If the story of David and Goliath had trumpeted David’s great faith in the Lord and heroic bravery, this equally famous tale portrays Israel’s greatest king as a sinful human being breaking the last five of the Ten Commandments.
In contrast to Uriah’s noble life, Second king of Israel, David united the northern and southern kingdoms. More may here break half of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5: coveting another’s wife, stealing her, adultery, lying, and murder. One wonders if it also occurred on the Sabbath!
The history of interpretation treats this passage with greatly varying lenses. Older schools of thought wonder if Wife of David and mother of Solomon. More willingly participated in adultery, somehow putting on an exhibitionist display for anyone who happened to be on a nearby rooftop. .
However, more recent scholarship tends to understand this account as rape-by-force. David is presented as a man out of place. He should have been with his troops (“…in spring, when kings go out…David stayed in Jerusalem” 2 The judge who anointed the first two kings of Israel More 11:1). Instead, David leaves his bed and goes up to the roof of his palace. In North Africa and Southwest Asia, roofs are frequently (but not always) gender segregated places, where women may gather, work and socialize without having to brave the male-coded streets below. So, David was neither with his troops, nor in male-coded space. In this double-dislocation, he saw a woman bathing.
Not content to lust in private, David sends for servants who can identify the bathing woman. The servants attempt to politely remind David that this woman is the daughter of one of David’s closest confidants (Eliam), and the wife of another (One of King David's military heroes and the husband of Bathsheba More). The biblical text usually has little interest in consent language (see Genesis 34, but contrast with 2 Samuel 13), and does not seem too interested in Bathsheba’s state of mind here. The text does not mention whether Bathsheba wanted to be seen, taken, “laid with” and then returned to her home. Apparently, afterwards David sought no further contact with Bathsheba. It was only after a period of weeks that Bathsheba discovered that she was pregnant and sent word to David.
Interpretation hangs on the question: did Bathsheba intentionally bathe after her menses in a place that would be visible to David, but relatively few others, hoping that David would wake up and rise from his bed, ascend to the roof of his palace, see her bathing, and send for her, to somehow have either a short-term affair, or to engineer the death of her own husband? Or, is it more likely that a king, in the wrong place at the wrong time, saw someone he was not supposed to see, and used his power to coerce her into sex with him?
Two clues should provide clarity. After David caused the death of Uriah, knowing she was pregnant with the king’s child, Bathsheba still mourned for her husband (2 Samuel 11:26). Secondly, David, rather than Bathsheba, receives all the blame for the evil (2 Samuel 11:27-12:15). The Bible is not shy at condemning female adultery and “harlotry,” but there is no blame for Bathsheba here in the text. David is the one who bears responsibility for this sin.
The story cannot be adequately interpreted apart from its setting in the period of the Ammonite wars (see 2 Samuel 10:1-12:31) and especially without the balance provided by the conclusion to this episode provided by 2 Samuel 11:16-12:25 (see that text). This familiar slice of that total story consists in four parts:
- The setting (11:1). Most important here is the notice that David had “time on his hands” since his troops were battling the Ammonites.
- The sexual encounter (vv. 2-5). The account– somewhat ambiguous, in that we are not told explicitly whether Bathsheba was the victim or an accomplice–is told starkly. David’s notice of the bathing Bathsheba (v. 2) and inquiries as to who (not whose!) she was (v. 3) quickly move to the “encounter” itself with the necessary note that she had just completed her menstrual cycle, that is, the child to be born cannot be Uriah’s (v. 4), and conclude with the notice that she is pregnant (v. 5).
- The cover up (vv. 6-13). At first David wants Uriah to go home and “wash his feet” (probably a reference to sexual relations) in order to fool the Hittite into thinking the child was his. But Uriah refuses to break faith with his comrades at the front. The phrase “not go down to your [his] home,” indicating Uriah’s resolute devotion, occurs four times in these verses (vv. 10 [twice], 11, 13). Even plying him with alcohol fails.
- The murder (vv. 14-17). Horrifically, Uriah delivers his own death sentence to Joab at the front.
Of greatest significance is the unrestrained manner with which David’s sin is portrayed, especially when compared to the squeaky clean Uriah (though a Hittite, his Hebrew name would mean “My light is the LORD”). Even if Bathsheba played a role, and it is by no means clear that she did so, the story is crystal clear in its depiction of David’s sin.