Bathsheba the Kingmaker
The Place of 1 Kings 1-2 in the Biblical Narrative
Chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Kings stand at a crossroads, as they end the account of David’s reign, the subject of 2 Samuel, and begin the account of Solomon’s, the subject of 1 Kings 3–11. The decision to include the story as the opening of Kings, as opposed to the closing of Samuel, reflects the choice of the scribes who edited the books of Samuel and Kings, but it may not reflect the placement of the story in its original composition.
According to an influential theory first proposed by Leonhard Rost in 1926, these two chapters form the conclusion of a narrative that encompasses 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2, which he termed “the tradition of the succession to the throne of David.” The succession narrative comes after the main David narrative (1 Sam 14–2 Sam 8 [or 10]), and offers a vivid depiction of the decline of David’s moral and political authority.
It begins with his adulterous affair with Bathsheba (ch. 11), for which he is rebuked by the prophet Nathan, followed by the death of the baby she conceives by David, and the birth of their next baby, Solomon (ch. 12). It continues with the rape of David’s daughter Tamar by his eldest son Amnon, her half-brother, and the killing of Amnon by Absalom, her full-brother (ch. 13). Absalom later rebels against his father, causing a civil war that David wins (chs. 14–19). This is followed by yet another rebellion, led by the Benjaminite Sheba ben Bichri, which too is quashed (ch. 20).
The jockeying for position between Solomon and Adonijah in 1 Kings 1–2, which concludes with וְהַמַּמְלָכָ֥ה נָכ֖וֹנָה בְּיַד־שְׁלֹמֹֽה, “the kingdom was secured in Solomon’s hands” (1 Kgs 2:46), is the natural conclusion of this narrative. Considering that the succession story begins with David and Bathsheba, and ends with Solomon as king, two Bible scholars, Steven McKenzie and Baruch Halpern, have independently argued for seeing the whole narrative complex as an apology for Solomon, aimed at explaining—and justifying—how it happened that Solomon leapfrogged over his older brothers to become king over Israel. In this apology, Bathsheba plays a key role—one that is more active than it may seem at first glance.
The Elderly David
The book of Kings opens with an elderly David:
מלכים א א:א וְהַמֶּ֤לֶךְ דָּוִד֙ זָקֵ֔ן בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים וַיְכַסֻּ֙הוּ֙ בַּבְּגָדִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יִחַ֖ם לֽוֹ׃
1 Kgs 1:1 King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.
This verse employs the same idiom used to describe Abraham’s old age:
בראשית כד:א וְאַבְרָהָ֣ם זָקֵ֔ן בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים וַֽי־הוָ֛ה בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם בַּכֹּֽל׃
Gen 24:1 Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and YHWH had blessed Abraham in all things.
This parallel, which may be coincidental, is what occasioned the choice of 1 Kgs 1:1-31 as the haftarah for Parashat Chayei Sarah (“Life of Sarah,” Gen 23:1–25:18); here, however, the similarity between the two ends. Abraham is blessed by God in his old age, and he is able to send his servant to find his son Isaac a wife, Rebekah (Genesis 24). Subsequently, Abraham himself remarries and fathers children from an additional wife, Keturah (Gen 25:1–6), before dying happy and contented at a ripe old age (Gen 25:7-11).
David’s end could not be more pitiable. First, he is described as sickly, וַיְכַסֻּ֙הוּ֙ בַּבְּגָדִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יִחַ֖ם לֽוֹ, “though they covered [David] with bedclothes, he never felt warm.” His courtiers, therefore, suggest to the king:
מלכים א א:יב יְבַקְשׁ֞וּ לַאדֹנִ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ נַעֲרָ֣ה בְתוּלָ֔ה וְעָֽמְדָה֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וּתְהִי־ל֖וֹ סֹכֶ֑נֶת וְשָׁכְבָ֣ה בְחֵיקֶ֔ךָ וְחַ֖ם לַאדֹנִ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃
1 Kgs 1:2 Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your Majesty and be his attendant; and let her lie in your bosom, and my lord the king will be warm.
The term sōkenet, “(female) attendant,” is unusual. The only other time that the root s.k.n appears in its participial form in the Tanakh is in its masculine form in reference to Shebna, the royal steward, in Isa 22:15, which implies that the job description is not sexual per se, even though David’s courtiers did specifically suggest choosing a beautiful woman in order to give David physical warmth.
מלכים א א:ג וַיְבַקְשׁוּ֙ נַעֲרָ֣ה יָפָ֔ה בְּכֹ֖ל גְּב֣וּל יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַֽיִּמְצְא֗וּ אֶת־אֲבִישַׁג֙ הַשּׁ֣וּנַמִּ֔ית וַיָּבִ֥אוּ אֹתָ֖הּ לַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ א:ד וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֖ה יָפָ֣ה עַד־מְאֹ֑ד וַתְּהִ֨י לַמֶּ֤לֶךְ סֹכֶ֙נֶת֙ וַתְּשָׁ֣רְתֵ֔הוּ וְהַמֶּ֖לֶךְ לֹ֥א יְדָעָֽהּ׃
1 Kgs 1:3 So they looked for a beautiful girl throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite and brought her to the king. 1:4 The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and waited upon him; but the king was not intimate with her.
Commentators, traditional and modern, debate whether David is unresponsive to Abishag because he is not interested in a sexual relationship with her or because his feeble health and impotence make it impossible. Either way, Adonijah’s attempt to have himself coronated in the very next scene implies that the king’s inability to respond to a beautiful woman is a sign that he is no longer virile enough to exercise authority.
Bathsheba and Nathan Fool the King
To solidify his power, Adonijah invites Joab the general and Abiathar the priest to his coronation, while another general, Benaiah, and another priest, Zadok, are left out, presumably because they do not support him. Also uninvited is Nathan the prophet, who has allied himself with Solomon, a preference that goes back to the time of Solomon’s birth, early in the succession narrative:
שמואל ב יב:כד וַיְנַחֵ֣ם דָּוִ֗ד אֵ֚ת בַּת־שֶׁ֣בַע אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֥א אֵלֶ֖יהָ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֣ב עִמָּ֑הּ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֗ן (ויקרא) [וַתִּקְרָ֤א] אֶת־שְׁמוֹ֙ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה וַי־הוָ֖ה אֲהֵבֽוֹ׃ יב:כה וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח בְּיַד֙ נָתָ֣ן הַנָּבִ֔יא וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יְדִ֣ידְיָ֑הּ בַּעֲב֖וּר יְ־הוָֽה׃
2 Sam 12:24 David consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went to her and lay with her. She bore a son and she named him Solomon. YHWH favored him, 12:25 and He sent a message through the prophet Nathan; and he was named Jedidiah (=Friend of Yah) at the instance of YHWH.
In light of his attachment to Solomon, and perhaps simply in order to save his own life, Nathan hatches a plot with Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, to ensure that David comes out in favor of Solomon’s accession to the throne:
מלכים א א:יא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר נָתָ֗ן אֶל־בַּת־שֶׁ֤בַע אֵם־שְׁלֹמֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הֲל֣וֹא שָׁמַ֔עַתְּ כִּ֥י מָלַ֖ךְ אֲדֹנִיָּ֣הוּ בֶן־חַגִּ֑ית וַאֲדֹנֵ֥ינוּ דָוִ֖ד לֹ֥א יָדָֽע׃ א:יב וְעַתָּ֕ה לְכִ֛י אִיעָצֵ֥ךְ נָ֖א עֵצָ֑ה וּמַלְּטִי֙ אֶת־נַפְשֵׁ֔ךְ וְאֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ בְּנֵ֖ךְ שְׁלֹמֹֽה׃ א:יג לְכִ֞י וּבֹ֣אִי ׀ אֶל־הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ דָּוִ֗ד וְאָמַ֤רְתְּ אֵלָיו֙ הֲלֹֽא־אַתָּ֞ה אֲדֹנִ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ נִשְׁבַּ֤עְתָּ לַאֲמָֽתְךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כִּֽי־שְׁלֹמֹ֤ה בְנֵךְ֙ יִמְלֹ֣ךְ אַחֲרַ֔י וְה֖וּא יֵשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְאִ֑י וּמַדּ֖וּעַ מָלַ֥ךְ אֲדֹנִיָֽהוּ׃
1 Kgs 1:11 Then Nathan said to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “You must have heard that Adonijah son of Haggith has assumed the kingship without the knowledge of our lord David. 1:12 Now take my advice, so that you may save your life and the life of your son Solomon. 1:13 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 Adonijah become king?’
The method Nathan uses here is to “remind” David of a promise he had supposedly made to Bathsheba that her son, Solomon, would be David’s successor as king of Israel. Then, Nathan says, he will come in and do the same.
מלכים א א:יד הִנֵּ֗ה עוֹדָ֛ךְ מְדַבֶּ֥רֶת שָׁ֖ם עִם־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַאֲנִי֙ אָב֣וֹא אַחֲרַ֔יִךְ וּמִלֵּאתִ֖י אֶת־דְּבָרָֽיִךְ׃
1 Kgs 1:14 While you are still there talking with the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words.”
The staged coincidence of their successive visits to David is meant to convince him of the rightness of their words, something akin to the German saying Doppelt hält besser (“doing something twice makes it endure”), or as Robert Alter phrases it: “The verse-like parallelism of David’s purported vow has the effect of impressing it on memory.”
Radak: David’s Oath Before Solomon Was Born
The Bible neither records David having made such a promise, nor does the third person narrator confirm that what Nathan said happened is actually the case. Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak, 1160–1235), for example, feels forced to defend the truthfulness of the claim (gloss on 1 Kgs 1:13):
יודע היה נתן שנשבע לה ששמע זה ממנה
Nathan knows that [David] had sworn to her, since he had heard it from her.
Radak takes the point further and explains, based on a midrash, the circumstances that brought about David’s oath:
ולמה נשבע לה אמרו כי כשמת הילד אמרה בת שבע הילד מת מפני העון אפילו יהיה לי ממך בן של קיימא יבוזו אותו אחיו מפני שבאתי אליך בעון מתחלה ולא רצתה להזקק לו עד שנשבע לה כי הבן שיהיה לו ממנה ראשונה ימלוך אחריו
And why did he swear to her? They (the rabbis) said: When the baby died, Bathsheba said: “The boy died because of the sin. Even if I were to conceive a living child from you, his brothers would despise him, since I originally came to you in sin.” She was not willing to lie with him until he swore to her that the first son that he had through her would succeed him as king.
Thus, in Radak’s reading, Nathan and Bathsheba are reminding David of something that he had promised. In making his point, however, Radak is forced to invent events in order to make his reading plausible. Much more likely is that this orchestrated one-two punch was not simply meant to reinforce a message but to convince the frail king of something that was being woven out of whole cloth.
David Accepts the Message
When Bathsheba goes to speak to David, we are reminded of his old age, and we meet again the beautiful young woman Abishag serving him:
מלכים א א:טו וַתָּבֹ֨א בַת־שֶׁ֤בֶע אֶל־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַחַ֔דְרָה וְהַמֶּ֖לֶךְ זָקֵ֣ן מְאֹ֑ד וַֽאֲבִישַׁג֙ הַשּׁ֣וּנַמִּ֔ית מְשָׁרַ֖ת אֶת־הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ א:טז וַתִּקֹּ֣ד בַּת־שֶׁ֔בַע וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ מַה־לָּֽךְ׃
1 Kgs 1:15 So Bathsheba went to the king in his chamber. The king was very old, and Abishag the Shunammite was waiting on the king. 1:16 Bathsheba bowed low in homage to the king; and the king asked, “What troubles you?”
Bathsheba bows to the feeble, old man—a flattering gesture considering his frailty but not his station—and the king asks what she needs:
מלכים א א:יז וַתֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ אֲדֹנִי֙ אַתָּ֨ה נִשְׁבַּ֜עְתָּ בַּֽי־הוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ לַֽאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־שְׁלֹמֹ֥ה בְנֵ֖ךְ יִמְלֹ֣ךְ אַחֲרָ֑י וְה֖וּא יֵשֵׁ֥ב עַל־כִּסְאִֽי׃
1 Kgs 1:17 She answered him, “My lord, you yourself swore to your maidservant by YHWH your God: ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne.’
While it may have been implied in Nathan’s words, Bathsheba is the first to introduce the divine name into the charade. Bathsheba continues, elaborating on the relatively sparse message that Nathan had urged her to convey:
מלכים א א:יח וְעַתָּ֕ה הִנֵּ֥ה אֲדֹנִיָּ֖ה מָלָ֑ךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אֲדֹנִ֥י הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתָּ׃ א:יט וַ֠יִּזְבַּח שׁ֥וֹר וּֽמְרִיא־וְצֹאן֮ לָרֹב֒ וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְכָל־בְּנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וּלְאֶבְיָתָר֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וּלְיֹאָ֖ב שַׂ֣ר הַצָּבָ֑א וְלִשְׁלֹמֹ֥ה עַבְדְּךָ֖ לֹ֥א קָרָֽא׃ א:כ וְאַתָּה֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ עֵינֵ֥י כָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עָלֶ֑יךָ לְהַגִּ֣יד לָהֶ֔ם מִ֗י יֵשֵׁ֛ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֥א אֲדֹנִֽי־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ אַחֲרָֽיו׃ א:כא וְהָיָ֕ה כִּשְׁכַ֥ב אֲדֹנִֽי־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ עִם־אֲבֹתָ֑יו וְהָיִ֗יתִי אֲנִ֛י וּבְנִ֥י שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה חַטָּאִֽים׃
1 Kgs 1:18 Yet now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, know nothing about it. 1:19 He has prepared a sacrificial feast of a great many oxen, fatlings, and sheep, and he has invited all the king’s sons and Abiathar the priest and Joab commander of the army; but he has not invited your servant Solomon. 1:20 And so the eyes of all Israel are upon you, O lord king, to tell them who shall succeed my lord the king on the throne. 1:21 Otherwise, when my lord the king lies down with his fathers, my son Solomon and I will be regarded as traitors.”
Bathsheba emphasizes how Adonijah acts without the knowledge or consent of the king, implying that, unlike her and Solomon, Adonijah does not care what the doddering David thinks.
While Bathsheba is still speaking, Nathan comes in with the same message regarding David’s promise, and expresses consternation that Adonijah is in the process of becoming king against David’s supposed wishes (vv. 22–27). This double-barreled assault on his memory finally rouses the decrepit David to action:
מלכים א א:כח וַיַּ֨עַן הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ דָּוִד֙ וַיֹּ֔אמֶר קִרְאוּ־לִ֖י לְבַת־שָׁ֑בַע וַתָּבֹא֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃וַיִּשָּׁבַ֥ע הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר חַי־יְהוָ֕ה אֲשֶׁר־פָּדָ֥ה אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י מִכָּל־צָרָֽה׃ א:כט כִּ֡י כַּאֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁבַּ֨עְתִּי לָ֜ךְ בַּי־הוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כִּֽי־שְׁלֹמֹ֤ה בְנֵךְ֙ יִמְלֹ֣ךְ אַחֲרַ֔י וְה֛וּא יֵשֵׁ֥ב עַל־כִּסְאִ֖י תַּחְתָּ֑י כִּ֛י כֵּ֥ן אֶעֱשֶׂ֖ה הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
1 Kgs 1:28 King David's response was: “Summon Bathsheba!” She entered the king’s presence and stood before the king. 1:29 And the king took an oath, saying, “As YHWH lives, who has rescued me from every trouble: 1:30 The oath I swore to you by YHWH, the God of Israel, that your son Solomon should succeed me as king and that he should sit upon my throne in my stead, I will fulfill this very day!”
Fading memory implants a fake recollection in his mind that then leads him to act in accord with their claims and to their benefit. Besides raising the very modern specter of “fake news,” this narrative also appears to reflect what is termed false or repressed memory syndrome in the psychological literature, in which people recall or are helped to recall incidents that did not in fact happen. The case of David’s recollection of promising Bathsheba that Solomon would be his successor would appear to be a textbook case of implanting a false memory in someone too weak to resist the power of suggestion.
Like Bathsheba, David invokes YHWH’s name and promises to make sure Solomon is enthroned immediately. The standard haftarah—but not the chapter—ends with Bathsheba’s words:
מלכים א א:לא וַתִּקֹּ֨ד בַּת־שֶׁ֤בַע אַפַּ֙יִם֙ אֶ֔רֶץ וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַתֹּ֕אמֶר יְחִ֗י אֲדֹנִ֛י הַמֶּ֥לֶךְ דָּוִ֖ד לְעֹלָֽם׃
1 Kgs 1:31 Bathsheba bowed low in homage to the king with her face to the ground, and she said, “May my lord King David live forever!”
The last line expresses a noble sentiment but an impossible and even ironic outcome, given that David is old and feeble, and that the favor he grants is having her son Solomon crowned as his successor.
The Killing of Adonijah
Adonijah hears about Solomon’s coronation while he is still celebrating (1 Kgs 1:32–49), and he panics:
מלכים א א:נ וַאֲדֹ֣נִיָּ֔הוּ יָרֵ֖א מִפְּנֵ֣י שְׁלֹמֹ֑ה וַיָּ֣קָם וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ וַֽיַּחֲזֵ֖ק בְּקַרְנ֥וֹת הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃ א:נא וַיֻּגַּ֤ד לִשְׁלֹמֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הִנֵּה֙ אֲדֹ֣נִיָּ֔הוּ יָרֵ֖א אֶת־הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֑ה וְ֠הִנֵּה אָחַ֞ז בְּקַרְנ֤וֹת הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יִשָּֽׁבַֽע־לִ֤י כַיּוֹם֙ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה אִם־יָמִ֥ית אֶת־עַבְדּ֖וֹ בֶּחָֽרֶב׃ א:נב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה אִ֚ם יִהְיֶ֣ה לְבֶן־חַ֔יִל לֹֽא־יִפֹּ֥ל מִשַּׂעֲרָת֖וֹ אָ֑רְצָה וְאִם־רָעָ֥ה תִמָּצֵא־ב֖וֹ וָמֵֽת׃ א:נג וַיִּשְׁלַ֞ח הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֗ה וַיֹּרִדֻ֙הוּ֙ מֵעַ֣ל הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַיָּבֹ֕א וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֑ה וַיֹּֽאמֶר־ל֥וֹ שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה לֵ֥ךְ לְבֵיתֶֽךָ׃
1 Kgs 1:50 Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, went at once to the Tent and grasped the horns of the altar. 1:51 It was reported to Solomon: “Adonijah is in fear of King Solomon and has grasped the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon first swear to me that he will not put his servant to the sword.’” 1:52 Solomon said, “If he behaves worthily, not a hair of his head shall fall to the ground; but if he is caught in any offense, he shall die.” 1:53 So King Solomon sent and had him taken down from the altar. He came and bowed before King Solomon, and Solomon said to him, “Go home.”
Nevertheless, after David’s death, Adonijah approaches Bathsheba, the Queen Mother, with a request:
מלכים א ב:יג וַיָּבֹ֞א אֲדֹנִיָּ֣הוּ בֶן־חַגֵּ֗ית אֶל־בַּת־שֶׁ֙בַע֙ אֵם־שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה וַתֹּ֖אמֶר הֲשָׁל֣וֹם בֹּאֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר שָׁלֽוֹם׃ ב:יד וַיֹּ֕אמֶר דָּבָ֥ר לִ֖י אֵלָ֑יִךְ וַתֹּ֖אמֶר דַּבֵּֽר׃ ב:טו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַ֤תְּ יָדַ֙עַתְּ֙ כִּי־לִי֙ הָיְתָ֣ה הַמְּלוּכָ֔ה וְעָלַ֞י שָׂ֧מוּ כָֽל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל פְּנֵיהֶ֖ם לִמְלֹ֑ךְ וַתִּסֹּ֤ב הַמְּלוּכָה֙ וַתְּהִ֣י לְאָחִ֔י כִּ֥י מֵיְ־הוָ֖ה הָ֥יְתָה לּֽוֹ׃ ב:טז וְעַתָּ֗ה שְׁאֵלָ֤ה אַחַת֙ אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁאֵ֣ל מֵֽאִתָּ֔ךְ אַל־תָּשִׁ֖בִי אֶת־פָּנָ֑י וַתֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו דַּבֵּֽר׃ ב:יז וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אִמְרִי־נָא֙ לִשְׁלֹמֹ֣ה הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ כִּ֥י לֹֽא־יָשִׁ֖יב אֶת־פָּנָ֑יִךְ וְיִתֶּן־לִ֛י אֶת־אֲבִישַׁ֥ג הַשּׁוּנַמִּ֖ית לְאִשָּֽׁה׃
1 Kgs 2:13 Adonijah son of Haggith came to see Bathsheba, Solomon's mother. She said, “Do you come with friendly intent?” “Yes,” he replied; 2:14 and he continued, “I would like to have a word with you.” “Speak up,” she said. 2:15 Then he said, "You know that the kingship was rightly mine and that all Israel wanted me to reign. But the kingship passed on to my brother; it came to him by the will of YHWH. 2:16 And now I have one request to make of you; do not refuse me.” She said, “Speak up.” 2:17 He replied, “Please ask King Solomon—for he won't refuse you—to give me Abishag the Shunammite as wife.”
As presented, this sounds like an innocent request. We already know that Abishag is exceedingly beautiful, and that her task to “warm” David was sexual only in theory, since he was an effete old man, and she was only able to “serve” him. Nonetheless, Adonijah’s request is not as innocent as it seems.
When Adonijah’s older brother Absalom rebels against David’s authority and attempts to seize the throne for himself, he publicly and openly has sex with the concubines whom David has left behind in Jerusalem (2 Sam 16:20-22). This act is a crass way for Absalom to demonstrate the (political) impotence of his father, and is meant to signify that it is now Absalom’s time to rule.
Given that the person marrying or sleeping with one of the wives (or concubines) of the previous king implies that he is now king, one would imagine that Bathsheba would have seen such a request as a threat to her son. And yet, she seems to gloss over problem and goes directly to Solomon as Adonijah’s advocate:
מלכים א ב:יח וַתֹּ֥אמֶר בַּת־שֶׁ֖בַע ט֑וֹב אָנֹכִ֕י אֲדַבֵּ֥ר עָלֶ֖יךָ אֶל־הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ ב:יט וַתָּבֹ֤א בַת־שֶׁ֙בַע֙ אֶל־הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה לְדַבֶּר־ל֖וֹ עַל־אֲדֹנִיָּ֑הוּ וַיָּקָם֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ לִקְרָאתָ֜הּ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֣חוּ לָ֗הּ וַיֵּ֙שֶׁב֙ עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ וַיָּ֤שֶׂם כִּסֵּא֙ לְאֵ֣ם הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַתֵּ֖שֶׁב לִֽימִינֽוֹ׃ ב:כ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר שְׁאֵלָ֨ה אַחַ֤ת קְטַנָּה֙ אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁאֶ֣לֶת מֵֽאִתָּ֔ךְ אַל־תָּ֖שֶׁב אֶת־פָּנָ֑י וַיֹּֽאמֶר־לָ֤הּ הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ שַׁאֲלִ֣י אִמִּ֔י כִּ֥י לֹֽא־אָשִׁ֖יב אֶת־פָּנָֽיִךְ׃ ב:כא וַתֹּ֕אמֶר יֻתַּ֖ן אֶת־אֲבִישַׁ֣ג הַשֻּׁנַמִּ֑ית לַאֲדֹנִיָּ֥הוּ אָחִ֖יךָ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃
1 Kgs 2:18 “Very well,” said Bathsheba, “I will speak to the king in your behalf.” 2:19 So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him about Adonijah. The king rose to greet her and bowed down to her. He sat on his throne; and he had a throne placed for the queen mother, and she sat on his right. 2:20 She said, “I have one small request to make of you, do not refuse me.” He responded, “Ask, Mother; I shall not refuse you.” 2:21 Then she said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to your brother Adonijah as wife.”
Here, Bathsheba does the opposite of what she did with Nathan’s speech—instead of expanding upon Adonijah’s request, she simply makes the request herself and omits the conversation with Adonijah entirely. Nevertheless, Solomon sees immediately what must have brought about the request and, despite his assurance that he would not refuse his mother’s request, he reacts exceedingly harshly.
מלכים א ב:כב וַיַּעַן֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֜ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאִמּ֗וֹ וְלָמָה֩ אַ֨תְּ שֹׁאֶ֜לֶת אֶת־אֲבִישַׁ֤ג הַשֻּׁנַמִּית֙ לַאֲדֹ֣נִיָּ֔הוּ וְשַֽׁאֲלִי־לוֹ֙ אֶת־הַמְּלוּכָ֔ה כִּ֛י ה֥וּא אָחִ֖י הַגָּד֣וֹל מִמֶּ֑נִּי וְלוֹ֙ וּלְאֶבְיָתָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וּלְיוֹאָ֖ב בֶּן־צְרוּיָֽה׃
1 Kgs 2:22 The king replied to his mother, “Why request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Request the kingship for him! For he is my older brother, and the priest Abiathar and Joab son of Zeruiah are on his side.”
By communicating this request to Solomon, Bathsheba has sealed his fate.
ב:כג וַיִּשָּׁבַע֙ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה בַּֽי־הוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר כֹּ֣ה יַֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ וְכֹ֣ה יוֹסִ֔יף כִּ֣י בְנַפְשׁ֔וֹ דִּבֶּר֙ אֲדֹ֣נִיָּ֔הוּ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֖ר הַזֶּֽה׃ ב:כד וְעַתָּ֗ה חַי־יְ־הוָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֱכִינַ֗נִי (ויושיביני) [וַיּֽוֹשִׁיבַ֙נִי֙] עַל־כִּסֵּא֙ דָּוִ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַאֲשֶׁ֧ר עָֽשָׂה־לִ֛י בַּ֖יִת כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֵּ֑ר כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יוּמַ֖ת אֲדֹנִיָּֽהוּ׃ ב:כה וַיִּשְׁלַח֙ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה בְּיַ֖ד בְּנָיָ֣הוּ בֶן־יְהוֹיָדָ֑ע וַיִּפְגַּע־בּ֖וֹ וַיָּמֹֽת׃
1 Kgs 2:23 Thereupon, King Solomon swore by YHWH, saying, “So may God do to me and even more, if broaching this matter does not cost Adonijah his life! 2:24 Now, as YHWH lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of my father David and who has provided him with a house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this very day!” 2:25 And Solomon instructed Benaiah son of Jehoiada, who struck Adonijah down; and so he died.
Why Does Adonijah Ask?
That Adonijah doesn’t realize the risk he is taking is surprising. In the trenchant words of Frank Moore Cross, “If Adonijah did in fact behave as claimed, he deserved to be executed—for stupidity.”
Steven Weitzman has suggested that Adonijah was impelled to take this risky move because of his passion for Abishag, although this is never made explicit in the text. Given that Adonijah has just tried to become king, however, and Solomon has only been ruling for one verse, it is hard to read this as a completely apolitical request.
While it is possible that Adonijah is simply being presented as a fool—his attempt to have himself crowned during David’s lifetime show him to be a second-rate politician at best—he may also simply be underestimating Solomon. If so, he has also severely underestimated Bathsheba.
Why Does Bathsheba Help?
In light of the unfolding of the narrative, it would appear that Bathsheba does not agree to help Adonijah out of empathy, nor does she believe that Solomon will grant the request. Instead, Bathsheba realizes that Adonijah’s blunder presents her with an opportunity. Bathsheba’s problem is that earlier in the narrative, as quoted above, Adonijah gets Solomon to promise not to kill him “if he behaves worthily.”
Now that Adonijah has requested Abishag, he has engaged in unworthy behavior, cancelling the oath. Thus, Bathsheba feigns ignorance about the import of the request, and brings the story to Solomon to put the final nail in Adonijah’s coffin.
The picture that thus emerges of Bathsheba in 1 Kings 1–2 is of a consummate political player, who is quite capable of working within the system available to her to advance her position and that of her son through a targeted program of manipulation, whether of David to appoint Solomon coregent or of Solomon to have Adonijah permanently removed.
What About Bathsheba’s First Meeting with David?
The portrait of Bathsheba as a political player par excellence has oftentimes been contrasted with her first, most famous, and only other major appearance in the biblical text, toward the beginning of the succession story, in 2 Samuel 11-12. In this pivotal narrative that signals the incipience of David’s ethical and moral decline, the bathing Bathsheba, wife of David’s high military official, Uriah the Hittite, is spied upon by the king, whereupon “David sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her (וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ דָּוִ֨ד מַלְאָכִ֜ים וַיִּקָּחֶ֗הָ וַתָּב֤וֹא אֵלָיו֙ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֣ב עִמָּ֔הּ)” (2 Sam 11:4).
In the unfolding of the ensuing narrative, this sexual act leads to Bathsheba’s pregnancy, David’s attempt to cover up his adulterous act by having Uriah die “accidentally” in battle, the marriage of David and Bathsheba, the birth of a son who dies within a week, and the subsequent birth of Solomon. Through it all, the only time that Bathsheba comes to word is to say, “I am pregnant (הָרָ֥ה אָנֹֽכִי)” (2 Sam 11:5).
Generations of interpreters have justifiably condemned the actions of David in this pericope, in which he abuses his powers as a man in a patriarchal world and as a king in an absolutist monarchy. He takes, and he has killed. He rules both the bodies and the lives of his subjects. The prophet Nathan is justified in condemning him in the famous parable of the rich man and the poor man (2 Sam 12:1-14).
How are we to understand Bathsheba’s actions in this narrative? On this question, interpreters diverge quite radically.
One possible reading—albeit a controversial one—is that Bathsheba, whose husband is off at war, both understands the king’s predilection for women, and knows that her bathing is visible from the palace. In this view, Bathsheba may have been deliberately angling to upgrade her social status. As Lillian Klein phrases it:
…David’s spontaneity—in walking and seeing and taking—reinforces Bathsheba’s maneuver in bathing on her roof at this time [italics in original]. I suggest Bathsheba may well have been purifying herself on her roof with the hope of ‘seducing’ King David into seducing her.
Others push back against this reading, arguing that Bathsheba exhibits no agency in the whole affair. She was innocently engaging in her menstrual ablutions when David violated her with his voyeurism, exercised his power over her by bringing her to his chambers, and raped her. In the words of Tikva Frymer-Kensky:
To say that Bathsheba set out to entice the king is to say that violated women “were asking for it” because they smiled, or wore tight clothes, or went to a club. Bathsheba is enjoying a private moment—she thinks—and we violate it the moment we stop to contemplate her beauty.
Our understanding of Bathsheba’s actions at the beginning of the story determine how we understand the narrative’s arc. According to the first reading, Bathsheba is consistently in control of her fate—she begins and ends the Succession Narrative by doing what she can to advance her situation. Just as she understands how to motivate the elderly David to appoint her son successor (1 Kings 1), she knows how to motivate the middle-aged David to bring her to the palace (2 Samuel 11). According to the second reading, Bathsheba begins as an innocent victim, abducted and raped by the king, but over time learns how to survive and even thrive in the palace, ending her career as the powerful Queen Mother.
However one reads this opening text, by the end of the story, Bathsheba not only knows how to manipulate her husband and her son, but she knows the lay of the land, politically speaking. Thus, she works with those supportive of her son—particularly Nathan the prophet—to ensure that Solomon becomes king, and she knows how to give Adonijah enough rope to hang himself with by acting as if she empathizes with him and wishes him to be happy.
Such a reading of 1 Kings 1–2, and of the Succession Story as a whole, casts a different light on the family drama. Instead of Bathsheba being simply a passive conduit for the production of David’s heir, she is someone with agency, able to turn a king’s eye, change a king’s mind, and even have a rival executed, all without ever revealing her cards.
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November 12, 2020
January 6, 2021
Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is Professor of Humanities and Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. His Ph.D. is from Harvard. His most recent publications include the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber
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