story of david and bathsheba, rape, adultery, solomon, mikvah

This article is available in Spanish here.

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 Scripture depicts 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. Commonly held assumptions, however, 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. Sometimes they bathe with clothes on, or 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 by a well, or spring, or river (cf. Judith 12:7-9); or if she was bathing at her own home, perhaps on the roof or in a courtyard. But we do know it was evening, so the light level may have been low. It is more than 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. 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. This was essential for security reasons.

Some assume Bathsheba was hoping to attract the king’s attention and that she bathed in a seductive manner. However, it is likely she believed that David had gone to war with his fighting men—men who included her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 11:1). Bathsheba probably had no idea 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 tell him 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 double identification indicates that she was a respectable person, as women with a dubious reputation were sometimes not identified by, and 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, “So David sent messengers to get her. When she came to him, he had sex with her” (2 Sam. 11:4a CEB). Did Bathsheba have a choice in any of this? Could she have refused the king’s messengers who had come with a royal summons? Could she have refused the king’s sexual advances?[6]

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

After David has sex with her—an act that was tantamount to rape—she returns home, defiled. And she becomes pregnant. David expected Bathsheba to resume her life as Uriah’s wife. He did not want her as a wife. In his senseless lust, however, 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 an 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 sends him home to rest. David wants him to sleep with Bathsheba. He is hoping that Uriah will take responsibility for the pregnancy. However, Uriah has a strong sense of honour and 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 schemes and crimes and his guilt.

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

When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husbandAfter the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son. But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes (2 Sam. 11:26-27 CEB).

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

Adele Berlin summarises the situation: “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 that 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 wickedness.

David takes care of Bathsheba as his legal wife, and we are told he consoled her (i.e. he had sex with her) after the death of their son. Bathsheba conceives and gives birth to another boy and names 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,

“Did you hear that Adonijah, Haggith’s son,[9] has become king, but our master David doesn’t know about it? Let me give you some advice on how you and your son Solomon can survive this. Go to King David and say, ‘Didn’t my master the king swear to your servant, “Your son Solomon will certainly rule after me. He will sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ While you are speaking there with the king, I’ll come along and support your words.” (1 Kings 1:11b-14 CEB)

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

David tells Bathsheba, “As surely as the Lord lives, who rescued me from every trouble, regarding what I swore to you by the Lord, Israel’s God, ‘Your son Solomon will certainly succeed me; he will sit on the throne after me’—I’ll see that it happens today” (1 Kings 1:29b-30 CEB). 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: “Ask King Solomon to let me marry Abishag from Shunem—he won’t refuse you” (1 Kings 2:17 CEB). (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 and bowed low to her. Then he returned to his throne and had a throne set up for the queen mother. She sat to his right” (1 Kings 2:19 CEB). 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 BCE).

In Wisdom Literature

The nation of Israel thrived under Solomon’s wise leadership. His wisdom is also seen in his writings. Solomon 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 some of the material he compiled in the book of Proverbs. 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.[11] Did Bathsheba experience grief by 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. Solomon is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:6. Nathan is mentioned in the genealogy in Luke 3:31. This Nathan is not the prophet, but a son of David. However, it is not clear if this Nathan is Bathsheba’s son or the son of one of David’s other wives or concubines.

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 from the Greek text.) Being referred to as “Uriah’s wife” seems to be a 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 sexually abused,[12] 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. He 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 had 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. She has the distinction of being a great, great . . . grandmother of the Messiah. Bathsheba is depicted as an honourable 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 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 Book of Susannah, which is part of the Septuagint, the virtuous Susannah is raped after bathing in a pool in her husband’s garden, with the garden gates locked. 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 text doesn’t say where they were bathing.) The man sends many messages to the mother asking to marry the girl. The mother refuses, and the man kidnaps the girl. These stories are fiction and written several hundred after the David and Bathsheba story, but it does illustrate that respectable women could bathe outside and 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 that 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 Rabbinic literature, Bathsheba is said to be a young child; however, she was fertile when David had sex with her, so she must have been at least in her teens. (In biblical times, new brides were often in their early or mid-teens.)

[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”. 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 of 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] “Mother” is mentioned in Proverbs 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; and 31:1ff.

[12] There is no hint that Bathsheba consented, or that she 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

I like the note the CEB Study Bible has for 2 Samuel 11:2-5. It assumes that Bathsheba, as well as David, were each on their respective rooftops. The last sentence is telling.

David was pacing on the roof of his palace. Bathsheba was bathing on the roof of her house. Neither one of these activities was unusual in the crowded setting of a walled city. Bathing was often on the roof. There was no drainage system inside a house for bathing. Bathsheba may have doing ritual cleansing related to her menstrual period (11:4). There is no suggestion that Bathsheba intended to attract David’s attention. The text gives no support to the idea that she was a seductress. David’s palace would command a view of the rooftops of most of the city, and many people might have been in view while bathing. The text does tell us that he found her beautiful (11:2), and he inquired about her identity. The report came back that she was married to Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s own officers (11:3). This doesn’t discourage David, however. He sends messengers to get her, which can be translated as “he took her” (11:4). The prophet Samuel used the same verb in his warning to the elders about kings who “take” from the people (1 Sam. 8:10-18). David’s sex with Bathsheba is adultery under the menace of power. The narrative gives no indication that David would have seen this woman again, except that she sent word that she is pregnant.


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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