What comes to your mind when you hear that name?
There are several controversial women in the Bible, but most can agree that Bathsheba’s name and reputation carries with it a tinge of scandal. In songs and in art, she has been portrayed as a seductress who singlehandedly caused the moral decline and fall of Israel’s greatest king. Film adaptations have often depicted her in one of two ways:
1. As a cunning opportunist, ready and willing to engage in an illicit love affair in the hopes of weaseling her way up the imperial ladder and into the royal court.
2. As a wily, calculated woman who knew exactly what she was doing when she was bathing; she was aware that King David could see her from the roof of his palace. She lacked modesty and was intentional and complicit in his moral downfall. The adultery that resulted was mutual, and that they both contributed to the proscribed affair in equal measure.
It has been many, many years since the last time I had read or heard a sermon on this story in 2 Samuel 11-12. At the time, I do remember ascribing both of the above depictions to Bathsheba. But a fresh reading of the passage recently in my women’s Bible Study group compelled me to look deeper. I was pretty sure I misunderstood her.
But before I proceed, I must tell you what this blog post IS, what it is NOT, and what assumptions you need to assume.
IT IS WHAT IT IS…AND IT ISN’T WHAT IT ISN’T
1. This post IS intended to provide you with a different perspective on Bathsheba based on the social, cultural, and historical context of that specific day and time. Bathsheba’s story happened in Ancient Israel. We do ourselves a disservice when we aren’t cognizant of how far removed we are, not only geographically, but even more so, culturally to the people and culture of her day. Some of the social and cultural constructs we read from that time and place can seem shocking and foreign to us in our own context in the here-and-now, and I totally get it. But if we apply our western, Americanized influences to an Ancient Near East text, we will fail to understand it as intended.
2. The Bible leaves out a lot of details and I try to fill in the blanks with extrabiblical sources.
3. Just because I am reporting something does not mean that I am supporting that thing, too. You must assume that I am just as horrified as you when I mention something horrific, even if it seems my writing is stoically glossing over these terrible things.
4. I talk about David a lot but this post is primarily not about him
5. Lastly, this is NOT a pro- or anti- #MeToo movement manifesto. Read #5 again.
WHO WAS SHE?: The Text & the Context
So, back to this controversial woman. What clues can we glean from the text?
2 Samuel 11:1-2: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. \ It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.
Low-budget, straight-to-DVD movies interpret this text as Bathsheba immodestly bathing in an open area within the eye-line of King David whom she knew could see her from his palace rooftop. She carefully timed her bath in the evening knowing that at the exact same time, David would be taking his evening stroll on the roof after an afternoon nap. Cue the bedroom music.
But is that accurate? And did Bathsheba even know King David was there?
The text and the films both agree that King David was on the roof and that he saw a beautiful woman bathing. But, the text does not imply all the other fluff.
2 Samuel 11: 3-5: “And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, ‘Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’ \ So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness). Then she returned to her house. \ And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’”
This very brief account of the first sexual encounter between King David and Bathsheba leaves out a lot of details. The text doesn’t indicate what she’s thinking or feeling, neither does it give us any clue of her emotional or psychological state. So it’s understandable that her motives and her actions are entirely up for speculation to the reader.
So let’s give the text a closer look:
The text says Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam. Eliam was an elite warrior in King David’s army (2 Sam. 23:34). The text also says Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah. Uriah is the armor bearer to Joab, the commander of the King’s army. (Only those in a high military position had armor-bearers, and it was a prominent position to have. Armor bearers were responsible for killing enemies wounded by their masters. After enemy soldiers were wounded, armor-bearers finished the job). Additionally, 2 Sam 23:24 infers that the Elite Advisor to the King, Ahithophel, was Bathsheba’s grandfather (as it states that Ahithophel was the father of Eliam).
Bathsheba’s relationship to Ahithophel, Eliam, and Uriah would have given her some status. However, she still would have been considered a civilian. She would not have been privy (or have been made privy) to the King’s schedule, what he was doing, when he took his naps, when he woke up, or where he was at any given time. Another point to consider is that if her husband and her father were away at battle fighting the Ammonites, Bathsheba would have assumed that’s where the King would be also. Kings often went to battle with their army. It would have been completely natural for her to assume that that was where David was, too. However, David didn’t go off to war with his men. He stayed in Jerusalem instead.
BATHSHEBA TAKES A BATH
“…he saw from the roof a woman bathing.. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness).”
Why was Bathsheba bathing? And was “bathing” thousands of years ago the same way we “bathe” in America today? The answer is probably “no.” The text doesn’t even say she was nude. Here is what I infer based on the cultural and historical information of the day:
1) Bathsheba was bathing because she was a Torah-observing woman. She was bathing because she was “purifying herself from her uncleanness.” The Torah required women to do a ritual cleansing 7 days after the last day of their menstrual cycle. During a Jewish woman’s menstrual cycle, she was considered ceremonially unclean and was prohibited from marital sexual activity and Temple Worship until the required time had been fulfilled. Completing the ritual cleansing gave a woman the ability to resume sexual relations with her husband again and recommence Temple worship. The parenthetical mention of Bathsheba purifying herself is very important: she just completed a period. The narrator wants you to know this because when Bathsheba tells David she’s pregnant, you can be confident that she is pregnant by David.
2) Bathsheba could have very well have bathed with a cloth wrapped around her like a lot of other cultures still practice to this day.
3) Bathsheba wasn’t bathing “in broad daylight.” It was customary of women in those days to do their bathing and washing at the wells, and they would do so in the evening when it was the coolest time of the day.
4) The status of her family may have provided Bathsheba with a private well within the compound of her own home, and she was probably bathing in an enclosed courtyard that most civilians would be unable to look through or see.
She didn’t have a bathroom with water pipes that connect to a bathtub like we do, and even if her well was public, men were not allowed to peer. Laws governing human behavior held with them an unspoken rule of etiquette and decency. If a trespass took place in a public bathing area, the responsibility lay on the trespasser to respect the privacy of the bather. Bathsheba, bathing in the evening, was doing nothing out of the ordinary of her custom and her culture, whether she had a private well or a public one.
RAPE? ADULTERY? BOTH?
2 Samuel 11:4a – “So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.”
The text does not indicate that Bathsheba resisted David’s summons. It also doesn’t indicate she even knew why she was being summoned. Could she have denied the summons, knowing that to ignore or deny it in that culture is punishable by death? I don’t know about you, but if my Father and my Husband were active duty members of the United States Military doing combat and they were away at war, and the Secret Service showed up to my door unannounced telling me the President needed to see me, I would have thought something bad must have happened to my Father and/or my Husband, and I would have gone to see the President to gather more information. I can’t speak for her, but if that were the case, she perhaps would have felt the same. She would have wanted to know if something happened to the men in her family because to be a woman in that culture without a father, a husband, or sons would have rendered her destitute.
David’s intentions may not have been known to her until she was standing in his presence. We tend to think this whole story is some sordid, illicit affair. But is it? King David sent armed guards at night to bring one of his subjects into his bed. To me, it sounds like rape. And to cover up this rape, he committed murder. The text does not deny this, and David didn’t deny it, either.
So what were Bathsheba’s options? The text doesn’t say what she did next, except that she was sent home after the act. Here are some of my hypotheses:
1. She could have sent word to her husband---but if she did, Uriah would have the legal right to divorce her, However, the stigma of divorce would carry shame with it. To be a single mother and be “put out” by a husband was to place a woman in a very vulnerable position. In this culture, a woman without a husband would have a very difficult time providing for herself. Unmarried women often had no choice but to sell themselves into prostitution to survive. It wouldn’t surprise me if the thought of having to live that kind of life with a child as a single mother crossed Bathsheba’s mind.
2. Bathsheba could have legally enforced the conditional divorces warriors at the time gave to their wives. According to The Talmud (the oral law that governed everyday life at the time), David’s troops always gave their wives conditional divorces. This law was to protect and to provide for women financially in case their warrior-husbands died in battle or were missing in action. By this rule, Bathsheba could have initiated her legal right to actuate the conditional divorce at any time.
3. Bathsheba could have claimed she had been raped---but because of David’s positional power, not only could she have been accused of treason, but she would have been killed for such an accusation even if it were true.
4. Bathsheba could have outed David publicly with news of the pregnancy---but perhaps that would have resulted in the people losing faith in their King during a time of war. Who knows? Perhaps she was thinking of her nation, too.
5. Bathsheba had the legal right to demand that David take her as his wife and pay the full bride price for her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), especially now that she was with child.
However, we see that she does none of these things.
Instead, Bathsheba went back home and silently waited. Perhaps she privately weighed out all of those options. Perhaps she fervently prayed. The text doesn’t say, but she eventually told David she was pregnant. By doing so, she acquiesced her fate into God’s hands, resting in the hope that He would turn this bad situation into good, as He had done with so many of her ancestors in the past (Joseph, in particular). Later on, we will see that God does.
But first, let’s recap:
Bathsheba was observing the Torah by performing a ritual cleansing at the required time after her menstrual cycle. David saw her purifying herself from his palace rooftop and irresponsibly chose not to look away. David inquired about her identity and was told she was the wife of another man. Despite this knowledge, David sent armed guards to bring Bathsheba to him. Bathsheba did not/could not decline his summons. David possibly raped her. She became pregnant. She did not divorce her husband, though she could have, legally. Then, according to 2 Samuel 11:6-27, David conspired to cover up the adultery. He took Uriah off the battleground and ordered him to go home to sleep with his wife so that the assumption would be that the child is Uriah’s. Uriah defies that order for seemingly patriotic reasons. Then, David attempts a second time by getting him drunk in the hopes that he’d feel frisky enough to sleep with Bathsheba. Instead, Uriah passes out on the couch and doesn’t go to his wife. And so finally, David orders his army commander, Joab, to send Uriah to the frontlines where the battle was the fiercest. Uriah dies in battle. Bathsheba mourns for her husband. When the time of mourning was over, David took Bathsheba to his palace to be his wife and she bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord. (2 Samuel 11:27b).
Nowhere in Scripture does God speak against Bathsheba in this matter. In the text, God directs all of his judgment and displeasure on to David. In fact, when God charges David with these sins through the prophet, Nathan, Nathan likens Bathsheba to the “innocent ewe” in the narration. Let’s take a look:
YOU DA MAN! (but in the worst possible way)
2 Samuel 12: 1-9: “And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, ‘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.’
Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anoint you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what was evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.’’”
God likened Uriah to the poor man.
God likened David to the rich man who took the poor man’s only precious ewe.
And God likened Bathsheba to the ewe lamb---not just a ewe, but a ewe lamb. Meaning, a female baby sheep. An innocent, female, baby sheep. Bathsheba was the innocent ewe lamb. A lamb who remained silent and simultaneously suffered all of the judgment and consequences that resulted by someone else’s unrighteous act done against her.
Who, in the New Testament, does that remind you of?
This ewe lamb, as God described her, was chosen to be the foremother of the Innocent Lamb who would be led to slaughter to die a sacrificial and substitutionary death for all mankind. God’s narrative to Nathan does not depict Bathsheba as a wily serpent who seduced her way into David’s bed. After Nathan’s pronouncement, David is forgiven for this iniquity, but although forgiven, David must still suffer the consequences of his actions….
…and Bathsheba, too, suffered the judgment, though the crime and the sin was charged on someone else.
The son she bore to David died.
THE SIN IS GREAT, BUT GOD’S GRACE IS GREATER STILL
Through God’s redemptive grace and mercy, Bathsheba would give David 4 more sons: Solomon, Nathan, Shobab and Shammua. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, directly descended from Solomon. Jesus’ earthly mother, Mary, was a direct descendent of Nathan. David had 19 sons total by several wives, but it was Solomon, his son by Bathsheba, that God had ordained to rightfully succeed the throne after him. It was Solomon who built the Temple for Yahweh that David so desperately wanted to build himself, and it was Solomon who would largely write the poetry and wisdom books in the Old Testament. Bathsheba was chosen to raise the wisest king of Israel who brought peace and glory to their nation during his reign.
During King Solomon’s reign, he would honor Bathsheba by commanding a throne to be put on his right-hand side whenever she walked in (1 Kings 2:18). A woman who was violated in the way that she had, who carried the shame that she did, would be brought high from being down low to sit at the right hand of the throne.
Who, in the New Testament, does that remind you of?
THE PROVERBS 31 WOMAN
Let’s take probably the most well-known passage in Proverbs that women all over the world have used as an example and aspire to be: Proverbs 31. This passage is the measuring stick by nearly all Christian women, as a standard of a virtuous woman and an excellent wife. But who wrote it?
Proverbs 31:1 says, “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:”
King Lemuel? Who is that?
To find the answer, I went to The Tanakh. The Tanakh is the canonical collection of Jewish texts, which is also the textual source for the Old Testament. The Tanakh states that Solomon was also called Lemuel. The Strong’s Concordance and many Christian commentaries states that Lemuel is the symbolic name for Solomon.
This supposed temptress and seductress becomes the inspiration behind the words of Solomon in Proverbs 31: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue…many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
WHAT CAN A GENEOLOGY TEACH US?
Another compelling evidences that Bathsheba held an honorable position among the House of Judah is the Genealogy recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.
The Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-16)
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob thefather of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father ofAmminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, andAsaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram thefather of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, andAhaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh thefather of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniahand his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud thefather of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, andZadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father ofEleazar, and Eleazar thefather of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
In the Ancient Near East, genealogies held names of only men, and only men of honorable reputation. The fact that women were even mentioned at all in the genealogy in Matthew 1 is astounding for that culture and time, let alone the mention of five of them. Matthew’s Gospel upped the ante by mentioning women who all had questionable pasts:
Tamar: she posed as a prostitute and bore twins by her father-in-law.
Rahab: she was a Caananite prostitute.
Ruth: she was a Moabite. Her people were long-standing enemies of Israel.
The Wife of Uriah: Bathsheba. She was a victim of possible rape by a powerful King, which resulted in a pregnancy that resulted in the murder of her husband.
Mary: she was an unmarried teenage girl who claimed she was impregnated by The Holy Spirit. Her betrothed, Joseph, planned to put her out quietly because of the questionable way she got pregnant.
Talking about each of these women deserve their own blog post because they led remarkable lives. So, forgive me for the brevity of each one. But the point is that these women were named, identified, and honored in the genealogy that produced The Savior of the World. These women were either poor, misfits, widows, unimportant, unknown and sinful who not only changed the course of their lives, but changed the course of human history because of their obedient lives. One might presume that the women listed in the genealogy of the King of kings and Lord of lords should have been the finest of Jewish women with spotless histories. But they weren’t. Two of them weren’t even Jewish, and aside from Ruth and Mary, they all had tainted sexual histories.
Who do these women sound like? They sound like you and me. We are all tarnished by sin. The fact that these women are included in this genealogy give me hope, because they foreshadow the kind of people the Messiah came to save. He came from a lineage of sinners to save sinners.
Praise be to God.