David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) by Cameron B. R. Howard

David is a heroic figure in the Hebrew Bible: a handsome, brave, and talented warrior-king who receives special favor from God. At the same time, David’s characterization in biblical narrative is ambivalent, emphasizing his flaws as well as his virtues. The story of his interactions with Bathsheba and Uriah is one such account of David’s moral failings.

Is this story about David and Bathsheba or David and Uriah?

When we first encounter Bathsheba, we learn she is “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (2Sam 11:3), but by the end of the story she is married to King David instead. Perched on the palace rooftop, David spies the wife of Uriah bathing. He sends for her and sleeps with her, and she becomes pregnant. In hopes of covering up his adultery, David urges Uriah, one of his own warriors, to leave his battle post, return to his house, and sleep with his wife, thus making it look like David and Bathsheba’s child is his own. When the pious and noble Uriah refuses to abandon his battlefield commitments, David arranges to have him stationed on the front lines unprotected, and he is killed in combat. After Bathsheba has completed her time of mourning, David marries her. The prophet Nathan pronounces judgment on David’s actions, proclaiming that as a consequence of David’s sinfulness the child will die.

Although Bathsheba is at the center of the story’s action, through all of this drama we never hear her speak, nor do we have any indication of her feelings about David or Uriah. Instead of acting, she is acted upon. Even after her child dies, we hear not that she mourned but rather that “David consoled his wife Bathsheba” (2Sam 12:24). The entire narrative focuses on David’s actions and Uriah’s responses to them, setting up a contrast between those two characters. Despite the fact that he is a foreigner (a Hittite), Uriah maintains his loyalty to David and the Israelite army, foregoing sex with his wife in order to maintain his readiness for battle. David, on the other hand, succumbs to his compulsions, having sex with the wife of one of his best warriors (see 2Sam 23:24-39) and then manipulating military strategy to arrange Uriah’s murder and cover up his own offenses.  

Why is this story of David’s failings included among other texts that portray David as a hero?

The prophet Nathan’s parable used to rebuke David in 2Sam 11:27-12:15 makes it clear that the text condemns David’s actions. In the parable, a rich man takes the one beloved possession of a peasant, a ewe lamb, to prepare for a guest, rather than take a lamb from his own flock. David himself recognizes that the rich man is at fault (2Sam 12:5-6), and Nathan seals David’s censure by telling him, “You are the man!” (2Sam 12:7). Just as the rich man took the poor man’s lamb, David has taken Uriah’s wife. In both cases the powerful exploit the powerless.

In 1Sam 8:5, the people of Israel ask the prophet Samuel to appoint “a king to govern us, like other nations.” Samuel responds with a dramatic warning about all the ways a king will take from his own people. When David takes Bathsheba, he is fulfilling the archetype of kingship that Samuel warned against. He has shirked his leadership responsibilities, exploited his subjects, and focused on his own interests instead. Even David, implies the text, is not immune to the corruptions of his office.

Second Samuel 11-12 is the result of a process of editing over time by multiple hands. As scholar Jacob Wright notes, the story is likely built on a battle report of Uriah’s death that originally lacked the current story’s sexual intrigue. As it now stands, the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba gives voice to a deep skepticism about the institution of kingship, a skepticism that persists throughout Samuel-Kings alongside other voices praising David as a divinely chosen hero. In addition to providing a richer, more complex portrait of the figure of David, this narrative underscores the composite nature of the Hebrew Bible, showcasing how different perspectives on ancient stories have been worked and reworked into the texts we know today.

Cameron B. R. Howard, "David and Bathsheba ", n.p. [cited 29 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/main-articles/david-and-bathsheba

Contributors

Cameron B. R. Howard

Cameron B. R. Howard
Assistant Professor, Luther Seminary

Cameron B. R. Howard is assistant professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Among her publications are contributions to Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics (Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary (Abingdon, 2010), the twentieth-anniversary edition of the Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and the journal Word and World.

The story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba complicates the biblical portrait of David and reflects a strand of deep skepticism about kingship in some biblical traditions.

Did you know…?

  • David tells Uriah to go to his house and wash his feet. Feet is a common euphemism for genitals in the Hebrew Bible, and the instruction that Uriah should wash his feet at home implies that he should have sex with his wife.
  • The book of Psalms attributes many of its poems to David, including Psalm 51, which bears the superscription, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
  • The New Testament book of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that deliberately highlights some of the more scandalous moments in the Davidic line, including that “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” By saying “wife of Uriah” instead of “Bathsheba,” the genealogy underscores David’s adultery rather than his kingly glory.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

2Sam 11:3

3David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.”

2Sam 12:24

Solomon Is Born
24Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and went to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and he named him Solomon. The Lord loved him,

2Sam 23:24-39

24Among the Thirty were Asahel brother of Joab; Elhanan son of Dodo of Bethlehem;25Shammah of Harod; Elika of Harod;26Helez the Paltite; Ira son of Ikkesh of Te ... View more

A typical or representative model; the essence or embodiment of a standard or type.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

2Sam 11:27-12:15

27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
Nathan Condemns David
But the thing that Dav ... View more

2Sam 12:5-6

5Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die;6he shall restore the ... View more

2Sam 12:7

7Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul;

1Sam 8:5

5and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The addition of a title or subtitle in an ancient work; see especially the designation of certain types of psalms in the book of Psalms.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.