The setting, on a late afternoon in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago, could easily be mistaken for the subject of a boudoir painting: A beautiful young woman bathes on the roof under the last rays of dusk, espied by the lustful eyes of a hidden admirer. Perhaps she looks like a Rembrandt nude—all dark shadows and pale flesh. Or perhaps she appears more like a Rubens, partially swathed in dark fabric and tended by her servants.
But no matter the serenity of the vignette—there is something amiss in this vision, a scene that seems wrought with irony. The admirer, King David, is not where he is supposed to be, on the battlefield with his troops, but instead has tarried at his palace. And the woman, Bathsheba, is married.
King David inquires after her. He learns her name and the name of her husband, Uriah, a general in his army. And though he is normally a righteous man, with a harem already full of wives and concubines, the king succumbs to his overwhelming desire. He sends his minions to bring Bathsheba to the palace. "And she came in unto him, and he lay with her."
So begins a story of sex and politics that resonates even today. Most recently, President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky drew comparisons to David and Bathsheba: a king, made weak by momentary lust, and his lover, at times both powerless and slyly manipulative. David thinks all is squared away, and then Bathsheba sends word: "I am with child." The cover-up begins.
"The whole point of this story is about the flaws in David as an adulterer," says Carol Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University. "Bathsheba's role is part of a larger narrative plan."
David, the first king of a united Israel, conqueror of an empire running from the edge of Egypt to the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq, is one of the Bible's greatest heroes. His life and his character are documented in the Old Testament's books of Samuel and the first of the books of Chronicles. In many ways, David is the Old Testament's golden child: a charismatic shepherd boy who manages to slay Goliath with a slingshot, a successful warrior, and later a pious ruler. As author Jonathan Kirsch wrote in his biography of David, David is "the original alpha male," the "first superstar." But every hero must have a fatal flaw, and David's unchecked lust for Bathsheba becomes his.
In contrast to David, Bathsheba's thoughts and her character are in most circumstances mute, well cloaked in the sparse lines of the Hebrew text. Some biblical scholars describe Bathsheba as articulate and willful, while others say those accounts consist of unsubstantiated speculation. But one thing about Bathsheba is clear: It is she alone who sparks a sudden transition in David's life. The implications of their affair will dominate his remaining years. Through the life of David and into the life of her son King Solomon, Bathsheba plays many roles: object of lust, wife, mother, and influential queen.
"I think she's among the most compelling and beguiling [women] in the Bible," argues Kirsch. "That's why so many people have been fascinated by her."
Debate over Bathsheba's character begins the moment she first appears on the roof. Was she simply an innocent bather, unaware of the stir she caused at the palace? Or was she something else entirely—a coy exhibitionist with a desire for a more powerful husband? Scholars also disagree over the nature of her bath. Danna Nolan Fewell, professor of Hebrew Bible at Drew University in New Jersey, says some scholars claim that modern notions of bathing—total nudity in a tub of water—do not translate to the historical reign of David. Others say that, because the Bible indicates that Bathsheba was cleansing herself after her menstruation, her bath was of a rather explicit nature. "When you look at the history of art, it's interesting to see that you have both the completely nude Bathsheba composed for the male gaze, and others show her just washing her feet," Fewell says. "You can't nail down whether Bathsheba was a victim or whether she was an agent."