People

Bathsheba by Sara Koenig

Bathsheba’s relatively short story is packed with scandal and intrigue. Bathsheba is bathing when David first sees her. Despite her being married, David sends for Bathsheba and has sex with her. She becomes pregnant, and after other attempts to cover up his misconduct, David commands that her husband Uriah be killed in battle. Bathsheba becomes David’s wife and bears his son. But Nathan the prophet confronts David about his sins, and God punishes David through the death of Bathsheba’s child. Bathsheba and David have a second child, Solomon, who succeeds his father as king, though he is not the oldest living son. The lack of details in Bathsheba’s story has resulted in her character being read in multiple ways. 

Why is Bathsheba interpreted in such different ways?

The chapters where Bathsheba appears are especially terse, even for biblical Hebrew narrative. Particularly in 2 Samuel, Bathsheba’s motives and emotions go undescribed when certain actions are narrated. The gaps in the text have been filled by interpreters who characterize her on the spectrum from passive victim to active seductress

Bathsheba’s first action is bathing, and many have understood her bath to be some sort of exhibitionist act to tempt and seduce David. In songs and art, Bathsheba bathes “on the roof” or naked in the open air. Second, 2Sam 11:4 says that Bathsheba comes to David when summoned. Those details could be related, Bathsheba bathing in the hopes that David would see her and send for her. Bathsheba’s third action in 2Sam 11 is to send a message to David announcing her pregnancy. Perhaps she wanted to have his child and be his queen. In 2Sam 11:26, Bathsheba laments Uriah’s death, but maybe those are crocodile tears.

Each one of these actions, however, can be read differently. The text specifies that her bath was an obligatory act of purification and clarifies that David—not Bathsheba—was on the roof. The story is set during the spring, when kings are at war, and even if Bathsheba were in a place in the line of sight of the palace, she could have expected that David was away (as was her husband, a soldier in David’s army). In the early Greek translation of the Bible, the clause in 2Sam 11:4 reads “he came to her,” such that all initiative in the sexual encounter is David’s. Moreover, David was the king; could any subject, especially a woman, reasonably refuse to come when summoned? She might send the message to hold David accountable, and her grief over Uriah’s death could be honest.

Does Bathsheba’s character change from 2 Samuel to 1 Kings?

As Bathsheba’s story continues in 1 Kings, she can still be interpreted in more than one way: as cunning queen or unwitting pawn of other men. In 1Kgs 1, at Nathan’s behest, Bathsheba reminds the aged David that he had promised that Solomon would be king. David then commands that Solomon be crowned king instead of Adonijah, the oldest son and rightful successor to the throne. Because David’s promise is nowhere narrated, some assume that Bathsheba opportunistically invents a backstory that enables her to become the royal mother. Others assume that Nathan initiated Solomon’s coronation, using Bathsheba—who does what Nathan tells her—to persuade David.

Adonijah asks Bathsheba to request that Solomon give Abishag (David’s former attendant) to him as a wife (1Kgs 2). She does, but Solomon interprets Adonijah’s request as a bid for the throne. Solomon not only refuses but has Adonijah killed. Bathsheba could be unaware of the implications of Adonijah’s request, foolishly agreeing to do what he asks. But it could also be that Bathsheba, the wise royal mother, knows that Adonijah’s request would give Solomon a reason to dispatch his rival for the throne.

After Bathsheba’s story ends, readers may reread its beginning in light of this new information about her and characterize her consistently throughout the narrative. Those who see the cunning and powerful woman help her son become the undisputed king see her wanting power in 2 Samuel, going so far as to seduce David. Alternatively, some readers see Bathsheba continually used by more powerful male characters in the story. Still another possibility is that the victim of events in 2 Samuel becomes the queen who makes things happen in 1 Kings. Either way, the character Bathsheba perplexes and intrigues.

Sara Koenig, "Bathsheba", n.p. [cited 29 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/bathsheba

Contributors

Sara Koenig

Sara Koenig
Associate Professor, Seattle Pacific University

Sara Koenig is associate professor of biblical studies at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author of Isn’t This Bathsheba? (Wipf & Stock, 2011). She also contributes regularly to workingpreacher.org and is currently working on a book about Bathsheba’s reception history for the University of South Carolina Press.

Bathsheba becomes David’s wife after he sees her bathing and has her husband Uriah killed; she becomes Solomon’s mother and helps him take the throne after David’s death.

Did you know…?

  • Bathsheba’s name has nothing to do with her bathing: it means “daughter of abundance,” “daughter of seven,” or “daughter of an oath.”
  • In Chronicles, Bathsheba’s story is missing, and her name is changed to Bathshua, which has been translated as “daughter of wealth,” “daughter of a cry for help,” or “daughter of error” (1Chr 3:5).
  • Bathsheba is an Israelite, but because she was married to Uriah the Hittite, some interpreters thought that she was also a foreigner.
  • Bathsheba is one of the four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew, though she is not named but referred to as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 
  • Because David “took” Bathsheba from Uriah, one of his punishments was that his wives would be “taken” by another and slept with out in the open; Absalom did this to David’s concubines (2Sam 16:22).
  • Bathsheba’s grandfather Ahithophel was the advisor for David’s son Absalom, when Absalom attempted a coup on his father’s throne.

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.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

A woman who uses her sexuality to entice men to sin; often used as a cautionary figure in the biblical book of Proverbs.

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

2Sam 11

David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba
1In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with hi ... View more

2Sam 11:26

26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.

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

1Kgs 1

The Struggle for the Succession
1King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.2So his servants sa ... View more

1Kgs 2

David's Instruction to Solomon
1When David's time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying:2“I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, b ... View more

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

1Chr 3:5

5These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua, daughter of Ammiel;

2Sam 16:22

22So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel.

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