Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

The Biblical Bathsheba and Her Afterlives

Sermon for Romsey Uniting Church, 29 July 2012

2 Samuel 11:1-15

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Today, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my historian’s hat. Today our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the second book of Samuel, tells the story of David’s seduction of Bathsheba and his decision to murder her husband, and it does not contain a single mention of God. It’s next week, in the second part of the story, that the Prophet Nathan will tell David how YHWH feels about his actions. Today we just have the tale of those actions, and what I want to do is take us on a quick tour of how this story have been told and retold over the centuries, asking whether there is in that history any lessons for us today.

A quick recap. David’s general, Joab, and all Israel’s soldiers are away at war. David remains in Jerusalem, and one afternoon, walking on his roof, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. He asks who she is, and is told that she is ‘Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite’. What happens next is what one commentator calls the ‘biblical equivalent of “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am”’: he sent, he took, she came, he lay, she returned. The translation softens this ever so slightly by translating what in Hebrew is ‘David sent messengers to take her’ into ‘David sent messengers to fetch her’. Bathsheba returns home and sends word to David that she’s pregnant. We know that the baby is David’s, because she’d just been purifying herself after her period.

Before this story begins we know that David already has sons by six different wives. Sleeping with multiple women isn’t a problem. What is a problem is that he has now slept with another man’s wife. This is adultery, and the penalty for that was death. So David tries to cover his sin up. There’s no suggestion that David wants to marry Bathsheba. Instead, David sends for Uriah, hoping that Uriah will have intercourse with his wife, and thus make the possibility that Uriah fathered Bathsheba’s child plausible. But Uriah doesn’t go home as David expects him to, and when David asks him about this, Uriah replies: ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife?’ The next night David gets Uriah drunk, but even then Uriah doesn’t lie with his wife. Finally, David sends Uriah back to the army, carrying his own death warrant, a letter to Joab that says: ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’ Joab does as David asks; he sends Uriah to a place where there are valiant warriors, and they come out and kill some of the servants of David, including Uriah. Problem solved, at least for this week.

Next week, as I said, we’ll hear what YHWH thinks about what David has done. This week, I want to focus on the portrayal of Bathsheba; and then on the way in which people have coped with this portrayal of David.

In this entire story Bathsheba utters only two, admittedly vital, words: ‘I’m pregnant’. We are never told what she thinks. Did she know why the king had summoned her? Was she willing, even happy, to lie with him, or did she do it because he was her king? Did she love her husband? How did she feel about her soon-to-be second husband arranging the death of her first? We don’t know. All we know about her is that she was beautiful, and that when she conceived she told David.

There’s a reason the biblical narrator is so reticent about Bathsheba’s inner life. The narrator is not writing straight-forward reportage. This is a narrative with a purpose. As one commentator writes:

Were we … to be shown the inner worlds of the tragic Uriah and of Bathsheba as they are caught up in a whirlpool not of their own making, we should find it very difficult to forgive David; this would spoil the effect of the second part of the story, whose message is that repentance is at least partially effectual even after adultery and murder.[1]

For the narrator, Bathsheba is simply the occasion of David’s sin. This narrative reticence has affected the ways in which Bathsheba’s been portrayed in stories, paintings, films and commentaries down the ages. Because we don’t know anything about her feelings, people have been able to use her to defend David.

This story is a particularly sordid episode in the life of the great king of Israel. The biblical narrator makes no attempt to soften David’s guilt. We’ll be told next week that what David did displeased YHWH. Admittedly David’s sin is seen in patriarchal terms, as a sin against YHWH and against Uriah for sleeping with Uriah’s wife, not as a sin against Bathsheba. But it is seen as David’s sin.

The first attempt to rescue David is made by the author of the books of Chronicles, which usually follow the books of Samuel story for story. The equivalent part of Chronicles goes like this:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, Joab led out the army, ravaged the country of the Ammonites, and came and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. Joab attacked Rabbah, and overthrew it.[2]

That’s one way of dealing with the problem: ignore it altogether.

The authors of Jewish midrash, the stories written to fill in the Biblical gaps, had other ways. They blamed it on Satan: Satan appeared in the shape of a bird, and when David fired an arrow at him it knocked over the screen behind which Bathsheba was bathing, revealing her to David. Or it was God’s fault: God brought David to crime so that God might say to other sinners: ‘Go to David and learn how to repent’. Or it was Uriah’s fault: Uriah had incurred the death penalty by refusing the command of his king to take his ease.[3] According to the Jewish sages, the fault wasn’t really David’s.

In biblical commentaries the most common way of absolving David has been to blame Bathsheba. What was she doing bathing naked where the king could see her? Did she intend to be seen? Sadly this line isn’t out of date. As recently as 1988, one commentator wrote:

It cannot be doubted that Bathsheba’s action in bathing so close to the king’s residence was provocative, nor can the possibility that the provocation was deliberate be discounted. Even if it was not deliberate, Bathsheba’s bathing in a place so clearly open to the king’s palace can hardly indicate less than a contributory negligence on her part.[4]

Nine years later the same commentator repeated this argument, going further to suggest that it was Bathsheba who had the power in the relationship. She knew that she was fertile, having just finished her period (this being the time the ancient world thought was particularly favourable for conception). Not only did Bathsheba initiate the adultery, she initiated it at a time when she knew that she was likely to conceive.[5] Really, we should feel sorry for the entrapped David!

The story of David and Bathsheba is part of our culture; even people who would never open a Bible have some inkling of it, because of the way it has been disseminated. Interestingly, although the Bible never said that Bathsheba was naked when bathing, that’s how she’s usually portrayed. There are paintings throughout the world’s art galleries of a naked woman bathing in sight of a king; presenting herself to the gaze of both David and the viewers of the painting. Given the society within which we live, it’s no wonder that she’s seen as less than virtuous.

ImageThen there is the most famous contemporary portrayal of this story, the 1951 movie starring Gregory Peck and Susan Heyward. This defends David in two ways. Firstly, the movie again suggests that Bathsheba’s bathing in David’s sight was deliberate. The relevant dialogue between them is:

Bathsheba: … Before you went away, I used to watch you every evening as you walked on your terrace. Always at the same hour, always alone. Today I heard you had returned.

David: And you knew that I …

Bathsheba: You’d be on your terrace tonight? Yes. I had heard that never had the king found a woman to please him. I dared to hope I might be that woman.

Secondly, the movie tells this tale as a great love story. As the back of the DVD pack puts it, this is:

A sprawling, action-packed epic that sweeps off the pages of the Bible and across the screen recreating one of the most torrid tales of passion ever told … It’s a story of sin and redemption, a searing saga of love as burning as the sands of the harsh landscape on which it was consummated. A love that violated the laws of man – and God. David, once the Chosen One, now risks God’s wrath, his kingdom, and the life of Bathsheba, who may be stoned to death for his sin![6]

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No suggestion that this was a one-night stand for David that he would have been happy to forget, or that he’d have been happy to leave Bathsheba with Uriah if only the baby could plausibly be thought to be Uriah’s. No, the story of David and Bathsheba is presented as the story of a great love.

One of the reasons I’ve talked about this story with my historian’s hat on is the difficulty I have in preaching a sermon based on it. After all, there is no mention of God in today’s reading. This is a sordid tale of adultery and murder. What’s the moral? Next week we’ll be offered the moral that nothing we do is beyond God’s forgiveness, and that’s not a bad one. But this week’s moral might be that when a man in position of power abuses a woman, we shouldn’t excuse the man by blaming the woman, no matter how tempting or easy that might be. I’m going to leave it up to you. Over the next week, ponder what you think the moral of Bathsheba’s story might be.


[1] Moshe Garsiel, ‘The Story of David and Bathsheba: A Different Approach’ 55 Catholic Biblical Quarterly (1993), pp. 244-62.

[2] 1 Chronicles 20:1.

[3] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews vol. IV, 1987, pp. 103-4.

[4] George G. Nicol, ‘Bathsheba, a Clever Woman?’ 99 Expository Times (1988), p. 360.

[5] George G. Nicol, ‘The Alleged Rape of Bathsheba: Some Observations on Ambiguity in Biblical Narrative’ 73 JSOT (1997), pp. 43-54.

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July 27, 2012 - Posted by | Ministry, Slightly Higher Culture | , , , ,

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