Jewish identity today, you may wonder why bringing David into it is so critical, since Jews now consider anyone with a Jewish mother Jewish. That was not always so. The Hebrew Bible defines identity in patrilineal terms. That is to say, if your father was a Jew, so are you; your mother is a non-issue. We know this from Leviticus, where a mixed-race man was stoned for blasphemy. He is referred to as “an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian”, in contrast to the “man of Israel” with whom he fought. If identity in those days were matrilineal, no such wordy explanation would have been necessary or relevant.

More importantly, we know first century Jewish identity in the Bible was patrilineal because of the triumphal entry. Matthew’s genealogy of Christ lists at least two foreign women as ancestors of Messiah: Rahab the Canaanite and Ruth the Moabite. If matrilineal descent had been the standard among first century Jews, the crowd at the triumphal entry would never have acclaimed Jesus as the “King of Israel”, as these foreign female ancestors would have doubly disqualified him. Actually, a standard of matrilineal descent would have disqualified David himself!

In fact, it was not until the Mishnah, Judaism’s primary book of legal theory, was written in the second century AD that Jewish identity was redefined in matrilineal terms, and the standard remains inverted today. Whether the Rabbis who wrote the Mishnah intended merely to expand the potential Jewish gene pool or were actively trying to retcon our Lord’s legal qualifications to David’s throne out of existence remains an open question.

Weird and Unlikely Old Testament Stories

Anyway, the Messianic line was patrilineal and ran through Judah, and it was hugely important in the plans and purposes of God. The Law, Psalms and Prophets required it. Often, when you come across a weird or unlikely story in the Old Testament, it’s because God was defending the Messianic line against either Gentile adulteration or legal invalidation. Think about it. In its earliest days, the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac did their best to adulterate the Messianic line by offering up their wives to Egyptians and Philistines. God prevented it miraculously or circumstantially every single time, and he made sure everyone knew it.

If you wonder why God struck down Onan for an act tens of millions of men have since gotten away with unscathed, there’s a better explanation than that he was a bad boy. That explanation is the Messianic line. Why did Tamar seduce Judah? The Messianic line. Why did Ruth end up at the farm of Boaz rather than a younger man? The Messianic line. Read the fourth chapter of Ruth: it’s explicit. There’s a mini-genealogy leading to David, and even praise from all the people that celebrates Tamar’s unlikely child by Judah. Props to wicked queen mother Athaliah for coming closest to getting the job done, but her attempt to wipe out the Messianic line was thwarted too. Explain all this without a divine thumb on the scales, please.

Not-So-Inexplicable Death

So then, why did God put David and Bathsheba’s innocent child to death? It seems dead simple to me. The writer of 2 Samuel gives us a cause-and-effect link that is difficult to miss. In the wake of the loss of his illegitimate child, David, who had plenty of other wives and concubines available and willing, went right back to Bathsheba’s bed to comfort her. Their shared sorrow was the draw, and the unquestionably legitimate Solomon was the result, whose birth God had already prophesied and who became David’s heir to the throne and a type of Christ. We know today that every child born is the result of a single combination of sperm and egg at just the right time. A moment later, it’s a different roll of the dice and a different combination of genes. Had the bastard child lived, there may have been no Solomon and, a millennium later, no Joseph, through whom the Lord’s legal title to the throne of Israel was eventually established.

Moreover, David’s adultery with Bathsheba became common knowledge. We know about it because somebody, possibly Nathan the prophet, documented it for us, and David himself confessed it in his psalms. We also know their bastard child was David’s and not Uriah’s because scripture says so. But the account in 2 Samuel was not written, edited and recognized as the unbreakable word of God by the Jews until many years later. In the meantime, had David and Bathsheba’s child lived and been declared the next king of Israel instead of Solomon, his parentage would have surely come into question. At best, the child was a bastard conceived in adultery and disqualified from the throne by law. At worst, David’s more ambitious heirs would surely have alleged their new king-in-waiting may have been the son of Hittite, and therefore disqualified from the throne by the rules of patrimony. It’s not like there were DNA tests around in those days.

Instead, God eliminated any question of the adulteration of the Messianic line right at the outset, then sent his Messiah with impeccable credentials in place. You and I are the unlikely beneficiaries of his sovereign purposes and unthwartable will.

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