Bathsheba’s Story (Part 1): How I Changed My Perspective

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Bathsheba’s story captures our attention. Painters, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme or Rembrandt, have depicted her bathing provocatively. Actress Susan Hayword brought her story to life in the 1951 film “David and Bathsheba,” nominated for five Academy Awards. Authors speculate on her life in historical fiction works.

 

I’ve even stumbled across various forms of this social media meme:

god uses

Notice the words “David had an affair,” a fairly common phrase. I thought little of it the first time I saw the meme, but when I conducted research for my thesis on Bathsheba, my perspective changed.

I started with the notion that Bathsheba tends to get a bad rap. I had always figured the details regarding her responsibility in the situation were ambiguous, and thus we should be careful with assumptions about her character. But the more I delved into the biblical text the more I realized her story wasn’t as ambiguous as I thought.

For example:

  • We often say Bathsheba bathed on top of a roof. >>> The text and cultural studies indicate she was probably in an enclosed courtyard.
  • We portray Bathsheba naked. >>> The Hebrew word is ambiguous. She could have been washing her hands or her feet only (while fully clothed).
  • We view Bathsheba as a woman whose immodesty caused a king to stumble. >>> We should instead view David as a “peeping Tom.”
  • We point out that Bathsheba “came to the palace.” >>> We fail to mention David sent messengers (plural) to fetch her.
  • We tend to call the situation an affair. >>>The evidence from the text suggests it was rape.
  • We bestow upon Bathsheba partial blame. >>> The biblical author placed the blame fully on King David.

But why do the details of one story really matter? Does our view of Bathsheba affect how we live out our Christian faith? I believe it does.

As I researched, I found current examples in which Christian writers and editors failed to be empathetic toward victims and demonstrated a “lack of understanding and discernment in regard to sexual predation, child abuse and rape culture mentality” (quote from: Heather Celoria).

Even sadder, some spiritual leaders rape or sexually abuse young women, and many of the victims still receive partial blame in situations where a spiritual leader is fully at fault.

How we interpret biblical narratives affects how we interpret events around us.

Now, when I hear phrases like “David had an affair” or “Bathsheba bathed on a roof,” I don’t just simply think about how she gets a bad rap. I think about how she was an innocent victim, and I think about the “modern day Bathshebas” who exist today.

Bathsheba’s story ought to prompt careful thought because the repercussions of allowing negative stereotypes to persist are very real. I long for the day when believers eradicate the line of thinking where the victim shares partial blame for a perpetrator’s sin.

One step toward that end is sharing the “true” Bathsheba story.

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  • barry

    4 But for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, to raise up his son after him and to establish Jerusalem;
    5 because David did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite. (1 Ki. 15:4-5 NAU)

    Since nothing in the bible indicates God commanded David anything concerning the matter of Uriah the Hittite, the only way to sustain the biblical author’s accuracy with that statement is to interpret it as saying that except for the case of Uriah the Hittite, David did not violate any commands that God required of all Hebrews, such as the 10 commandments.

    Do you agree with the biblical author that except for the case of Uriah the Hittite, David did not turn away from anything that God commanded him all the days of his life? Anybody who knows the story of David in the historical books has to conclude David sinned far more than simply in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

  • Sarah_Bowler

    Hi Barry! Some argue that this phrase was from a scribe’s marginal notes and crept into the text. But regardless if that is the case or not, I don’t think the biblical author meant David perfectly obeyed every command of the Lord. Rather, this is meant as general characterization of David’s life: he sought to follow God in most matters except in the case of Uriah. (compare with Job being called “blameless and upright”).

  • barry

    Here’s my problem with the generalization hypothesis:

    1 – David was a polygamist, 2 Sam. 5:12-16, and according to Deut. 17:17, this particular sin causes your heart to turn away from the Lord, it’s not just an isolated misstep.

    2 – The more Christians insist God forbade polygamy, the more taht David’s violation of Deut. 17:17 must have been willful, he surely couldn’t claim to be ignorant of this.

    3 – I agree with the Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin 69b that Bathsheba was between 6-8 years of age when David raped her (they cite her getting pregnant at such young age as a proof that pregnancy at such young age is certainly possible), so there’s the problem of whether a biblical historian would characterize a pedophile as generally having conformed to God’s will throughout his life.

    4 – The most ridiculous story in the bible is how David and his men could not figure out how to solve his problem of night chills except by fetching a young beautiful virgin girl to sleep next to him, 1st Kings 1:1ff, despite the fact that he was still married to Bathsheba and had other wives and concubines. This verse is shrieking out to be characterized as a whitewash of David having fornicated with yet another young woman, and the story has been concocted to explain what she was doing in David’s bed, in way that doesn’t imply adultery or fornication…unless an apologist wishes to argue that neither David nor anybody in his palace had ever heard of curing night chills by sleeping closer to one’s fireplace or one’s existing wives or concubines?

    For these and other reasons, I would still find 1 Ki. 15:4-5 errant even if the proper interpretation of it was as a generalization.

  • Sarah_Bowler

    You do bring up some intelligent points. I am a little skeptical, though, about the Babylonian Talmud’s calculations on Bathsheba’s age. Most of what I have read suggests that Jewish women typically weren’t married until the age of 12 or older (still young imo, but vastly different than 6). I am not saying it wasn’t possible but doesn’t seem likely to me. If you have any additional sources on Bathsheba’s age, I’d love to know. That is one area I’d like to explore more.