THE STORY OF BATHSHEBA
ON THIS PAGE:
What the story is about:
Bathsheba and King David
The Struggle for the Throne
The Reigns of Saul, David and Solomon
Women's Lives in the Era
Bathsheba: Bat 'daughter of', sheba 'abundance, plenty'. The Book of Chronicles, written long after she died, changed her name to Bathshua, since sheba might link her with the sibitti, the Seven Spirit Demons of Babylonian mythology, or the constellation of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades - both important in the fertility cults. The writer of Chronicles tried to distance Bathsheba from a connection with them by calling her Bath-shua.
The story of Bathsheba contains two different episodes in Jewish history:
1 Bathsheba and King David (2 Samuel 11:1-26, 12:15-25)
Bathsheba was seen by King David as she bathed, and subsequently became pregnant to him. Her husband Uriah was murdered by David, and she then married the King. Her baby died. She had a second son, who was called Solomon.
2 The struggle for the throne (1 Kings 1:1-37, 2:10-25)
David lost his sexual potency and political clout in old age, and a regency was arranged. In a palace coup, Bathsheba and her adviser Nathan secured the throne for Solomon, even though there was an older, more popular brother who was expected to succeed David. Solomon took the throne, honored his mother, and was advised by her.
BATHSHEBA AND KING DAVID
(2 Samuel 11:1-26, 12:15-25)
Bathsheba was the
- beautiful grand-daughter of Ahitophel, shrewd military and political counselor of David
- daughter of Eliam, a member of the elite warrior group called The Thirty
- wife of Uriah, who was also one of The Thirty and a high-ranking professional soldier.
Her father and husband were stationed at Jerusalem, directly under the control of the king. They were David’s personal bodyguards, his champions, renowned for their bravery. She was thus a member of an elite warrior family, something like the wife of a high-ranking samurai. Since her grandfather, father and husband were close allies of David's, it is safe to assume that she and David had already met before the famous scene where David sees her bathing.
It 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 bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite”. So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.’
King David was on the roof terrace of the palace above, looking down - windows of palaces were often screened by latticework (the mother of Sisera in Judges 5:28 watched the road through a lattice, and a statue found in the northern city of Ugarit shows a woman at a latticed window).
While she was at the palace she and David had sexual intercourse. Afterwards, she returned to her home, and we hear no more until a few months later, when she realized she was pregnant. She sent a message to David to tell him, and David responded by sending for Uriah. When the soldier-husband arrived in Jerusalem and reported to David, the king told him to down to his home and wife. He hoped that Uriah would make love to his wife, and that the child might be passed off as Uriah's.
But Uriah did not confront David with what he knew. Instead, he took the line of passive resistance. He told David he would not break the rules of soldiers on active service - ancient people believed that sexual intercourse robbed a man of some of his physical strength, so during active service soldiers were required to abstain from sexual intercourse. Uriah would not visit his wife and have intercourse with her, since he was still technically on active service.
Did Bathsheba know that David had arranged to have her husband killed? Did she mourn for the death of a good man? Or was her mourning just pretence? It is impossible to tell. The story of Bathsheba's seduction as we have it in the Bible was edited by court story-tellers during the reign of her son Solomon, and doubtless influenced by Bathsheba and her son. This is why it is so hard to tell what really happened: we only know two things: what Bathsheba wanted us to know, and what she was forced to concede because it was already public knowledge.
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE THRONE
When, despite her beauty, the king could not have sexual relations with Abishag, it was considered time for a co-regency. This meant that someone would rule alongside David, to help him. Most people took it for granted that this co-regent would be the next king. David’s oldest surviving son was Adonijah, a young man impatient for power. Not waiting for David to die, he proclaimed himself king and was accepted as such by many people. The text implies this was done without David's knowledge. It was a palace coup.
Working with her chief adviser Nathan, Bathsheba warned David what was happening behind his back. In a brilliant speech, she made him suspicious of Adonijah by describing the young man's support among the army. She told him that almost alone among his children, Solomon remained loyal. She appealed to his protective nature by telling him she feared for her own life. And she astutely reminded David that he, not Adonijah, was king.
Solomon's hold on the throne was not initially strong enough for him to kill his half-brother outright, though this would have to be done if Solomon was to have a firm grasp on power. So after he ascended the throne, Solomon allowed his half-brother Adonijah to live - for the time being. But the situation had to be resolved, and no-one knew this better than Bathsheba. The text at this stage contains an episode that is, at the very least, hard to believe.
‘So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. He rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.’
THE REIGNS OF SAUL, DAVID AND SOLOMON
The reigns of Saul, David and Solomon cover the period from about 1020BC until about 922BC, ending with the death of Solomon. During these years Israel experienced a brief period of independence from the great foreign powers surrounding it.
Saul was the first leader of this period. He fought to gain independence from the Philistines who had superior technology, fortified positions and better organization, all of which gave them the edge over the Hebrew tribal groups.
With the support of the prophet Samuel who gave him religious and psychological backing, Saul was at first victorious. However, he may have been mentally unstable and could not count on consistent loyalty from his followers - the young David for one undermined Saul's authority. Thus he was not able to gain a complete victory over the Philistines, and in a battle with them Saul was defeated and his favorite son Jonathan killed. Saul committed suicide.
David, waiting in the wings, took over as leader of the Israelite people. He was a subtle, brilliant and unscrupulous man: a military leader, poet, musician, schemer and diplomat. Much of his reign was spent in fighting to gain territory and incorporate newly acquired lands into the kingdom of Israel.
WOMEN’S LIVES IN THIS ERA
Before this, land ownership had been common at all economic levels. Almost all family groups had owned some land. Now, however, ownership was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the royal family, nobles and priests. Peasant men and women were often dispossessed of land their families had held for many generations.
- Large estates, not smallholdings, became the norm
- Tenant faming became more and more common
- Day-laboring and short-term employment meant a loss of financial security
- Slavery for debt became common.
The people most affected were those who were neither rich nor poor. This large group was made up of peasant farming families who occupied a status loosely equivalent to the lower middle-class in modern society. Land was still the basis of wealth, and agriculture was still the mainstay of the economy, but ordinary people who produced the nation's food were not as well off as they had been. Their surplus output now supported a large, non-producing population, including the army, the civil bureaucrats and the official priesthood.
Jerusalem dominated the thinking and the government of Israel, and inevitably small villages became less important. So the focus of power moved away from the family unit, based in the village, towards the public, urban sphere. This sphere was limited almost entirely to men. It included
- the army, which became larger and more organized, no longer a voluntary tribal militia
- the state bureaucracy which controlled tax, legislation and administration
- the religious bureaucracy, including the priesthood.
All of these were centered in Jerusalem and were limited to males. For the first time, women found themselves having very little say in the public life of the state.