The story of Bathsheba at the Bath has been told and retold. This is good in that its details are well known; it is bad in that the scant detail of the text has had millenia to fire the lurid imaginations of storytellers, artists, and moralists. The biggest casualty has been the reputation of Bathsheba. She has been depicted as scheming for power. She has been offered as a negative role model for young girls seeking to remain pure and modest. Boys have been warned against looking at girls bathing, or even walking near places of possible temptation – feminine wiles can overwhelm even the purist in heart. Bathsheba is at best a naïve young girl and at worse a scheming seducer.
But what exactly does the text say?
“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 11:2-5)
The editorial comment about her uncleanness makes this a ritual bath. One must not think of a lascivious girl prancing around a roof with soap and sponges. Nor must we think necessarily of a girl trying to position herself strategically under the gaze of the king to catch his eye and enflame his passion. This is a ritual act of purity.
Her bath is in obedience to Leviticus 15:19 and the law governing a menstrating woman (Hebrew, niddah). From the start of a woman's monthly period she is unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her is ritually unclean, and anyone who touches her bed or chair is ritually unclean and must wash his clothes and bathe himself. This cleansing makes a person spiritually fit to worship in the presence of God. Scripture does not specifically command the girl to bathe at the end of the seven days. But it can be assumed (as Judaism has traditionally assumed) that if everyone else must bathe who touches her bed or chair, she should bathe as well at the end of her time. Relations with a niddah are strictly forbidden on pain of being “cut off” from God's people (Leviticus 18:19, 20:18). Bathsheba is doing what she is supposed to be doing.
But is she bathing ritually in an enticing manner? Some read the text as meaning, “David was on a roof, and saw a woman bathing on a roof, and saw her nakedness, and found her beautiful.” The word “roof” is added to the words “bathing” and “beautiful” to arrive at a lurid scene. Bathsheba should not have bathed in this location at this time without adequate covering from panels or walls or curtains. A married woman should know these things and do her ritual bath somewhere else. Thus, she must have been after David. Thus, we tell our young ladies and wives not to be like Bathsheba.
The text does not actually say this, nor would we expect this of a ritual bath. By way of perspective, in a modern Jewish setting, an appropriate system allows observant women to bath with full modesty. She arrives at the bath house to dip in the pool (Hebrew, Mikveh) and undergoes an appropriate inspection by an attendant. The water must touch every part of the body, so hair is loosened and all clothes and accessories removed. She “cleans up” to insure the water indeed touches her body. The pool is comfortable, filtered, and chlorinated. After immersion you might take a few moments in the bath for prayer and reflection. Towels are provided. Modesty is maintained.
Should we expect anything radically different in Ancient Israel? Leviticus 15 prescribes immersion in “living water” (rain, river, spring) for male cleansing; Judaism has traditionally applied this stipulation to female cleansing as well. That might be assumed in the text itself, and it certainly makes practical sense in a land without a lot of water. Baths would be communal and built to highest standards to service any need. Most would have been filled with rain water, caught and stored in cisterns, plastered to keep the rain from seeping into the earth. One bath from the time of Christ was recently unearthed in Jerusalem that filtered the rain water as it moved from catch basins on the roof to the bath below. The care used in the construction reflects the arid climate of the city. Even though Bathsheba lived a thousand years earlier, it is hard to imagine a better kind of system for creating ritual baths. She would arrive, prepare, dip, and leave much as her modern counterpart.
It is a hard to imagine a different system that would expose her to David's gaze. Why would a ritual bath be built on a rooftop or in an open courtyard? Observant women would need a place to disrobe and prepare for immersion, which a traditional bath would supply. The rock and plaster needed for the bath points to a traditional location on the ground. Jerusalem has hills – if not for personal modesty sake, husbands would not want their wives up on roofs or in open courtyards, nor would neighbors tolerate that kind of unseemliness.
Compare some of our moralizing at the expense of Bathsheba's reputation to a rabbinic telling of this story, attributed to R. Johanan (Sanhedrin, 107a). It is assumed that Bathsheba was modestly covered in her bath. David is on his roof. The Devil appears in the form of a bird and maneuvers himself into such a position that when David launches an an arrow at the bird, the arrow hits and shatters the covering around Bathsheba and reveals her to him. The story is colorful, it stays within the parameters of Scripture, and it protects the reputation of Bathsheba.
Why are we tempted to do the opposite, to read her part in the story in such a sinful way? Scripture nowhere mentions her sin in this matter, and nowhere mentions her repentance. In fact, the conclusion of the story in 2 Samuel 11:27 lays blame with David alone: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Nathan's parable in chapter 12 says nothing of lascivious bathing girls, but pictures Bathsheba as an innocent lamb in the hands of a despicable man. And when David repents, it is a personal repentance. Bathsheba's reputation remains untouched, and the story of Rabbi Johanan honorably covers that reputation. (This is against the bizarre attempt attributed to R. Jonathan and Rabbi Judah HaNasi himself (Shabbat, 56a) to exonerate David, an attempt rightly treated as wrong-headed and tendentious.)
Let me state this plainly: our assumptions about the story tell us more about ourselves and our issues than they illuminate the actual text. If she did anything wrong in this story, Scripture is mute to the fact. There are no moralizing comments about immodesty, nakedness, or seduction. One is blamed, and that is not the woman.
Let me offer a less colorful reading that, in my mind, makes much better sense. David is on his palace roof in the afternoon. He looks out over the town below. Jerusalem is not a large town at this time, and he knows where the ritual baths are located. He notices an attractive young lady entering for her cleansing. Her use of the ritual bath signals that she is a married woman who has been unavailable for seven days, has finished her cycle, and is sexually “available.” He calls over an attendant, and when she comes out, he is told who she is.
When David finds out her name, he realizes her husband is away at war. Nobles have long exercised rights over brides, invariably before marriage as in the story of Esther, not after. Yet if reasoning is part of the equation, does that repulsive tradition and a ritual bath spark some horrible lust in David's mind? Is his scheme little more than unadorned desire with no attempt at legal justification? Either way, David is the villian. And his lust is sparked by beauty and availability.
He calls her to the palace. Some conclude offhand that this summons is a mutually understood tryst. Really? It was early evening, past the afternoon break, not in the dead of night. Do we know immorality would be on her mind? More to the point, the king has summoned her for whatever reason and as a dutiful Hebrew she goes. When she found out what he wanted, did she really have any choice in the matter?
At this point, the broader context of 2 Samuel cannot be overlooked. Chapter 12 will conclude this story with signs of God's forgiveness and grace toward repentant David. Solomon is born and loved by God. God continues to bless the reign of David, seen in the victory over Rabbah. Yet God has told David that his sin will impact his house. And chapter 13 presents the horrific start of that punishment.
David's son Amnon desires his sister Tamar. His scheme will put her in an impossible situation. She is desperately powerless to resist him in this society. She will plead with him that as horrible as it is, would Amnon at least ask the king to allow him, her brother, to marry her, his sister. Would he do this to save her life and reputation? He chooses evil and commits a capital crime, and the story continues to its horrific end. Samuel draws a link in our thoughts between David and Amnon, Bathsheba and Tamar. What David has brought on the house of Uriah has come on his own house through his own son. If Scripture points in any direction, it points toward defenseless women put in hopeless situations by the abuse of power in the royal family.
If this is the case, how offensive is the moralizing done at the expense of Bathsheba's reputation? Let that thought settle in the mind and stomach. Who would stoop to such vileness as to dare to accuse Tamar of behaving in an inappropriately suggestive way, nursing Amnon back to health, and so tempting her half-brother into criminal sexual conduct? Shall we then accuse Bathsheba of playing a role in David's sin, when all we know of her is that she obeyed the laws of purity and obeyed a summons to the royal palace?
I say again, think twice before condemning a person. “Judge not lest you be judged.” We are prone to showing the darkness of our hearts by reading into stories of scant detail our own issues. We do this with living people. We do this with people who have passed three thousand years before us. You would think we would have the good sense to not condemn a soul Scripture does not condemn. What is wrong with us?