The Jewish holidays are upon us again, time for introspection and confession. And who better to do both than the queen of guilty consciences?
By Michael Oren
Was it the starlight on my jewelry or the glistening of my skin, the penumbra of my breasts, that attracted him? Or merely the challenge of vanquishing another man’s wife and not just any man and not just any conquest, almost openly? But then, again, I’m not just any woman. Passionate, vain, exotic, and above all, ambitious. Raised by my father, Eilam, to believe that I was destined for more than housework, blessed with the beauty to which powerful men feel entitled, bearing me from backwater Gilon to Jerusalem. Yet vulnerable. For when a king spies you taking your nightly bath and orders you brought to him, what could be more flattering? What could be more seductive and potentially, summarily, lethal?
For this king, like most others, was dangerous. A man who began his career humbly enough, a coarsely-clad shepherd who, with a single stone, felled the enemy’s giant and established himself as a killer. Who went on to take the heads of Jebusites, Moabites, and Philistines alike, their foreskins too, and slaughtered as many Israelites as pagans. A man of the sword, of the spear, and the eye-gouge. Who executed prisoners and raped their daughters. A despoiler of cities and girls.
But in other ways, this king was different. Dazzling different. Red-haired, lapis-eyed, with a face incised in ivory. A poet, a musician, as dexterous with a lyre as with any battle axe, fingertips blackened by both ink and gore. Prophets and generals thronged to him. God, Himself, communicated. Even his name, David, meant love. What woman could resist him, really, with art in her eyes and psalms in her ears and a dagger-point pressed to her throat?
So, he caught sight of me, peering down from his palace that night as I lounged in my rooftop bath. Lathered myself slowly and let the scented water drip, shimmer like diadems on my neck. For didn’t I know I was being watched and by whom? Didn’t I know exactly where to place that tub?—I’m too old to deny it now—and how the moon would burnish its occupant? One didn’t have to be a prophet to know how it would all play out. The invitation, the fornication, the death.
Oh, I made my excuses. Married to a military man who left me each spring, the most sensual season, for war-making, and returned in the cold reeking of horse and latrine. A foreigner, too, a Hittite who reserved his flames for smelting iron and hammering it into blades. A storied commander my husband was, more loyal to his troops than he ever was to me, preferring their bivouacs to my bed. Given the choice between smelly, hairy, boorish Uriah and that godly voyeur, who wouldn’t have been slain? Who wouldn’t have stood as I did and hesitated a moment before accepting my handmaiden’s towel and giving him the fullest view? And when his servant soon showed up, summoning me, how could I resist? How could I dare? Only my reluctance was feigned.
But not my ecstasy. My howls and shrieks as he ravished me. Savaged me, hurled me mercilessly between his halves, the butcher and the bard. All of Jerusalem must have heard. Was there any doubt, as I slipped pre-dawn from his palace to my home, that I carried his seed? Planted inside me like his standard, soon to signal our sin.
Still, I didn’t know how he’d react when I told him. Embrace me, forsake me, have me quietly removed? Instead, what he did was scheme. For in addition to being handsome, musical, and homicidal, David was also smart. He sent for Uriah at the front, brought him back to the palace on some shallow excuse and then urged him to spend the night with his wife. How cunning! Even if his hair were red, no one would question the fatherhood of a darling baby Hittite.
Ah, but David underestimated Uriah. Miscalculated his thick-skulled loyalty, deeper than any urge for me. “No,” my husband said, “As long as my men are sleeping in the rain, I cannot think of a roof, even with my wife under it. No,” he said, “I will curl up on your doormat.” And he did, the lug, for two nights straight, after which David sent him back to the war with a note for his commander, but not just any note. This one was written in poison. This one was written in blood.
“Position Uriah in the first row of fighters,” so the king commanded. “Make sure he is fatally exposed.”
Was anybody surprised, least of all David, when word returned to Jerusalem of the Ammonite arrow that managed to penetrate that skull? Did anybody in the palace mourn the fact that the king’s mistress was suddenly a widow? Did anyone inquire if she was somewhat unnerved? No, no one asked, no one smirked when David once again sent for me, in sackcloth this time, and promptly made me his wife.
Only Nathan seemed to care. A prophet of the kind that Israelite kings keep within their palaces, apparently in place of clowns, Nathan played go-between for David and God and God was rather displeased.
“After all I’ve done for you, all I gave you, the power, the gold, you go and do this crime? Killed the Hittite and slept with his wife and barely made an effort to hide it. As punishment, I’m going to do the same thing to you. From now on end, you’ll only know war and other men will sleep with your wives, and just as publicly. That ought to show you,” saith the Lord.
And what does David do? Deprive that dwarfish Nathan of his autocephalous head? Remind God just who is king in Israel? No. The slayer of Goliath and of a thousand enemies from here to Damascus suddenly repents. Rends his tunic and anoints his head with ashes and prays—begs!—for forgiveness. Embarrassing enough, even if it worked.
The baby born to us immediately fell ill. All of David’s fasting, all that pounding on his breast, could not save a single child’s life. And when he died, did David weep? Did he build a single monument to his loss? Again, no. He had himself a hardy meal, explaining that atonement made sense when his son was sick but now was utterly useless. And those dolts at court agreed, even Nathan. They had no problem when their majesty left his table for my bedroom and salved my convulsive weeping with sex.
The result was Solomon, whose name means peace, supposedly between God and David but really for me. Uriah was mentioned no more, nor our infidelity. Instead, I gave birth to three more boys, then quietly slipped into the background. Years passed. Years of victory—over Rabbah and Aram and Gath—but mostly of grief. Two sons, Amnon and Absalom, the one incestuous, the other a traitor, both assassinated, and Abner and Joab, his favorite generals, slaughtered. A Holy Temple that could not be built because the hands of the king were too bloodied. More wives, more offspring, but eventually that, too, dried up. For the prodigy who once escaped Saul and Abimelech, the conqueror of Jerusalem, of the harpist, the psalmist, the rake, invariably fell victim to age.
Now he sits, or rather slumps, on his throne. Demeaned by the presence of a virgin beneath his blanket, placed there not to pleasure him but to warm his frigid bones, and worn out by incessant plots. The latest by his firstborn, Adonijah, is especially vexing. So much so that I can no longer stand passively by.
I, too, have lost my beauty. No more taffeta skin or breasts that can sparkle with bathwater. My onyx eyes have grown dusty. Yet I retain the other aspects of my youth—the stateliness, the ardor, the ambition. And I’ll be banished before I’d let Adonijah usurp my own son’s birthright. I’ll do anything, even make league with that cretin Nathan—he’s still around, still prophesizing—and corner my husband at court.
“That whippersnapper is going around and buying up allies,” Nathan informed him. “He’s already calling himself king. And don’t forget, you promised to appoint Solomon.”
“Yes!” I shouted, though mostly to the floor on which I lay prostrated. “Yes, you promised the throne to Solomon!”
The poor old geezer, shivering there next to his virgin brazier, his fingers too gnarled for strings, his chestnut curls reduced to filaments, merely stared at us. For a second, he seemed unsure just to whom he had truly pledged his crown and perhaps even who it was beseeching him. But then, momentarily, the fire rekindled in his cheeks, the embers in his eyes.
“By all I hold sacred!” he wheezed. “Solomon shall be king!”
In a voice I should have marshaled the first time he corrupted me when I was too frightened and beguiled to speak, in the voice that I should have raised when he murdered my husband and claimed me as his prize, I should have shouted: “And so, with adultery and bloodshed, your dynasty begins.” Instead, I took my place beside him and solemnly cried, “David, my lord, may you live and rule forever.”
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