Stuck in the Palace: David and Bathsheba, Part I

[David is king of the united Israel, living in his palace in Jerusalem. His uncle Jonathan is one of his advisors.]

David stared, unseeing, straight ahead. He’d already passed through “pretending to listen” and had gone into “not listening,” but someone kept saying his name in a harsh whisper.

He blinked several times and turned his head toward the sound. It was Uncle Jonathan. “What?”

“Do you have anything to say to the messenger?”

“Oh. Yes.” David rotated his shoulders and tilted his head. No more letting his mind drift off. “Does Joab need me to send reinforcements?”

“No, my lord,” the messenger said. “This month’s rotation of tribal units is waiting a day’s travel away, and Joab hasn’t even called for them yet.”

David gouged a groove in the arm of his throne with his thumbnail. “So his message is that he has everything under control?”

The messenger glanced left at Jonathan and then right at nobody before repeating his spiel from earlier. “The siege at Rabbah is continuing. We don’t have a lot of experience with a long siege, but the commanders—”

“I was listening earlier,” David lied. “What do you think?”

“Think, my lord?”

“Yes.” David slid forward a bit. “Unless my nephew has sent a fool to run his errands, you will have an opinion, your own analysis of how the siege is going. I served in the ranks myself, at one time. I know how soldiers talk. So?”

The messenger looked to Jonathan again.

When had it gotten so David couldn’t talk with a fellow soldier?

“I asked a-” David smacked his palm on the throne, “simple question.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, he knew he was overreacting, that the messenger wasn’t the one frustrating him, but he couldn’t stop.

“My lord.” The messenger’s face turned red and he dropped onto one knee. “Forgive me.”

David addressed the linen banner hanging on the opposite wall. “All I wanted was the opinion of a man on the ground. Is that too much to ask?”

Uncle Jonathan cleared his throat. “King David has always listened to and learned from even the least of his soldiers. It’s one of the things that makes him such a great king.”

“Of course, of course.” The messenger stood. “It’s going as well as can be expected. Some of the foreign soldiers have experience with sieges so they’re always in with Joab and Benaiah.”

“And running off their mouths to the rest of you, I bet.” David quirked an eyebrow.

The messenger blinked rapidly and swallowed hard.

David somehow prevented himself from sighing. Everyone thought they had to be so dignified around him now. There was a time a soldier would’ve bust out laughing at such a dig against the mercenaries, and maybe shared a story or two. Those were good times.

“We’re learning so much.” The messenger sounded like an overeager child. “The outlying garrisons are sending us plenty of supplies. And there’s a water source a short walk away. The men feel confident. The Ammonites can’t outwait us.”

“Sounds like you don’t need me at all,” David muttered. He squeezed his temples. Of course they didn’t need him. He’d chosen each commander because of his expertise, ability to lead, and wisdom on the battlefield. Chosen them precisely because they didn’t need him. It’d be worse if they did need him. Wouldn’t it?

Jonathan stood. “Thank you for your report and your opinions. We’ll get a food bundle made up for your return trip tomorrow.” He ushered the man out of the room, but threw one questioning frown over his shoulder at David.

David wandered over to the wine table and poured himself a cup. His uncle returned and they circled each other at the table. With the rim at his lips, he said, “I should be there.”

“So that’s what this is all about.” Jonathan tugged the corner of the linen covering of the table.

“I should be in the field with my soldiers.” David drained the cup. “Not stuck in my palace, on my comfortable bed in my clean clothes, dealing with petty arguments and disputes and granting royal favors to rich people.”

“Do I need to tell you the story of–”

“No,” David said. “I know it was smart strategy to put the garrisons in the north and it shows trust in my men that I don’t have to be there for every campaign—”

“But you’re itching to go, like when you were fifteen.”

David swirled the dregs in the bottom of the cup. “Guess I haven’t changed that much.”

Jonathan humphed. “You’ve changed plenty. Why else do you think you’re here instead of there?”

Duty.

It used to be that doing his duty meant being in the thick of the action. Now it meant sitting around. Uncle Jonathan was right, he was itching. In fact, his skin was crawling at the idea of spending the rest of the day in careful conversation. “Call off the jackals and the foxes for the rest of the day. I’m done.”

His uncle said some stuff about David needing to do something constructive, but he wasn’t listening. Maybe he’d visit one of his wives. That’d put him in a better mood. He clasped his hands behind his back and headed towards the private quarters.

Of course, being with one of his wives would mean being subjected to complaints about the other women, or sly requests for privileges, or pointed observations about how he didn’t see her as often as he used to. Except Abigail. But she wanted to have real conversations about how he was doing, especially when something was bothering him, and she could always tell when someone was. He didn’t need that kind of pressure today.

A nap? If he could sleep now, during the heat of the day, when he awoke in the cooler early evening, things would be better, clearer.

When he got to his room, he unwound his mantle, took off his robe, his armlets and his crown and curled up on his side on his mat. His room was stifling. He got up and threw open his shutters. No breeze. He opened his mouth top bellow for a servant to fan him while he slept, but he didn’t want even that much company. Instead, he pulled his tunic over his head and lay down, spread-eagled, on his mat in just his loincloth.

It was so quiet. The army wasn’t in town, so there was no noise of soldiers marching or training, no officers trash-talking each other and boasting about their unit’s prowess. No Joab galumphing around the palace.

The farmers and merchants had packed up after the morning’s business, so there was no haggling to be heard, no cart wheels rolling, no donkeys braying. Even the birds must’ve been resting in shady spots. There was nothing to keep him awake.

Except all that silence. It was distracting. He kept cataloguing all the things he wasn’t hearing.

He flipped over onto his stomach. In the field, he’d always been able to sleep, even on the night before a battle, when his heart would be pounding and his blood churning and his mind going over and over the battle plan. Even then he’d always been able to get rest.

The only time he hadn’t been able to sleep was when King Saul had made him play all night long because Saul couldn’t sleep. Lack of rest had to be part of what had made Saul so paranoid and volatile. That’s why David lived  as righteous a life as possible: so there was nothing to keep him awake. “Adonai, give me rest. Don’t let me wind up like Saul.”

When David was conscious of himself again, the sun was blasting through his western windows, beaming on his face and chest. He awoke covered in a film of sweat, wrinkling his nose at his own scent and at the sour taste in his mouth.

He rolled onto all fours to avoid the glare of the sun and then staggered to the bench that had a bowl of cassia water on it, soaked a cloth with the liquid, and swiped it over his exposed skin.

Air was what he needed. Maybe the early evening breeze had sprung up.

He glanced at his tunic and robe but rejected them. The idea of putting on even those thin and fine linen clothes was abhorrent. The chance of anyone looking up at the palace roof at the exact moment he was there and recognizing him was slim.

There was slight movement of air on the roof, very slight. Not enough to cool the skin, but just enough to feel like the stroke of a soft hand.

He leaned against one of the taller pillars of the parapet, holding his hair off the back of his neck, looking down over Jerusalem.

People were still not out and about in the streets, for the most part. Wisps of smoke curled up, so some women must be at their ovens. Groups of people were huddled under the broad atad trees near some of the threshing floors outside the walls. Snippets of a woman’s voice drifted up to him; it sounded more like melodic sighing than like any song that David recognized. It was entrancing.

Where was that singer? He searched the rooftops below him until he saw her. Maybe it wasn’t her, but the song was suddenly the last thing on his mind. This woman was bathing on the roof of her house, lifting her hair off the back of her neck, just like David was. Her back was turned to him. Now she was squeezing water from a cloth onto her skin. Her skin that was naked.

David stalked across the length of his roof until he was as close to her as he could get from the palace. Who was she? If he got the layout of the city right, the house was in the professional army section. So she’d be alone and lonely without her soldier.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. Those were not the kind of thoughts he should have.

His eyelids popped open.

She was still there, except she had turned. Now he could see her from the side.

He gripped the parapet with both hands, the stone scraping his skin. It felt like his heart was trying to leap out of his chest towards that woman, that beautiful woman. He needed the rough stone digging into his palms, needed the pain to interrupt the direction his imagination was taking him.

He pushed himself back and walked resolutely down the stairs to his private quarters. He had to put his clothes and his royal items back on. That would remind him who he was and what kind of thoughts and what kind of behaviors were expected of him. The fabric was rough against his sensitized skin, but that punishment felt right.

He headed for the door, but the south facing windows caught him. He couldn’t stop himself from looking out. Her arms were stretched to the sky. All of her was exposed to his gaze and his breath flew away.

He tore himself away from the window and walked in a daze toward the lower, public areas of the palace. Halfway down the upper hallway, he came across two of his guards with their heads half out a window. A south facing window. They were so engrossed that he snuck up behind them and clapped, startling them into cracking their heads together.

He couldn’t bring himself to yell at them, because he was just as guilty. “You were watching her, too?”

The taller one blinked hard and shook his head and denied knowing what the king was talking about, but the shorter one gave David a curious look. He was the one David took aside.

“Do you live in the army section of the city or in the barracks at the fortress?” David asked.

“In the barracks, my lord.”

David glanced at the solid wall in the direction of the woman. “Do you know who she is?”

“No, my lord.”

“Find out. She must be in the household of one of my officers. Beautiful as she may be, I don’t want anyone to bring dishonor to my forces.” How David managed to say that with a straight face, he didn’t know. His order had nothing to do with avoiding dishonor.

“Yes, my lord. Right away.”

“Shh.” David hauled him back within whispering distance. The words, “Bring her to me,” almost left his tongue, but he wasn’t a pagan king. He was the shepherd of the people of God. “Let’s keep this quiet. I don’t need every soldier begging to guard the city side of the palace.”

When the evening meal was almost over, the soldier came back to him: she was Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah.

David excused himself from the table without finishing and took an oil lamp up to the roof. He sat between two of the teeth with his feet dangling over the side, staring in the direction he saw Bathsheba in earlier. Bathsheba.

This was complicated. Eliam and Uriah were both in the Thirty. She was the daughter of one of his most elite fighters and the wife of his most loyal and skilled Hittite mercenary. The connection with Eliam meant she was also the granddaughter of Ahithophel, one of his most trusted advisors. Which added up to someone he couldn’t trifle with.

He bumped the side of his head against the stone. When had this turned from a vague fantasy to something he was actually considering? It was wrong. And now that he knew who her family was, it was all tangled up. Nothing could happen. Nothing should happen.

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