David and Bathsheba: An Example of Narrative Plasticity in the Old Testament

In a previous post, I mentioned that the Bible itself includes multiple interpretations of the same passage from earlier in the Bible. Update: the technical term for narrative plasticity (my own term) is intentional ambiguity.

Now I want to see if I can demonstrate a moral ambiguity in a Biblical story which is meant to lead to reflection upon more than one moral issue. Below is the story of David and Bathsheba:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
(2 Samuel 11:1-5 ESV)

 

Immediately we’re led to suppose that there is a moral problem on David’s part: “In…the time when kings go out to battle…David remained at Jerusalem.” Now, David is married and so is Bathsheba. So both sin with respect to the law of God if we assume that each character is sexually interested in the other from the beginning. So from the get go, there is the “adultery is sinful and difficult to hide, even for kings and the wives of powerful, presumably rich soldiers.” But there are two more angles, all of which can be supported by the text and all of which are moral failures the Bible warns against:

  1. Simple adultery (mentioned above).
    In this scenario, both parties are guilty and the question of who initiated the affair is moot. But as I said above, the story can be seen from more than one angle.
  2. The Royal Rape Angle
    This interpretation is more popular today. The idea is that David, when he “sent messengers and took her” sent messengers to seize her and because she knew from whence they came, she acquiesced to avoid being murdered. So in that respect, the passage is purely an indictment of David’s character and a criticism of the very idea of a human king without checks and balances. And indeed, in the story it takes a seer with an advisory role to correct David and that seer is nervous enough that he uses a parable. And so the idea is that David did what the law said kings should do, he allowed his heart to be exalted above his countrymen (Deut 17:19-20)
  3. Don’t Give Your Strength to Women
    It could also be the case that Bathsheba bathed on the roof specifically to tempt David. This scenario is also familiar to the Biblical authors (Proverbs 7). It also matches up with the potential to be tempted to cheat on a husband hypergamously, with which the Biblical authors are familiar (Genesis 3:16). It’s also a direct warning in several places that men should not marriage idolatrous wives and that kings should not give their strength to women (Proverbs 31:3). And so the story, read from this angle, is about the fact that if you do not manage power correctly, and use your resources to avoid responsibility, then temptations which might have otherwise been easy to withstand become impossible to resist. In this version, both parties are complicit, but Bathsheba initiated.

All three versions provide useful warnings:

  1. Generally, don’t commit adultery.
  2. Don’t trust kings to be morally perfect and never allow political power to be absent accountability, especially moral/spiritual accountability.
  3. Seduction is real, but the moral failures that come from attempted seduction are usually the result of the situation the target placed themselves in.

Any of these interpretations is defensible from the text and all of the warnings that come from them can be found elsewhere in Scripture. Also, the exact details to say which version happened or which version did not happen were available to the writer.

If the goal had been to limit “the moral of the story” to an absolutely clear point, he would have. We know this because he does at other points (Eli’s sons, for instance). So either the story ends with the child of the union dying without any clear moral reason (obviously untrue), or the exact reason other than sexual sin of some sort leading to murder was left partially ambiguous for the moral education of the reader.

Update: I found this article Fraught with Background: Literary Ambiguity in II Samuel 11.

I had no idea that anybody had written about this particular issue before. My practice is usually to come up with my theories based on primary sources, then check the secondary literature. In this case all I looked up was “literary ambiguity in ancient literature.” Apparently this passage is a major test case.

2 thoughts on “David and Bathsheba: An Example of Narrative Plasticity in the Old Testament

  1. “Any of these interpretations is defensible from the text and all of the warnings that come from them can be found elsewhere in Scripture.”

    I’m glad you gave an example of what you meant by the plasticity of OT stories. Regarding the quote above, I agree with the second half (which I think you demonstrated). But the first part would have to be shown from the text exegetically. It seems to me that if we are supposed to read this text beyond the “simple adultery” we would need clear textual markers. i.e. the description of or use of the word rape (Genesis 34) and the indictment of David for folly (going near her house… Proverbs 6). I have no doubt David would be prosecuted for rape today under modern notions of power and sexual harassment. But the prophet Nathan, and even more, the Spirit, don’t seem to go there. I also have no doubt your Proverbs 6 move would be characterized today as victim blaming.

    While I don’t want to over-read or under-read the text, I think the only way to avoid anachronistically imposing on the text modern sensibilities (sic) is to stick with what we can exegetically verify. Then, make application.

    What controls are there in your “plasticity” understanding to avoid mere reader response?

    Jason

    • But the first part would have to be shown from the text exegetically. It seems to me that if we are supposed to read this text beyond the “simple adultery” we would need clear textual markers.

      Right. I think that the difficulty in the passage is precisely that there are several layers of how an event like this would occur that are not made clear.
      In the royal rape instance, For instance, David “sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.” The word rape isn’t used, but the text is not dissimilar from what Xerxes did, “the young woman was beautiful to look at” and after the edict went out his men had her “taken into the king’s palace.” So there is similarity there that is suggestive but the text merely implies the possibility without denying it. I would add that Nathan’s story does imply something akin to rape insofar as the lamb, though defenseless is killed. And the man who loses the lamb is at the mercy of a power differential. But it’s hard to know if the lamb is meant to be Bathsheba, Uriah, both, or neither (probably neither).

      If I were to distill it down, there are two types of limits, each with two subspecies (if I’m right about this…or part of it):

      So the limits are determined at the textual level first. If there is ambiguity, thy story may be meant to create a cascade of different moral questions and discussion like any fable or fairytale. In that sense the meaning is a “reader response” with respect to that being the genre of the story. If there is no ambiguity, the text’s immediate context tells you what it means and that’s that (excepting allegories, types, etc).

      Secondly, they’re limited by the canon of Scripture. For instance, I’m wrong if I read the story and say, “hmmm, the baby died, but she became a pious woman and fathered Solomon. Adultery rocks!” The rest of the Old Testament and New Testament militate against such a view.

      I also have no doubt your Proverbs 6 move would be characterized today as victim blaming.
      Yeah, victim blaming really can happen. But a few feminist scholars have pointed out that concept is frequently used as a form of rhetoric to deny that women have any moral agency or personal potential for foresight. “Sure she did ‘x,’ and ‘x’ is a crime, but to bring ‘x’ up is victim blaming.”

      While I don’t want to over-read or under-read the text, I think the only way to avoid anachronistically imposing on the text modern sensibilities (sic) is to stick with what we can exegetically verify. Then, make application.

      I share those concerns. But I don’t think I have to either possible reading. The royal rape reading really isn’t meant to be reflective of modern sensibilities. Instead, I’m trying to reflect that ancient kings really used power that way (Deut 17:17). But the text isn’t perfectly clear that that is what happened. And it’s also not clear that Bathsheba wasn’t being seductive. Because while David wasn’t wandering from house to house, he wasn’t where kings were supposed to be. And there are parallels between lady folly and the simple and David and Bathsheba. Lady folly sits on the high places to invite people and she purified herself sacrificially before inviting the young man in. Bathsheba was cleansing herself of uncleanness and sitting (standing?) on the rooftop.

      Anyway, in ambiguous texts like that I think there are two options for teaching them:
      First, point out the possibilities because you don’t know what the author was getting at, why they make sense or don’t, and give the appropriate canonically controlled theological/moral/psychological exhortations.
      Second, point out the same possibilities and exhortations because you think the author left it open.

      The practical result seems the same.

      The whole reason the issue interests me is the fact that the New Testament authors take stories in the Old Testament right where they say neither of two complementary ideas clearly and use the text to teach both. Or they use a Biblical character to make a point that was not made by the author writing about him in the OT. For instance, Samson is a hero of faith in Hebrews, but in Judges he is self-indulgent, vengeful, and evidence that even the strongest of Israel’s leaders were deeply corrupt.

      So I’m trying to think of a hermeneutic for dealing with these (as far as I can tell) intentional ambiguities in a way that respects that a text has a limited range of acceptable ways to take it by virtue of the author’s intent and that it then has another acceptable range of meanings by virtue of its inclusion in the canon.

      That comment was way way way too long. Did I answer your questions? Am I even making sense?

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