The Bathsheba Affair — Was It Only Persian Era Gossip?

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by Neil Godfrey

David and Bathsheba
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John Van Seters is of the view that the Biblical narrative of David is a composite of two narrative strands: one by a “Deuteronomistic Historian” (Dtr) who in essence has little but good to say about David — he is God’s faithful servant, etc. — and a later thread by one writing in the period of the Persian empire. This latter author had a much more cynical view of David, or at least opted to portray David as a typical exemplar of all that Samuel forewarned would go wrong with Israel if they chose a king to replace God (via the judges like Samuel himself) as their leader. Here I outline his discussion of The Bathsheba Affair in The Biblical Saga of King David. It is more than about dating the narrative to the Persian empire period, though. Van Seters makes some interesting observations about the intent of the author to undermine any respect for David as an ideal king.

Context: War with the Ammonites

This war against the Ammonites stands out from all the other foreign wars of David by the way in which it pays attention to particular details. First, it deals with the casus belli for the war in [2 Sam] 10:1-5, something that in Dtr’s treatment of foreign wars needs no such explanation. (p. 287)

For Van Seters the Deuteronomist historian (Dtr) always portrays David as going to war in the service of God. They are holy wars against God’s enemies and need no other explanation. So note the difference with this one:

1 In the course of time, the king of the Ammonites died, and his son Hanun succeeded him as king. 2 David thought, “I will show kindness to Hanun son of Nahash, just as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent a delegation to express his sympathy to Hanun concerning his father.

When David’s men came to the land of the Ammonites, 3 the Ammonite commanders said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think David is honoring your father by sending envoys to you to express sympathy? Hasn’t David sent them to you only to explore the city and spy it out and overthrow it?” 4 So Hanun seized David’s envoys, shaved off half of each man’s beard, cut off their garments at the buttocks, and sent them away.

5 When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”

Dtr would never have approved of David having a solemn friendship understanding with the pagan king Nahash. But apart from this it is quite anomalous to suggest here that David did have such a friendship at all since in the days of Saul Nahash and his Ammonites were the most bitter enemies of Israel (1 Samuel 11; 31:11-13).

So what is this author trying to achieve by introducing an unlikely friendship between David and Nahash?

What he clearly wants to suggest is that David’s relations with the Ammonites were entirely a matter of personal loyalties and friendship and not based on any larger principle such as what the Dtr articulates. . . . The prolonged and costly war that followed between David and the Ammonites, therefore, was based not on some principle of “holy war” bu ton a matter of a foolish personal affront by one ruler toward another. David fights not “the wars of Yahweh,” as Abigail suggested (1 Sam 25:28), but wars based on his own ambition or personal relations with other rulers. This is the reality of absolute monarchic rule. (p. 288)

David’s honour was violated and this was the cause of the war. In a footnote van Seters observes that “violations of honor such as this often led to feuds and serious reprisals in the Icelandic sagas.” It is just such a saga that van Seters believes is the genre of this strand of the Davidic history in the Bible.

The Ammonites knew what was coming so they prepared by hiring mercenary armies from a number of Aramean states:

6 When the Ammonites realized that they had become obnoxious to David, they hired twenty thousand Aramean foot soldiers from Beth Rehob and Zobah, as well as the king of Maakah with a thousand men, and also twelve thousand men from Tob.

Van Seters explains that

this feature of warfare strongly reflects the pattern of military activity in the late Persian period. (p. 288, my emphasis for benefit of those merely skimming)

Persian era anachronism

John Van Seters argues that the abundant references to mercenaries throughout the narrative of David is the anachronism that clearly places the narrative in the Persian period. David himself is depicted as a mercenary before his ascent to kingship. He regularly hires mercenaries in his wars. And the instance above is a case of other nations making use of mercenaries. Van Seters shows through a survey of the later history of Israel (ninth, eighth and seventh centuries), among the Assyrians mercenaries were virtually unknown. (Only towards the end of the Assyrian empire were increasing numbers of men driven by desperate situations to offer themselves as mercenaries for the Assyrians.) After tracing the use of mercenaries in Saite Egypt, Greece and Persia — and significantly noting along the way the heavy costs of supporting mercenary armies, costs that the archaeological evidence indicates were well beyond the reach of tenth century Judah, Van Seters concludes:

This means that a very large portion of the David story must be viewed as a literary composition of the late Persian period, some time in the 4th century B.C.E. Once this setting is understood, there are many other anachronistic story details that become clear within this social setting. The fact that the story makes such explicit references to certain Greek mercenaries* whose social context within the Near East can be so precisely dated by a large body of literature from the Greek world makes the dating of this corpus a near certainty. (p. 119)

    • The Greek mercenaries referenced here are in particular the Cherethites and Pelethites of 2 Sam 8:18, 20:23 (see my previous post, All King David’s Men).

There can be no doubt that the Cherethites and Pelethites are none other than Greek mercenaries, the Cherethites being Cretan archers and the Pelethites being the famous peltasts, light armed spearmen, so common in the 4th century. (p. 116)

Back to the war

The Ammonites leave the Aramaean mercenaries under their own individual commands — as was characteristic of military activity in the late Persian period.

So the Ammonites are assembled in front of the city while the Aramaean mercenaries are arrayed in the open field in their own ranks.

Unlike the Dtr’s wars of David here David plays no direct part and leaves the details to his commanders to devise the strategy. Joab sets his elite professional soldiers against the mercenaries while his brother Abishai leads the citizen soldiers against the Ammonite conscripts.

The advantage of David’s forces is that “there is a unified command with the one contingent supporting the other, while the Ammonites and their mercenaries are divided under multiple commands, and once one of these breaks rank and starts to flee because there are no loyalties between them, the panic spreads to the rest.” (p. 289)

So Joab’s force routs the multiple Aramaean mercenary forces and the Ammonites then also flee back to the city.

But the battle is, unlike other battles of David, indecisive. No territory is captured. No numbers of war dead are given. (“Perhaps to make up for this lack, the author has shifted Dtr’s account of the Aramean defeat under Hadadezer in 10:15-19 from its original location, in order to supply the war with a huge toll of enemy casualties and the subjugation of new groups of Arameans.”)

7 On hearing this, David sent Joab out with the entire army of fighting men. 8 The Ammonites came out and drew up in battle formation at the entrance of their city gate, while the Arameans of Zobah and Rehob and the men of Tob and Maakah were by themselves in the open country.

9 Joab saw that there were battle lines in front of him and behind him; so he selected some of the best troops in Israel and deployed them against the Arameans. 10 He put the rest of the men under the command of Abishai his brother and deployed them against the Ammonites. 11 Joab said, “If the Arameans are too strong for me, then you are to come to my rescue; but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come to rescue you. 12 Be strong, and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.”

13 Then Joab and the troops with him advanced to fight the Arameans, and they fled before him. 14 When the Ammonites realized that the Arameans were fleeing, they fled before Abishai and went inside the city. So Joab returned from fighting the Ammonites and came to Jerusalem.

The war lasts over a two year span and two chapter (11-12) — all in the shadow of the city of Rabbah. Joab is in command so David is able to remain behind for narrative requirements in Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 11:1 —

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.

This is significant. What we are reading here, explains van Seters, is the narrative of the war being shaped to fit the needs of the Bathsheba story.

This author is depicting David not as a righteous king but as one who acts in accord with the ways of all oriental despots. He leaves his army to go off and ruin the lives and lands of the Ammonites while he stays back in his luxurious palace. Everything is done to what oriental kings and armies habitually do. And it is necessary that the war — in particular the siege of Rabbah — lasts a good two years. David has to express impatience at the delay in the siege’s accomplishments when he wants to get rid of Urriah, and it is only after the birth of Bathsheba’s second son that the city will fall.

All of [the war’s] features are shaped by the needs of the Bathsheba affair in which it is set, and the very presentation of the details helps to shape the character of David and the narrators [negative] views on his reign. (p. 290)

Equivalent stories: Ahab, Saul, Jeroboam

Van Seters points out in detail how “virtually every element” of the story of Ahab plotting (through Jezebel) the murder of Naboth “has its equivalent in the David-Bathsheba affair.” Both Ahab and David illicitly desire and plot to obtain the “property” of another. Both attempt to gain what they want nonviolently at first, but when that fails each resorts to murder. God then sends his prophet to pronounce the punishment. In both cases the remorse of the villain leads God to mitigate the punishment so that Ahab will be spared for the duration of his own lifetime though his dynasty is doomed and David himself likewise will not die but his dynasty is doomed to be plagued by the sword until its very end. (Van Seters does for a minute think the two have the same author, however.)

What is particularly significant is that both Ahab and David are likewise said to have done “evil in the sight of Yahweh” (11:26; 1 Kgs 21:20b). Ahab is branded the worst of the Israelite kings but, asks van Seters, how is he any different from David? Both are evil and both suffer similar divine punishments.

There is another analogy that is alluded to in the prophet Nathan’s speech condemning David, and that is the fate of Saul as pronounced by Samuel. Saul also confessed his sin and even asked for mercy (something David does not do). But God did not have mercy on Saul and delivered the punishment upon both him and his dynasty. Again, van Seters does not see a common author at work here. But the common structures, plots and even language of these accounts of “wicked” kings underscore the intention of the author if this episode of David to likewise depict David as an unholy villain.

Note also the motif of the child dying because of the father’s sin in the case of Jeroboam (1 Kgs 14). The prophet’s pronouncement of judgement upon Jeroboam opens with words very similar to Nathan’s opening attack on David — Compare 2 Samuel 12 with 1 Kgs 14:7ff. Not only does the child have to die as divine punishment, but in both stories God sees something still “not all bad” in the king addressed. Because God found something favourable in each despite his ungodly acts each king was allowed to continue as ruler with some measure of blessing after all.

Yet since the prophet Ahijah compares Jeroboam’s sins with the absolute righteousness of David van Seters cannot accept that the two accounts are from the same author’s pen. My own mind likes to attempt a little game of “what if” the one author is behind both. If so he was being far more cynical than van Seters has imagined. The king who has the reputation of being the righteous and godly exemplar was in reality as bad if not worse than the worst of the rest. (Not addressed by van Seters, but a few scholars have additionally suggested that the God in these stories should be read as another literary character — that also opens up some interesting thoughts on how to read the narratives.)

How bad can David be?

So the author is revising the reader’s opinions of David and turning him into just another lecherous and murderous despot.

The details that build this portrayal:

The war against the Ammonites is a major undertaking that involves “all Israel” though David himself stays home to enjoy the good life;

David has a harem but nonetheless wants Bathsheba as well and is not put off on learning that she has married to a leading warrior of his in the field;

The “normal”(?) capital punishment for adultery does not apply to David because he is above the law and there is none to prosecute him, so David acts from a position of total power;

Forget what was going through Bathsheba’s mind — “that is the stuff of novels” — our author only has David’s position and actions in mind;

On learning of Bathsheba’s pregnancy David recalls Uriah in an effort to have him have sex with his wife to cover up his act. David’s interest in Bathsheba was thus entirely confined to the moment.

The focal point of the narrative is not David’s relationship with Bathsheba but with her husband. The contrast between these two men “goes beyond the limits of character portraits and speaks to the criteria to be used for interpretation of the narrative source as a whole.” (p. 297)

  • We are reading of a contemptibly disloyal and duplicitous David against a faithful warrior completely loyal to David and risking his life for his cause.
  • Uriah is said to be a Hittite. “The designation Hittite has nothing to do with the historic Hittites of the second millennium B.C.E., as is often suggested. At the time of writing this term was the standard way of referring to a member of the non-Israelite primitive population, much like the terms Canaanite and Amorite, the population that should have been exterminated or at the very least expelled from the whole land of Israel.” (p. 297) So we find a Hittite at heart of the empire and part of the elite forces. Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, is no doubt from an important Israelite family. So we have intermarriage with the “people of the land” that was so strongly condemned in the later Persian period.
  • The Hittite is, furthermore, the true and devout worshiper of Yahweh. His piety is a cause for trouble to the impious David. The Hittite treats the war as a holy war — the sort of war David should have been fighting instead of merely a seasonal plunder for booty. Uriah speaks of his concern for the ark and the people living in booths (sukkot/tabernacles) and so gives to the war a holy war tone in the eyes of the gentile Hittite. Contrast the Israelite king who is feasting in luxury and engaging in adulterous sex. David is unmoved by the Hittite’s lecture about piety and loyalty and attempts to manipulate him through drink. (2 Samuel 11)
  • David then sends the order to have Uriah killed by Uriah’s own hand. Many others will also die in the effort to kill him, but that is of no account to David or Joab. The good news is that “Uriah the Hittite is dead!”
  • The only one to lament Uriah’s death is Bathsheba. She is then taken into David’s harem and bears the illegitimate son.

We have thus a “subversion of the older theological and ideological categories, in which David represents the divinely chosen shepherd of Israel and Uriah the aboriginal population, those who would undermine the true faith and lead the people astray. Exactly the opposite has happened here . . . ” (pp. 298-299)

Van Seters underscores this by noting the author of this Davidic saga takes the same language of the Dtr author in order to overturn the Dtr’s view of David as a righteous king: “But Yahweh viewed what David did as quite wrong” (11:27b) — thus deliberately comparing David with the worst of kings.

Advice for naive historians

Van Seters from time to time offers excellent advice for readers of the narratives who are looking for more than what the author is narrating. I alluded to one such instance above where speculations of what was going through Bathsheba’s mind are raised — “that is the stuff of novels”. Our author has no interest in this.

Another example:

Is Uriah aware of the court gossip about the affair? Does he suspect David and so resist being drawn into David’s scheme of covering his guilt? These questions require idle speculation, based on the supposition we are dealing with actual events. They miss the point of the narrator, who has created the episode; we must be careful to follow his lead. (p. 297, my emphasis)

The Punishment

Nathan the prophet then goes to David and delivers him the parable to ignite a conscience in David, 2 Samuel 12:1-4:

1 The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

The punishment will involve not only David’s own family but his entire future dynasty — as is the normal punishment delivered by God against bad kings. So the final downfall of David’s dynasty with the Babylonian captivity is the working out of the divine punishment upon David for his sins.

God is thus on the side of the gentile Hittite and opposed to David’s dynastic line for its blood-guilt. For the sake of the Hittite God will wreak a series of bloody revenges upon David’s descendants.

Till that time, however, David himself must be punished and in kind. Nathan the prophet announces that another man will take David’s wives and — also on a roof-top — have sex with them, but not in secret, openly. This is the prophecy of what David’s son Absalom is later to do.

Interestingly (though it cannot be proven) the author may have deliberately made Bathsheba, as the daughter of Eliam, the grand-daughter of David’s advisor Ahithophel. It was Ahithophel (Bathsheba’s grandfather?) who advised Absalom to publicly have sex with David’s wives on the roof-top. The two stories are closely connected even if such a relationship is not intended by the author.


2 Samuel 12

24 Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and made love to her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The LORD loved him; 25 and because the LORD loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah [=”on behalf of Yahweh”].

There is nothing in the narrative to suggest David is aware that Solomon is chosen to be his heir. He has many other children and we cannot think he attached special significance to Solomon. The nicknaming of Solomon appears to be entirely a matter between Nathan and the child without David’s knowledge. This relationship prepares the way for the intrigues at the end of David’s life when Nathan is a leader of the pro-Solomon party. The theme of court intrigue and family dysfunctionality is the one constant.

Conclusion with David’s Hubris

2 Samuel 12:

26 Meanwhile Joab fought against Rabbah of the Ammonites and captured the royal citadel. 27 Joab then sent messengers to David, saying, “I have fought against Rabbah and taken its water supply. 28 Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it. Otherwise I will take the city, and it will be named after me.”

29 So David mustered the entire army and went to Rabbah, and attacked and captured it. 30 David took the crown from their king’s head, and it was placed on his own head. It weighed a talent of gold, and it was set with precious stones. David took a great quantity of plunder from the city 31 and brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking. David did this to all the Ammonite towns. Then he and his entire army returned to Jerusalem.

The tale of Bathsheba closes with the scene in which it began – the war against the Ammonites. [Van Seters does not mention the literary device of inclusio in this context but I find myself thinking of this literary technique known so well elsewhere as a means of driving home a particular lesson for the readers. The surrounding bookends point to a common theme found in both the ‘ends’ and the middle of the interlocking narratives.]

Joab makes the final breakthrough after he captures Rabbah’s water supply and calls on David to come down to take full credit for the conquest of the city and lay the rightful claim to all its spoils.

The author has David place the crown of the god Milcom on his head (at variance from the above translation), its size, weight, and value greatly exaggerated perhaps to emphasize David’s hubris. (p. 301)

The conclusion is consistent with the theme of David being no different from any other oriental despot.

The primary object of the war is to collect booty and spoil and to use the population of Ammon as slave labor for David’s own aggrandisement. The account leaves entirely vague where these laborers and craftsmen were used. For the author, this is unimportant; David is merely being portrayed as a conquering despot. (p. 301)

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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3 thoughts on “The Bathsheba Affair — Was It Only Persian Era Gossip?”

  1. “Is David aware of the court gossip about the affair? Does he suspect David…?”

    Asking if David suspects David seems nonsensical. I think this should read “Is *Uriah* aware of the court gossip.”

    “The author has David place the crown of the god Milcom on his head (at variance from the above translation)…”

    This was very confusing, but I gather the original is ambiguous; the root m-l-kh can mean “king,” or it can be the name of the god Milcom or Moloch.

    1. Thanks for that. Have corrected the Uriah/David gaffe. I appreciate notice of these sorts of errors and wished I received more of them. It’s embarrassing to look back on a post that has been accessed scores of times and months later I see a glaring typo in the middle of it.

      You are right about the m-l-kh point. I should have added a more detailed explanation of that.

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