Over the last few days I have read through the rest of Joel Baden’s The Historical David. I have decided to rearrange the order in which he treats Absalom and Bathsheba. He treats the rebellion of Absalom as the major event in the midst of David’s reign and Bathsheba as the engineer of Solomon’s succession. He treats both as real historical figures.
However, Bathsheba enters the biblical story before the rebellion. Baden finds most of that story historically untrustworthy. It is skewed by the motive of telling the story of Solomon’s birth so as to promote his legitimacy as David’s heir. Yet I want to keep to the chronological order. As I have pointed out before, I have trouble with Baden rejecting the historicity of anything he deems a “literary construction.” What else is there in the Bible? It is all literary construction. But some of it corresponds with actual events. And some of it does not.
Anyway, the story of Bathsheba and David’s treacherous murder of Uriah belongs to the campaign against Ammon.
2 Samuel 8:1 ff. lists a number of wars that it credits David with winning. The impression given is that he conquered the Philistines, the Moabites, the Edomites and the Syrians.. People have used this to make expansive maps of David’s kingdom. The reality was that most of these claims do not have enough specificity to say more than that David won sporadic battles. Edom may have become his vassal, because Solomon still held sway there some years later.
The one area David probably actually conquered and occupied was the Ammonite kingdom. There is a lot of specific detail about that operation in 2 Samuel 12:26 ff. It was against the Ammonites that David sent Uriah to his death.
But the story raises questions. Unlike Baruch Halpern, Baden believes David did have Bathsheba’s husband killed. He agrees, though, with Halpern that Solomon was not actually David’s child. The story of the first-born child who died is an invention. David took Bathsheba for his wife when she was already pregnant with Uriah’s child, Solomon.
The story of David watching her bathe is told, not to titillate, but to show that she was going through the ritual required in Leviticus after her period. Therefore, she was not pregnant when David took her.
She named her child Solomon, which means something like “the replacement”. The story of the other child was made up to give a reason for this name. Solomon was a replacement for the first child. But actually she named him Solomon because he replaced her husband, whose death David had arranged. Solomon was given a second name, Jedediah. This carries the idea of being beloved, and so connects with David, whose name means “beloved.” This is part of the literary construct that skews the story in favor of Solomon’s right to succeed David.
I am wary of reading this much invention into the story. It seems more natural that a child would be named as a replacement for a lost brother than a lost husband. That, for instance, was the reason for Seth’s name as the replacement for Abel (Genesis 4:25).
Moreover, the story makes Bathsheba into a mere pawn of David. David wants her, so he takes her. He does away with her husband and moves her into his harem. This is a very popular way of understanding the story today. It is politically correct. Bathsheba is a victim of patriarchy.
However, Bathsheba turns out to be very manipulative in the story of how she managed to get her son made king. Did she change from being a helpless victim in her youth to being a conniving conspirator in her maturity? Or was she always a conniving conspirator?
Baden seems to make her actions at the end of David’s life about revenge. He makes a lot of her being the granddaughter of Ahitophel (you have to put 2 Samuel 23:34 together with 11:3 to get this relationship). Ahitophel backed Absalom in the rebellion against David, then killed himself about the time the rebellion failed.
Baden thinks the suicide might be an invention to cover that David had him killed along with other rebels. Baden conjectures that Bathsheba’s father, Eliam, may also have joined the rebellion. So maybe David killed her husband, grandfather and father. Perhaps her plot to put Solomon, son of Uriah, on the throne was about revenge. She actually hated David.
There is a lot of speculation in this theory.
Perhaps she was looking out for her own best interests all along. Perhaps, to continue my reflections on Leonard Cohen’s songs, her seduction of David was parallel to Delilah’s seduction of Samson. From Hallelujah:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.
Of course this way of seeing the story does not absolve David. Cohen may be too pious if he sees David has just weak. And yet I have to prefer Cohen’s David to Baden’s almost exclusively ruthless David.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
The important fact is that Bathsheba was a strong women. Baden sees Solomon as mostly a pawn of the queen mother at first. That seems to me very probable. I am thinking of Egyptian parallels, where a young king’s mother took on a powerful role in the government.
That brings me to a theory about Bathsheba and the writing down of the narrative of David’s rise and rule.
In the ancient world scribes usually served the palace or the temple. There was no independent Jerusalem newspaper looking for real news as opposed to fake news. Scribes wrote to serve their employers. So my question: in whose interest was it to blame other people for the deaths of most of David’s enemies, but to leave the responsibility for Uriah’s death directly on David? Could the queen mother have employed scribes to produce a narrative that served her interests more than those of either Solomon or David?