DIFFICULT EPISODES in JEWISH THOUGHT:
Part I – “Those who say David Sinned Are Simply Wrong….”
Feb 24, 2016
- Reuven and Bilhah
- Genesis 35:22
And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun.
וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ןוַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖עיִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל (פ) וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר׃ ;בְּנֵ֣י לֵאָ֔ה בְּכ֥וֹר יַעֲקֹ֖ב רְאוּבֵ֑ן וְשִׁמְעוֹן֙ וְלֵוִ֣יוִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְיִשָּׂשכָ֖ר וּזְבוּלֻֽן׃
- Genesis 49: 3-4
Reuben, thou art my first-born, My might, and the first-fruits of my strength; The excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency; Because thou went up to thy father’s bed; Then defiledst thou it—he went up to my couch.
רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣יתאוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽזפַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָמִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה
- Tractate Shabbat 55b
- Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve” – teaching that they were all equal. Then how do I interpret, “and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine?” This teaches that he switched his father’s couch, and the Torah describes it as if he had lain with her. As it was taught, R. Simon ben Elazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand. Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Ebal and proclaim, Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife, yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine’? He resented his mother’s [Leah’s] humiliation. Said he, “If my mother’s sister [Rachel] was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid [Bilhah] of my mother’s sister be a rival to my mother?” [Thereupon] he arose and switched her couch.
- Netziv (19th cent. Torah commentary)
וישכב את בלהה. לא הי׳ מעשה ח״ו אלא שמר שלא יבא אביו לחדרה
There was no actual sexual incident, chas v’shalom; rather he stood guard and did not allow his father to enter her room.
- Mishna Megilla 25a
מעשה ראובן נקרא ולא מתרגם
The incident of Reuven is read but not translated.
- Radak (13th cent. French commentary on the Torah)
וילך ראובן, הלך לאהל בלהה ושכב עמה.
Reuven went, walked to the tent of Bilhah, and slept with her.
- David and Batsheva
- Book of Samuel II: 11-12
And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. (3) And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said: ‘Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’ (4)And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house. (5) And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said: ‘I am with child.’….And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. (15) And he wrote in the letter, saying: ‘Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.’ (16) And it came to pass, when Joab kept watch upon the city, that he assigned Uriah unto the place where he knew that valiant men were.(17) And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab; and there fell some of the people, even of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also. …
1) And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him: ‘There were two men in one city: the one rich, and the other poor. (2) The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; (3)but the poor man had nothing save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and reared; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own morsel, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. (4)And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him, but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.’ (5) And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan: ‘As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this deserveth to die; (6) and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ (7) And Nathan said to David: ‘Thou art the man….
(9)Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the LORD, to do that which is evil in My sight? Uriah the Hittite thou hast smitten with the sword, and his wife thou hast taken to be thy wife, and him thou hast slain with the sword of the children of Ammon. (13) And David said unto Nathan: ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’
- Tractate Shabbat 56a
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonathan: Whoever maintains that David sinned is merely making an error, for it is written, “”David was successful in all his actions and God was with him” and if he was a sinner why would God be with him?” How then should I understand the statement (II Sam. 12:9) – “why have you despised the word of God?” – he wanted to do [evil] but did not do it…You have killed Uriah the Hittite by the sword – you should have executed him after a legal debate at the Sanhedrin; “You took his wife as your wife” this insinuated that she was eligible to him,since Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonathan: all of David’s soldiers would divorce their wives before the war…
- Tractate. Ketubot 9a
Like the incident that happened, wherein the woman was raped!
Rashi: This refers to Batsheva…
- Contemporary Insights
- Maharatz Chajes Sotah 36b
“One opinion says he entered to fulfill his desires”
It is generally the way of the Sages in several places to highlight the positives of the righteous ones, and to always emphasize the good and to judge favorably even in places where the simple reading of the text indicates that they sinned. Ie David, and Shlomo. What, then, did they see here, to judge the righteous Joseph in a negative light – that he entered to fulfill his desires.
- Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Bnei Banim 4:9 (contemporary US & Israeli rabbi)
According to the plain meaning of the text, one could certainly describe the scandals of Reuven and David and the others, but what gain would come of this? Similarly, we must ask people today whose tendencies are to be myth-busters in their Tanach-study – what gain will come of it?
…Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani lived two hundred years following the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Sanhedrin. These verses teach us that even the greatest of our nation can sin, but what type of news is this to Israel in a generation of Roman oppression, in a generation who had no leader?
Even Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani himself would agree that if there were a positive result in explaining the verses according to their pshat, one should do so. Elsewhere he describes how the Sotah woman would be told of the sins of Reuven and Yehuda, in order to convince her to admit to her own sin…. bar Nachmani bends the explanation of the verses towards a generous view of Reuven and David – for a particular purpose. But this is just like the Torah “bends” the language of their deeds more negatively [assuming they did not, in fact, sin], and that too is for a purpose! But in neither case is it helpful to describe the sins of leadership in a leader-less generation. In his generation, it was important to emphasize and highlight the previous leaders, to strengthen the hope and yearning that these good years would return once again….