Scala/Art Resource, NY

I. The story begins with David and Saul (mounted side-by-side at center) riding into Jerusalem after having defeated the Philistines, on this remarkable painted tabletop, now in the Louvre, by the 16th-century German artist Hans Sebald Beham. (The table’s four scenes run counterclockwise.) The women of the city (right) rush out of the gates singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7)—a cry that will make Saul jealous of his young armor-bearer. At far right, two men relieving themselves against the city wall may be allusions to David’s subsequent affairs (in 1 Samuel 24–25) with the wealthy landowner Nabal, whom David accuses of “pissing” on the wall of protection he and his men have provided, and with Saul, whom David later finds defecating in a cave.

II. A lustful David (upper left, at his high palace window) watches Bathsheba (middle foreground) while she bathes. It is spring, “when kings go off to war” (2 Samuel 11:1), but the once-valiant King David stays home and lets Joab fight his battle against the Ammonites for him. While Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is away fighting with Joab, David seduces the bathing beauty. (The two rabbits, lower right foreground, represent their lust.) When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David tries to cover the deed by inviting Uriah back to Jerusalem and encouraging him (middle ground; David is in yellow, Uriah in red) to go home to his wife. But Uriah refuses to enjoy marital pleasures while his comrades are in combat. Lastly, we see David (under the distant portico) sending Uriah back to the battlefield with a message for Joab.

III. Plan B: murder. Uriah returns to the siege of the Ammonite capital, Rabbah, carrying a written order from David to Joab that will result in his own death: “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest,” the king writes. “Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Without knowing or questioning David’s reasons, Joab (mounted next to his foot soldiers in the middle ground, left) carries out his king’s command: His men do nothing but watch while the forward troop (upper left) is slaughtered by the armored Ammonite cavalry spilling from the city gates (upper right). Uriah, in red, is among the fallen, and David is free to take Bathsheba as his wife.

IV. David’s dark secret—his dalliance with Bathsheba and the subsequent cover-up—provokes the wrath of the prophet Nathan (middle left, in pink and red), who rebukes David (middle, in yellow) with a parable about a rich man with many sheep and ewes (left) and a poor man with only one (left foreground); according to Nathan’s story, the rich man refused to spare a single one of his animals for a guest and instead fed him the poor man’s one beloved animal. Failing to recognize himself as the “rich man,” David burns with anger: “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!” Nathan replies: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan prophesies, correctly, that the sword will never again leave David’s house. The man behind the low wall at far left is the painter of this table, Hans Sebald Beham.