A WOMAN WHO ENDURES THE TRAUMA OF ABUSE AND LOSS | Advent Devotional Series: 2 Samuel 11-12, December 22, 2020
Introduction | The Christmas story begins with Jesus’ family tree. And over these next few weeks of Advent, we are looking more closely at the four women highlighted in Jesus’ lineage as recorded by Matthew in his gospel: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matthew 1:1). If you’re new to this devotional, we encourage you to read the Introduction to this series that explains both the structure and purpose of Matthew’s genealogy. The overall focus of this devotional is addressed as well. You can find the Introduction to this devotional series by clicking here.
Reflection | Today we’re looking at the fourth woman named in Jesus’ family tree – Bathsheba. We move from one of the bible’s most heartwarming romances to one of its most heartbreaking stories. For of all the women featured in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ, Bathsheba is not only the most abused but also the most maligned in terms of her representation in much of the history of biblical interpretation and popular culture. More often than not, Bathsheba is painted as a wanton seductress – an illicit woman who purposefully sought to lure the King of Israel into an extramarital affair.
Let’s briefly review the version of her story that most people have heard. One day, David, the king of Israel, arose from his bed at sunset and walked on the roof of his palace. As he did so, from this vantage point, he spotted a beautiful woman bathing. Inquiring more about her, David learned she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his most trusted warriors.
With Uriah being away on a military campaign, David sent for Bathsheba and slept with her. Later, Bathsheba sends word to King David that she is pregnant. To cover up the affair, the king sends for Uriah to return from the battlefield in order to rest. David’s plan is for Uriah, in his homecoming, to have sexual relations with his wife, Bathsheba. In so doing, Uriah, along with everyone else in Israel, will then perceive Bathsheba’s eventual newborn child to be his own.
Uriah, however, is unwilling to enter his house, let alone to be intimate with his wife. His sense of his military duty overrides any permission David, as king, has given to him. So long as the rest of the soldiers in his charge remain on the frontlines of war, Uriah will not indulge in any of the pleasures of being home. In response, instead of acknowledging Uriah’s honor and integrity, David plots his murder.
The king writes a letter to Joab, the commander of his army, with instructions that ensure Uriah’s death will look less like a cold-blooded assassination and more like a soldier falling in the line of duty. And if this wasn’t evil enough, David callously puts this letter – what amounts to a death sentence – in Uriah’s own hand to deliver to Joab. Per what is outlined in this correspondence, Joab first places Uriah in a vulnerable position on the battlefield and then gradually withdraws military support from his position. As a result of this, Uriah is left exposed to the enemy and is quickly killed in combat.
Bathsheba is left pregnant and widowed. She mourns for her murdered husband, Uriah. But when her period of mourning is finished, Bathsheba is again sent for by King David and made his wife. Not long after this, she gives birth to a baby boy – the child conceived from David’s advances on her. But this child is born dangerously ill – a judgment by the Lord upon David for his contemptuous behavior as king. Once again, Bathsheba is caught in the crossfires of David’s sin. Having first lost her husband, now she loses her newborn son.
In their shared grief, David eventually comforts Bathsheba. In consoling his new wife, David, once again impregnates Bathsheba. And they give birth to another boy, a son they name Solomon. As part of a promise to Bathsheba, David commands Solomon be immediately anointed and announced as his chosen successor to the throne of Israel.
It is at this point that many tellers of this story immediately insert a forced “and they lived happily ever after.” Arguing that David repented of his sin, he and Bathsheba ended up having a genuine, loving marriage. The blessing of their union resulted in the birth of Solomon, known for his great wisdom and yet another precursor to the coming of Christ.
However, imposing such a lens on this story is both troubling and inaccurate – particularly when it comes to representing Bathsheba. Our tendency is to read into the narrative of Bathsheba’s life from David’s point of view. But in order to gain a clearer and more accurate version of Bathsheba’s story, we must try to see things from her perspective.
To begin with, contrary to how she is portrayed in European art from the 16th century onward and classic-era Hollywood films, Bathsheba is more than just eye candy or an object of desire that suddenly appears in David’s line of sight. She is a woman with a history who, like all of us, comes from somewhere.
The Bible reveals quite a bit about Bathsheba’s family. She was the daughter of Eliam, one of David’s thirty elite warriors (see 2 Samuel 23:34 and 1 Chronicles 3:5). Her husband, Uriah, also was part of this revered unit of soldiers (see 2 Samuel 23:39). Bathsheba’s grandfather, Ahitophel, was King David’s most esteemed advisor. His advice was reported to be like “like that of one who inquires of God” (2 Samuel 16:23). Sadly, his valued counsel would later be turned against the king (see 2 Samuel 15-17), perhaps due in no small part to how David treated his granddaughter!
These details reveal that Bathsheba was not a stranger to King David prior to seeing her bathing for the first time. The men of her family, including her husband, were not just any foot soldiers. Fighting alongside David, they were among his most trusted comrades. In other words – and not that this would make his sin any less egregious – David took advantage of some of the people closest to him – a woman he knew from a family that was of part of his inner circle.
In terms of her decisive encounter with David, artists and interpreters alike have assumed Bathsheba was bathing outside of the privacy of her home. She is often pictured as being completely naked – indiscreetly exposed while washing herself. Given this, it is further suggested that Bathsheba knew what she was doing – that she was deliberately attempting to catch the eye of the king.
Scripture, however, gives no license to any of these assumptions. Nowhere does the Bible indicate where Bathsheba was bathing. What the scriptures do tell us is why Bathsheba was bathing: “she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness” (2 Samuel 11:4). Bathsheba was engaging in ritual purification after menstruation, as prescribed by the Torah (see Leviticus 15). Under Jewish law, a menstruating woman was unclean for 7 days. The 7th day ended at sundown, when a woman would then partake in a full or partial washing solely for spiritual and not physical cleaning. Water purification as a means or sign of spiritual cleansing also was prescribed for other situations – after childbirth or after touching a dead body. That Bathsheba was practicing spiritual cleansing is a far cry from how she is typically imagined as soaping up for an indulgent bath.
Nowhere do the scriptures declare that Bathsheba was fully nude or publicly exposed as she bathed. Because water purification was an integral part of everyday Jewish life, communities had a mikvah, a public cistern or spring for ritual cleansing. Interestingly, the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, in his account of this event, records David “saw a woman washing herself in her own house” (See the Antiquities of the Jews, 7.7.1:130). Wherever Bathsheba was as she bathed, it is more than likely that she was partially clothed – wearing a cloth or sarong wrapped around her body as is still customary in many parts of the world today.
We may not know where Bathsheba was, but the Bible is clear about David’s location. He was on his rooftop. The king’s palace would have been the largest edifice in Jerusalem. Being built on the high ground, David’s rooftop would have afforded him a vantage point into every home within the city. We also know that it was evening when Bathsheba was bathing and when David was watching. Given this time of day, the amount of available light was minimal. So then, if we are to presume anything about this encounter, it is that David is peering upon Bathsheba under the cover of darkness perhaps through the window of her home.
Either way, the scriptures give no suggestion Bathsheba was doing anything wrong or unusual in bathing the way she was. That King David appears where he shouldn’t have been, however, is highly inferred: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army” (2 Samuel 11:1). David is conspicuously absent from a military campaign that as king he should be leading. The assumption that Bathsheba was attempting to seduce to the king flies in the face of this brief aside. It is more likely that Bathsheba believed David had gone to war with his fighting men—including her husband. She probably had no idea she was being watched by the lingering eyes of the king.
Despite all of this, what happens between King David and Bathsheba is typically described as an act of adultery. Such a designation, however, implies mutual consent. But again, there is nothing in how this moment in relayed in the Bible to justify reaching this conclusion. What we tragically ignore in this story is the inherent power differential between David and Bathsheba.
Did Bathsheba honestly have a choice in this situation? The King of Israel issues a royal summons for one of his female subjects to come before him. On what basis could Bathsheba refuse to follow the instructions of the king’s messengers? To better appreciate the level of authority and respect David commanded as king, we ought to pay attention the level of deference Bathsheba gives to him when she later becomes his favored wife (see 1 Kings 1:13, 16, 20). Given this, what must it have been like when Bathsheba was ushered into David’s presence on this occasion?
And once she found herself in before the throne of the king – alone – without any other witnesses – was it truly possible for Bathsheba to safely resist his sexual advances? David is the one in control, not Bathsheba. Bear in mind, King David was invested with not only political but also spiritual power. Chosen by the Lord to be king (see 1 Samuel 18:14) and reportedly “a man after God’s own heart” (see 1 Samuel 13:14), Bathsheba’s resistance to David could have been reflected back to her as a defiance of the will of God.
Bathsheba is the victim of and not an accomplice in David’s sin. Being forced – implicitly or explicitly – to have sex with him, Bathsheba is raped. King David abuses his power in order to satisfy his sexual desires. A young, respectful wife who was following the Law, who have just spiritually purified herself, is violated, defiled, and then sent home.
This not an affair between two consenting adults. There is no basis of an intimate relationship in this encounter. David has no further interest in Bathsheba until the announcement of her pregnancy. Based on his subsequent actions, David expects Bathsheba to resume her life as Uriah’s wife. It is only when the king cannot orchestrate the cover-up of what he has done, it is only after King David murders and widows Bathsheba, that he takes her as his wife. And again, did she really have a choice?
King David takes no responsibility for his actions – for what he has done wrong – until he is confronted by the Lord, through the prophet Nathan. Let us also notice that when God speaks through Nathan, it is David who is rebuked, not Bathsheba: “the thing David had done was evil in the eyes of the LORD” (2 Samuel 11:27). The Lord holds David, not Bathsheba, responsible. Nowhere in the Bible is any guilt or shame placed on Bathsheba for what happened.
In the parable God has the prophet Nathan use to help David realize his wrongdoing, there is a rich man, a poor man, and an innocent lamb. The rich man is described as not just taking the lamb but cooking and feeding it to his guest. This divine story further emphasizes that King David is the predator, the aggressor. Bathsheba is the abused lamb – a young wife who is wrongly taken away and consumed – left traumatized as if she were dead.
Frustratingly, the victimization of Bathsheba by David did not end with his sexual assault or murder of her husband. Bathsheba continues to pay for the sins of the king as their child, her first born son, dies within a week of his birth. Much is made of David’s grief and prayers for his lost baby. But little has been written of Bathsheba’s suffering and distress. She is left, once again, to suffer in silence.
Voice must be given to Bathsheba’s story because hers is not a tale of the past but a repeated nightmare in our present world today. Abuse of power – particularly, sexual abuse, continues to happen in the workplace, in schools, and even, damningly, within the Church. The wrongful treatment of Bathsheba by artists and interpreters over the centuries – specifically among men – only reinforces how prevalent such mistreatment still remains.
Bathsheba represents all women who are blamed as the victim. Bathsheba represents all women who have been shamed into believing they are responsible for the lust and harassment borne of others. Bathsheba represents all women who have been abused and then sent home into forced silence – left to deal with the damage done on their own.
We ignore giving voice to Bathsheba’s story and the stories of other victims of abuse not just at their peril but also our own. Much is made of King David’s repentance of his actions and his wrongdoing, which the Bible clearly attests to, but I often wonder if the amends he made still remained somewhat incomplete. After all, this episode in 2 Samuel 11–12, marks a significant shift in David’s life and reign.
It could be argued this is the moment when David’s kingdom begins to fall apart. Clearly lessons were not learned from the king’s flagrant abuse of power as a cycle of violence, murder, insurrection, and even, sexual assault, develops among David’s own children. Full repentance requires acknowledging all sides of the story and the consequences of our actions upon others. Anything less enables the secrets we keep tobecome the demons that plague our families and communities for generations.
Thankfully, we worship a God and look towards the coming of a Savior that gives voice to all our pain and suffering. The Lord saw what David did to Bathsheba and refuses to allow it to be covered up. Bathsheba’s forced silence was broken as the God sent the prophet Nathan. Through Nathan, the Lord did not just confront David with his wrongdoing. Through Nathan, the Lord made the evil done to Bathsheba public. More than this, if there was any part of Bathsheba that blamed herself or bore the guilt placed upon her by others for what happened, God, through Nathan, cleared her of any responsibility and wrongdoing.
Bathsheba’s vindication is furthered by her inclusion in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ. There she is listed not by name but also not as the wife of David. She is referred to as “the wife of Uriah.” Some English translations attempt to correct this by adding Bathsheba’s name, but the original Greek manuscripts do not do this. We ought not to view this as a slight or snub on the part of Matthew. In mirroring how Bathsheba is spoken of in 2 Samuel 11 (again, as “the wife of Uriah”), Matthew is distancing Bathsheba’s identity from David’s sin and guilt. As invoking Bathsheba through our association with her first husband, the man David murdered, Matthew is underscoring that the God who is with us and for us, who comes to us in Christ, is a God of both justice and restoration.
Bathsheba’s silent lament will be answered in the coming of the Word made flesh. Her sorrows and losses, though they can never be forgotten, will be vindicated. The cycle of violence, abuse, and injustice to which she fell victim, we will be broken by the One who comes in our lives not by force, who gives His life for ours not by compulsion, but by consent. Bathsheba’s inclusion in the lineage of Christ is part of God’s promise to redeem all things.
Consider & Discuss | If you have been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct or have experienced the pain and shame of sexual abuse, your voice and your story matters. If you would like someone to listen or need some counseling, please consider contacting the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Or if you feel comfortable, you may contact a member of our pastoral team, please call (714) 899-1700 in order to speak to someone.
How have you previously visualized and understood the story of Bathsheba and David? Have you ever felt powerless? Is there anything about Bathsheba’s life that resonates with your life? Ever found yourself paying for someone else’s sin? How does it help to be reminded God does not forget, and God has the final word to all the injustices in our world?
Prayer Focus | Gracious God – when we hear of abuse of power many of us are angered and frustrated while others think it is just the way things are. The disparity between power all too often results in abuses, where the one with power lords it over someone with lesser power. Thank You that You come to us in Jesus as a different kind of King, exercising power that does not abuse but encourages, that does not forsake but heals, that does not take life but gives life to us. In following Christ as our King, in exercising His power in and through our lives, make us attentive to the voices of those who are silenced, give us courage to speak truth in the face of abuse, and to seek justice as well as mercy for those who are wronged. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!