Not a love story

Back in 1951, 20th Century Fox released David and Bathsheba, a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward in the title roles. The opening screens tried to create the impression that the story was historically accurate, based on 2 Samuel. But in truth, the biblical narrative doesn’t give a screenwriter a lot to work with in terms of detail. The description that runs from David’s first sight of Bathsheba to the news that she’s pregnant with his child, for example, takes up all of four verses in the Bible.

Thus, Philip Dunne’s Oscar-nominated screenplay had to take liberty with the story to fill in the blanks.

Lots of liberty. Dunne deserves credit for working hard to incorporate biblical texts into the script. In one scene, for example, David plucks at a harp (and it looks like Peck actually learned to play the thing) while reciting Psalm 23 to Bathsheba. But along the way, Dunne reorders scenes from Scripture and, of course, adds many scenes that tell the story he wants to tell.

What the 1950s Hollywood movie-machine gave us, essentially, was a love story — and more specifically, a romantic comedy. I don’t mean “comedy” in the sense of humor, but in the literary sense of the shape of the story itself: boy meets girl; boy loses girl (well, almost); boy and girl are miraculously reunited for the requisite reversal of the otherwise tragic plot line, so we can all have our happy ending.

The characters have to be redrawn for the story to work. Dunne’s David is a disillusioned and dispirited king who no longer believes in the God of his childhood faith. His wife Michal is portrayed one-dimensionally as a nag who resents David’s low-brow background, and David admits he no longer loves her. Similarly, Bathsheba is portrayed as stuck in a loveless marriage with Uriah, David’s comrade-in-arms, a man who prefers the glory of the battlefield to the comfort of home. At one point, she tells David that she had seen him walking listlessly about his palace, and wanted him to notice her. That’s why she bathed out in the open: to catch his eye.

Together, these two lost souls find each other and revel in their love. David, in particular, will do anything to keep that love, including engineer Uriah’s death by putting him at the forefront of the siege of the Ammonite city of Rabbah. Interestingly, though, Dunne makes this Uriah’s idea: he so longs for glory in battle that he volunteers to go where the fight is hardest. How convenient for David: all he has to do is add a note to Joab to pull back the other warriors so that Uriah is left fighting the Ammonites on his own.

The effect of all of this is not to ignore David’s sin, but to downplay it, to locate it in the context of the crazy, stupid things we do for love. In the end, even God gets in on the act. At first, he punishes all of Israel for David’s sin by causing sandstorms and drought (in the biblical text, God’s wrath is upon David’s house, not the people). David, wanting to spare his beloved Bathsheba a death by stoning for her adultery, falls repentantly before the ark of the covenant, and asks that God take his life instead. He lays his hands on the ark, expecting God to strike him dead. Instead, God gives him a vision of faithful person he once was: the shepherd boy who was anointed by Samuel and who slayed Goliath. Rain begins to fall; the drought is ended. David emerges from the tent with his faith restored and is reunited with Bathsheba.

It’s true that David’s reawakening is part of the happy ending. But in the context of the script, it’s as if this is what is needed to engineer the real happy ending: Bathsheba will not die, and she and David can be together, presumably to live happily ever after.

Cue the orchestra; roll credits.

. . .

The movie may be 70 years old, but the script exemplifies the enduring controversy over how one should understand David’s behavior toward Bathsheba. Again, there’s not a lot to work with in the story we’re given in 2 Samuel 11. But the chronicler of the story seems at pains to tell us that Bathsheba wasn’t taking a bath out in the open; she was “purifying herself after her period” (2 Sam 11:4, NRSV). In other words, she was engaging in a ritual cleansing from her monthly uncleanness — an act of faithfulness. This is not a “bath” in the sense that we understand it, and there is nothing in the text itself that requires we see her as trying to tempt David.

Imagine Bathsheba being summoned to the palace and being approached by the king for sexual favors, while her husband is away at war. Could she have fought him off? Maybe. But at what cost to herself, or possibly her husband? She is in an untenable situation with the most powerful man in the land.

Moreover, if you read the accusation brought against David by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:1-9, you will find nothing about the guilt of Bathsheba, only the guilt of David. God had given David everything, and would have been pleased to give him more — and still David selfishly abused his power to take something that did not belong to him, committing both murder and adultery in the process.

David had been caught red-handed in an egregious string of sins. And all of this is prelude to our consideration of Psalm 51, which we’ll begin looking at in the next post.