The story of the adulterous affair between David and Bathsheba happened during spring of the year when David decided not to go to war. Instead, David stayed home in Jerusalem and sent Joab, the commander of his army, to fight against the Ammonites.
One evening, after David woke up from an afternoon nap, he got out of bed and began walking on the roof of his palace. As he looked at the houses below, he saw a beautiful woman taking a bath. After asking for the identity of the woman, he discovered that she was Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers of his elite army.
Scholars are divided on whether Bathsheba was washing or bathing, that is, whether the act was ritual or non-ritual. This uncertainty is present in some English translations. For instance, the NRSV translates 2 Samuel 11:2 as follows: “he saw from the roof a woman bathing.” The KJV translates as follows: “he saw a woman washing.”
Some English translations believe that Bathsheba was washing herself as an act of purification after her menstrual period. The translations below understand the washing to be ritual. This is seen from the way these English Bibles translate 2 Samuel 11:4:
NRSV: “Now she was purifying herself after her period.”
TNK: “She had just purified herself after her period.”
GWN: “She had just cleansed herself after her monthly period.”
NAB: “She was just purified after her monthly period.”
NET: “She was in the process of purifying herself from her menstrual uncleanness.”
NJB: “She had purified herself from her period.”
NLT: “She had just completed the purification rites after having her menstrual period.”
Every month, when a woman goes through her monthly cycle, her body prepares for pregnancy. Since the biblical writer says that after Bathsheba had sex with David, she conceived, then most commentators associate Bathsheba’s pregnancy with the end of her menstruation.
A Levitical law declares that a woman during her menstrual period becomes unclean for seven days after her period begins: “When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days” (Leviticus 15:19). In addition, during the seven days of her uncleanness, anything or anyone who comes in contact with her also becomes unclean: “ Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening” (Leviticus 15:20-21).
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “These laws, however, have been extended in many ways and made more onerous, both by rabbinical traditions and interpretations and by customs which have been adopted by Jewish women themselves. According to these more rigid requirements, the woman must reckon seven days after the termination of the period. If, then, this lasts seven days, she cannot become pure until the fifteenth day. Purification, furthermore, can be gained only by a ritual bath.”
Thus, according to Jewish tradition, “A menstruous woman requires immersion, as is shown by II Sam. xi. 2, 4.” However, Auld in his commentary on Samuel said that the Hebrew Bible does not contain one example of washing after menstruation. Washing after menstruation is a Jewish practice that was initiated after the biblical period. Auld (2011: 456) wrote, “The long-standing interpretation of this ‘circumstantial’ phrase is that the time of intercourse (or at least when observed by the king immediately before hand), the woman is still attending to ritual washing following her monthly period.” However, as Auld points out, the Hebrew words used in the text are “not Hebrew terms used in the context of menstruation.”
Tikva Frymer-Kensky (2002: 147) wrote that the bathing in 1 Samuel 11:2 and the purification in 1 Samuel 11:4 are two separate events, and they are not related to Bathsheba’s menstrual period. According to Frymer-Kensky, the view that a woman in ancient Israel bathed after menstruation is anachronistic since it is based on later rabbinic law, a law that was unknown in David’s time.
Frymer-Kensky (2002: 147) gives two reasons why Bathsheba’s bathing has nothing to do with her menstruation:
First is the matter of timing. In rabbinic law women immerse in a ritual pool, a mikvah, before the resumption of marital relations after their menstrual impurity. This immersion takes place one week after the menstrual flow ceases, normally between the twelfth and sixteenth days of their cycle. Sexual relationships after this immersion would quite frequently result in pregnancy. But the biblical period of menstrual impurity is one week long. Sexual relations would resume on the eighth day, a time very unlikely to produce pregnancy. The second flaw in this common understanding is that—in the Bible—women do not seem to wash after menstruation. The phrase “He shall wash his clothes and bathe in water,” used regularly in Leviticus for the end of periods of impurity, is conspicuously absent in the passage on menstruation. Menstrual impurity is regular and time-linked, and time itself, rather than water, brings an end to it. . . . Bathsheba’s bath on the rooftop was simply that: a bath, and probably had nothing to do with postmenstrual purification.
In the story of Bathsheba, three Hebrew words are used that have been associated with Bathsheba’s menstrual cycle. The first word, rōḥeṣet, appears in 2 Samuel 11:2 and it is translated “bathing” in the NRSV and “washing” in the KJV. In describing how this verb is used in the Hebrew Bible, Chankin-Gould wrote, “The verb rḥṣ (‘to wash’) is found in various conjugations a total of 77 times throughout the Hebrew Bible. Despite its frequent use in the text, rḥṣ is never associated with a woman bathing following her menstrual period.”
The second word, mitqaddešet, appears in 2 Samuel 11:4 and is translated “she was purifying herself” in the RSV. This act of purification occurs immediately after David had sex with Bathsheba: “She came to him and he had sexual relations with her” (2 Samuel 11:4 NET). According to Gesenius (§141e), Bathsheba’s purification must be “contemporaneous with the principal action” of the preceding verb, that is, after David lay with her. As mentioned above, several English translations assume that Bathsheba’s acts of purifying herself happened after her menstrual period. But the text says that this act of purification came after David had sex with her.
The third word, miṭṭumʼātāh, a word translated as “after her period” by NRSV, as “her menstrual uncleanness” by the NET Bible, as “her menstrual period” by the NLT, and as “her uncleanness” by the KJV. Chankin-Gould says that “Despite assumptions to the contrary, the third term under consideration, miṭṭumʼātāh, also does not address menstruation. The issues here concern interpretive assumptions.” The word refers to ceremonial uncleanness in general, “the noun does not always refer to women but can refer to men, Gentiles, food, and objects, which indicates its meaning is not limited to a menstrual period” (Chankin-Gould 2008: 348).
The proper way of understanding Bathsheba’s purification in 2 Samuel 11:4 is in light of the Levitical law about sexual relations. Leviticus 15:18 says, “If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.” Thus, according to Frymer-Kensky (2202: 147), “When Bathsheba purifies herself, she is washing off the impurity that comes with all sexual relations, even licit ones. In our verse, the phrase does not refer back to the bath that she was taking when she was first introduced, but to postcoital purification.”
In conclusion, Bathsheba was forced to enter into a forbidden sexual relationship with David. As for Bathsheba’s act of purification one must ask whether she was purifying herself from her menstrual period or whether she was purifying herself after having sex with David. The Hebrew words used in the text to describe the events before and after the affair indicate that Bathsheba’s purification had nothing to do with her menstrual period.
Bathsheba was an innocent victim of an adulterous sexual affair and she tried to purify herself from the uncleanness of this illicit affair, but as Frymer-Kensky (2002: 147) said, “she can purify herself from the ordinary pollution of sexual intercourse, but the defilement of illicit sexuality is not so easily washed off.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Auld, A. Graeme. I & II Samuel. Old Testament Library. Louisville. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011
Chankin-Gould, J. D’ror et al., “The Sanctified ‘Adulteress’ and her Circumstantial Clause: Bathsheba’s Bath and Self-Consecration in 2 Samuel 11.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32.3 (2008): 339-352.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 2002.
Kautzsch, E., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. New York: Oxford University Press, 1910.