The story of David and Bathsheba is one of the most tragic, and yet, one of the most memorable stories in the Old Testament. It is a memorable story because the story involves David, a man after God’s own heart, and a married woman who probably had no choice but to submit to the demands of the king. This tragic story is a tale of rape and adultery, of lies and intrigues, of murder and death.
Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the elite soldiers in David’s army. Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam (2 Samuel 11:3). Eliam was the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite (2 Samuel 23:34). Tikva Frymer-Kensky says that “Bathsheba is not just any married woman. Both her father, Eliam, and her husband, Uriah, are members of David’s trusted inner circle” (Frymer-Kensky 2002:146).
Ahitophel was a trusted advisor of David who later betrayed him and supported Absalom’s revolt. Ahitophel’s support of Absalom’s revolt against David probably was motivated by David’s adultery against Bathsheba, his granddaughter, and the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.
The affair between David and Bathsheba has been interpreted from different perspectives. Was Bathsheba the victim of a king’s lust or was Bathsheba a willing participant in the affair, a woman who tricked David by bathing in plain view of David as he stood on the roof of the king’s palace in Jerusalem? Was the affair between David and Bathsheba consensual sex between two married individuals? Or was Bathsheba forced to come to the palace to be raped by David?
The biblical writer does not provide a reason for the sexual interaction between David and Bathsheba. Frymer-Kensky writes, “Motives and intentions of the story are left to the readers, who have come up with many versions of this story over the years. The narrator tells only what happened: he sent, he took, she came, he lay with her. The action of the story speeds up. The reader does not learn why David acted in this matter; to the story, it is irrelevant. Nor are we told of Bathsheba’s reactions. Was she flattered or frightened? Attracted to David’s fame and power or terrorized by them? By the rules of Israelite society, she had no right to consent” (Frymer-Kensky 2002:146).
The affair between David and Bathsheba began when David saw Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop of her house. Scholars are divided on the significance of Bathsheba’s bathing. Some scholars believe that according to Leviticus 15:19–24, the shower that Bathsheba was taking was the purification rites after having her menstrual period. Other scholars believe that her bath was just a bath and had nothing to do with Bathsheba’s post-menstrual purification.
When David saw Bathsheba, he lusted after her. David sent messengers to bring Bathsheba to the palace. After Bathsheba came to David, David had sex with her and then she returned to her home. Not a word is said about love. David saw Bathsheba, desired her, sent for her, had sex with her, and then sends her back home. There is no indication of David’s affection for Bathsheba. David’s action is a demonstration of power, lust, and self-gratification.
After David received the news that Bathsheba was with child, Bathsheba sent a message to David stating that she was pregnant. David sent word to Joab, the commander of his army, to send Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back to Jerusalem. Uriah was on the battlefield fighting a war against the Ammonites. At that time, the army of Israel had besieged the capital city of Rabbah ( 2 Samuel 11:1). When Uriah came before the king, David asked him about the war and then told him to go home to his wife. David intended for Uriah to have sex with his wife so that the child would be considered his own. However, Uriah refused to go home because he and his fellow soldiers were keeping the law of purity in warfare.
The law of purity in warfare states, “When you are encamped against your enemies you shall guard against any impropriety. If one of you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp; he must not come within the camp” (Deuteronomy 23:9–10).
Because of Uriah’s refusal to go home, David invited him to the palace to eat and drink in his presence, to get him drunk so that he would sleep with Bathsheba. But once again, Uriah did not go home to his wife. Because David was unsuccessful in convincing Uriah to go home to his wife, David sent a letter to Joab “and sent it by the hand of Uriah’ (2 Samuel 11:14). In the letter, David gave orders to Joab to put Uriah on the front line and to pull back when the enemy approached and then leave him alone. Joab followed David’s instructions and Uriah was killed in battle.
When Bathsheba heard that Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband (2 Samuel 11:26). It is possible that Bathsheba never found out David’s treachery in the death of her husband. After the period of mourning for her husband was over, David brought Bathsheba to the palace, and she became his wife. By marrying Bathsheba, David saved his reputation and preserved Bathsheba’s honor by giving legitimacy to the child. But the Lord was angry with David and considered David’s actions evil and expressed his displeasure with David through the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1).
The Lord said to David, “Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Samuel 12:9).
David said to Nathan, “‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.’ . . . The LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. . . . David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted . . . On the seventh day the child died” (2 Samuel 12:13–18) [I have written extensively on the death of Bathsheba’s child (see below)].
After the death of the child, David comforted Bathsheba, who, in her grief, was mourning the death of her child. This is the first and only time that David displays tenderness toward Bathsheba. Nowell states that, “David is guilty but the punishment falls on Bathsheba as well” (Nowell 1997: 112).
David slept with Bathsheba again and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. David called the name of his son Solomon. The Lord loved the child (2 Samuel 12:24). The Lord sent a message to David and Bathsheba through the prophet Nathan that they should call his name “Jedidiah,” “Beloved of the LORD.” Since most kings of Judah had two names, it is possible that Jedidiah was the child’s given name, and that Solomon was the child’s throne name.
Although the name of Bathsheba does not appear again in the book of Samuel, Bathsheba played a significant role in the ascension of Solomon to the throne of David. After the death of David and the coronation of her Solomon as the king of Israel, Bathsheba became a gebirah, a Queen Mother, a woman of power and influence in whose presence Solomon “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” (1 Kings 2:19).
In Israel, the mother of the ruling son, became Queen Mother with a strong presence in the kingdom. The Queen Mother was a woman who helped her son in the affairs of government. In her book, Bach writes, “Bathsheba had been vindicated in the best tradition of patriarchal culture. Finally, Bathsheba is seen as the mother working to achieve for her son what God intends for him to have. Thus, she has been transformed from a sexual object to Queen Mother” (Bach 1999:362).
One of the greatest honors Bathsheba received in the Bible was not being the wife of King David, not even being the mother of King Solomon. Her greatest honor was being one of the great-great-grandmothers of the Messiah of Israel: In the list of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, Matthew mentions David and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba (Matthew 1:1).
I have written several posts on the affair between David and Bathsheba. The posts below deal with various aspects of Bathsheba’s life.
Bach, Alice. “Signs of the Flesh.” In Women in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Alice Bach, Pages 351–365. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Nowell, Irene. Women In the Old Testament. Collegeville:The Liturgical Press, 1997.
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible. New York: Schocken Books, 2002.
Studies on Bathsheba
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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