Bathsheba Bathing: Artistic Views by David M. Gunn

“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.

David M. Gunn, "Bathsheba Bathing", n.p. [cited 22 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/bathsheba-bathing

Contributors

David Gunn

David M. Gunn
Professor Emeritus, Texas Christian University

David Gunn is A. A. Bradford Professor Emeritus of Religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Among his many publications are The Story of King David (Sheffield Academic, 1978), Gender, Power, and Promise (Abingdon, 1993), and Judges Through the Centuries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005). He has long pursued research interests in Hebrew Bible narrative, feminist criticism, and the use and influence (reception history) of the Bible in Western culture. He is currently working on Samuel Through the Centuries for the Wiley-Blackwell commentary series, of which he is a coeditor.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

An English translation of the Christian Bible, initiated in 1604 by King James I of England. It became the standard Biblical translation in the English-speaking world until the 20th century.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

2Sam 11:2

2It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathin ... View more

Ps 6:1

Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness
To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.
1O Lord, do not rebuke me in your ... View more

2Sam 11:4

4So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house ... View more

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