Nathan's Narrative Rebuke: Steal Past Those Dragons
Nathan’s rebuke of David in 2 Samuel 12 has always intrigued me, especially as a storyteller. Here’s the context: David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and covered it up by ordaining her husband’s death. In one corner is the Prophet Nathan and in the other King David. Nathan must hold David responsible for his sin. Nathan’s weapon of choice: the story. Here's how God's Word says it took place.
There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.
Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity….
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
(2 Samuel 12:1-7, 13 ESV)
This was a precarious situation for Nathan. Though Nathan was a prophet of God, King David could have put him to death for confronting him this way. It wouldn’t be the first time that Israel’s Kings silenced prophets with death (think of Elijah's fellow prophets). Yet, by God’s wisdom and grace, Nathan’s rebuke started with story and ended in David’s repentance. Both walked away breathing.
Nathan’s approach reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s statement on the power of a story. In his essay from On Stories, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” Lewis reflects on the way that stories can help us “steal past those watchful dragons…”
What are those dragons? They are the defenses we sometimes use against certain messages. “Oh no! Here he comes again...blabbing about the church and Jesus and eternal life. I’m just not in the mood. I’m out of here.” The dragon is awake, and he’s breathing fire from his nostrils.
Stories, however, can have the ability to sneak a message past that fire-breathing dragon without him even knowing it.
Nathan understood this, I believe, and so I’d like to make seven brief observations about the passage and then three applications to us as storytellers.
#1 Story first. The first words out of Nathan’s mouth were not a sermonic rebuke but a moving story.
#2 Audience context. The story connects directly to David’s personal context: David was a shepherd and spent much of his young life protecting his innocent flock against savage animals.
#3 Spiritual subtlety. The story, in and of itself, lacks any spiritual overtones: Nathan does not mention God nor faith nor repentance...yet.
#4 Right balance. The story finds a balance: it was similar enough to David and his life to ignite his emotions but dissimilar enough that he didn’t think Nathan was speaking about him, let alone preaching at him. David lets his dragon sleep, lowering his defenses.
#5 Broken story. The story is a broken one (read more about broken stories here), the rich man abuses the poor man just because he can. The wicked man wins. This injustice incites David’s anger!
#6 Righteous reaction. The broken story stirs not only anger, but righteous anger, within David. “[T]he man who has done this,” David says, “deserves to die…” (12:5).
#7 Preaching it. The story did its work. Now, Nathan makes his pastoral application in verse 7: “You are the man!” David doesn’t argue. The message has already reached his heart right past his dragon.
As storytellers, here are three applications.
#1 Remember the call. Our medium is the story, and it’s a powerful medium. Prioritize telling stories that intrigue and connect with your audience. If our stories sound too “preachy,” we might be doing the job of a preacher, not a storyteller. We might unnecessarily be aggravating dragons.
#2 Stir the longing. Our stories don’t have to address spiritual ideas to tell the truth or portray goodness and beauty. At times, we should utilize broken stories -- stories in which evil wins -- to stir within our audience a longing for justice and goodness.
#3 Pass the torch. Our stories need pastors to connect and apply our stories to individual lives. We need them to point our audience to the source of justice and goodness. Perhaps, you’re both a storyteller and a pastor. Great! Then the prophet Nathan is an even better model for you. But for those of us who are storytellers alone, we have a different role than the pastor. However, it's clear, we need the pastor and the pastor needs us.
Do you see any other observations or applications? We'd love to hear from you.
Dane Bundy is the co-founder and president of Stage & Story. He and his wife live in Lake Arrowhead, CA, where they direct Arrowhead Theatre Arts and serve at LifeHouse Theater in Redlands, CA.