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No. 93: Bathsheba: The Real Story

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 93
March, 1997
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons

One of the advantages of paying very close attention to the details in the Bible, especially chronological and genealogical details, is that they can shed light on situations that don’t seem to make much sense apart from them. One such situation is that of Bathsheba.

It appears that Bathsheba willingly cooperated with David in adultery. There is nothing to indicate that she cried out, or rejected him in any way (2 Samuel 11:4). Are we authorized, however, to expect the Bible to record such a protest if she made it?

As we read the story, we find that Uriah protests when David tries to get him to go home to his wife (2 Samuel 11:11). Uriah’s protests serve to highlight David’s sin, his sin of not going out to fight as a king was supposed to do (11:1). If David had been with the Ark in the field, he also would have been under conditions of holiness that would have prevented him from having sex with his wives (Deuteronomy 23:10; Exodus 19:15).

In 2 Samuel 13 we find the rape of Tamar by Amnon. We are told explicitly of her protests, which only serve to highlight Amnon’s sin.

So, given that such protests are part of the overall story, why don’t we read of protests from Bathsheba? She should have said, "No, my lord, do not do this thing." Then, when David forced her, we would see his sin in all its horror. But we don’t read anything like that. Everything indicates cooperation on her part. As we shall see, part of the reason we don’t have recorded such a protest is that adultery is not David’s primary sin, and the text wants to keep us focussed on what that sin was.

So, are we to assume that she was a willing adulteress? If so, why is she not punished? Why does Nathan only threaten David? There is an answer to this question, but we can only see it if we make a careful study of chronology, genealogy, and name lists.

Chronology and Genealogy

The answer begins with the fact that Bathsheba was the granddaughter of one of David’s chief counsellors, Ahithophel. Her father, Eliam, was one of David’s thirty mighty men (2 Samuel 11:3 & 23:34). This suggests that Bathsheba was a lot younger than David.

We can become much more specific. To begin with, we notice that three times Solomon is said to have been quite young when he became king (1 Kings 3:7; 1 Chronicles 22:5; 29:1). "Young" in this context is young compared to David when he became king at the age of thirty, for in Chronicles it is David who speaks. We can assume he was at least twenty, but not much more. Let us assume that Solomon was twenty. That means he was born when David was fifty, for David lived seventy years. This was at the mid-point of David’s forty-year reign.

Another event happened about this same time, which forms a second witness to our chronological suggestion: the rape of Tamar. We are told that Amnon and Absalom were born around the same time, after David became king at Hebron. Let us put their births when David was 31. Amnon must be old enough to have entered adolescence, and old enough to contemplate rape as a possibility, something unlikely in a boy only fifteen or sixteen years old. In David’s fiftieth year, Amnon would have been about nineteen.

We are told that the rape of Tamar happened shortly after the affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 13:1). About twelve years later we come to the revolt of Absalom, so the rape of Tamar could not have happened much later than David’s fiftieth year. Moreover, since Ahithophel was still alive at the time of Absalom’s revolt, we cannot press the revolt forward much farther than this. We cannot push the rape back much earlier in David’s reign either, or else Amnon becomes too young for this to be a real possibility. So, right around David’s fiftieth year emerges as the time of the rape of Tamar.

Absalom waited two years, and then murdered Amnon for the rape of his sister (2 Samuel 13:23). We notice that Absalom was clearly over twenty years of age at this time, since he already had his own flocks and household (13:23-29). If my reconstruction is approximately correct, and Amnon raped Tamar when the former was 19, then Absalom was probably 18 at that time. He waited two years until he came of age and could act. Absalom was probably 20 when he slew Amnon.

Absalom was exiled for three years (2 Samuel 13:38). He lived in Jerusalem apart from the palace life for two years thereafter (14:28). After four full years, he led his revolt (15:7). This means Absalom’s revolt happened 11-12 years after the rape of Tamar. We’ll go with twelve, and have David 62 years old.

(2 Samuel 15:7 in the Masoretic Hebrew text says that Absalom revolted after forty years. Josephus and ancient translations say four years. If the revolt took place in David’s fortieth year of reign, just before his death, we really don’t have enough time for the events of the conflict with Absalom and other events that are presented as happening afterward. Moreover, as the preceding paragraph shows, the text has been careful to follow the chronology of Absalom’s own life, so why would it change here and refer to David’s reign, or to some unknown event forty years earlier? Thus, all commentators take it as four years, as we do here.)

Now, at the time of the revolt, Ahithophel was an old man, but still able to serve as an advisor to Absalom (2 Samuel 15:12, etc.). Contrast Barzillai the Gileadite, who at the age of 80 felt he was too old to serve (19:35). Let us make Ahithophel roughly 74 years of age at this time. Nowhere does the text tell us why Ahithophel supported Absalom, but we can easily guess that he was alienated over David’s treatment of his granddaughter and her husband.

Now, the following chart assumes twenty years between generations, and helps establish roughly the age of Bathsheba when David took her:

Absalom’s Tamar’s Bathsheba’s
Revolt Rape Seduction
David 62 David 50 David 49
Ahithophel 74 Ahithophel 62 Ahithophel 61
Eliam 54 Eliam 42 Eliam 41
Bathsheba 34 Bathsheba 22 Bathsheba 21

Of course, these ages are approximate, but they are approximately correct. Considering their differences in age, and the fact that David was king, it is not hard to imagine that David simply overwhelmed Bathsheba.

To summarize the chronological argument: Ahithophel was Bathsheba’s grandfather, and (as we shall see) Eliam served with David before David became king. Eliam must be a fairly accomplished warrior at the time David becomes king. Since Ahithophel was still alive at the time of Absalom’s revolt, we must put that revolt as close to the beginning of David’s reign as possible. The ages of Amnon and Absalom, however, make it impossible to put the rape earlier than about twenty years into David’s reign.

At the same time, given the facts about Ahithophel and Eliam, we cannot put the seduction of Bathsheba early in David’s reign, or else she becomes too young. If we make her older, then Ahithophel becomes too old to be on the scene with Absalom. Thus, sometime close to the twentieth year of David’s reign becomes necessary for this sad event.

Finally, 2 Samuel 13:1 implies, though it does not flatly state, that Amnon’s rape of Tamar happened shortly after David’s sin with Bathsheba. Clearly, the firstborn royal prince thought he could get away with this because his father had done so.

In summary: The seduction of Bathsheba happened sometime around the eighteenth or nineteenth year of David’s reign. The rape of Tamar and the birth of Solomon happened a couple of years later, probably in David’s twentieth year. Absalom’s revolt took place twelve years later, in David’s 32nd year.

David’s Sin

Ahithophel was one of David’s chief counsellors, and Eliam was one of his chief soldiers. Eliam apparently had been with David from the time he was in the wilderness before he became king. This emerges from 2 Samuel 23. Verse 34 identifies Eliam as one of the thirty mighty men. Verse 13 says that three of these men brought David water while he was living in the cave of Adullam, after fleeing from Saul (1 Samuel 22:1-2). I am assuming from the wording of 2 Samuel 23:13 that the "thirty" were already in existence at this time; 1 Samuel 22:2 says that David had four hundred men with him then. We don’t know when this was exactly, but let us assume David was 27. Eliam would have been 19. Even if Eliam had not yet become part of the thirty at this time, clearly he became one early in David’s reign, for that was the time when the wars were fought, and only during such wars could he emerge as one of the mighty men.

What does this mean? It means that Bathsheba grew up around the palace of David. She was two years old, on our scheme, when David became king. Her father and grandfather were often at the palace. David knew them intimately. Did David bounce Bathsheba on his knee when she was a little girl? It is hard to imagine that he did not! Knowing David, I imagine he often got down on the floor and horsed around with the little kids of the court. I’ll bet David even burped Bathsheba on his shoulder when she was an infant.

Bathsheba grew up in awe of David, the man after God’s own heart, the author of the psalms, God’s anointed leader. All her life she had viewed him as one of Israel’s preeminent spiritual leaders. She had heard him speak of the Lord many times. She had heard her father and grandfather praise him. So, when David called for her, she came. (I doubt if she’d’ve come if Ahab had summoned her.)

Why did David have to ask who she was (2 Samuel 11:3)? At the age of fifty, his eyesight had doubtless begun to diminish. She was at some distance, and he could only see her general form. But note that she lived near enough to the palace to be espied, which again shows that she and her husband were closely associated with the court. Moreover, the form of the answer David received, "Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" (v. 3), indicates that the man assumed David knew her: "Oh, you know that is, David. That’s Bathsheba."

What did David say to her? We can only imagine, but I suppose it went like this: "Trust me. This isn’t wrong. I’m the king, after all." And Bathsheba trusted him. After all, unlike the ordinary Israelite, David had lots of wives and concubines. (He wasn’t supposed to, of course, but he did.) Kings, Bathsheba knew, were different from ordinary people.

Could Bathsheba read? Did she have her own copy of the Torah to read? Doubtless not; few people bothered to learn to do so in the pre-Gutenberg world, and there surely weren’t a lot of copies of the Torah around. What she knew of spiritual matters came from men like David. If David said it was all right for her to sleep with him, she had no real reason to question him – or at least not much of one.

Now, if I have been successful I have exonerated Bathsheba of serious wrongdoing. Hers was a sin of being led astray. At the same time, David’s sin becomes much more serious than before. It was not only the sin of adultery, but the sin of leading one of God’s little ones astray. Nathan seems to imply as much when he says the rich man killed the poor man’s one ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:4).

This story is that of David’s fall. David, unlike Adam, was a king, a leader, a guide, a teacher (psalmist). He was like the angel of Yahweh (2 Samuel 14:17, 20; 19:27). The analogy is to Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Lucifer was chief of the angelic tutors to humanity during our childhood, and he led Adam and Eve into death by abusing his position (Galatians 3:19, 4:1-3). David did the same. David’s sin is a definite "advance" on Adam’s.

A study of details leads us to the same kind of horror when we consider Uriah the Hittite. This man was a convert. He was also one of the thirty mighty men (2 Samuel 23:39). Like Eliam, he had been with David before David became king. He was one of David’s good friends and wartime buddies.

But who converted Uriah? Well, who was the spiritual leader of the men who joined themselves to David at Adullam? David. It may well be that David himself converted this man. Even if it was not David who did it, David was the spiritual leader of the band and had much to do with instructing Uriah in the faith.

Uriah and Eliam were fellow knights of David’s round table, so to speak. Little Bathsheba grew up seeing the possibly exotic and fascinating foreigner Uriah from time to time. As she blossomed into womanhood, she and Uriah formed a bond and Eliam gave her to him in marriage. This is the picture of things that emerges from our study of the details.

When David encourages Uriah to violate the laws of war and sleep with his wife while the Ark is in the field, Uriah does protest. But then, Uriah was about forty years old, and as a warrior was used to making more independent judgments than the young Bathsheba. Then David, Uriah’s spiritual leader, murders him.


Several things emerge from our examination of the evidence. First, we see something of the intimate relationships between Ahithophel, Eliam, Uriah, David, and Bathsheba. These people were not unknown to one another; on the contrary, they had been very close for years. They were fellow members of the court. This fact alone makes David’s sin worse than it is often supposed to have been.

Second, we see that Bathsheba was probably innocent of any conscious wrongdoing in her relationship with David. If she had qualms (and she probably did), David was in a position to reassure her completely.

Third, we see that while David did commit adultery and murder, his primary sin was abuse of the ofice and position entrusted to him by God. This is clear from 2 Samuel 11:1, "Now it happened at the return of the year [springtime], at the time kings go out, that David sent Joab  . . . but David stayed at Jerusalem." David was not acting as king. But by itself this was only a sin of neglectfulness. What happens next is that David uses his spiritual authority to lead others into sin, and to kill men who were under his oversight. He uses his position to take advantage of a young woman who has trusted him all her life. He uses his position to encourage a faithful man to sin, and then to murder him. David’s primary sin was sacrilege, the radical abuse of the holy calling God had given him as Israel’s leader.

Fourth, we see that David reversed Israel’s calling. Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a nation of priests to bring others to Yahweh. Uriah was such a man. He might even have been converted through David himself. Certainly he had been pastored by David. Now David murders him. Instead of witnessing to the nations, David murders them after they convert!

Fifth, it is interesting to consider that our chronology, which as we have seen cannot be adjusted very much either way, creates a generally chiastic structure in the reign of David. David reigns seven years in Hebron before becoming king over all Israel, and at the end reigns about seven years after having been rejected (briefly) as king. At the midpoint of his reign, he falls into sin, Solomon is born, and his family begins to fall apart. Twenty years of ascent are followed by twenty years of decline.

David’s Reign

0 – David becomes king over Judah

7 – Other tribes submit

20 (approx)- Sins; replacement king born

33 (approx) – Tribes revolt under Absalom

40 – David dies