Bathsheba - the Named, not shamed
Friday 17th December
“And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (Matt 1:6, NRSV)
Family trees in the bible are mostly a male affair. They’re patriarchal legal-speak… tracing a person’s lineage was the ancient world way of establishing their legitimacy and standing. So when we find that there are names of women as well as men included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, we’re encountering something remarkable. More intriguing still, and a little disconcerting, is Matthew’s decision to include a reference to a woman who is not named.
A name, given or withheld, is a powerful thing. Naming can bestow dignity and honour, and refusing to name someone can imply withholding of respect or blessing.
Who then is this “wife of Uriah”? And why isn’t she named? I stop and think about it.
Her name is Bathsheba.
As soon as I name her I know what the problem is. This is a story of shame. You probably know it. A King - David, no less - fails to guard his gaze and is tempted by a beautiful woman. He sees Bathsheba bathing and cannot resist her. They sleep together and when he discovers she is pregnant he has her husband killed to cover his tracks. Their first child dies, but Bathsheba later gives birth to Solomon, who becomes a wise ruler and King. Thus Matthew’s genealogy reminds us that even King David is flawed, and yet that the redemptive power of Jesus remains.
That’s the most familiar story of Bathsheba and there’s nothing factually inaccurate in it. Yet in this account Bathsheba remains almost entirely passive. She is “the woman David slept with”, defined by her association with his sin.
But if we are to name something well we must attend closely to it. Naming Bathsheba only by virtue of her association with others is shallow. To speak more deeply of Bathsheba’s experience we must allow her agency and a voice.
Imagining her experiences is difficult (ancient texts don’t do empathetic storytelling very well!). Nevertheless there are things I can say - name - though they are painful: she fell under a voyeuristic male gaze. She was the victim of abuse of power. She was raped, widowed and bereaved of a child. She suffered a great deal.
Yet she was not broken. She endured.
Bathsheba was strong and resourceful. She became part of the household of David and bore him another son, Solomon. For many years the biblical record is silent about her. But later life, when David was nearing death, she came to the fore as both mother and strategist, working with Nathan, outwitting others to secure the throne for her son. You can read the story in 1 Kings 1:15-40.
Though Matthew’s decision not to name Bathsheba in his genealogy covers the shame of David’s sin against her, it risks doing so at the expense of her humanity. Too many women have been left faceless and voiceless in the scriptures and beyond. We are learning this about our contemporary lives and stories, and we need to learn it about the scriptures too. People should be named, not shamed.
When we name Bathsheba and begin to tell her story, we offer dignity to a woman who suffered and endured, who was a faithful and sharp-witted wife; and who was mother of a wise King. As Solomon wrote in his Proverbs, she was an “Eschet chayil”, a woman of valour. We should celebrate her.
Diana Hall is an Anglican parish priest, pastoral supervisor and occasional broadcaster on BBC radio. She’s managed by 2 spaniels and a cat.