Bathsheba, Matthew, and #MeToo

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Bathsheba is the fourth and final woman in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Although she is not explicitly named, she is implied in the reference, “the wife of Uriah.”

If you recall the story in 2 Samuel 11, David woke up late one day while his troops were off to war. The brief explanation may serve as a set up for the story and explain why Uriah, one of David’s “mighty men,” was not at home and why his wife was alone.

In the following verse the narrator skips ahead and describes an evening when David was lounging on the roof of his house and saw a “beautiful woman” taking a bath. Filled with desire, David asked who she was, and his servants responded “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”[1] Without blinking, David sent emissaries to bring Bathsheba to him, and he had sex with her.

As a result of their rendezvous, Bathsheba became pregnant and David had to think of a way to cover his tracks. David’s solution was to bring Uriah home from battle so that Uriah could have intercourse with his Bathsheba and make it appear that the child was his. However, the contrast between David and Uriah’s character is revealed when the latter is unwilling to sleep inside his home while his comrades are at war; instead, Uriah slept on the doorstep.

Consequently, David had to come up with plan B, which was to strategically place Uriah in a battle plan with the odds stacked against his survival. Old Testament scholar John Walton says,

As one of David’s ‘mighty men,’ Uriah would have regularly been placed at the head of a contingent of soldiers and may have been expected to hold a strategic position in the battle plan. In this case, however, he was intentionally placed opposite an elite force of Ammonite troops and badly outmatched. Uriah’s portrayal as the immaculate soldier suggests that he would accept this assignment without question, but he must have wondered at the tactics.[2]

David’s plan B was successful, and Uriah was killed in battle. Therefore, David took Bathsheba into his home and she became his wife. As a consequence of their sin, David and Bathsheba’s child was stillborn—but eventually Bathsheba experienced some redemption in the fact that she gave birth to David’s wise successor, King Solomon.

This is traditionally how the story is told and understood, but when we dig a little deeper we discover that there might be a little more to add.

The Other Side of the Story

David and Bathsheba have often been portrayed as co-conspirers of an epic love affair, but at times Bathsheba has taken the largest share of the blame while David’s actions have been justified. Centuries after the events recorded in 2 Samuel, the rabbi’s suggested that there were military vows that Uriah would have taken that would technically undo Uriah and Bathsheba’s marriage making Bathsheba fair game for David. The rabbis went a little further with their interpretation and suggested that Uriah’s death was justified since his disobedience to David by not sleeping with Bathsheba was equivalent to treason.[3]

Others have suggested that Bathsheba was trying to lure David into her web of sexual seduction by bathing in a visible place with the hopes that he might see her, but the author of 2 Samuel tells us that it was her time of purification, which means that she had just completed her menstrual cycle and was following the protocol outlined in the Levitical law.[4] It is a bit presumptuous for us to think that she is trying to get David’s attention when it is completely plausible that Bathsheba simply wanted to allow the air to dry her skin, which seems to have been a fairly common practice in that time period.[5]

When we move beyond assumptions and the incredibly biased history of interpretation, we discover the verbs in the story confront our presuppositions. David sent royal officials to Bathsheba’s home, and the NASB says they “took her,” which is a good translation of the Hebrew verb lakach. The same word could also be translated “seized.”[6] Furthermore, the grammar suggests that David was the aggressor from start to finish: “she was brought to him” and “he lay with her.”

Commenting on the passage, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “There is no hint of caring, of affection, of love—only lust. David does not call her by name, does not even speak to her. At the end of the encounter she is only ‘the woman…’”[7]

It has been observed that both Bathsheba and Uriah are portrayed as completely passive within the entire narrative.[8] Perhaps they are both being portrayed as victims of David’s abuse of power. If so, the narrative raises several ethical questions.

Did David use force in order to sleep with Bathsheba?

Was their sexual encounter consensual?

Even if a woman had the right to turn down the king, given what happened to Uriah, would Bathsheba have survived if she had refused David?

In addition to all the other evidence that Bathsheba was a victim of sexual assault, we’re told that after Uriah’s death, Bathsheba went through a time of mourning. Although this may have simply been a ritual that allowed Bathsheba to go through the proper process of purification before remarriage, it could also reflect authentic grief after the loss of her husband. The biblical text seems to indicate that David did not allow much time to elapse between her mourning and their marriage. Instead, once again David uses officials to send for Bathsheba, and they bring her to the palace for her to officially become David’s wife. Instead of describing their marriage, the narrator describes Bathsheba as passively becoming David’s wife.

What is Matthew trying to tell us by including Bathsheba in the list of Jesus’ genealogy alongside of other women like Tamar and Ruth?

Why does Matthew refer to her as “the wife of Uriah” instead of “Bathsheba”?

It’s too soon to answer.

We have to keep reading.

I hope you’ll stay tuned until next time.

[1] 2 Samuel 11:3, CEB; Brueggemann notes, “She has no existence of her own but is identified by the men to whom she belongs”(Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 273).

[2] Walton, Bible Background Commentary, 338

[3] McCarter, II Samuel, 288

[4] Leviticus 15:19-33

[5] Walton, Bible Background Commentary, 338

[6] Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, 179

[7] Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 273

[8] McCarter, II Samuel, 288

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