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

The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Humans like to build, and the bigger, the better.

At some point between the Flood and Abraham, all humanity came together on the plain of Shinar, in modern-day Iraq, and decided to build a city and a large tower. The endeavor did not end well: God confused the language of humanity, and they stopped building their tower. The place would be known as Babel, or Confusion, because of these events (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even though the Tower of Babel was not a completely fulfilled project, it still stood there, a monument to human endeavor in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, those scattered in Mesopotamia built cities: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, among others (cf. Genesis 10:8-12). Those cities would feature a large building in the middle which we today call ziggurats: large step pyramids which were used, as far as we can tell, as temples and as a high place upon which to make offerings to the gods of Sumer and Akkad. Meanwhile, in Egypt, kings would soon begin to build larger and larger pyramids as tombs for themselves and their families, believing that these large structures would help the soul of the king to reach the heavens.

The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt would become famous monuments. Everyone in the Bible from Abraham to Malachi would have at least heard of the ziggurats and pyramids, and many saw them. We can only imagine how impressive these monuments would have seemed in their younger days; the pyramids are still magnificent despite the ravages of time. They certainly would have projected strength and an air of magnificence. Surely these nations were mighty; surely their gods were strong.

And yet, how many of the Israelites, when hearing about and/or seeing these monuments, thought of the story of the Tower of Babel, and of its ultimate end?

ziggurats and pyramids were influenced by the Tower of Babel; perhaps the Tower of Babel was even considered the first ziggurat. Understood in this way, we can see how the Tower of Babel both explains and is a critique of human religion.

As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-25, when humans no longer give God the Creator the glory due Him, they become futile in their thinking and their hearts are darkened. They turn and give the creation the honor due the Creator. This mentality is on full display on the plain of Shinar. Humans find themselves in a big, lonely world, and do not want to be scattered over its face. Meanwhile, they still search for meaning and value in life. As opposed to honoring God by fulfilling His commandments and giving Him the honor, they instead stay together contrary to His command and work to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, not for God. Even after their original plan was frustrated, they kept at it in their new locations, building towers and other large structures.

These structures took on religious meaning and significance. The logic is the same as the use of the high place: the higher the altitude we reach, we imagine, the closer to the divine we get. The Canaanites would imagine that their gods lived on top of the large mountains in their land; the Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Therefore, it was necessary to get up high to present offerings to them or to reach them. And how better to climb up than to build a structure that climbs high into the heavens?

While these structures had religious significance, the glory and honor still went to the nations who built them. To this day we remember the pyramids more as an astonishing feat of engineering accomplished by the “god-like” kings of Egypt than as anything relating to their religion. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia would have made quite the impression on people as well; we can only imagine how the Israelites in exile would have reacted to see such large buildings and the power being projected by the empires which built them. It suddenly becomes clearer why so many started following after those gods: it certainly seemed as if they and the people who built those structures had all the power.

Therefore, human religion seems so powerful, wonderful, and glorious. But it cannot save and is ultimately futile. All such effort is in vain!

The power of God receives testimony from man’s search for meaning and value in life, but it is vain and futile to imagine that we can discover God “out there.” Paul demolished all such thinking when he declared that God is actually not very far from us at all, for in Him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:26-28). We reach out in vain, trying to please the divine the best we think we know how, but ultimately that can never be enough: we cannot be justified or made righteous on our own by our own effort (Romans 3:20). Even if God is as close as He is far away, we cannot bridge the divide separating us, no matter how much human religion would like to think it can (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Instead, God bridged the gap in Himself. Man, according to his religion, tries to build up to reach the heavens; God, in humility, came to earth as a man, lived as a man, and died as a man (Philippians 2:5-11). Through the God-man Jesus humans can find true religion through reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11); it does not involve any elevation, any building, any attempt to reach up by our own unaided efforts to find what we are seeking. We grope and grasp for truth and discover that it has always been here the whole time, reaching out to us (cf. Revelation 3:20-21).

The Tower of Babel was a monument to human pretension, man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Human religion, in its own way, has the same goal: seeking the divine on man’s terms, creating gods in his own image and according to his own fancy, and it all ultimately is designed to glorify himself. Yet such pursuits are in vain. The Tower of Babel no longer exists. The ruins of the ziggurats were discovered by European archaeologists who believed in the God of Israel, the glory of those empires long faded. The pyramids sit in Egypt as ruins, pillaged for stone in medieval days in order to build the old city in Cairo. Few honor the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

We should not imagine that times are altogether different now. We still have human religion with gods made according to man’s fancy. We have large buildings which stand as testimonies to the gods of today: money, power, fame, and so on. Nations build ever larger buildings, attempting to get greater glory and to seem important, a projection of strength. And it will happen to all these nations, buildings, and gods as it happened to the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. They will pass away, Their religion will not satisfy and will fail.

Meanwhile, the name of Jesus is still on the lips of untold thousands, heard everywhere. The Gospel remains powerful, the only antidote to human religion. Human religion projects strength; God came as Christ in weakness. Human religion vaunts itself; Jesus was humble (Matthew 20:25-28). Human religion seeks its own end; Jesus gave up all things to glorify His Father and accomplish His purposes (John 5:19-24, 30-47, Philippians 2:5-11). According to human religion, man seeks to use his power to save himself; in Christ, we learn that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, and so we must yield and submit ourselves to God so that we can work in Him according to all that He has prepared for us (Philippians 2:12-13).

We have a choice: the Tower of Babel or the Temple of Jesus. The former seems glorious but fades and collapses; the latter seems weak but is truly strong and will endure. Let us choose to follow Jesus and become part of His body, His temple, and honor and glorify God in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry