Bathsheba

And David sent and inquired after the woman.
And one said, “Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” (2 Samuel 11:3).

We can only imagine what thoughts would have occupied and consumed her mind.

It was a normal spring day; her husband was off to war again (2 Samuel 11:1). We might imagine she was concerned for his welfare. By all accounts she was following her normal patterns of life; the “time of women” had departed from her, and so she was observing what the Law demanded and bathed for purification on the roof, as she did monthly (2 Samuel 11:2, 4; cf. Leviticus 15:19-24).

Then she received a summons from the King himself. Whether she knew its purpose beforehand is unknown; its purpose would become manifest soon enough. He greatly desired her sexually. What went through her mind is also entirely unknown. She did not turn him away; after all, he was the king. The king gets his way (2 Samuel 11:4).

Bathsheba went home. We do not know how she felt. We can only imagine what may have gone through her mind. At some point very soon after she recognized she was pregnant from the encounter and she made it known to David (2 Samuel 11:5).

Soon after she received the terrible news of the death of her husband in war (2 Samuel 11:26). She lamented over him. We do not know the quality and strength of their relationship, but if Uriah had proven even half as committed and dedicated to Bathsheba as he was to David, this would have been a terrible blow indeed (cf. 2 Samuel 11:6-13). Perhaps Bathsheba just believed that bad things had happened to come all at once. Perhaps she had some inkling or doubt regarding this all being coincidental. We cannot know.

Bathsheba then received another summons from David, this time to come into his house and become his wife (2 Samuel 11:27). We can again only imagine how she felt or what she thought. He was the king. The king gets his way. She entered his house and became his wife. She gave birth to a baby boy. Some people might have had questions. But the entire affair seemed under wraps.

The judgment of YHWH came strongly against David for his behavior (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Bathsheba would be given reason to suffer again: her child was condemned to death for the transgression which took place. We do not know how she felt or what she thought about this. We can only imagine.

Later on her husband would “comfort” her, and she would conceive another son (2 Samuel 12:24). This son would be Solomon. Solomon would now be Bathsheba’s source of strength and comfort; her fate was tied to his, and she made sure that he obtained the right and privilege of kingship which David had promised to him (1 Kings 1:11-38). Bathsheba became the Queen Mother; her livelihood would be sustained for the rest of her life.

At some point she died. We do not know how she felt or what she thought about all she had experienced. We can only imagine.

Bathsheba’s story is narrated by the Samuel author; David’s adultery with her represented the crux of the 2 Samuel narrative, providing the explanation for all of the conflict and strife which would mark David’s house when his children became of age. But we never hear the story, or anything about the narrative, from Bathsheba’s perspective.

Instead, Bathsheba and her place in the story has become a Rorschach test of projection for generations afterward: we learn exactly what people think of male and female sexuality based on how they respond to the precious little which is revealed about her.

For most of that time men have been not a little afraid of the power of female sexuality, and have turned Bathsheba into a temptress. Many have denounced her for bathing on the roof, exposing herself, giving David the opportunity to lust for her. They deride her willingness to answer the summons; they imagine she must have fully consented to the encounter, perhaps even enjoyed the adultery, and cleaned up afterward fastidiously. In some way or another they have made her out to be the whore.

But these days the story of Bathsheba is coming up for reassessment, and the power dynamics involved come into play. Bathsheba is now seen as the victim of rape. Whatever consent she may have provided was not based on real desire for sexual intercourse but fear based on unequal power relations: how could she realistically refuse the king? Throughout the narrative she is acted upon; she is the vessel for the exercise of male lust, and then she is the one who must bear the lion’s share of the grief and suffering.

What shall we say to these things? We must admit where we remain ignorant and will always remain ignorant. We know that Bathsheba did not fully resist David’s advances: we do not know whether she participated enthusiastically or fearfully in subjection to her king and lord. Nevertheless we do know that such was not Bathsheba’s idea: David is the prime actor throughout the narrative. Whatever we say about her experience will be rooted more in speculation than anything revealed in the text: her side of the story is never told.

But what is revealed by the Samuel author exonerates Bathsheba more than it would indict her. From all we have gained about common living practices in Jerusalem at the time, Bathsheba’s bathing on the roof was not out of the ordinary; others would generally not be able to see, but David was able to see because his house was built up higher than the rest. For that matter, 2 Samuel 11:1 provides the damning detail: the time had come for the men to be out fighting, but David had remained back in the palace. David should not have been there to look at Bathsheba; she had no reason to imagine that he was in town! Furthermore, the best evidence suggests that 2 Samuel 11:4 explains the reason for bathing in the first place: she was cleansing herself from the impurity of her menstrual cycle. The Hebrew of the text is admittedly a bit odd sounding, but previous commentators used it as a tool by which to indict Bathsheba, presuming it referred to the post-coital cleansing which would have been demanded by Leviticus 15:18. And yet it is used as an explanatory as to why David was able to lay with her, not describing later behavior (although we have no reason to believe that Bathsheba would not again bathe to remove the ritual impurity).

The strongest evidence, however, comes from 2 Samuel 12:1-14. Nathan, directed by YHWH, indicts David for his behavior. Bathsheba is compared to the beloved ewe lamb of a poor man which was seized by a richer man to provide for a visitor (2 Samuel 12:1-4). David is the one charged with taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite and having Uriah killed; David is the one held responsible for what happened (2 Samuel 12:1-14). At no point in the narrative is Bathsheba herself explicitly condemned as guilty.

Bathsheba was a party in an adulterous affair. Was she bathing on the roof? Yes, according to her custom, attempting to uphold the purity elements of the Law. Even if her bathing had been scandalous, David’s response was unjustified: he could have looked and turned away and enjoyed the many wives YHWH had given him. Perhaps she was more complicit than the text explicitly reveals; if so, YHWH would hold her responsible for her part in the adultery. And yet it remains at least equally possible that Bathsheba was essentially raped, giving of herself only because she was a subject of the king and afraid of the consequences of rejecting him. She would then be deprived of her husband and then find herself in the same trap as before, but now to become the wife of the man who had essentially raped her, because what other option did she have now that she was pregnant with his child?

In the end, we can only imagine what Bathsheba went through. We cannot know what went through her mind. But we have no right to condemn her because of our own apprehensions, fears, and projections. The Samuel author condemns David for his behavior; Bathsheba might well have been more a victim than a whore. The whole episode is a strong warning for us to be careful lest we project our own issues and biases upon contexts to which they are foreign, and casting blame where it may not belong, and mischaracterize those of the past when all the information necessary to fill in the character is not present.

Because, in the end, we can only imagine what Bathsheba felt and what thoughts occupied and consumed her mind.

Ethan R. Longhenry

One comment on “Bathsheba
  1. This observation: “The judgment of YHWH came strongly against David for his behavior…”

    Image how that plays out today for all those who have so recently been exposed (and the many through time who have not been) as having used and abused women and children to satisfy their lusts. I realize they are not “God’s anointed,” with a special covenant of blessing and cursing so inexorably tied to their conduct and faithfulness, as King’s of Israel had, but the judgment of God that such actors bring down upon themselves is staggering to contemplate.

    And the grace that forgives those truly repentant of such action, as shown in David’s case, is equally staggering.

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