(2 Samuel 22:1-51)
September 29, 2001
The Song of David, which is found in the book of Samuel and with minor differences also in the book of Psalms (Psalm 18), is a song of victory and of thanksgiving, the song of a war hero who was also a religiously inspired poet. It is a song of deep inspiration which praises God’s providence, but it is also a song which is religiously provocative. In one section (verses 20-27), David proves to be one of the rare Biblical figures to recount the virtues which brought him God’s favor. In one verse, David affirms: “For I have kept the ways of the Lord and have not been guilty before my God.” (2 Samuel 22:22 = Psalm 18:22)
This verse is used by David to justify God’s acceptance of him. The first part of this verse is understood by all of the traditional commentators as we have translated it. The second part of the verse is more difficult. The Targum Yonaton, a 7th century Aramaic translation of the prophetic books, translated it according to the simple or “pshat” meaning: “I [David] have not walked in wickedness before God.”
The explanation of Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and Bible scholar, attempts to capture the paradoxical nature of David’s statement. He tries to explain how it is possible for David to claim to be so righteous considering his conflicted past. Abrabanel asserts that the second half of this verse should be interpreted this way: “I did not transgress against You [God] even though I have transgressed against my fellow human being (the sin of Bathsheva). This, according to Abrabanel, is the only way that David could justify making this statement before God. It is, however, an inadequate explanation. This verse remains an enigma, and an explanation of David’s words is hard to reconcile with the biblical account of his life.
Perhaps the most unique interpretation of this verse removes it entirely from its original context. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the famed 19th century Hassidic master, offered the following “drash” explanation of this verse: “that which I observed, namely ‘the good deeds’, I say about them that their source is from God, that is to say that God assisted me in their performance by restraining my evil inclination, but with regard to my transgressions, they are not, Heaven forbid, the product of God. (adapted from Emet M’Kotzk Titzmach 87 – sayings of the Kotzker Rebbe)
The message of the Kotzker Rebbe may not be the verse’s simple meaning, but it is striking in its existential importance. Each human being is responsible for his or her own actions. They cannot be blamed on anyone else – not on God, not on one’s parents, not on one’s spouse or on one’s neighbors. Each of us has the capacity to control who and what we are and what we do. If we take control of our lives and attempt to do what is right and good, then God will be there to help us.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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