By Stephanie Newman Samuels
When I told a former seminary teacher of mine I was teaching II Samuel, he challenged me: “Where is the holiness in II Samuel?” I understood his question to mean: how do we teach “difficult texts” to young students? As a teacher of middle and high school students, I constantly struggle with how to inspire holiness while training my students to be critical learners. When it comes to texts that challenge our moral sensibilities and stimulate questions about genderrelated issues, I locate the holiness in the difficulties themselves. It is precisely in the grappling with difficult texts and the less than satisfying answers they provide, that students uncover the true holiness in the text – and in themselves.
In the story of David and Batsheva (II Samuel, chapter 11), the moral issue is clear: David is culpable for taking another man’s wife, and ordering that her husband be killed in battle. “Va-yeira ha-davar asher asa David be-einei Hashem” — David’s actions were as evil in God’s eyes as they appear to our own. However, when we consider the role of Batsheva in this episode, we encounter ambiguity and mystery. Did Batsheva desire to be with David? What type of relationship did she have with her husband? Did Batsheva know about David’s attempts to “cover up” his crime? Was she aware of David’s desperate plan to have Uriah killed? What caused her to so readily agree to marry David? And why are “hara anokhi,” “I am pregnant,” the only words we hear from Batsheva in the entire episode?
Let’s start at the beginning: who is Batsheva? When David inquires as to the identity of the woman he saw bathing from his palace roof, we find out that she is “bat Eliam,” whom the rabbis equate with Amiel from Lo Davar (I Chronicles 3,5), a prominent and wealthy man who later supports David in his struggle with his son, Avshalom. The rabbis also mention that Batsheva is the granddaughter of Ahitophel, a chief advisor of David, who later betrays him to side with Avshalom. Batsheva’s husband, Uriah ha-Hitti, is one of David’s top military generals. Thus, Batsheva is certainly no stranger to royalty and its advantages. What else do we know about her? We are told: “ve-hi mitkadeshet mi-tumata,” she was purified from her state of uncleanliness. At the time David took her, she had just marked the end of her menstrual cycle with immersion in the mikveh. The phrase clearly indicates that the child Batsheva conceives is David’s; it also informs us that she was a religious woman, scrupulous in observance of the commandments.
After establishing the identity of Batsheva, we can examine what transpired on that night. It is here, in the list of verbs in verse four, where we first encounter ambiguity regarding Batsheva’s role. The verse reads: “David sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her — she had just purified herself after her period — and she went back home.” The list of verbs reads: va-yishlah, vayikaheha, va-tavo, va-yishkav, va-tashov. Three out of the five verbs have David as their referent. We look carefully at the inflected verb, “va-yikaheha,” ‘he took her.” Where else have we seen this verb? My students recall that when David took back his wife Mikhal, the text employs the same verb: “va-yikaheha me’im ish, me’im Paltiel ben Layish,” “he took her from a man, from Paltiel ben Layish” (3,15). We had discussed that Mikhal was not consulted; we don’t know how she felt about leaving Paltiel and returning to David. Similarly, Batsheva is not consulted when David takes her. The only hint to her feelings is the verb “va-tavo,” “she came to him,” which, as Uriel Simon points out, indicates that she was not forced to do so (Reading Prophetic Narratives, 105). However, can we truly say Batsheva had a choice when approached by the royal guards? Perhaps she was cognizant of the status afforded by her new position as queen, but was it really Batsheva’s choice? These are the issues we grapple with in class.
The end of the chapter helps shed light on these questions. Immediately after David receives news that Uriah was killed in battle, the scene shifts to Batsheva: “Va-tishma eishet Uriah ki met Uriah ishah, va-tispod al ba’alah” – “The wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband died, and she mourned for her husband.” We note the repeated emphasis on Batsheva as the wife of Uriah. Does the epithet eishet Uriah emphasize her part in the crime, or is it a restatement of David’s sin? “Va-ya’avor ha-eivel, va-yishlah David va-ya’asfeha el beito, va-tehi lo le’isha ...” – “The mourning period passed, David sent for her, gathered her to his house, and she became his wife...“ It seems that Batsheva did not mourn very long for her husband, since she married David so quickly and readily. And so the question becomes: what is the extent of Batsheva’s culpability in this episode?
At this point, I invite my students to assume the voice of Batsheva. Through a diary entry, a dialogue, or a drawing, the students explore Batsheva’s feelings and motivations. This type of activity enables the students to connect with the story in a personal way. I find this “ownership” of the story allows them to approach it more maturely and thoughtfully. Over the past few years, I have collected some very poignant responses of Batsheva. Here is one example:
Ah! The aggravation, the guilt
My wonderful Uriah
Lost because of greed,
The greed of the king
When he saw me bathe...
I cannot shed enough tears
To make up for what has transpired
I will live my life in misery
Knowing of the shed of blood
of so many.
In the end, we are left with more questions than answers about Batsheva and her role in the events of chapter 11 of II Samuel. Later, in I Kings, we see Batsheva maneuvering to ensure that Solomon – a product of her union with David – becomes the heir to the kingship. Perhaps she knew something about the future of the Jewish people that was not obvious to those surrounding her. We discuss the Talmud in Sanhedrin 107a, which states that Batsheva was predestined for David since the six days of creation. How does this statement impact upon the way we view Batsheva and the events of chapter 11? By leaving the questions open, I attempt to present Batsheva as a complex character – not quite a victim, but not quite an initiator either.
At the end of the story, when David finally confesses his crime and repents, we have no parallel confession of Batsheva – again, we are confronted with her silence. Yet, in this silence, it is my hope that my students will supply the voice, and create a moment of transformation for Batsheva in addition to David. And in the process of grappling with this difficult text, I hope that they will transform themselves as well, as they grow into mature, thinking individuals.
Stephanie Newman Samuels teaches Tanakh to middle and high school students at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts.