The image of Old Testament mothers that most people have is that of women who take care of the family, who grind grain and bake bread, and are occupied with the affairs of their household. This view of mothers reflects the patriarchal society that existed in ancient Israel. However, the Old Testament also mentions many mothers who played important roles in Israelite society. For instance, Miriam was a leader in Israel, Deborah was a judge and a prophet, and Athaliah, by usurpation of the throne of Judah, played an important role in the political life of the Southern Kingdom. Another mother who played an important role in the political life of Israel was Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother.
Most people who read the Old Testament are not familiar with the extent of Bathsheba’s influence in making her son Solomon the king of Israel after David. Bathsheba was a leader in her own right. Bathsheba was a gebirah, a queen mother (1 Kings 2:19). The word gebirah is used to designate a woman whose status in society is important. Sarah was known as the gebirah of Hagar (Genesis 16:4, 8). Although Bathsheba is never called a gebirah, her title as “the queen mother” implies the significant role she played in her son’s reign.
One of the most significant acts of Bathsheba as a mother was in her involvement in Nathan’s plan in the struggle for David’s throne between her son Solomon and Adonijah, Solomon’s brother and the son of Haggith, another of David’s wives. Bathsheba also shows her leadership when she appears before Solomon, now king of Judah, to speak on behalf of Adonijah, her stepson about his desire to acquire Abishag to be his wife.
Bathsheba became David’s wife as a result of her affair with him. When she became pregnant with David’s child, David sought the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. When Bathsheba came to David’s house as a pregnant widow, David already had several other wives (between eight and ten wives).
After the death of Uriah and after she became David’s wife, Bathsheba gave birth to a son, who died seven days after his birth of an unknown illness (2 Samuel 12:15-18). The name of the child is not mentioned in the narrative. After the death of the child, David visited Bathsheba to console her. David slept with Bathsheba, had sex with her, and she conceived and eventually gave birth to a son. David named his son Solomon (2 Samuel 12:24), but the Lord named him Jedidiah (2 Samuel 12:25).
When David became old and the time of his death approached, there was no clear indication who would be king after him. David’s oldest son was Amnon and David loved him because he was his firstborn (2 Samuel 13:21). David’s second son Chileab probably died in his infancy because nothing is said about him in the Bible.
When Amnon raped Tamar, Absalom killed Amnon and he became the heir apparent to David’s throne. After Absalom rebelled against David and was killed by Joab, Adonijah, David’s fourth son, became the oldest surviving son of David and the first in line for David’ throne. When he saw that David was too old to be a king Adonijah said: “I will be king” (1 Kings 1:5).
Since David had not made clear who would succeed him as king in Israel and because he was now the heir apparent to his father’s throne, Adonijah took matters into his own hands in order to make himself the next king of Judah. Adonijah prepared a contingent of chariots and horsemen and fifty men to serve as his bodyguards. He also invited Joab, the commander of the army and Abiathar, the high priest who probably would anoint him as king. Joab and Abiathar were faithful supporters of David and had served him for many years. Adonijah also invited his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah and those who served in David’s government. Because Adonijah had the support of most of the people in David’s reign, he believed that he had the right to claim David’s throne. He was also right when he said that “all Israel expected me to reign” (1 Kings 2:15).
However, Adonijah did not invite Zadok, one of the high priests who served under David, Benaiah, the commander of the Cherethites and the Pelethites, the special group of soldiers who served as David’s personal bodyguards. He also did not invite the prophet Nathan, and Shimei and Rei, two of David’s warriors who were part of the elite group of soldiers who served in David’s army (1 Kings 1:5-10).
Adonijah and his party came by the stone Zoheleth, which is beside En-rogel (1 Kings 1:9) and there they proclaimed: “Long live King Adonijah!” (1 Kings 1:25). When Nathan heard what Adonijah had done, he called Bathsheba and told her that Adonijah had proclaimed himself king of Israel (1 Kings 1:11). Nathan then advised Bathsheba what to do in order to acquire the throne for her son. Nathan’s motive in this plot is unknown, but his desire was to save her life and the life of her son Solomon (v. 12).
Bathsheba comes before David and reminds him that he had promised to make Solomon king after him. Bathsheba said to David “My lord, you swore to your servant by the LORD your God, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne. But now suddenly Adonijah has become king, though you, my lord the king, do not know it” (1 Kings 1:17-18). Nowhere in the text it is said that David made such a promise. There is no evidence that David made such a promise. However, it is possible that in his effort to console Bathsheba, David made this promise to her in the secrecy of the bedroom after the birth of Solomon. Adonijah’s belief that he would be king demonstrates that the line of succession for David’s throne had not been made public. Also, Nathan’s words to David, “the eyes of all Israel are on you to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. (1 Kings 1:20) indicates that nothing had been decided.
Nathan tells Bathsheba to go before David and remind him of his promise to make Solomon king after him. Then, while she was still talking to the king, he would come before David and confirm the words of Bathsheba. When Bathsheba comes before the king, Abishag, the woman selected to take her place and give pleasure to David in his old age, was by the side of the king.
Bathsheba came before David, bowed and did obeisance to him, and then presented her request (1 Kings 1:16). While Bathsheba was talking to the king, Nathan came in, Bathsheba left the room, and Nathan confirmed what Bathsheba had said. Bathsheba then returned to the room and David swore to her that Solomon would be the king after him (1 Kings 1:28).
David called the leaders of his government and ordered them to anoint Solomon as the next king of Israel. The involvement of Bathsheba was crucial for the anointing of Solomon as the king of Israel. Without her active involvement in the process, Adonijah would had become king and she and her son would probably be killed.
After David died, Solomon became king. However, Adonijah continued to be a potential threat to Solomon since he was still the oldest living son of David. After Solomon became king, Adonijah came before Bathsheba with a personal request. Adonijah reminded Bathsheba that the kingdom was his (1 Kings 2:15) and that all Israel expected him to be the next king.
This reminder served as Adonijah’s way of criticizing Solomon’s kingship as illegal. His request was a request for recompense for the kingdom he lost. Adonijah asked Bathsheba to come before Solomon with a request for him. Since she was his mother, Solomon would not refuse to grant the request she was going to make. Adonijah asked that Abishag be given to him as a wife.
There was a hidden motive behind this request. By asking Abishag to be his wife, Adonijah was staking a claim to David’s throne. His request was similar to Absalom’s action, who had sex with David’s concubines (2 Samuel 16:20-21) as an affirmation that he was planning to succeed his father. In a sense, Adonijah was asking Bathsheba to betray her son and help him obtain the throne that he believed belonged to him.
Since Adonijah’s request was an indirect claim to Solomon’s throne, one wonders whether Bathsheba understood the meaning of the request. In his commentary on 2 Kings, Keil said that “Bathsheba did not detect” the malice in Adonijah’s words (1950:31). I disagree with Keil’s conclusion. Bathsheba was aware that Adonijah posed a threat to Solomon’s kingship and she had to act in order to save her son.
Using a similar strategy she used to gain the throne for her son, Bathsheba now acted to save her son’s throne. When Bathsheba came before her son Solomon, the king showed his love and respect for his mother. Solomon rose from his throne to meet his mother, bowed down to her; then sat on his throne and had his servants bring a throne for his mother who sat on his right hand, a sign of her status, power, and authority as the queen mother (1 Kings 2:19). When she came before her son, she had a hidden motive in presenting Adonijah’s request. As the king’s mother and as the widow of a king, Bathsheba knew that Adonijah’s request was a veiled claim for her son’s throne and that his claim to the throne would remain as long as he lived.
Solomon also was aware of the hidden motives behind Adonijah’s request. After Bathsheba presented Adonijah’s request to Solomon, Solomon said to his mother: “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! For he is my elder brother; ask not only for him but also for the priest Abiathar and for Joab son of Zeruiah!” (1 Kings 2:22).
Adonijah’s request provided Solomon with an opportunity to get rid of his rival to the throne. Solomon took an oath to kill Adonijah since he still had aspirations for David’s throne: “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life.” Then, Solomon sent Benaiah, the commander of his army, to kill Adonijah (1 Kings 2:23-25).
Many scholars see Solomon’s action to be a contradiction of his portrayal as a wise and merciful king. But the author of the book of Kings is trying to persuade the reader that Solomon’s action was justified. The role Bathsheba played in the preservation of her son’s throne reveals that she was a wise mother and a skilled strategist who did what was necessary to preserve the life and the throne that belonged to her son. She saw the threat Adonijah posed to her son and acted to help her son and save his life and his kingship.
Today, on Mother’s Day, we must salute Bathsheba, a wise mother and skillful strategist who was successful in helping her son achieve his goals in life. Although Bathsheba had to live with the man who murdered her husband, although she had to grieve the loss of a child, and although she was put aside in her old age for a younger woman, Bathsheba was able to overcome these tragedies and achieve a position in life where she was able to help her son and make a significant contribution to the political life in her son’s government.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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C. F. Keil, The Book of Kings, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1950).