David and Bathsheba

 

At the turn of the year, when kings go out on campaign,
David sent out Joab along with his officers
and the army of Israel,
and they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.
David, however, remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David rose from his siesta
and strolled about on the roof of the palace.
From the roof he saw a woman bathing, who was very beautiful.


David had inquiries made about the woman and was told,
“She is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam,
and wife of Joab’s armor bearer Uriah the Hittite.”
Then David sent messengers and took her.
When she came to him, he had relations with her.
She then returned to her house.
But the woman had conceived,
and sent the information to David, “I am with child.”

David therefore sent a message to Joab,
“Send me Uriah the Hittite.”
So Joab sent Uriah to David.
When he came, David questioned him about Joab, the soldiers,
and how the war was going, and Uriah answered that all was well.
David then said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and bathe your feet.”
Uriah left the palace,
and a portion was sent out after him from the king’s table.
But Uriah slept at the entrance of the royal palace
with the other officers of his lord, and did not go down
to his own house.
David was told that Uriah had not gone home.
On the day following, David summoned him,
and he ate and drank with David, who made him drunk.
But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his bed
among his lord’s servants, and did not go down to his home.
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab
which he sent by Uriah.
In it he directed:
“Place Uriah up front, where the fighting is fierce.
Then pull back and leave him to be struck down dead.”
So while Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah
to a place where he knew the defenders were strong.
When the men of the city made a sortie against Joab,
some officers of David’s army fell,
and among them Uriah the Hittite died.

Bathsheba Holding David's Letter, Rembrandt, Louvre Museum, Paris

Bathsheba Holding David’s Letter, 1654, Rembrandt, Louvre Museum, Paris

From the Louvre website:

 

A biblical episode

A nude young woman is sitting on pure white drapery, a letter in her hand. She appears to be lost in thought, as an elderly maidservant with an Oriental-style headdress washes her feet. The young woman is the beautiful Bathsheba. King David had seen her bathing from the terrace of his palace, and fallen passionately in love with her. He summoned her with a letter, before sending her husband, the general Uriah, to certain death in battle. God later punished this illicit liaison: the adulterous couple’s firstborn son would perish. Unlike many other painters (such as Jan Massys), Rembrandt chose to focus on Bathsheba’s reaction to the royal summons; he did not portray David’s desire, nor any other anecdotal detail. The result is psychologically powerful and profoundly moving.

Bathsheba with David's messenger, as the king watches from his roof, 1562 Jan Massys

Bathsheba with David’s messenger, as the king watches from his roof, 1562 Jan Massys

Sadness and sensuality

Rembrandt painted Bathsheba from a live model. The opulence of this life size nude is exceptional in the master’s work: the nakedness of a beloved body, each fold of its triumphant flesh lovingly detailed, its eroticism highlighted by the fine transparent drapery and delicately worked jewelry. This open sensuality (the cause of imminent sin) contrasts with the young woman’s air of profound sadness. The position of the head with its idealized profile was carefully planned: we know from the X ray of the painting that Rembrandt had first painted the face raised skyward — a less judicious choice than this gentle incline. Much of the charm of the painting resides in the tension of the character of Bathsheba, who gazes resignedly into space, sadly accepting her fate.

Venetian gold

The warm harmony of the painting, in tones of gold and copper, was inspired by great Venetian painters such as Titian and Veronese. Rembrandt’s skill in depicting light was at its height in this becalmed, mature work. The mellow chiaroscuro, intended to highlight the body of Bathsheba, also creates a dramatic effect. The gold brocade cloth in the background and the dazzling white of the linen provide a luminous setting for the touching, alluring female nudity. The chromatic richness and psychological subtlety of this Bathsheba make the painting one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces.

 

We know little about Bathsheba whose story is overshadowed by King David’s. But we do learn this: From strange circumstances, great good can come. The skeleton of the story (2 Samuel) is well-known: David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof. As Frederick Buechner describes the scene in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, “He saw both that he had to have her at any cost, and that the cost would be exorbitant.”

Attracted by her beauty, the king sleeps with Bathsheba and they conceive a child. Then he arranges to have her husband, Uriah, killed. After Uriah’s death, David and Bathsheba marry.

Pawn in a Royal Game

What’s stunning is that we know nothing of Bathsheba’s reactions to dramatic changes in her life. She is bathing innocently, unaware of who’s watching. Then, suddenly, the king sends for her. That is not an order she can easily disobey, nor can she resist the king’s advances. She becomes a pawn in a royal game.

Did Bathsheba love Uriah? We know he has integrity, refusing to go home, as David wanted, while his soldiers camped: Going home would have provided the handy excuse that Uriah was the dad.

Uriah has such noble loyalty to David that it provokes the Prophet Nathan’s famous parable, accusing the king of being like the rich man who steals the only lamb of a poor man. When David is outraged at the injustice, Nathan reminds him, “You are the man.”

At Uriah’s death, Bathsheba “made lamentation for him” (2 Samuel 11:26,NRSV). After mourning, she marries David and bears his son. Again, we hear of David’s prayer for the sick child who dies, but we can only imagine hers. We know little of her motherly grief except that the king “consoled” her and she later bore Solomon.

When David is dying, Bathsheba acts to ensure that Solomon inherits his throne (1 Kings chapters 1-2). By then, the mature woman has taken charge. As the future king’s mother, she has an independence she didn’t have a

If we could have a cup of tea with Bathsheba, she might point to her personal drama as a prime example that we can play roles we can’t imagine, that our little lives are bits of a vast, divine pattern.

In her novel Evensong, Gail Godwin draws on Father Raymond E. Brown’s book A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus (Matthew 1 and Luke 1). Godwin notes that none of the upstanding patriarchal wives, such as Sarah or Rachel, are mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. Each one who is named has “scandal or aspersion attached to her.” Bathsheba takes her place with Tamar (Genesis 38) and Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6) to prove that Jesus provides “an equal opportunity ministry for crooks and saints.”

That complex mix of nobodies and hooligans who formed the genealogy of the Savior tells us that we play our parts, too. God uses our peculiarities and gifts for powerful reasons we never guess.

Godwin concludes, “Who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now…to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?”

From Nathan’s criticism of David, we know that God doesn’t take kindly to using or possessing people. Indeed, the death of David and Bathsheba’s first child is read as punishment for the king’s arrogance. But why must the innocent mother and child suffer?

The unanswered questions raised by Bathsheba’s story prepare the way for a Christ who never manipulates or demeans anyone. Indeed, he is actively concerned about the welfare of the most apparently insignificant woman.

Buechner, in the book mentioned earlier, imagines David on his deathbed looking back on the lovely young woman who had inspired such fatal consequences. From that perspective, David realizes that the story wasn’t about them. Instead, it was a step toward “the child of their child of their child a thousand years thence who he could only pray would find it in his heart to think kindly someday of the beautiful girl and the improvident king who had so recklessly and long ago been responsible for his birth in a stable and his death just outside the city walls.”

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