A Sympathetic Look at Bathsheba

This article is available in Spanish here.

I believe that Bathsheba has been unjustly criticised and judged by a number of people. She is described as a seductress by some, and as a conniving political opportunist by others, but I do not believe either of these descriptions match with how she is portrayed in Scripture. In this article I present a more sympathetic view of Bathsheba, and I aim to highlight, without imaginative or salacious embellishments, how the Scriptures depict her.

Bathsheba’s Bath – 2 Samuel 11:1-2

Almost everyone knows the story of when King David saw Bathsheba while she was bathing. This part of her story is mentioned in just a few verses with few details; however commonly held assumptions have influenced our understanding of the story. For instance, many people assume that Bathsheba was completely naked and brazenly exposed while she was bathing, but the Bible simply doesn’t say this.[1]

Customs of bathing in the ancient world, and in some cultures today, are very different to the way most westerners bathe. In many cultures, women do not have the luxury of a private bathroom and they bathe in more public places with a cloth or sarong wrapped around their bodies so that they are never completely naked.[2] We don’t know if Bathsheba was bathing in a public bath, or by a well, spring or river (cf. Judith 12:7-9), or if she was washing in the privacy of her own home or courtyard, but we do know that it was evening, so the light level may have been low. It is likely that Bathsheba was neither naked nor brazenly exposed when she was bathing.

2 Samuel 11:4b indicates that Bathsheba’s bath was part of a ritual cleansing. (This is clearer in the CEB, NRSV and NIV than in other English translations such as the NASB.) Devout Israelite women washed seven days after their period had finished, as indicated in the Law, and this may have been what Bathsheba was doing.[3]

The Bible does not tell us where Bathsheba was bathing, but it does tell us where David was. He was on his rooftop (after being in bed all day.) David’s palace would have been the largest building in Jerusalem, built on high ground, with the highest rooftop giving him a unique vantage point of the surrounding area, which was essential for security reasons.

Some assume that Bathsheba was hoping to attract the king’s attention and that she bathed in a seductive manner. However, it is likely that Bathsheba believed that David had gone to war with his fighting men—men who included her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 11:1). She may have had no idea that she was being watched.

A Royal Summons – 2 Samuel 11:3-5

After seeing the young[4] and beautiful Bathsheba, David sends for someone to find out who she is. As was the custom in biblical times, Bathsheba is identified by her relation to a man. In fact she is identified in respect to both her father and her husband. This identification indicates that she was a respectable person, as women with a dubious reputation were sometimes not identified by, and thus associated with, a named male relative. Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam, one of David’s top “Thirty” warriors (2 Sam. 23:34; cf. 1 Chron. 3:5)[5], and she was the wife of Uriah, also one of the “Thirty” (2 Samuel 23:39). The Bible depicts both as men of valour and honour.

When David found out who Bathsheba was, including the fact that she was a married woman, the text tersely states, “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her” (2 Sam. 11:4a). Did Bathsheba have a choice in any of this? Could she have refused the messengers who had come with a royal summons? Could she have refused the sexual advances of the king?[6]

The Bible portrays Bathsheba as a young, respectable wife who was following the Law, but she probably felt powerless to refuse the king.

After David has sex with her—an act that was tantamount to rape—she returns home, defiled, and, as it turned out, pregnant. David expected Bathsheba to resume her life as Uriah’s wife. He did not want her as a wife, but in his senseless lust he seemingly did not anticipate that Bathsheba might become pregnant. (If she was bathing seven days after her period had finished, then her cycle was at the optimum time for conception.)

A Grieving Widow – 2 Samuel 11:6-14, 26-27

The narrative in 2 Samuel 11:6-14 recounts the ways David tries to cover up his involvement with Bathsheba’s pregnancy. David recalls her husband Uriah from active military service and encourages him to go home to sleep with Bathsheba. David was hoping that Uriah would take responsibility for the pregnancy. However, Uriah, who has a strong sense of honour, stays with David’s servants instead of going home to his wife. He was “unwilling to violate the ancient Israelitish rule applying to warriors in active service.” (source) Uriah’s refusal to sleep with his wife because of his sense of military duty is in contrast to David staying idly in his palace and not going to war, as was the expectation (2 Sam. 11:1).

David then plots Uriah’s murder. He writes a letter to Joab, the commander of his army, with instructions that ensure Uriah will be killed—a letter that David callously places in Uriah’s own hand to deliver to Joab. In the letter, David orders Joab to place Uriah in a vulnerable position in battle, and then withdraw military support from him. And so Uriah is exposed to the enemy and killed (2 Sam. 11:14-25).

Bathsheba is now pregnant and widowed, and she mourns for her murdered husband.

Bathsheba is not mentioned by name in the second half of 2 Samuel chapter 11, rather she is referred to as “the wife of Uriah”. This has the effect of distancing her from David’s crimes and schemes.

Chapter 11 finishes with a succinct update of the situation and a scary insight into God’s view of what David had done:

When Bathsheba’s period of mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased [or, was evil in the sight of] the Lord (2 Sam. 11:27).

God holds David, not Bathsheba, responsible for what has happened. This becomes even clearer in chapter 12. It is important to note that Bathsheba is nowhere criticised in the Scriptures.

A Little Ewe Lamb – 2 Samuel 12:1-14

David is blind to his guilt, so God sends Nathan the prophet to him with a message. Nathan tells David a parable about a rich man with many sheep and cattle, and a poor shepherd with one precious lamb. In the story, the rich man takes the one lamb of the poor shepherd.[7] David sees the injustice in the story. He becomes angry at the rich man and exclaims that the man must die. He still does not realise that he has acted just like the ruthless rich man, and Nathan has to point out to David, “You are that man!”[8]

David now realises what he has done and writes a song, Psalm 51, which expresses his contrition. David had broken three of the Ten Commandments: he coveted his neighbour’s wife, committed adultery, and had Uriah killed. God spares David life, but others will suffer because of his sins.

Adele Berlin notes that, “Bathsheba’s role is intentionally minimized to focus the story on David. David bears the responsibility and the condemnation, and from this point on he is beset by problems within his family that have political implications for his reign. This David is quite different from the man depicted in the Abigail story.” (Source)

A Bereaved Mother – 2 Samuel 12:15-24

David marries the widowed Bathsheba, and she gives birth to a baby boy, but the baby becomes dangerously ill. David fasts and prays, hoping that God will spare the boy’s life, but seven days later the boy dies. The biblical text devotes several verses which relate David’s prayers and grief for the baby, but we are not told of Bathsheba’s distress. She seems to suffer in silence. I feel for Bathsheba and the ordeal she faced because of David’s lust and wickedness.

David takes care of Bathsheba as his legal wife and we are told that he consoled her (that is, he had sex with her) after the death of their son. Bathsheba conceives and gives birth to another boy and named him Solomon. “And the LORD loved him” (2 Sam. 12:24). Things are beginning to look up for Bathsheba.

A Queen Mother – 1 Kings 1:11-31; 2:10-12

Many years pass. David has become an old man and is losing competence, and his eldest son Adonijah has set himself up as king.  Nathan the prophet goes to Bathsheba and says,

“Have you not heard that Adonijah son of Haggith[9] has become king and our lord David does not know it? Now therefore come, let me give you advice, so that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne? Why then is Adonijah king?’ Then while you are still there speaking with the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words.”

Bathsheba follows Nathan’s instruction and goes to David and tells him what has happened. For those that think Bathsheba was a political opportunist, it is important to note that Bathsheba acted on Nathan’s advice here and not from her own initiative.

David tells Bathsheba, “As the Lord lives, who has saved my life from every adversity, as I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ so will I do this day” (1 Kings 1:29-30). David commands that Solomon be immediately anointed and publicly announced as his successor.

Shortly afterwards David dies and Solomon becomes king of Israel (1 Kings 2:10-12). Bathsheba had been one of King David’s many wives, but now she is the king’s only mother. Being the king’s mother, or the “queen mother”, is a step up for her.

A Royal Throne – 1 Kings 2:13-25

After David’s death, Adonijah, who had hoped to be king, approaches Bathsheba and makes a request: “Please ask King Solomon—he will not refuse you—to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife.” (Abishag was the young women whose job it was to keep the elderly King David warm and virile.) Bathsheba doesn’t seem to have had a problem with Adonijah’s request.

Adonijah, as well as Nathan, used Bathsheba as a go-between. They both seem to have recognised that she had diplomatic skill and influence with the king.

Bathsheba meets with King Solomon. The text says “the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand” (1 Kings 2:19). Bathsheba is in a position of power and honour. She is on a throne at the right hand of her son, the king.

Bathsheba presents Adonijah’s request to her son, but Solomon perceives that gaining David’s “concubine” is part of a plot for gaining David’s throne, and he orders Adonijah’s execution (1 Kings 2:22ff).[10] With the removal of Adonijah, Solomon’s kingdom is now established (c. 968 BC).

In Wisdom Literature

The nation of Israel thrived under Solomon’s wise leadership. Solomon’s wisdom is also seen in his writing. He is traditionally credited as the author of the biblical books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. In the Song of Solomon he mentions his mother fondly: that she crowned him with a wedding crown (Song 3:11).

Solomon also wrote much of the material included in the book of Proverbs, and from a couple of these proverbs we can see that Solomon respected the teaching of his mother (Prov. 1:8-9; 6:20 cf. Prov. 31:1ff). “Mother” is mentioned fifteen times in Proverbs, always with some sense that mothers deserve respect and should be spared the dishonour and grief caused by foolish children (Prov. 1:8; 4:12; 6:20; 10:1; 15:20; 17:25; 19:26; 20:20; 23:22, 25; 28:24; 29:15; 30:11, 17; 31:1ff). Did Bathsheba experience the grief of witnessing Solomon’s foolish foreign marriages and later idolatry (1 Kings 11:1-13 cf. Deut. 7:3-5)?

In Jesus’ Genealogies 

Bathsheba bore other children with David, including three more sons after Solomon. Two of her four sons are included the genealogies of Jesus: Solomon in Matthew 1:6 and Nathan in Luke 3:31. In Matthew’s genealogy four women are mentioned; three by name: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.  Bathsheba, however, is referred to simply as “the wife of Uriah” even though she was married to King David when she conceived and gave birth to Solomon. (Some English translations such as the NASB add Bathsheba’s name in Matthew 1:6, but her name is absent the Greek text.) Being referred to as “Uriah’s wife” seems to be an implicit reminder of David’s treacherous behaviour (1 Kings 15:5).

Conclusion

Bathsheba was a respectable young woman who suffered greatly because of King David’s actions. She was raped,[11] her husband was murdered, and then her first-born baby died. There is not the slightest hint of impropriety or guilt on Bathsheba’s part in the biblical text. David alone is held accountable and bears the responsibility for these terrible events, while Bathsheba seems to suffer in silence. Her situation improves with the birth of Solomon who was especially loved by God. Solomon becomes king in David’s place, and Bathsheba becomes the queen mother. Solomon seems to have a great deal of respect for his mother and he gives her a place of honour.

After a royal summons that brought about a wretched entrance into palace life, Bathsheba’s circumstances improved to the point that she had her own royal throne in the palace. Ultimately, Jesus was born through David and Bathsheba’s lineage, so Bathsheba has the distinction of being a great, great . . . grandmother of the Messiah. Bathsheba is depicted as an honorable woman in the Bible.


Endnotes

[1] For an unsympathetic look at Bathsheba, riddled with unfair assumptions, see Herbert Lockyer’s article on Bathsheba on Bible Gateway. Even his title, Bathsheba: The Woman Whose Beauty Resulted in Adultery and Murder, seems to put the blame on Bathsheba’s beauty, rather than on David’s actions. Lockyer’s articles on Dinah and a few other Bible women are equally heartless and unjust.

[2] In book 2 of his Jewish Wars, Josephus writes about first-century CE Essene women and men bathing in mikva’ot (ritual baths) with some clothing on: “Now the women go into the bath with some of their garments on, as do the men with something girded about them.” Wars 2.8.13 (161).
In the apocryphal Acts of Peter there is a disturbing story of a ten-year-old girl who was bathing with her mother and seen by a rich and powerful man. The man sends many messages to the mother asking to marry the girl. The mother refuses, and the man kidnaps the girl. The story is fiction, and written a thousand years after the David and Bathsheba story, but it does illustrate that respectable women might be seen while bathing.

[3] Mikva’ot, ritual Jewish baths, were common in Jerusalem between 100 BC–70 AD, but there is no surviving literary or archaeological evidence of similar ritual baths which date from David’s time, 1000 BC. (More on mikva’ot here.)

[4] Nathan’s parable recorded in 2 Samuel 12:1-4 of the shepherd and his “one little ewe lamb” might indicate Bathsheba’s young age. In some Rabbinical literature, Bathsheba is said to be a young child; however, she had already begun menstruating and was fertile when David had sex with her, so she must have been at least in her teens. In biblical times, brides were often young teenagers.

[5] In 1 Chronicles, Bathsheba is referred to as the daughter of Ammiel, rather than Eliam (1 Chron. 3:5). The name Ammiel has the same components as in the name Eliam but arranged in a different order. Ammiel means “my kinsman is God” while Eliam means “my God is kinsman”. (Several people in the Bible have more than one name. Even Solomon was named Jedidiah by God (2 Sam. 12:24-25).) Eliam’s father was Ahithophel, one of David’s top advisers.

[6] Cheryl Exum makes an interesting comment on Bathsheba’s rape: “Whether David rapes Bathsheba is a moot question . . . What Bathsheba might have done or felt is not the point; the point is we are not allowed access to her point of view. The issue of force versus consent, which is crucial for constructing the woman’s point of view, is not raised. Nor does the text describe an attempted seduction, which would give the woman a role, even if one in which she is manipulated. Bathsheba’s rape is semiotic; that is to say, her violation occurs not so much in the story as by means of the story. By denying her subjectivity. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996) 22.

[7] Note that the lamb and the poor shepherd, allegorically representative of Bathsheba and Uriah, are portrayed as innocent and helpless in Nathan’s parable.

[8] The parable about the little ewe lamb is about ownership and theft, and seemingly implies that women were regarded as the property of men. This tells us about the view of patriarchal men at that time, rather than how God views his daughters.

[9] Haggith was Adonijah’s mother (2 Sam. 3:2-5 cf. 1 Chron. 3:1-9).

[10] Solomon had previously shown clemency to his half-brother Adonijah (1 Kings 1:51-53).

[11] There is no hint that Bathsheba consented, or that she even had the power to consent or refuse either the royal summons or the seduction. The imbalance of power between the king of Israel and Bathsheba was stacked against her. In the past, what happened between David and Bathsheba has been referred to as adultery, but with today’s understanding we call what happened to Bathsheba as rape. It was a terrible abuse of power on King David’s part.

Postscript

Woman Leaving the Bath, Pablo Picasso, 1901

Most people, when they think of Bathsheba, think of her at her bath. I had initially decided to use this image of a painting by Picasso, an image that wasn’t based on Bathsheba. But then I thought, “I’m sick of Bathsheba being so strongly associated with her bath, I’ll find another image.” I want to focus more on Bathsheba’s influential and honourable end with Solomon, not her helpless and miserable beginning with David.
Image credit: Thumbnail of “Woman Leaving the Bath”, Pablo Picasso, 1901 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Further Reading

Bathsheba’s “other” David: The Marginalization of Women and Christ as Answer by Tanya Riches
What you need to know about Bathsheba by Dalaina May

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