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Bathsheba Survives, by Sara M. Koenig

22 November 2019

Adulteress or victim? Bathsheba has been seen as both, says Anthony Phillips

ALTHOUGH her biblical appearance is confined to 76 verses, Bathsheba’s subsequent reception in successive historical periods is extensive.

In this short study, backed by ample notes and a full biography, Sara M. Koenig begins by describing the nature of reception history, which balances both what the text says with how the reader has interpreted it. Hugely significant are the gaps in the narrative, which can lead to multiple interpretations, Bathsheba being understood as everything from helpless victim to unscrupulous seductress.

It is those gaps that particularly interested the rabbis, who, while arguing whether David sinned, never condemned Bathsheba. Further, they highlight her wisdom in both teaching and admonishing Solomon. In contrast, the Church Fathers show little interest in Bathsheba as a character in her own right, and none in her position as Solomon’s mother. Rather, they see her as a type either of the Church or of the law, with anti-Judaic implications.

Koenig then shows how the medieval period continued the practice of typology through visual exegesis of the text in illustrations, particularly of the bathing scene. The paintings then influenced the way in which the text was to be read. Bathsheba is now also seen as a type for Mary, mother of Christ.

In the Reformation period, little interest was paid to Bathsheba as an individual with her own story. Instead, she was seen as the object with whom David sinned. As an adulteress, not a victim, she could, like him, serve as an example of God’s mercy.

The Enlightenment brought the birth of scientific critical study, with the attempt to set the biblical narrative in its historical and cultural setting. Scholars at this time unhesitatingly attributed blame to Bathsheba. In contrast, Koenig shows that in the contemporary world, the story of Bathsheba has been adapted and interpreted in story, song, on screen, and in politics. Much of this is hardly edifying.

This excellent survey illustrates the way in which a small piece of scripture can, over the centuries, be received in very different ways, reflecting the contemporary concerns of its readers. What, though, needs emphasising is that the text itself at no point attributes any blame to Bathsheba.

This should not be regarded as a gap, but as a reflection of the fact that women were not subject to the criminal law until the Deuteronomic reform, which was much later. It is, then, historically incorrect to refer to her as an adulteress.

For this reader, Bathsheba appears as a shrewd operator, who was able to pass on not only the throne, but also her gift of wisdom to her son, Solomon.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Bathsheba Survives
Sara M. Koenig
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15

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