“David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. (2Sam 11:2, King James Version [KJV])
The question is, when David saw the woman bathing, was he looking at a naked woman?
Why ask the question? Well, for an artist, it may be the practical matter of how to depict the woman. There are, in fact, many naked Bathshebas, including the famous one now in the Louvre painted by Rembrandt in 1654. But, as the history of biblical interpretation shows, it may also be a matter of morality: the answer to the question may be used to shift blame for the king’s adultery from David to Bathsheba.
Many an interpreter has held Bathsheba to be at fault for showing herself naked to the king—for seducing him. This judgment is nicely encapsulated in the comment accompanying a picture of a naked Bathsheba bathing from a late 15th-century book of hours (a devotional book for laypersons) reproduced on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:
[The French artist] Bourdichon portrayed her as a self-conscious temptress displaying her charms, which accord with the highest standards of feminine beauty current in the fifteenth century.
Bourdichon followed the custom of late medieval illuminated books of hours and psalters in showing Bathsheba standing naked in a pool with a fountain. However, the earliest printed Bibles with embedded woodcut illustrations, produced in the late 15th century first in Cologne and then in Nuremberg, show a very different Bathsheba. She is clothed. Holding up the hem of her dress, she sits with her feet in a bowl. In Luther’s 16th-century German Bibles, she usually sits beside the castle moat with a servant washing her feet.
Does this difference mean that the Cologne/Nuremberg and Luther Bibles were shifting blame away from Bathsheba and back to David? Maybe so, although there are other possibilities. We could ask another question: What does bathing mean? Indeed, what does nakedness mean?
The bathing Bathsheba of the books of hours is accompanied by the words of the penitential psalm, “Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me” (“O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger” [Ps 6:1]). These words are traditionally understood to be David’s. So perhaps the naked woman signifies not her own lapse, but his lust and moral failure. On the other hand, many books of hours were made for and used by women. What did it mean for a woman to pray in penitence, “O Lord, do not rebuke me,” while looking at this bathing woman? Was the bathing woman a warning against being seduced?
Bourdichon’s Bathsheba bathes alone. But for upper-class women in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, bathing was often a social occasion. And men could be present, especially as servants or musicians. In other words, naked bathing was not the problem. Men’s lust was the problem.
Why is Bathsheba clothed in the German Bibles? Perhaps because northerners were prudish. Or perhaps it is because washing hands and feet was what “bathing” normally meant for most northern Europeans at the time (and for centuries later). Their water source, a stream or spring-fed fountain, was often in a public place. So what else would Bathsheba be doing but having a foot bath?
Today, a few centuries after the invention of privacy and indoor plumbing, it is easy for Westerners to assume that Bathsheba was bathing naked—and, because she was visible, some might argue that she was doing so inappropriately. But what “bathing” means in the world of the biblical story remains unknown. Some think she was taking a ritual bath (Hebrew, mikveh) after her menstrual period (citing 2Sam 11:4), but neither text nor archaeology offer clear support. The KJV more accurately conveys the range of meaning of the original Hebrew: she washed herself, which could mean only hands and feet. Or we might assume that the mention of her beauty implies her nakedness—but why should we assume that?
What does the Bible say? He saw a woman bathing, and she was beautiful.