One reading of the story of David and Bathsheba depicts their encounter as a tryst between consenting adults or perhaps even as the result of Bathsheba’s plan to seduce David. Much of the history of art supports this reading. A nude or partially nude Bathsheba proves too much of a temptation for King David, who watches her from his palace. Recent biblical scholarship, however, has called this interpretation into question. Bathsheba is not a willing participant in an affair, much less a seductive femme fatale; rather, she is as an unwilling victim of unwelcome sexual advances and assault. Details of the text support this reading. Although it is spring and time for kings to go to war, David has chosen to remain behind (1 Sam. 11:1), a fact unknown to Bathsheba. David is in control. He is the subject of most of the verbs: David inquires about Bathsheba, he sends for her and “lays with her.” Rembrandt’s Bathsheba reflects the traditional reading, while also subtly challenging it. David (often shown watching from a tower or roof in earlier art) is absent from the scene, but Bathsheba is still objectified: David’s gaze has been replaced by the voyeuristic viewer. But Bathsheba holds a letter from the king (a detail missing from the biblical account), presumably demanding her presence at his palace. As a servant dries her feet, Bathsheba muses over the king’s “request.” He is, after all, the king, and what choice does Bathsheba have?
There is at present a stream of good and interesting books on the Hebrew Bible’s King David, written by first-rate scholars. These books variously address historical and sociological questions concerning the rise of the monarchy in ancient Israel, but they tend to find most interesting the artistic offer of the narrative presentation.
“The story of Naboth is old in time but daily in practice,” said Ambrose of Milan. “Who of the wealthy does not strive to drive off the poor person from his little acre and turn out the needy from the boundaries of his ancestral field?”
Our world was and is ruled by those who control militaries and cartels, banks and corporations—the heirs of King Ahab’s insatiable desire and unrestrained power.