One of the more fascinating quirks of biblical phrasing is the tendency of the authors of the TaNaKh, to say nothing of its translators, to use intimate, emotional language to describe political decisions and actions, and to portray the following of tradition such that it can be attributed to chance. The stories of David ha Melech (King David) are no exception. And the high emotional drama of different episodes makes it easy to overlook the political implications of those events as well.
One way to track the political import of various events is to keep track of the apparently minor characters involved. Often, they or their kin show up in multiple places in the biblical narrative, linking stories we don’t normally connect on casual inspection. One such story is that of Batsheva (Bathsheba).
The story of David and Batsheva is the stuff of soap operas. David sees her bathing one night as she cleanses herself after her niddah (ritual separation during menstruation). After learning her identity (the wife of Uriah the Hittite and daughter of Eliam), he sends for her and sleeps with her. When she turns up pregnant, he recalls Uriah from battle to try to get him to sleep with Batsheva so legitimate parentage will be plausible, only to find that Uriah is unwilling to visit his wife while his men are still on the front. So David has Uriah killed and takes Batsheva as his own wife. A pretty cut and dry romance, no?
No. First, let’s start with the text of the story. Uriah was unwilling to visit his wife while his men were on the front. Uriah was no ordinary soldier, he was among David’s “g’varim”, often translated as “mighty” or “great” men, but in modern terms these men were officers and elite fighters He was a powerful man, and apparently concerned about being viewed as a good leader and keeping up morale. His concern was reasonable, since the battle is the Israelite siege of Rabbah, an Ammonite city. Sieges are long, gruesome affairs. They are incredibly hard on morale and require excellent discipline.
This siege follows hard on the heels of Israel’s defeat of Syrian forces (2 Shmuel 10). The Ammonites had insulted a delegation sent by David, causing a war. When David marched against them, they hired the Syrians to “take care of it,” but David’s army managed to beat the Syrians twice, after which the local kingdoms, including the Ammonites, were unwilling to challenge Israel. War weary, a good portion of David’s army must have wondered what the purpose of laying siege to Rabbah was.
Just beyond Uriah’s refusal to visit his wife is a question: Why is David, who was essentially a warlord, not on the battlefield when it is, according to the text the season when kings go to war? David’s insistence that Uriah visit his wife and his attempt to ply Uriah with gifts is practically a dead giveaway as to the heart of the matter, so I doubt Uriah was fooled, especially when he was called and Yoav (Joab), his superior, was not. It is also possible that there was no intent to trick Uriah. Possibly, Uriah was out of favor or suspected of disloyalty, so David humbled the man’s wife. Called back from the front to be informed of being cuckolded, Uriah’s refusal to see his wife or accept gifts might have been a refusal to play ball with the humiliation.
David’s motivation aside, Uriah’s refusal is in itself essentially an accusation of David of cowardice or hedonism. If Uriah says, in effect, “How can I sleep with my wife when Yoav and my men are in battle?” he is also saying “Why are you, our king, enjoying the good life while we, your men, are in battle, dying on your behalf?” It would appear that Uriah is giving voice to dissent in the ranks. And sure enough, when the order comes down to make cannon fodder of Uriah, Yoav still attempts to protect him by positioning several elite fighters with him. It’s a surprising move, since Yoav had previously been willing to do David’s dirty work.
Uriah’s refusal to go home is also a way for the author of the text to discuss the depth of David’s misbehavior in a pretty backhanded way. Under Torah, men returned from battle are required to encamp away from the civilian population for two weeks prior to reintegrating with society. This both serves to cleanse the army in a ritual sense and to give traumatized soldiers a little time and space from the battlefield and recover before reconnecting with their families. Moreover, two weeks is enough time for the wounded survivors to receive treatment, either recovering or passing on from their wounds, without exposing the civilian population to the infections that inevitably follow the recently wounded. Uriah the Hittite (in other words, an outsider who is not of Israelite stock) refuses his King’s order to violate that commandment. He is being cast, from multiple perspectives, as the foreign subordinate who is more righteous than his native superior.
Once Uriah is out of the way, David marries Batsheva. This course of events is interesting in terms of David’s role as a judge. Naturally, the case defines “conflict of interest”, and has predictable results in that regard, but the legal maneuvering is still interesting. So long as Batsheva was married, her tryst with David could be viewed either as adultery or as rape, since the wife of a member of the court really doesn’t have the option to refuse the king. Either charge was very bad for David, with the former option being very bad for Batsheva as well. By compounding his crime with murder, though, David was able to recast the situation as though he had violated his unwed maidservant: he married her and legitimized their offspring.
Interestingly, Batsheva’s later behavior follows the pattern suggested by the law concerning the violation of an unmarried woman as well. If a man sleeps with an unmarried woman, she has the option to demand marriage of him, and he must pay her father (more on that later). The man under such circumstances forfeits his right to divorce. The influence Batsheva wielded as David’s wife certainly suggests that she knew she had power over him. And the support she received later on from both the Prophet Natan and the High Priest Zadok seem to confirm that she was justified in making demands of her husband–authority that did not carry over into influencing her son once Batsheva became the queen mother.
After David married Batsheva and their child was born, the child fell ill, suffered for a week and died, after the prophet Natan informed David that this was David’s punishment for taking Batsheva and killing Uriah. Once David and Batsheva finished mourning their child, they conceived Shlomo. Shlomo was born and then blessed by Natan. After all of this happened, Yoav sent word to David that he was about to take Rabbah. The city he had begun to besiege before David first saw Batsheva, was about to fall. The way he sends word, though, was ominous (2 Shmuel 12:27-8):
“I have fought against Rabbah; moreover, I have taken the city of waters. Now then gather the rest of the people together and encamp against the city and take it, lest I take the city and it be called by my name.”
Yoav seems to have had enough of leading the army on behalf of an absentee king.
Now, let’s look at another name in this sordid narrative: Eliam. When David first asked about Batsheva, he was informed that she was “the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” The TaNaKh doesn’t give lineages for the sake of family identity, the way we use surnames today. Usually the lineage stops at an important ancestor, Eliam in this case. But Eliam is only mentioned in one other place in the biblical narrative, and there, it is in a list. Eliam was another of David’s lesser g’varim, on a par with Uriah (and perhaps a place made more secure by David’s misbehavior with Batsheva). The mention is found at 2 Shmuel 23:32 at the end of a comprehensive list of David’s g’varim. Nothing else is known of Eliam except, according to this verse, that\he was the son of Ahitophel (Ahithophel) of Gilo. And Ahitophel is a much more prominent character.
Avshalom lost confidence in his father when his sister Tamar was raped by their half-brother Amnon, and David failed to enact justice–either by forcing Amnon to meet Tamar’s demand of marriage or by executing Amnon for incest and the rape of the king’s daughter. David had a history of allowing personal inclination to shadow his judgment, so Avshalom bided his time. After two years, he lured Amnon into a trap and killed him to avenge his sister. By taking justice into his own hands, he took a serious risk with David, and went into hiding for three years, fleeing to the king of Geshur–his mother’s kinsman (2 Shmuel 3:3).
Here, Avshalom followed a well-worn biblical path: he (a beautiful and beloved young man) goes into exile in a foreign land to hide from the wrath of his king, much as David hid from Shaul, and Yakov from Esav. But there are also in this story echoes of the tale of Samson. While in exile, Avshalom married and fathered children, including a daughter named for the defiled sister; and when he was finally recalled from Geshur, after being put under house arrest, he ordered Yoav’s field set ablaze to force an audience with the king (much as Samson once demanded the attention of the Philistines). Since David had an alliance with the Gittites (themselves Philistines), the implication is that Avshalom’s action condemns his father’s administration as a Philistine satellite. Any appearance of submission was mere formality. There is no serious reconciliation between father and son, and there could never be.
Not long thereafter, Avshalom, popular among the people, set himself up as a judge in competition with his father, and it seems that his judgments were more to the people’s liking than those of the emotionally driven, sitting king. A coup ensued, and David was forced to flee. Conscious of Avshalom’s contention that David was too cozy with the Philistines, David initially rebuffed the offer of Ittai the Gittite to stand with him against Avshalom, but eventually relented. In the conflict, Avshalom enjoyed popular support, but David retained the endorsements of the priests and prophet.
Among the supporters of Avshalom was Ahitophel, who had been David’s advisor, Eliam’s father, Batsheva’s grandfather, and certainly someone who would have known Uriah. Ahitophel was one of David’s advisors, someone known for sound judgment, whom the king would have trusted, and possessed of a high public profile. When Avshalom tried to depose his father, Ahitophel left David in favor of Avshalom. He was unable to outmaneuver David, though, and so committed suicide when Avshalom fell.
We can also infer regional political maneuvering from the whole episode. David established his monarchical mandate through his roots in the general region of Jerusalem and through descendence from Ruth the Moabite (Moab being to the southeast of Jerusalem). And when he hid from Shaul, after being anointed by Shmuel (who was from the same region), David lived in exile with the Philistines, whose land was southwest of Jerusalem.
Avshalom, conversely, was tied to more northern climes. His mother was from Geshur, a kingdom to the northeast of Israel, within the historical inheritance of Menashe. Similarly, Uriah was from Hatti, whose southern provinces shared a border with northern Israel. The war with the Assyrians was in the northeast, near Geshur, as well, and the siege of Rabbah was also in the northeast, just south of Geshur.
Earlier in the story of David’s life, Shaul’s daughter, Michal, who had been promised to David, was married off to a northern king. When David ascended the throne, he secured the crown to his head by forcing that king to give Michal back. Michal’s first husband, in ritualized humiliation, followed Michal’s procession back south to David, weeping all the way. David’s marriage to Avigayil, in contrast, involved the proper marriage of a popular widow following the demise (possibly orchestrated) of a very unpopular regional leader in Paran, to the south.
David showed a marked preference for southern regions and peoples in his reign and repeatedly embarrassed and harassed more northern areas and peoples. He also enjoyed the consistent support of the priesthood. Avshalom seems to have recruited support from the northern part of the kingdom, gained the confidence of the populace as a better judge and peacetime ruler than his father, and answered apparent dissent in the ranks that filtered all the way up to David’s most senior g’varim.
The seduction and marriage of Batsheva, romantic and scandalous as it was, seems to have been but an episode in a much larger political narrative. It suggests power politics between David and his officers and strategists, contributed to the chain of events that precipitated Avshalom’s rebellion, and plays into political discord caused by David’s inequitable treatment of the northern and southern parts of his kingdom. And as much as it involved corrupt, rash behavior on David’s part, it also involved shrewd manipulation of legal technicalities by all parties involved as each maneuvered towards his or her desired outcome.
Contributed by Rachel Kight