Friday, February 6, 2015

He would never suspect he is carrying his own death sentence in his hand

I decide to give him one more chance to redeem himself in my eyes before I give up on him, before I begin to despair of my own redemption. 
So I tell him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I’ll send you back.” 
He remains in Jerusalem that day and the next. I invite him to eat and drink with me, which allows me to take a stab at trying to make him drunk.  
I slap him on his shoulder with a fine sense of camaraderie. I even give him my goblet. I fill it for him so it is overflowing with beer. He gulps it down dutifully. One keg after another is brought in. Meanwhile I discuss how it is flavored with hops, which add a hint of bitterness, and act as a natural preservative, and how during the process of fermentation, herbs may be added to one keg and fruit to another, for no better reason than achieving variety in taste. By the end of the evening I am exhausted by all this talk, and so, I think, is he. 
After all this effort on my part I am astounded to learn that nothing, nothing at all comes of it. Uriah goes out in the evening to sleep on his mat among my servants. He is steadfast in refusing to go home. Perhaps he fails to understand that being stubborn may cost him dearly. 
Next morning I sit down at my desk to write a letter to Joav. “Put Uriah out in front,” I write, “where the fighting is fiercest.”
I take a deep breath, dip my feather in ink and shake it, that it may not bleed.
“Then,” I go on writing, “withdraw from him, so he will be struck down and die.”
I seal the scroll and give it to my dear, trusty soldier, knowing he would never suspect he is carrying his own death sentence in his hand.
And for a long time after the sound of his steps has died down I remain there, sitting at the edge of my throne, listening for him, hoping he would come back to me, wishing I could find a way to save him. 

This is the moment that David signs the death sentence for his soldier Uriah, and lets him carry it unknowingly to his commander, so his life would be placed in jeopardy on the battlefield. 

I slowed this moment down, quite deliberately, by having him pause to take care of his pen so it does not bleed, while he is contemplating shedding the blood of his soldier. At this point David can still change his mind, still refrain from betraying Uriah over the love of his woman, Bathsheba. The crime has not been committed, yet. Watching him from the shadows, we would be tempted to cry out, Stop! There's still time, don't do this! Don't put pen to papyrus!

To me, the contemplation of a crime is more interesting than the crime itself. This moment in David's story is so pregnant with possibilities that it inspired many artists to capture it on canvas, which inspires me in writing my novel. Here are two paintings by Pieter Lastman, a Dutch painter of historical pieces (his pupils included Rembrandt.) In the first painting, David hands the letter to his kneeling soldier, and the relationship between them seems, to all appearances, like one between a benevolent ruler and an obedient subject--if not for the reaction of the boy (who may be a young scribe, or his son) who raises his eyes in great alarm. Like us, he is holding himself back from shouting, Stop!

The second painting depicts the same moment, yet it is executed eight years later. Here, Pieter went to more explicit extremes. The boy has the same expression of mute horror, but look at the relationship between David and Uriah. David, clad in a blue-purple robe and red cape and bearing a golden scepter, is squirming uncomfortably on his throne, knowing that what he is about to do is utterly wrong. Uriah, kneeling before him, seems to suspect the truth, because his posture is one of being repelled, trying to increase the distance between the king and himself. A dog, the symbol of loyalty, separates between them.

In both paintings, the background behind Uriah depicts a holy building (modeled after of St. Peter's Basilica, rumored to contain pillars from the Temple in Jerusalem), suggesting God's presence on his side. In the earlier painting, the sky behind him portends danger. In the latter one, the crimps and folds in fabrics that seem to rustle in the foreground give an unsettling feeling.

Pieter Lastman, King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,  1611

Pieter Lastman, King David Handing the Letter to Uriah, 1619

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