Letter from the Editor

Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief

Michael D. Coogan

From the desk of Michael Coogan1

Like other literature, much of the Bible is ambiguous. Sometimes the ambiguity is textual; for example, in Job 13:15, does Job say, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (KJV), or, "See, he will kill me; I have no hope" (NRSV)? The difference hangs on how to read one small word, Hebrew lō', which as written means "not," but which can also be read as l^, "in him." The ambiguity was recognized in antiquity, and modern translators and commentators have chosen both options. But the meaning is clearly different: either Job has enduring trust in God, no matter what happens to him, or he has lost his faith entirely.

Sometimes the ambiguity is grammatical. In Galatians, Paul states that people "are justified not by the works of the law but rather through the faith of Jesus Christ" (2:16; see also 3:22; Rom 3:22, 26). In the last phrase—in Greek, dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou—the words "Jesus Christ" are in what is known as the genitive case. But the genitive can be either objective, which would mean that believers are justified by their belief in Jesus Christ, or subjective, which would mean that it is Jesus Christ's own faith(fulness) that provides justification for believers. Grammatically both meanings are possible, but most commentators preferred the first meaning until the late twentieth century. Recently, however, a growing number of scholars prefer the second.

A third type of ambiguity concerns characters. The episode of David and Bathsheba is an example. When David became king in Jerusalem and stabilized his rule, he sent his army eastward to subdue the neighboring kingdom of Ammon. But while the army was in the field, David stayed in Jerusalem.

At the time of the late afternoon, David got up from his bed and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, and he saw a woman bathing, from the top of the roof. Now the woman was very beautiful to look at. David sent and inquired about the woman. And he said, "Is she not Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" David sent messengers and he took her. She came to him and he slept with her—she was now sanctifying herself from her impurity—and she returned to her house. The woman became pregnant, and she sent and reported to David, "I am pregnant." (2 Samuel 11:2–5; my translation)

Much is open to interpretation in this story and what follows—the arranged death of Uriah, the vicarious divine punishment of David by the death of his and Bathsheba's son, and even, in the passage just quoted, some of the words. Who told David who Bathsheba was? Or did he himself already know?

Here I wish to focus on Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 11 and 12, she is a minor character. She is named only twice, once at the beginning and once at the end; elsewhere she is called only "the woman" or "the wife of Uriah." The only words she speaks are "I am pregnant." Her role, then, appears to be passive: David "sent . . . and he took her." David, apparently, is the protagonist, and the guilty party. In a blatant exercise of royal power over a subject, he takes another man's wife for his own pleasure, and he admits as much in the next chapter: "I have sinned" (2 Samuel 12:13).

For some ancient commentators, however, the matter was not so simple. Was David, God's chosen king, really a sinner? In the parallel account of David's reign in 1 Chronicles, the whole David and Bathsheba episode and its messy, murderous sequel—his son Amnon's rape of his half-sister Tamar and the revolt of David's son Absalom—is simply omitted, airbrushed out of the story as James Kugel2 has put it. Some ancient rabbis also absolved David. One of the most shocking interpretations is that Bathsheba seduced David by deliberately exposing herself to the innocent king. On one level, this revisionism is abhorrent, a classic case of blaming the victim, and it has been followed by some modern scholars, who like the rabbis can't or won't believe that David was a sinner.

But this whitewashing is not without some basis in the text. Although it says that "David took her," it also says that she came to him, and that she later simply returned to her house, without expressing any resistance. So perhaps Bathsheba was not merely the passive object of the king's attention. According to biblical law, a woman who committed adultery in the city was innocent if she cried out; if she did not, the sex was considered consensual (Deuteronomy 22:23–24). This is what a fresco by the sixteenth-century painter Salviati suggests, with its time-lapse depiction of Bathsheba moving up the stairs and into David's waiting arms.

Ancient Near Eastern cities were crowded places, because everyone had to be within the walls in case of attack. Jerusalem was no exception, except that it was barely a city—by our standards, just a village. In David's time, its population was only a few thousand, who lived on about a dozen acres, roughly equal to two midtown blocks in Manhattan. Although David's royal residence was probably higher than nearby houses, to elevate the king above the smoke and smells and sounds of the dense town, it was no Buckingham Palace or White House. And, like many houses in the Middle East then and now, it had a flat roof. In this small, crowded town, the king's daily schedule, including his nap and his rooftop constitutional, would have been known, especially to his neighbors. So perhaps Bathsheba deliberately exposed herself, bathing in the open where she knew that she would be seen, at a time in her menstrual cycle when she knew she was fertile.

Why would she do this? Because she was childless? Certainly no child of Bathsheba and Uriah is mentioned. So Bathsheba may be like some other biblical women, who engaged in immoral or at least illicit sexual activity in order to become mothers. Among them is Tamar, the patriarch Judah's daughter-in-law, who posed as a prostitute and had sex with him in order to force him to fulfill his obligation to her and make her a mother. Another is Ruth, who uncovered the "feet" of a wealthy distant relative and spent the night with him, again in order to become a mother. So perhaps Bathsheba was like them, taking the initiative to get pregnant and to assure a higher status for herself and her future son. If so, then she was the seducer, tricking the man she had set her sights on—the king himself—into getting her pregnant. Such an interpretation is not confined to ancient male chauvinists: some feminist scholars have recently celebrated her shrewdness and initiative. As Lillian Klein puts it, "she risks a single 'shameless incident' of sexual infidelity—forbidden for women—in order to achieve lasting honor as a mother."3

In all of these cases, we need not choose only one interpretation—the biblical writers may well have intended to be ambiguous. Thus, when we recall that ancient texts were heard rather than read silently—the words lō' and l^ sound the same—the ambiguity about whether or not Job has given up on God may reflect deeper ambiguities in the book of Job as a whole. Similarly, Paul may well have meant both meanings of "the faith of Jesus Christ," as other uses of the word "faith" in his letters show. Finally, not just Bathsheba but many other characters in the Bible, including even God, are complex and multidimensional, requiring readers to take sides and to interpret. That is why readers of the Bible must constantly attempt to determine both what a text says and what meanings it contains.

Michael D. Coogan
Editor in Chief, Oxford Biblical Studies Online
April 2014


1 Adapted from a lecture given at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, February 16, 2012.

2James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 490.

3 Lillian R. Klein, "Bathsheba Revealed," in Samuel and Kings: A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series), ed. A. Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 53.

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