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."
In either case, Bathsheba has no choice but to comply when summoned by the king. And whether the consequence of that meeting—a pregnancy—is welcome to her or not is equally unclear. Bathsheba says only, "I am with child." Yet for so few words, they carry an import she must have understood. "Is that a cry of help, or is that manipulative?" Fewell asks. By confiding in David, Bathsheba actively puts him in a position of responsibility—a smart move, considering that, at the time, the penalty for adultery was stoning.
David acts quickly to conceal the affair. At first, he pins his hopes on Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, inviting him back from the battlefield and twice trying to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, in order to plausibly pass off the child as his. But with his troops still at war, Uriah refuses to enjoy the comforts of home. When all else fails, David orders that Uriah be placed in the front lines of the battle, where he will surely be killed. Once David receives word that Uriah has died fighting, he responds coolly, "The sword devours one way or another."
Once more, the Bible tells us little of Bathsheba's reaction. "The wife of Uriah" mourns for an appropriate period of time, then becomes David's wife. She may even have felt relieved. Certainly, the text does not indicate that Uriah was a particularly loving husband.
But the sword that devours now hangs over David's own house. "The thing that David had done displeased the Lord," and both he and Bathsheba will pay the price. Soon thereafter, the prophet Nathan tells the king a parable: There are two men in a city, one rich and one poor. The rich man has many flocks of sheep, but the poor man has only one ewe lamb, a lamb he raised with his own children and fed from his own table. A traveler comes to the rich man one day, and rather than kill one of his own flock to feed the guest, the rich man takes the poor man's lamb. Thinking the story is true, David tells Nathan, "As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this deserveth to die."
Nathan replies, "Thou art the man." Delivering the message of God, Nathan recounts David's sins and curses him, saying, "The sword shall never depart from thy house." The shamed king bows his head: "I have sinned against the Lord." But David's admission of error comes too late. Nathan tells him, "The child also that is born unto thee shall surely die."
Although God singles out David as the sinner, Bathsheba also suffers a cruel punishment. Soon after the birth of their son, the child falls ill; on the seventh day, the child dies-innocent blood spilt in payment for sinful parents. It now seems likely that Bathsheba will withdraw into David's harem, a shamed wife, never to be heard from again. But the connection between David and Bathsheba proves to be more than transitory, and instead it seems that the tragedy draws them closer. Miraculously, God grants David a temporary reprieve. Bathsheba gives birth to a healthy son, the future King Solomon.
Most of David's previous marriages were arranged for political alliances. But David is drawn to Bathsheba by a powerful sexual attraction. Popular culture chooses to view their relationship as a classic romance—lust turned to love. In his novel God Knows, Joseph Heller envisions Bathsheba as the love of David's life, as does the 1951 Gregory Peck movie, David and Bathsheba.
But some biblical scholars caution against reading too much romance into the lines of the text. "There are a lot of times when you're told that people love David," Fewell says, referring in part to David's first wife, Michal, and King Saul's son Jonathan. "The word love is never used in the story of David and Bathsheba."
Whether or not theirs is a classic love story, David and Bathsheba share a powerful bond, and Bathsheba has three more children with David. As David lies on his deathbed, a man ruined by family strife, one of his sons, Adonijah, has already claimed the throne. Should Adonijah succeed David, his rival Solomon would find himself in great danger.
As David's power wanes, Bathsheba's grows. She reminds David of an oath he once may or may not have made to her that Solomon would inherit the crown. Even if he is being tricked, the king reproclaims Solomon his heir. In David's "house of intrigue," as Kirsch puts it, Bathsheba has learned how to manipulate the outcome in her favor.
As queen mother, Bathsheba occupies one of the most important positions in the land. Her transformation from a silent object of lust to a politically astute—and vocal—queen, is striking, yet understandable. As an older woman, she displays the wisdom gained from a lifetime as a politician's consort.
Yet, it is as a bathing beauty, and not as a power-player, that Bathsheba is best known. She sits at the head of a long line of sympathetic literary adulteresses: Emma Bovary, Hester Prynne, and Anna Karenina each owe something to the wife of David and the mother of Solomon. But perhaps Bathsheba is best honored by the 31st Proverb, which some traditions hold that she recited to Solomon on the day of his marriage: "Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised."