Reading parts of a recent bad-tempered Twitter row about David and Bathsheba, I began to wonder whether Bathsheba is to be regarded in any sense as responsible for the turn of events. I was told that “she was really asking for it” interpretations are wildly inappropriate fantasies and that I should go away and think about why I was interested in this interpretation. I can understand the modern sensibilities at play here, but this is not a modern text, and “she was really asking for it” seems to me to miss the point. The question is whether Bathsheba saw an opportunity, if not at the outset then somewhere along the way, to become the mother of a royal son, which would make her much more a resourceful agent in the story than a victim.
There is nothing explicit in the text to suggest that she intentionally displayed her beauty in the hope of being noticed by the king (2 Sam. 11:2-5), but I’m not sure the inference can be ruled out. Her husband Uriah was one of the Thirty, a group of elite warriors who presumably served as David’s bodyguard (2 Sam. 23:39). Bathsheba was likely to have been familiar with the ways of the palace and may well have known that David had not gone out to battle (2 Sam. 11:1). Anderson says that there is “no real reason to assume that Bathsheba actually intended to be seen by the king,” but he notes the view of Augustin to the contrary.[fn]A. A. Anderson, 2 Samuel (1989), 153.[/fn]
That Bathsheba was purifying herself from her uncleanness would have signalled that this was a favourable time for conception (2 Sam. 11:4). The detail certainly needs explaining, and I rather suspect, given its placing in the narrative, that more is at issue here than simply making it clear that the child would not be Uriah’s.
David sends messengers to fetch her and the narrator gives us no reason to think that she has been coerced or comes to him reluctantly. Perhaps she felt she had no choice but to submit to the king, but that “she came to him” and was not merely brought gives her a measure of independence and control. The liaison seems to have been managed politely and respectfully. By contrast, when Amnon tries to seduce his sister Tamar, in the same cycle of stories, she protests loudly at the violation, though the “shame” may have been a consequence of incest rather than of rape (2 Sam. 13:1-14).
David lies with Bathsheba, and she returns to her house. Nothing is said about her state of mind. Some time later she sends someone to David to inform him that she has become pregnant. It looks as though the whole object of the exercise was that she should conceive, and as far as the story goes, there is reason to think that it was more in her interest than his.
David tries to persuade Uriah, back from the battle field, to go and lie with his wife so that she will not be accused of infidelity and divorced, but to no avail (2 Sam. 11:10-13). He therefore arranges to have him killed in battle. Bathsheba laments over the death of her husband, but when the period of mourning is over, David brings her to the palace; she becomes his wife and bears a son. Only at this point are we told that the God is displeased with David’s behaviour, and the prophet Nathan enters stage left.
David’s offence, according to Nathan, is that he had Uriah killed and took his wife (2 Sam. 12:9). The message of the parable is that the rich man has wrongfully taken something which belonged to the poor man. It is not quite theft, but it is clearly regarded as a gross injustice. The “remedy is to restore the lamb fourfold… because he had no pity”—that is, pity with respect to the poor man, not to the lamb, which could simply be replaced.
David had coveted the woman who belonged to his neighbour and had committed adultery with her (cf. Exod. 20:14, 17). The God who had anointed him king over Israel had already given him the wives which belonged to Saul, and would have given him more if necessary (2 Sam. 12:7-8). Therefore, David’s house would suffer evil: “I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun” (2 Sam. 12:11–12). The immediate punishment is that the child conceived in the adulterous act will die. But the point is underlined that at least at this social level the women were a currency of male status and honour. Later David will be humiliated when Absalom publicly has sex with his concubines (2 Sam. 20-22).
Following the death of the child, David comforts Bathsheba, lies with her again, and she bears a son, who is given the name Solomon and who is loved by the Lord. It has been suggested that the name means “his replacement”: Solomon replaces the child of the adulterous relationship, who died. This may also lead us to think that it was always her intention that she would conceive a child who would become king.
When later Nathan comes to David to ask why he has designated Adonijah as his successor, David calls Bathsheba and says to her, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my soul out of every adversity, as I swore to you by the LORD, the God of Israel, saying, ‘Solomon your son shall reign after me, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ even so will I do this day” (1 Kings 1:29–30). Bathsheba bows her face to the ground and says, “May my lord King David live forever!” (1 Kings 1:31).
Finally, in Psalm 51—a psalm of contrition following Nathan’s rebuke, “after he had gone in to Bathsheba”—David (supposedly) prays that God will blot out his transgressions, restore him, and rebuild Jerusalem. The reference to Bathsheba here rather than Uriah may suggest that it is the act of adultery that is primarily at issue, but the request to be delivered from “blood” may have the killing of Uriah in view (Ps. 51:14).
In the end, we may have to conclude that the question of whether Bathsheba was “raped” or was complicit or even ambitious cannot be answered definitively. But it seems to be the case, on the one hand, that the narrator took David’s offence to be against Uriah rather than against Bathsheba, and on the other, that at some point Bathsheba took advantage of the circumstances to ensure that she would be the mother of David’s successor.