This summer I’ll be at Tel Hadid, a new archaeological dig site about fifteen miles northwest of Jerusalem. Set on a high hill with olive plantations and striking views of Israel’s landscape, the site is pregnant with the remains of three millennia of human civilization. The dig proceeds methodically, beginning at sunrise and ending around lunchtime, when the heat becomes oppressive. Moving slowly, excavators begin by marking off small squares of land. They then work down into the soil with pickaxes, uncovering first pottery shards, bones, and ancient debris. Hopefully, more substantial remains follow, like inscriptions and building foundations. As they exhume layer after layer of ancient ruins, the earth itself seems to pulse with a mystery that both seduces and repels. It’s an encounter with a seemingly immortal past, one I want to preserve and protect. But it’s also a haunting confrontation with vulnerability, disintegration, and death—and it leaves me uneasy.
I feel the same way when I ponder the fractures in our lives, institutions, and societies, damage for which we are responsible. I see signs of it everywhere, especially in the church: abuse of the most vulnerable, institutionalized misogyny, discrimination against non-heterosexuals, financial greed, and prideful ego, among others. The suffering seems endless, hitting me viscerally and making me nauseous. I doubt I’m alone in my reaction. But as a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a college professor, I know this isn’t the end of the story. The Hebrew Bible, too, is filled with stories of ruin—each preserved and transmitted by ancient scribes and editors who intuited that human frailty has something to teach us.
As an example, let’s explore in detail King David’s rapid rise and fall in First and Second Samuel. As we watch things fall apart, we come to see that destruction paves the way for rebuilding. David is initially presented to us in 1 Samuel as a golden boy, moving quickly from humble shepherd, to military leader, to king of Israel. He’s a shining moral exemplar by comparison to the unhinged King Saul, who is overcome with jealousy and then rapidly self-destructs.
Second Samuel relates the story of David’s reign. Like Saul, David is seduced by power and privilege, precipitating his moral unraveling. The linchpin of the story comes in 2 Samuel 11–12, a text littered with lacunae—narrative gaps that heighten the reader’s sense of tension and discomfort. We hear no descriptions of David’s emotions or thought processes, no details of how events unfold, no editorial moralizing until the end. Such terse omissions are the trademark of effective biblical storytelling. Unlike the circuitous, drawn-out details of, say, a Homeric epic, the Bible provides only the skeleton, that which is most necessary for our understanding. We’re left to fill in the gaps ourselves.
Deliberate word choices in the original Hebrew yield further insights into David’s moral wavering. The first verse of the story, 2 Samuel 11:1, locates us in the “turn” or spring of the year—teshuvat, from the root shuv, which means “to turn” or “return.” It’s the same as the Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, which is a literal turning back, a return to God. The text therefore plays with the idea of David turning and returning as the season changes. Ironically, though, this is hardly a story of repentance, but the beginning of the end for David, who subsequently spirals out of control as he turns away from God.
We also lose something in the rhythm of our translations. In Hebrew, the storyline of 2 Samuel 11 proceeds abruptly. Its crisp cadence, marked by the repeated use of the verb “to send” (šālaḥ), creates a feeling of rapid, inexorable escalation. David first “sends out” all his officers to war as he remains behind in Jerusalem. Bored and listless, he strolls on the roof and sees a woman, Bathsheba. (English translations state that she is “very beautiful,” but in Hebrew she is literally “very good” or “desirable in appearance,” ṭôbat marʾeh, underscoring not her physical beauty, but David’s desire to possess her.) He “sends out” for her and his messengers take her. He sleeps with her; she goes home. Their liaison is possibly a rape—David has complete power over her—yet the text offers no details. The only time we hear Bathsheba’s voice in the story is when she “sends out” a message of her own: “I am pregnant.”
The conclusion of David’s narrative in 2 Samuel arrives just as bluntly. Like a runaway train, the rhythm intensifies as the plot becomes more complicated, implicating multiple characters and culminating in the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. But God is silent throughout—that is, until a single, understated line at the end halts the action: “and this thing that David did was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27).