Bathsheba – Fourth woman of Advent – 20 December 2021
In this ivory carving we see Bathsheba bathing. She is accompanied by two women. One is younger, a maid servant, who is assisting her. The older woman is depicted in the trope of a madam or procuress, who is dressing her for sexual activity. Here then is the virtuous wife of Urriah depicted as a prostitute. This excuses King David, leering at her ablutions from his palace in the background. He will require her submission to his sexual needs.
In searching for images of Bathsheba, she is almost always naked and sexualised. The artworks, from statues through to pictures, have been produced for the male gaze. She is visually consumed first by King David, and then generations of art patrons and viewers since.
In the Biblical story, the bathing of Bathsheba was the ritual washing following menstruation. This followed a good week after bleeding had begun, so took place during the fertile period – as King David was soon to discover. She is the fourth woman mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew (not named, but referred to as Uriah’s wife), and like the previous three she is a foreigner, this time a Hittite woman. The first child she bears to David dies, and it is from her second – Solomon – that Jesus is descended. In the Biblical text she says very little, her inner voice (hopes, fears, faith) is not disclosed.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – four foreign women. All were outsiders, and for each their sexuality and gender played important parts in their story. The next, fifth, woman to be mentioned is Mary, found pregnant outside of marriage.
The carving here is ‘The Toilet of Bathsheba’ by Francis van Bossuit (Flemish sculptor) in the Wallace Collection.
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
2 Samuel 11:2-5
Oh, Cohen, when you poem-ised your heartache
To glorify men handsome, fearless, strong
Diminishing their own heroic soundtracks,
Unwilling victims of their chosen wrong:
The chords that tie the painful words together
Jog memories of dis-ease long past,
And tighten like a noose we cannot sever,
Indicting women blamed for being fast.
Your plaintive music tears into our heart-song
And histories well up with deep regret,
Now shift to self-defence and blame awrong—
The victims of the selfish, lustful net.
A broken hallelujah’s cold mistrust:
The song of those who treat their victims thus.
Karen DuBert, A Sonnet to Bathsheba and Delilah
(reflecting on Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah’)
May a song of blessing arise
for those whose pain is belittled,
whose story is silenced.
Let the voice of light speak clearly
the terrors veiled in our texts
and masked by our power.
May the word of truth come home,
and break us of our adoration
of our heroes and their evil secrets.
From a prayer by Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes