Forming Faith Blog

The Problem with Parables (2 Samuel 11 & 12)

The prophet Nathan told a story to King David to convict him of his guilt regarding Bathsheba and Uriah. It was effective, but what are some problems with teaching parables?

White coated lamb. Nathan told David a parable about a lamb.
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Telling Stories

Last week, the first week of our Living Faithfully in God’s Promise theme, Joshua told the story of God’s actions on behalf of the Israelites. He then challenged the Israelites to make a choice: who will they worship and serve in the future: YHWH who has led them this far or the gods of their neighbors? He told a story to move the people to action.

In 2 Samuel 12:1-9, the prophet Nathan tells another story. King David has done a series of horrible things to Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. There is no indication in chapter 11 that David feels any remorse for his actions. He probably is telling himself that he deserves what he took (a person and a life); that he did nothing wrong. So, Nathan tells him a story—a parable—that gets around David’s defenses and shows him his guilt.

Parables and Allegories

The story that Nathan tells is often referred to as a parable, though the term is never used in the text. Calling it a parable links it—at least in our minds—to the parables that Jesus tells. A parable, at its most basic, is a very brief story that communicates something, often with a twist within it. A parable may—or may not—also be an allegory, an allegory being a story, artwork, or similar that uses symbolism to communicate a greater meaning. The various pieces of an allegorical work correspond to something else. Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-23) is one example from Scripture.

Problems with Nathan’s Parable

Nathan’s parable—story—is allegorical. That much is clear. Nathan specifically connects the rich man to David. To follow the allegory, Uriah is the poor man, Bathsheba is the beloved lamb, and the theft is David’s crime. This parable, along with the more specific condemnation that follows it, has its desired effect: David’s remorse.

If we follow the allegory too closely in our teaching and preaching today, we can run into some big problems, even if on a subconscious level. David, being king, is indeed very wealthy. Uriah (a foreigner and likely an army conscript or one who joined for the paycheck) is probably not—though given that Bathsheba had a roof near the palace to bathe on, they probably weren’t poor.

However, Bathsheba and David’s other wives are the lambs and sheep: animals who are possessed or owned. In ancient societies, this is often how women were seen, as the property of men. Therefore, the crime that the rich man (David) commits is economic (theft) against the poor man (Uriah) and not personal (rape/sexual coercion* and murder) against Bathsheba and Uriah, respectively.

The Kernel (or Intent)

It is not necessarily true that, even in the original context, these problematic elements were intended. Murder was (usually) not considered a matter of economic theft, so the crime in the parable is not itself a direct reflection of the actual crimes committed. Given that the view of women as property was an actual belief of that time, that aspect is at least reflective of the culture, if not intended in the parable.

In fact, de-personalizing the situation likely helped David see it in a different light and allowed him to be confronted about the real situation with his guard down. That was clearly the goal.

Faith Formation Connection

But what does this all have to do with your faith formation work this week when you preach, teach, or otherwise lead?

  • DO be aware of the subtext of your communication. Your goal is faith formation, and not all formation is conscious. So, make sure that you are not unintentionally teaching or strengthening harmful ideas that should be rejected.
  • DO address the problems as appropriate for your context. It’s obvious, but you cannot teach the same things to first graders as you do in an adult small group. But, in addition to what you are not teaching, you can take this opportunity to talk about these problems in an age-appropriate way.
  • DO NOT call David’s actions “mistakes” and be careful of making too close of connections of David’s actions to the sins that we often commit. Rape/sexual coercion* and murder are not in the same league as lying to your parents.
  • DO teach the kernel and point of the parable. As I wrote above, the parable did its job and brought David to realization and repentance for his crimes. Stories are effective ways to teach, and we all need to examine our actions and repent for when we have done wrong.

God’s wisdom be with you,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 11 to May 28), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “Turning Around” a reflective activity from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) curriculum. This activity can be used intergenerationally or with most age groups individually.

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