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David and Bathsheba

David and Uriah
Wenceslaus Hollar

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

    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.