Chayei Sarah: Batsheva, Queen Mother

What measures would you use to determine the importance of a particular woman in the Tanakh?

Just as a starting point today, let’s use this one: how many different books of the Tanakh mention her?  You might find interesting this inventory of some of our most revered Biblical women:

Sarah appears in three different books.  Rivkah in one.  Rachel in four, Leah in two, Miriam in five. And Batsheva in four.  Batsheva appears in the Book of Samuel, the Book of Kings, the Book of Chronicles, and the book of Psalms.

Another measure might be how long the stories are about each of the great women in the Tanakh.  Queen Esther and Ruth have their own books.  The Prophet and Judge Devorah has two chapters, for a total of 54 verses.  Batsheva has four chapters, for a total of 130 verses.

By these measures, Batsheva is squarely in the running as one of the great women in our early history!

The Tanakh tells two significant stories about Batsheva.  The first is a story from her younger years; the second is a story from her older years.

The story from Batsheva’s younger years is a famous story from the second Book of Samuel.  King David sees Batsheva, wife of military leader Uriyah, bathing on her roof.  He sends for her and sleeps with her.  She sends him a note saying “I am pregnant.”  David offers Uriyah a few days away from the battle to come home, so that the child can be passed off as his, but Uriyah refuses.  He is too conscientious a commander to enjoy privileges that his troops don’t.  So David arranges to have Uriyah sent into the thick of battle, and then be abandoned by his comrades to be killed by enemy soldiers.  After Uriyah’s death, David sends for Batsheva and she becomes his wife.

The prophet Natan tells David a story about a rich man who steals and eats the only lamb a poor man has.  David becomes angry with the rich man, and Natan points out that David is condemning his own behavior.  David, who has many wives, has stolen Uriyah’s only wife.  Natan prophesies that the child of David’s and Batsheva’s union will die.  David fasts and prays, but the newborn baby dies.  David comforts his wife, lays with her, and she has another baby.  She names the new baby Shlomo, fulfillment, though David wants to call him Yedidya, beloved of God.

At first glance, much of this story is about the men in Batsheva’s life: her first husband General Uriyah, her second husband King David, her protector and champion the Prophet Natan, her son Prince Shlomo.  She is a wife, a lover, a mother – a purely reproductive being in a circle of powerful men.  Or so it might seem, if you read sloppily.  But note that everything in the story revolves around Batsheva.  The powerful men react quite strongly to her very few words, including her naming of her son. This is a hint of things to come.

After this story ends, we don’t hear any more details about Batsheva in the book of Samuel.  We do see that David takes no more wives, and that he and Batsheva have three more sons together – both hints of the intimacy that they share. She is the only one of his eight wives with whom he has more than one child.  She is the only one to whom he shows any tenderness, and the only one whose sorrow he shares.

The next story about Batsheva is a story about the mature Batsheva, many years later.  In this story, too, Batsheva stands in the center of a circle of powerful men, who react quite strongly to her words.  In fact, none of them makes a political move without going through her first!  In this story, too, she speaks to King David with great intimacy. This story begins in the first chapter of the first book of Kings, and continues into the second chapter.

As the story opens, King David is old and sick and he cannot get warm.  His courtiers suggest to him that they hire a beautiful young woman to be his attendant and lie with him – perhaps she will warm him.  Some commentators say that David’s courtiers linked loss of sexual potency with loss of political potency, and they hoped that if David could be aroused by a woman’s beauty, he would regain his energy to rule. David doesn’t respond to his courtiers’ suggestion, but they go ahead with the plan anyway.  Avishag the Shunamite becomes his attendant, but, the text says, the king does not know her.  It’s hard to know how many meanings to read into that statement.  Certainly it means they were not physically intimate.  Perhaps it also means that they had no meeting of the minds.  Or even that King David’s short-term memory is so deteriorated that he does not learn to recognize her.

Meanwhile, outside of David’s chambers, his eldest surviving son Adoniyah, son of David’s early wife Haggit, is positioning himself to become king.  He stages a public sacrificial ceremony where he invites all the leaders except his brother Shlomo, the prophet Natan, and a few others still loyal to David.  Natan approaches Batsheva, saying “You have surely heard that Adoniyah has assumed the kingship without David’s knowledge.  Take my advice so you can save your life and the life of your son Shlomo.  “Go immediately to King David and say to him, ‘Did not you, O lord king, swear to your maidservant: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne?  Then why has Adoniyah become king?’  While you are still there talking with the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words.

Natan seems to know Batsheva well.  He is clear that Batsheva is up on the latest details of royal politics – in contrast to her husband who is too ill to care. Natan knows that his life is in jeopardy, and the way to save it is to appeal to Batsheva to intervene on behalf her life.  But he is not as clear on how to approach David.  He suggests that Batsheva use an emotionally neutral and very simplified approach when she speaks to David.

Batsheva enters the room where Avishag is serving as caretaker to the king.  Presumably because she and David are not alone, Batsheva uses formal gestures with him and bows low.  The king answers her informally, “What’s up?” Batsheva then gives a very different presentation than the one Natan has written for her.  She speaks as only an intimate relative can.  She is not emotionally neutral.  She refuses to talk down to David even in his deteriorated state.  She admonishes him for not acting on his promise. She informs him about current events.  She scolds him for not knowing about them.  She insists that he take responsibility.  And she reminds him that her life and Shlomo’s life are at stake.

Natan comes in and repeats her report, but in a much more measured and professional tone.  Although he knows full well that David is unaware of current events, he is careful to pretend that David is still in charge. “O lord king, you must have said Adoniyah shall succeed me as king…can this decision have come from my lord the king without your telling your servant?”

David’s answer is very simple: “Call Batsheva to me!” Perhaps he wants to reaffirm his promise to her.  Perhaps she is the only person he trusts amid the court intrigue and wants to make sure she witnesses whatever he says.  Or perhaps she is the only person who can really “warm” him, the only person who can inspire him to turn on his kingly energy, and he needs her by his side.  After all, she is his lifelong partner, and the only woman he has ever really desired.  He needs her, not a stranger who is a paid caretaker, no matter how beautiful.  He needs a meeting of the minds, someone who will speak with him intelligently and honestly about the things most important to him.  David reaffirms to Batsheva his promise to crown Shlomo king.  She bows low again and says “May my lord king David live forever!”  Some say this statement is ironic, because David is obviously so close to death, but I hear it said lovingly, and I picture Batsheva with tears in her eyes.

David snaps out of his fog and begins giving orders.  He stages a ceremony at which Shlomo is declared king.  Shlomo spares Adoniyah’s life.  David gives Shlomo some personal and political advice and dies soon after that.

Adoniyah, however, has not given up his bid to become king. He approaches Batsheva, and asks her if she will ask Shlomo to allow him to marry Avishag the Shunamite. In biblical times, marrying a king’s concubine or a king’s widow was a public statement of making a bid for the kingship.  However, it seems to me that Adoniyah adopts a politically naïve strategy.  Aside from the fact that he doesn’t know real details of who David is sleeping with, he chooses to make his bid through the mother of his rival!  Why would a person do that?  Perhaps he was politically and interpersonally clueless, but thought he was clever and subtle. Perhaps he had no choice – she was the kingmaker, and he had to take a gamble and let her know of his aspirations.  Or perhaps the only way to challenge Shlomo was to send a message through her.   Or perhaps her political persona was so highly developed that even her enemies believed her to be neutral and confided in her.

Batsheva responds neutrally to Adoniyah and says she will speak with Shlomo.  She enters the throne room at sits on her throne as Queen Mother at Shlomo’s right hand.  She passes on Adoniyah’s request. She knows that if Adoniyah becomes king she and Shlomo will be executed. So the only possible reason she can have for passing on the request is to alert Shlomo to Adoniyah’s aspirations, so that Shlomo can reconsider his humane but politically naive decision to let Adoniyah live.  She is quite correct.  Shlomo says, “Why request Avishag the Shunamite for Adoniyah?  Request the kingship for him!”  He arranges to have Adoniyah and all of Adoniyah’s supporters executed.  “Thus,” says the Tanakh, “the kingdom was secured in Shlomo’s hands.”

Classical midrash recognizes Batsheva’s power – noting that she, Natan, and David function together as a ruling triumverate, and noting that she is a role model for Queen Esther.  Modern critical scholars, however, challenge the objectivity of the Tanakh’s portrait of Batsheva, though they do so in a way that affirms her political power.  As the Queen Mother in the highly literate court of King Shlomo, she would have had some influence over the kinds of stories published about her.  Maybe the surviving stories overemphasize her positive qualities!

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2006


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