Who Was Bathsheba? How Intertextuality helps
Discerning Bathsheba’s character has proven to be challenging to Bible readers and scholars. Today’s Western culture has also made any evaluation of Bathsheba, an extremely sensitive issue. Note these two contrasting posts I discovered on the internet (David, Bathsheba, and Woke Exegesis, and Bathsheba Naked). Scholars have assigned various labels to Bathsheba. She has been characterized as a clever and calculating woman by some and a naive, or foolish woman by others. Still others would characterize her as a victim of the abusive power of kingship.
What makes an evaluation of Bathsheba so difficult is that the text offers very little information about her. The following array of questions taken from my book Family Portraits, illustrates how little we know.
“Did Bathsheba position herself in a place where she knew David would be able to see her or does his vantage point on the roof of the palace allow him viewing access into the privacy of her home or courtyard? Is Bathsheba’s bath in verse 2 connected to the statement of her purifying herself in verse 4? Does the statement, “she was cleansed from her impurity” (v. 4) refer to the end of her menstrual cycle, or to bathing after having intercourse with David? Is Bathsheba a foreigner or an Israelite? Why does David send for her knowing that she is a trusted soldier’s wife? Why does Bathsheba come? Does David take her by force, or does she come willingly?” (p. 231)
Intertextuality to the Rescue
The above subtitle probably promises more than it is able to deliver, but nonetheless, intertextuality is an important resource that provides insight. In last week’s post (Allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel), I noted how intertextuality (sometimes referred to as typology) can be a fruitful avenue that allows Scripture to interpret Scripture. In Bathsheba’s case, there are two important texts within the Books of Samuel that provide fertile ground for better understanding this enigmatic person. Both texts share similar themes, motifs, and words with the David and Bathsheba story in 2 Samuel 11. The two texts also involve two other women. The first, 1 Samuel 25, is the story of Abigail, another of David’s wives acquired from another man. The second, 2 Samuel 13, the story of Tamar, David’s daughter, follows immediately upon the story of David and Bathsheba.
Bathsheba Through the Eyes of Abigail (1 Sam. 25; 2 Sam. 11)
(The following paragraphs on Abigail and Tamar are excerpted from my book Family Portraits, pp. 239-243, with a few minor changes.)
Many scholars have noted the connection between the stories of Abigail and Bathsheba. In some ways Abigail’s account is a mirror image of Bathsheba’s story with a few interesting twists (This observation, and some of the insights that follow, are from Adele Berlin, “Characterization in Biblical Narrative: David’s Wives, JSOT, 23, 1982, pp. 69-85). Both are married when David meets them and both become his wife after the death of their respective husbands. Abigail’s husband is an evil man, Bathsheba’s a good one. Abigail’s words that the one who fights the Lord’s battles should not be guilty of “evil” (1 Sam. 25:28–31), anticipate David’s actions in 2 Samuel 11 (see esp. v. 27). At the nadir of his power, a woman saves him; at the height of his power, he is imperiled by a woman (Joel Rosenberg, King and Kin, p. 152). Nabal commits a foolish act potentially leading to his death at the hands of David, but Abigail intercedes and saves him thus saving David from shedding innocent blood. Uriah is innocent, yet Bathsheba commits (or is coerced into committing) a foolish act which leads to his death. David becomes guilty of shedding innocent blood and she does nothing (perhaps can do nothing) to prevent it. When a crisis strikes, Abigail knows what to do, Bathsheba does not. Nabal refuses to take from his abundant flocks and so does David (2 Sam. 12:1-6). Both Abigail and Bathsheba are said to be beautiful women (different Hebrew words).
A survey of these stories also demonstrates that they share a host of similar vocabulary. The following list is a sample of these similarities with Scripture references to Abigail’s story occurring first (1 Sam. 25), followed by those in the Bathsheba story (2 Sam. 11–12):
|David sends and inquires (25:5; 11:4, 6–7)
David sends messengers (25:14, 42; 11:4)
David takes (25:40; 11:4)
Nabal is evil in his doings; David does evil (25:3; 11:27)
evil should not be found in David; David commits evil (25:28; 11:27)
threefold use of “peace” (25:6; 11:7)
sword (25:13; 11:25; 12:9, 10)
dead or died (25:37, 38, 39; 11:15, 17, 21, 24, 26)
wash the feet (25:41; 11:8)
descend (25:23; 11:8–13)
morning (25:22, 34, 37; 11:14)
drinking and being drunk (25:36; 11:11, 13)
swearing an oath, “As the Lord lives…” (25:26, 34; 11:11)
wall (25:16; 11:20, 21, 24)
“hasten” and “tomorrow”—same letters in Hebrew (25:18, 23; 11:12)
Although words are often used in different ways between the two stories, and some occurrences may be coincidental, the similarities are striking. In particular, David’s sending messengers, the threefold use of the word “peace,” the words “sword” and “dead,” the description of Nabal and David doing “evil,” and the phrase “wash the feet” (which only occurs in these two passages in the books of Samuel), strongly suggest correspondences between these two accounts. The correlation of theme and vocabulary indicates that a comparison between Abigail and Bathsheba would be fruitful and might unveil some of the ambiguity present in Bathsheba’s character in 2 Samuel 11.
Carole Fontaine has noted “the clustering of typical wisdom motifs in vocabulary and theme” found in 2 Samuel 11–12 (The Bearing of Wisdom on the Shape of 2 Samuel 11-12, and 1 Kings 3, JSOT, 34, 1986, pp. 61-77). In a previous chapter we observed that the story of Abigail also contains vocabulary and motifs consistent with the themes of wisdom and folly (Chapter 18 of Family Portraits). This recognition creates yet another link between the stories of Abigail and Bathsheba. The most ironic contrast between the two is that Abigail’s action saves her “good-for-nothing” husband Nabal from death, while Bathsheba’s action sends her good husband Uriah to his death. This contrast highlights the wisdom motif of the woman who brings death. Fontaine notes the similarity of language in Proverbs 6:22 with the opening of the story in 2 Samuel 11. Speaking of the commandments and teachings of one’s parents (which ultimately derive from the Lord), Proverbs 6:22 states, “When you walk they will lead you; when you lie down they will watch over you” (ESV). I have highlighted the words “walk” and “lie down” because they are precisely the words that characterize David’s action in 2 Samuel 11:2, 4. The proverb goes on to warn that the commandment will “preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart” (Prov. 6:24–25a). The proverb continues,
Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes into his neighbor’s wife; None who touches her will go unpunished. (Prov. 6:27–29, ESV)
The correspondences, though not exact, cannot help but make one think of the David and Bathsheba affair. While Bathsheba may not have intentionally seduced David she is, nonetheless, the woman who brings death, not to her fellow adulterer in this case, but to her husband. The counterpart of the adulteress in Proverbs 6 is “Woman Wisdom” in Proverbs 9. Similarly, Bathsheba’s act foolishly puts her husband in harm’s way while Abigail acts wisely in saving her husband. When one adds up Bathsheba’s naiveté and passivity the sum total is foolishness.
It is not just these similarities, however, that associate Bathsheba with the woman who brings death; a reference within the story of chapter 11 also suggests this equation. When Joab sends a messenger back to David with the news of Uriah’s death, he refers to the story of Abimelech in Judges 9 (2 Sam. 11:21). Uriah has just died because the Israelite army got too close to the city wall. Similarly, Abimelech, the petty tyrant king of Shechem, died when he got too close to the city wall and a woman cast a millstone on his head (Judg. 9:50–54). This may have become a proverbial story in Israel about the dangers of getting too close to an enemy’s wall and may explain why Joab anticipates David citing it. Within the context of the story, however, it takes on a deeper meaning, for it was Bathsheba’s act of lying with David that directly resulted in Uriah’s death at the foot of the wall in Rabbah. Like the other correspondences, this one is not exact. It is simply one more nail in the coffin that convicts Bathsheba of a foolish action.
Bathsheba Through the Eyes of Tamar (2 Sam. 11 and 13)
The story of Amnon and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 is the sequel to the story of David and Bathsheba. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Lord’s word of judgment in 2 Samuel 12:11: “Behold I will raise up evil against you from your own house” (my translation). Just as David has illicit sex in his house, so too does his son Amnon. Verbs once again draw a parallel between the actions of father and son. Just as David “sent” for Bathsheba, so he innocently “sends” his daughter Tamar to Amnon’s house (13:7). Ironically Amnon “lies down” on his “bed” (13:5), the posture David was in at the beginning of 2 Samuel 11:2. The word “lie” also describes Amnon’s sin (13:11, 14), as it does David’s (11:4). Wisdom motifs and vocabulary are once again prevalent in 2 Samuel 13, indicating a further link with chapters 11–12. These parallels once again suggest that we may profit from a comparison between Bathsheba and Tamar in order to gain a clearer understanding of her character.
Like Bathsheba, Tamar is said to be beautiful (13:1, although a different Hebrew word is used). Tamar is sent by David to Amnon’s house in order to make him some food so that he might recover from his “illness” (13:6–8). She remains unsuspecting of any ulterior motive, even when Amnon orders everyone else out of the house and tells her to come into his bedroom (13:9–10). Our portrait of Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 proposed that she was naive (not included in this post but explored earlier in my examination of 2 Sam. 11); may we suggest that the parallel with Tamar adds weight to that proposal? We also inferred the possibility that Bathsheba may not have known why she was sent for. The same is true of Tamar. She believes she was sent to minister to her sick brother; the true purpose of her visit has been concealed from her. Here, however, the similarities end. When Amnon forcefully expresses his intentions, Tamar protests (13:12–13). Her language invokes the words “fool” and “folly” as she tries to dissuade her brother from his predetermined course of action. We note an important difference here between Tamar and Bathsheba. The words describing Bathsheba’s actions in 11:4–5 gave no hint of resistance, and certainly the text records no words of protest. Tamar protests the foolish act being forced upon her; Bathsheba acquiesces. Once again a comparison of stories yields a verdict of foolishness in regard to Bathsheba.
Scripture affirms the importance of more than one witness in determining a conviction (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Although Bathsheba’s portrait in 2 Samuel 11 is ambiguous, there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest a certain understanding of her character. The witness of Abigail and Tamar seems to solidify our suggestion that Bathsheba is a naive and passive woman who does not have the wisdom or strength to extricate herself from a dangerous situation. If we were to hold court on Bathsheba’s character, based on the evidence of 2 Samuel 11 and our two witnesses, we would have to conclude she is not a cunning, manipulative, or malicious person. She is simply foolish. (end of section from Family Portraits)
As I noted parenthetically above, the chapter on Bathsheba in my book also explores the scene in 2 Samuel 11 which is not included here. The point here is to demonstrate the insights that can be gained from investigating texts with similar themes, motifs, and words. Hopefully, this post has demonstrated that a look at the stories of Abigail and Tamar can provide insight into the, otherwise, ambiguous character of Bathsheba.
Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.