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​Bathsheba

· Politics, Power, and Purposeful Ambiguity ·

Bathsheba appears three times in biblical narrative. In 2 Samuel 11, Bathsheba, wife of David’s retainer Uriah, is portrayed as a beautiful and forbidden source of attraction to David the king, who lingers in his palace while his men make war. He sees her bathing from his roof, sends for her, makes love to her, she becomes pregnant, and sends him word. 

“Bathsheba”, Marc Chagall (1962-1963) private collection

David makes sure that Uriah never returns from battle, and the king then marries her. In 1 Kgs 1:11-22, after hearing about Adonijah’s claims to the throne from the prophet Nathan, she speaks to David on behalf of her son Solomon, reminding the king of a promise to make her son the next king. In 1 Kings 2, she agrees to ask Solomon, on behalf Adonijah, for David’s young widow Abishag. Solomon realizes that he who controls the former’s king’s woman inherits his power. He moves quickly to eliminate his rival. Bathsheba’s initial marginal position is thus transformed into that of an influential queen and mother of a king. How are we meant to imagine her role? Is she naïve, passive, doing what David, Nathan, and Adonijah desire or is she manipulative and powerful, purposefully attracting a randy king, inserting herself in the succession process, and ending a rival’s possible claims by doing precisely what he asks? A close look at these key passages in context leads to realizations about literary style, political orientation, and the ways in which women are imagined to exercise power.

Bathsheba’s role is best understood in the context of David’s relationship with his various wives. Events surrounding these relationships mark critical passage points in the epic-style account of his rise, rulership, and senescence. Each woman serves as a comment on the hero himself, both his charisma and his character flaws. Michal, daughter of King Saul whom David the young warrior woos and wins for one hundred Philistine foreskins, is one of many admirers whom David uses to further his career. David knows that a man who controls women associated with the divinely ordained king, whether they are wives or daughters, inherits some of his predecessor’s spirit and authority. Michal for her part is utterly smitten with her father’s rival and helps him to escape Saul’s wrath when the latter realizes the extent of David’s true ambition. To be sure, the pro-Davidic preserver of this material insists that God has rejected Saul and chosen David in his stead but the writer also cannot resist making these characters come alive with human emotion, self-doubt, and recrimination. A slightly older Michal perhaps regrets how she has been complicit in the betrayal her father’s house and the death of her father and brother. She seems suddenly to realize that David lightly regards her and is more enamored of the infatuated groupies who welcome him home from battle. She berates him and he rejects her (2 Samuel 6). Another important wife, Abigail, is portrayed as a wise woman who garners David’s affection during the bandit phase of his career by telling him exactly what he wishes to hear about his character and his future (1 Samuel 25). David has threatened her husband Nabal and his household when Nabal refuses him aid. Abigail goes to David without her husband’s knowledge, brings food for his men and words of encouragement to David. She charms the future king betraying her own husband Nabal, a wealthy, independent land-owner who considers David an illegitimate up-start. In contrast to his wise wife, Nabal fails to appreciate that the future of Israel lies with David, a dangerous enemy better courted than rejected. God conveniently kills Nabal, allowing David to take Abigail as his wife. The final female figure mentioned in detail is Abishag, a young woman who serves David in his old age, an impotent man whose sons jockey to replace him. Abishag keeps David warm for it appears that at this point he can do no more with her in bed (1 Kings 1:1-4). This young care-giver becomes a pawn in later questions about the power of David’s son Adonijah, a rival to Solomon. We mention Bathsheba in the larger context of David’s other wives to suggest that all these women serve the narrator to comment on David’s pretensions, his power or loss of power, his immense drive and charisma, and his complicated characterization as epic hero. Bathsheba enters tales of David at the height of his career and again near his death, in relation to events surrounding the succession of her son Solomon and the securing of his reign. In a traditional world in which maternal kin are important demarcators of status, lineage, and rights, it is significant that the inheritor of David’s throne is the son of this woman whose initial relationship with David is illicit. How she is presented and the shaping of her characterization reflect attitudes to the dynasty of David and Solomon. Portrayals of Bathsheba raise wider questions about gender and forms of female agency.

A first issue in interpretation surrounds Bathsheba’s availability or possible interest in attracting the attention of the king. Is she innocently unaware that the king’s palace roof would afford him a view of her activities? Does she realize that he is in residence and enjoys ascending to the roof in the late afternoon? Does she bathe in the hopes that she might catch his attention? She is described as very good-looking. That David is safe in the palace ogling a naked woman at her bath while his men are exposed to danger on the battlefield is not lost upon the reader and serves to portray the king in a less than favorable light. This scene thus reflects on David’s character, creating the impression of a self-indulgent voyeur, but also in a gendered fashion perhaps suggests that Bathsheba’s appeal is extremely powerful, a kind of siren’s call. Are readers supposed to imagine Bathsheba using her body as valuable capital? Some commentators have suggested she has career plans of her own. The way to success for a beautiful woman in traditional male-dominated cultures is through marriage, and a royal marriage is especially advantageous as the common folktale motif asserts. On the other hand, does Bathsheba herself like Michal find David irresistible? The least we can say is her role in the affair is ambivalently portrayed. The baby of David and Bathsheba’s adultery dies in infancy as a punishment, but the future king, the great Solomon, is also the child of the union that begins with an act of adultery. Solomon succeeds his father to the throne, but not without the intervention of a mature Bathsheba. Again her agency can be variously interpreted.

The narrator describes the intrigue surrounding the aged king David’s succession. Two political camps have emerged, one supporting Solomon and one supporting Adonijah the son of Haggith, another Davidic wife named in connection with Adonijah but not developed as a character. It is interesting that his full name, “Adonijah son of Haggith” points to maternal kin, an important identifier. It might be suggested, however, that Haggith is a less influential figure at court than the soon to be queen mother, Bathsheba. Nathan the prophet, part of the clique that seeks to anoint Solomon, alerts Bathsheba to machinations at court where some are prepared to put forward Adonijah, a handsome prince next in line to succession after the deceased prince, Absalom. Bathsheba approaches the king in his chambers, where Abishag attends him, and lets the king know that Adonijah is being proclaimed as king. Ever so diplomatically, like the successful Abigail, she bows and does obeisance, asking David about his wishes for the succession, all the time reminding him of a promise to her and her son that he will rule after David. She alludes to the king’s great power and urges him to anoint Solomon lest after his death she and Solomon “be counted as offenders,” literally “sinners,” enemies of the state (1 Kings 1:21). She has clearly remained a figure of influence at court. Are we to view her as a Rebecca type figure devoted to her son or as a woman preserving and extending her own political status or perhaps the two are intertwined in the monarchy? Solomon is crowned in accordance with his mother’s wishes, and proceeds to solidify his power. Once again, Bathsheba plays an ambiguous role at court that raises questions about her ambitions for herself and her son, the role of king’s wives and mothers in political exchanges of power, and the way in which the women as described reveal and help to frame the characterization of powerful men.

In a final set of interactions, Adonijah, now denied kingship, asks Bathsheba to intervene with her son, the new king, to allow him to marry Abishag, David’s young care-giver who shared with the king some degree of wifely intimacy. This portrayal of Adonijah raises questions about his own political acuity. He should have known that this request would be viewed as a direct challenge to Solomon’s power, for the king’s wife or widow was viewed as a political and spiritual asset, a link to the former ordained ruler, a means of claiming power and status. Thus the rebellious son Absalom publicly takes to wife David’s concubines left behind during the almost successful rebellion that causes his father to flee. This taking of women is an assertion of power (2 Samuel 16:22). Rivals or those who wish to keep their power, of course, never meet such overtures with approval. Reuven is cursed in Jacob’s testament for this kind of self-assertion (Genesis 49:3-4). Saul’s general Abner angers King Saul’s son Ishbaal by having sex with one of Saul’s concubines Rizpah, thereby laying claims to power (2 Samuel 3:6-10). Nevertheless, Adonijah somehow thinks he can successfully employ Bathsheba to mediate between himself and the king, as if her ministrations might convince the new king to somehow share power or as if she herself would not be aware of the political implications of his request. The biblical narrator rarely describes inner thoughts or motivations; characters are typologically described and engage in action. The reader is not told why Bathsheba does as Adonijah requests, but it comes as no surprise that Solomon reacts strongly, using this request as an excuse to eliminate his rival. Surely Bathsheba knew this would be the result of “innocently” making the request for Abishag on Adonijah’s behalf. This interaction is another of the many biblical instances of women who affect power relations in less than direct, round about ways. Such actions, in fact, typify the essence of women’s wisdom in Hebrew Bible of which Bathsheba is an exemplar.

“Bathsheba at her bath”, Francesco Hayez (1834)

Bathsheba’s characterization is thus drawn in short and subtle strokes, witness to the exquisite artistry of the author of stories concerning the rise of the Davidic monarchy. This author is sympathetic to Davidic rule and portrays Bathsheba as exercising womanly wiles and soft power in its interests. Her physical beauty draws the powerful David to her, and his trust in her or desire to please her is pictured as lasting well into his old age. She serves as a mediator between men in the case of David and Solomon. Adonijah, to his own peril, asks her to play a mediating role in his relationship with Solomon. She is a queen mother who produces a worthy heir to the throne and a protective mother who furthers and helps to secure the reign of her son. She is best understood in relation to the other women of the Davidic narrative, who not only are characters in their own right but reveal important aspects of David’s character and development at key points in the larger epic. All of Bathsheba’s roles, however, betoken an intriguing ambiguity so that one is never certain of her motive or agency. As in many of the richest narrative traditions of the Bible, the reader thus has considerable freedom to re-imagine her.

Susan Niditch

The author

Susan Niditch is Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College. Educated at Harvard University, her graduate work was in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and her research deals with the cultures of ancient and early Judaism. Her particular interests include the study of ancient Israelite literature from the perspectives of folklore and oral studies; biblical ethics with special attention to war, gender, and the body; the reception history of the Bible; and the rich symbolic media of biblical ritual texts. She recently published The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (Yale, 2015).

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