Bathsheba and David: Biblical Romance and Tragedy

Bathsheba and David's Adultery Led Him to Greater Sins

Bathsheba in her Bath, by Rembrandt, 1654.
Bathsheba in her Bath, by Rembrandt, 1654. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bathsheba was King David's most famous and controversial wife in part because their marriage came after an illicit extramarital affair at the height of David's reign over Judah and Israel (circa 1005–965 BCE). The story of Bathsheba and David has proved so enduring that religious commentators still debate the quality of the sin involved—and its plot has been borrowed for countless romance novels, movies, and daytime dramas.

The Story of David and Bathsheba

The story of David and Bathsheba is told in 2 Samuel 11 and 12, set against the backdrop of David's war against the Ammonites, a tribe from a region east of the Dead Sea that is now part of present-day Jordan. 2 Samuel 11:1 records that the king sent his army out to wage war, but he himself stayed behind in Jerusalem. Obviously, David was secure enough on his throne that he no longer had a need to go to war to prove his military prowess; he could send his generals instead.

Thus King David was relaxing on a palace balcony above the city when he spied a beautiful woman taking a bath. Through his messengers, David learned that she was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, who had gone to battle for David.

This raises a key question: did Bathsheba set her cap for the king, or did David force his lust on her? Traditional biblical scholarship holds that Bathsheba couldn't have been ignorant of her home's proximity to the palace, given that David was close enough that he could see her taking a bath outside. What's more, Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, had left her to go fight for David.

Although feminist biblical interpretation contends that Bathsheba was a victim of David—after all, who can say no to a king?—other scholars find a clue to Bathsheba's complicity among King David's wives in 2 Samuel 4:11. This verse says unequivocally that when David sent messengers to fetch her, she came back with them. She wasn't coerced, nor did she use any of the many excuses she could have for not seeing another man, even a king, while her husband was away. Instead, she went to David of her own free will, and thus bears some responsibility for what happened afterward.

The Guilt of David

Even if Bathsheba had decided to seduce King David, scriptures deem David's sin in their affair to be greater for two reasons. Once he found out Bathsheba's identity, he knew that she was married and he had sent her husband off to war. Clearly, a liaison with her would violate the seventh commandment against adultery, and a king of Israel was supposed to be a religious leader as well as a political leader.

Nonetheless, David and Bathsheba engaged in sexual intercourse, and afterward, she returned home. The whole thing might have ended there were it not for a subordinate clause in 2 Samuel 4:11: "she [Bathsheba] had just purified herself after her period."

According to Jewish purity laws, a woman must wait seven days after her menses end before purifying herself ritually in a mikvah, a special immersion pool, so that she and her husband may resume sexual relations. The biblical text implies that this ritual purification was the bath that David saw Bathsheba taking. Depending on the length of a woman's period, this seven-day injunction before purification virtually guarantees that a woman will most likely be ovulating, or close to ovulating when she resumes having sex.

Consequently, Bathsheba and David had sex at one of the best possible moments for her to conceive—which she did, with tragic results.

Uriah's Contrived Death

Not long after Bathsheba and David committed adultery, Bathsheba sent a message to David telling him she was pregnant. Now the pressure was really on the king, who might have concealed his affair with Bathsheba, but couldn't hide her pregnancy for long. Instead of owning up to the liaison and making restitution, David took an even more sinful approach to the crisis.

First, 2 Samuel 11:7–11 describes how David tried to attribute Bathsheba's pregnancy to Uriah. He recalled Uriah from the front, supposedly to give him a report on the battle, and then told him to take some leave and visit his wife. But Uriah didn't go home; he stayed within the palace barracks. David asked Uriah why he didn't go home, and loyal Uriah replied that he wouldn't dream of having a conjugal visit when David's army at the front has no such opportunity.

Next, described in 2 Samuel 12 and 13, David invited Uriah for dinner and got him drunk, figuring that intoxication will arouse Uriah's desire for Bathsheba. But David was foiled again; drunk though he was, honorable Uriah returned to the barracks and not to his wife.

At this point David was desperate. In verse 15, David is described writing a letter to his general, Joab, telling him to put Uriah on the front lines where the fighting is fiercest, and then to withdraw, leaving Uriah undefended. David sent this letter to Joab by Uriah, who had no idea that he was carrying his own death sentence.

Retribution

Sure enough, Joab put Uriah on the front lines when David's army attacks Rabbath after a long siege, although Joab didn't withdraw the army as David instructed. Despite Joab's action, Uriah and other officers were killed. After a mourning period, Bathsheba was brought to the palace to become the latest of King David's wives, thus assuring the legitimacy of their child.

David thought he pulled off this caper until the prophet Nathan came to visit in 2 Samuel 12. Nathan told the powerful king a tale of a poor shepherd whose lamb was stolen by a rich man. David flew into a rage, demanding to know who the man was so that he could exact judgment on him. Nathan calmly told the king: "You are the man," meaning that God had revealed to the prophet the truth of David's adultery, deceit, and murder of Uriah.

Even though David had committed sins worthy of execution, said Nathan, God instead exacted judgment upon David and Bathsheba's newborn son, who subsequently died. David consoled Bathsheba by getting her pregnant again, this time with a son the named Solomon.

Bathsheba and Solomon

Although she seems passive at the beginning of her relationship with David, Bathsheba became King David's active support at the end of his life, as she secured David's throne for their son, Solomon, who was destined to become a wise, if flawed, ruler of Israel.

By now David was old and feeble, and his oldest surviving son, Adonijah, attempted to usurp the throne before his father died. According to 1 Kings 1:11, the prophet Nathan urged Bathsheba to tell David that Adonijah was preparing to take the throne by force. Bathsheba told her aged husband that only their son Solomon remained loyal, so the king named Solomon his co-regent. When David died, Solomon became king after executing his rival Adonijah. The new King Solomon valued his mother's help so much that he had a second throne installed for her so that she became his closest adviser until her death.

Subtle Ironies

The David and Bathsheba story involved the ironic and subtle juxtapositions comparing Uriah who was supremely faithful to his king and comrades to David who is not faithful to either but allowed his lust to blind him to his sin. Whether Bathsheba is guilty or not, is less important in the Bible than the guilt of the king himself: Nathan comes to David, not Bathsheba, to point out the error of his ways. 

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