Women of the Bible Series: Abigail and Bathsheba

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As we examine the lives of Abigail and Bathsheba, it is easy to find virtue and goodness in one, but the other is often characterized as a temptress and adulteress. Feminist writers tend to depict Bathsheba more as a victim of David’s sexual demands, while others blame her for David’s downfall. So which is it? Both women became plural wives of King David after the deaths of their first husbands. Both women gave birth to sons — Abigail’s son did not live to adulthood; Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, became David’s heir despite having an older brother. While both women are described as beautiful, Abigail has the additional distinction of being clever (a woman of good understanding.) As I read and compare through both texts, I find virtues and cleverness from both women.

Abigail

The story of Abigail (found in 1 Samuel 25:2-44, 27:3, 30:1-19, 2 Samuel 2:2, 3:3 and 1 Chronicles 3:1) shows a woman of great courage, capability, diplomacy and good problem solving. Her first husband, Nabal, was a bit of a scoundrel, and denied King David and his troops the reciprocal hospitality they deserved while out in the wilderness by saying, “Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men, whom I know not whence they be?” David and his men were upset that Nabal would return evil for their previous good treatment of the shearers, and gathered up their weapons to go kill Nabal and his shepherds. A servant quickly brought back word to Abigail that her foolish husband had provoked the wrath of David, and the matriarch of the great house sprang into action. She and her servants whipped up an enormous meal for an army of 600 and rode out to meet David and his men. They arrived just in time, and Abigail shared the generous feast to plead for forgiveness and mercy on behalf of her hot-tempered husband. Her supplication to David shows bravery and eloquence in the face of possible death, “Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid …speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid. Let not my lord…regard this man…even Nabal…but I thine handmaid saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou did send….I pray thee, forgive the trespass of thine handmaid; for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord fighteth the battles of the Lord, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days.”  By talking David down from his rage, she helped prevent him from taking the lives of the innocent shepherds and sinning against God. After David’s problems were resolved, she still had to tell Nabal what happened, after which, he “became as a stone” and was dead ten days later. She later becomes the plural wife of David and bears him one son (who does not live beyond childhood.)

She is honored as a type of Christ; though innocent, she willingly takes on herself the misdeeds of another, pays the debts of the sinner, puts her own life on the line to save the lives of many others, all with a selfless faith in God to deliver her.   Her servants trusted her to solve problems with more thoughtful actions than the man of the house, she remained cool-headed and communicates clearly and carefully in the tense conversation with David, and here’s something — he listens to her. He says, “blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou…go up in peace to thine house; see I have hearkened to thy voice, and have accepted thy person.” 

Though her first marriage must have made some parts of her life very unpleasant, she radiates grace, clear thinking, humility, generosity and understanding. Later, as a childless wife in David’s household, it is likely that her influence lessened over time, but neither she nor David would have forgotten the circumstances of their meeting. Her influence kept David from committing atrocious murder and her advice was heard and heeded.

Bathsheba

The scriptural text gives us very little insight into Bathsheba’s thoughts, feelings or desires when it comes to David’s adultery. From his palace up higher on the hill, he spies her bathing. He knows who she is, “the wife of Uriah, the Hittite” and he knows that the bath he’s observing is the ritual purification bath on the 8th day of her cycle. (He would have known that the chance for pregnancy on the 8th day was small, which makes me wonder how many days she must have stayed at the palace in order to become pregnant by David while her husband was out to battle?) When the messengers from David summoned her to the king’s palace, they “took her” and she went into the king’s chamber and he “lay with her.”  If the messengers had to “take” her, it could indicate that she did not go willingly, but whether or not she freely walked herself there or was tied up and forced, she most surely felt the emotional pressure to comply with the King’s demand. David was not a man to be denied for anything, and she would have already known this about him. My impression of her character in this account (and future actions as an elderly wife in David’s house) is that she is acting out of fear and self-preservation. She’s going to do whatever she can to save herself and any sort of good life she can retain.

When Nathan the prophet comes to David to confront him about his crimes, there are no angry accusations hurled at Bathsheba. If she were equal partner in the crime of adultery, God’s judgement  would similarly be upon her. We only see how David alone bears the punishment for abusing his power.  Later interactions between Nathan and Bathsheba were favorable; when he lauded her son, Solomon, as the “beloved of Jehovah” and when they plan for Solomon to be the next king, despite his having an older brother.  For a prophet to trust her to help him do his holy work speaks volumes of how he must have viewed her — a good woman, making the best of an initially bad situation. Where David was condemned for his actions, Bathsheba wasn’t, and she was encouraged to affect government affairs later on.

As David aged, tensions in the house between wives and sons escalated, and in another act of self-preservation, Bathsheba works with Nathan to guarantee David’s throne would pass to Solomon. She was successful, and David again takes the good advice of a woman. As the mother of the king, Bathsheba would  be safer and have a more comfortable life-style, whereas if Adonijah were to become king, both she and Solomon would have likely been killed.  Like his father, Solomon also listened to and granted Bathsheba’s wishes once he became king.

The message of Bathsheba’s recovery and success after being victim to David’s predatory sexual behaviors can be a positive example to women today who are likewise taken advantage of and abused. Many women do the best they can to preserve themselves and their children in the face of the men who abuse them.

Abigail is held up in high-esteem as a remarkable type of Christ and a woman who influenced a king for good. Bathsheba is the literal ancestor of Christ (through his mother, Mary) and a woman who wielded positive influence over two kings. Both women prove to be as resourceful and clever as they are beautiful.

Violadiva

Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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3 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    Very insightful post. I especially like your interpretation of Bathsheba. People in general, and men in particularly, are so prone to blaming and shaming the woman. Thank you for shining this ray of light on the text.

  2. Spunky says:

    This is a lovely retelling of these women! I’ve always been a fan of Abigail (named my daughter for her), but had not thought before of the complicated life of Bathsheba. Both relationships do little to show David in a good light– he sounds reactive and impatient. But David’s poor choices serve to highlight these women in great regard.

    Thank you so much for this post, particularly for the thoughts on Bathsheba!

  3. Quimby says:

    I very clearly remember my Seminary teacher instructing us that Bathsheba was a rape victim, and was blameless. That was years ago but IIRC he quoted a prophet as backing him up on that one. That was many years ago; he left my junior year to teach other Seminary teachers. Frankly I’m surprised it’s even up for debate in Mormon circles!

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