The Woman at the Well

The Woman at the Well March 29, 2014

My friend and colleague Charles Allen shared the following as part of an e-mail:

John’s Gospel doesn’t really say that much about her, but that hasn’t stopped preachers and listeners from letting their imaginations run wild. After all, she’s had five husbands, and now she’s living with a man out of wedlock. So it’s been easy to jump to the conclusion that she’s been doing a lot of bed hopping.But the Gospel doesn’t tell us that. We do know that she lived in a day when women were men’s property—if she didn’t belong to her father, she had to belong to a husband, and nobody would have thought to ask her what she wanted. You can be pretty sure that she didn’t get to pick any of her five husbands. We don’t know how she lost them either, but we know that it wasn’t her choice. And if the man she was living with now didn’t want to take responsibility for her and marry her, there wasn’t much she could do about it. So don’t assume that she’s guilty of loose living.On the other hand, she’s still a woman with lots of strikes against her. The events in her life don’t look good on a resume, and she wouldn’t want to share them with a total stranger.

I thought I should share it, since very often the woman is viewed through a different cultural lens, and the character of her life misunderstood as a result. This happens quite often with other texts too. How frequently people think Bathsheba had a choice whether to go with King David's men (some even twist the text to depict her as bathing on her rooftop to entice him!), and that Hagar had a choice whether to be Sarah's slave and then Abraham's wife. If we fail to study how ancient cultures that were the environments of the Biblical authors functioned, there is so very much that we will inevitably misunderstand.


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  • Indeed, that other scriptural example of a woman with many husbands wasn’t exactly her fault either (Tobit 7.11)…

  • Just Sayin’

    The Bathsheba story does give the strong impression of being pre-planned though.

    • In what sense? That she planned to purify herself after her monthly period as the law required? Or that David planned to gaze at women who were purifying themselves, making use of the view afforded by his palace roof?

      • Just Sayin’

        Seems unlikely that she would innocently bathe naked somewhere where she must have known she could be seen by the lecherous king.

        Maybe she was already pregnant with Uriah’s baby. Or, if not that, then she knew quite well when she was most fertile and therefore what was likely to happen.

        It’s just like a storyline out of Dynasty or Dallas really . . .

        • Wherever the ritual baths were, I suspect that it was the king who arranged to have a view of them, not vice versa. You seem to be imagining that she was having a private bath in her own tub, and decided to display herself to the king. That doesn’t reflect the realities of life in this part of the world in ancient times. But it does, I dare say, reflect a penchant to prefer reading Dallas into the Bible over reading it a historically contextual manner.

          • Just Sayin’

            I still smell a rat.

            Have you read Joel Baden’s ‘The Historical David’ or Steven McKenzie’s ‘King David: A Biography’? They smell a rat too!

          • I know that you are not alone in adopting this view. But why would a woman engaging in a purification ritual that all women in that society were required to engage in make you think that she was somehow hoping the king would see her from his rooftop?

          • Just Sayin’

            I find Joel Baden’s scenario (Historical David, pp. 222-230) quite persuasive.

          • So do I. But it nowhere suggests that it wasn’t the case that David took Bathsheba with no consideration of her will. Perhaps you are thinking of a different book, or perhaps you have read your own assumptions into it?

          • Just Sayin’

            I think she may already have been pregnant via Uriah, and that the baby may have been Solomon. If either or both of those is the case, that further suggests to me that she orchestrated events at least to some extent, rather than be a helpless victim.

            The fact that Uriah was extremely uneager to “wash his feet” with Bathsheba or even sleep in the same house as her (I know there’s an explanation for that, but I suspect there may have been more going on) also suggests to me that she was an actor in the drama rather than a helpless chess piece.

          • It doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Baden points to this as a reason why the story may have been told by later supporters of the Davidic dynasty. He does not anywhere suggest that the story be read as though the TV show Dynasty were an appropriate guide to its cultural matrix. So far you have not offered any evidence to support your view.

          • Just Sayin’

            That’s fine. But the fact that she bathed, presumably naked, where she must have known the lecherous king could see her, doesn’t trigger your Spidey senses at all?

          • She would have bathed wherever the (ritual) bath was, where other women also bathed. Are you imagining that she has her own personal tub and water supply, and is deciding where to put it based on where it would be visible from the palace, and waited until she saw the king on the roof of the palace (with the spyglass she invented, years ahead of her time) before quickly pushing said tub outdoors and jumping into it naked?

            It seems to me that you have given zero thought to what your scenario entails in any sort of detail and with zero concern for cultural or historical plausibility.

            It is certainly possible that women in the community had become aware that the king had constructed his palace in such a way that it gave him a view of their bath. That would still have been a strike against the king, not against them. That would still not have allowed them to know when the king was looking until it was too late to do anything about it one way or the other.

          • Just Sayin’

            How do you know there was a communal bath? Presumably in this primarily rural society a communal bath would have been an unusual way of performing the individual purification rite. So surely you need some sort of justification for positing it? Of course, it MAY be so, but is it any more than supposition?

            I’m suggesting that it was more likely that she bathed in her own home, probably with water from a vessel she’d carried there herself.

            “It is certainly possible that women in the community had become aware that the king had constructed his palace in such a way that it gave him a view of their bath.”

            Again I have to ask: What communal bath? The one you are supposing must have existed in order to fit your scenario and make it plausible, or one that, ideally, archaeologists have found near the old palace? if the latter, I concede defeat!

          • “How do you know there was a communal bath?” Are you being purposefully trollish, or do you really know ZERO about Hebrew culture, and not just of the Biblical time?

            (I posted this above, but related so it would be in the right place in the thread.)

          • Just Sayin’

            I replied above.

          • I always bathe naked. Isn’t that how it’s done?

            Seriously, I’m with McGrath here. I find it far more likely that the king built his palace (or part of it) with an eye to its being convenient to the mikvah (yes, pun intended).

            If, in fact, Bathsheba is doing her post-menstrual bathing (which is a HUGE possibility, even though it’s not mentioned as such), of course she was becoming fertile. That’s kind of the point of that whole thing.

            Why are we blaming the victim here, in any event? That’s just wrong.

          • What he’s doing seems to me to be even worse than blaming the victim. It is denying that the victim is a victim. It is the equivalent of saying that, if a rape victim failed to adequately pull her curtains at some point, she was enticing the peeping tom who later raped her. The fact that Bathsheba, in this society, ends up becoming the wife of David, fits Biblical law regarding rape victims, and that is just one more illustration of how different things were then than what we consider moral now. That someone makes the best of her situation in such a patriarchal society does not mean that the way that society works is not a problem.

          • Michael Wilson

            In accordance with his name, I think ‘just sayin’ is saying thing that are offensive and then trying to pass it off as pointing out troubling truths. As is typical with any thing punctuated with, “just sayin'” it is really just offensive rooty poo that reflects no truth. David’s viewing of Bathsheba and the woman at the well are fictional epidodes, so to much research into the background for additional interpretation isnt needed. I think we can assime something was amiss about David’s relationship with Bathsheba but how she came to David’s attention cannot be known. The device the author used would have been familliar to the ancient audience though. Privacy was in short supply so as shamefull as it was, catching people in various states of exposure probably happened a lot.

            Regarding the woman at the well, I suspect that the inventor of this story did want to convey that this was a woman low morals, but the sexism of the time, which the author likely subscribes to at some level did not do a good job in assighning fault. Much as in some less enlightened socities now, divorced women and raped women were assumed to be immoral ones. Jesus here doesnt seem to challange whether we see her as a lowly woman but that in his kingdom lowly women are no less than great men. The past has no grip on those present in the kingdom.

          • Fictional episodes? I’m not at all convinced. While I think a great many Biblical stories are in fact fictional, these have a ring of truth to them.

            Maybe it’s because they’re about women, and given the paucity of stories about women in general, I’m more likely to believe the ones that are there.

            But if you have materials to support that idea, I would be interested in reading them. (I’m not being snarky here, just so you know.)

          • Michael Wilson

            Well, I should say that I can’t prove the episodes are fictional. But I do think we can’t put any confidence in
            their historicity. Starting with the woman at the well, the story is suspect because Jesus is depicted as clairvoyant which is a quality I doubt people have. Maybe it was a lucky guess, but those are rare so I tend to regard that
            sort coincidence as more likely being invention. I also don’t put a lot of weight on the ability of people to listen to a particular occurrence of Jesus
            talking to someone and then having that particular account be faithfully remembered and written down decades later. And I think it is clear that John is not above inventing episodes for Jesus to make a
            point. Jesus probably talked to women at wells and said profound things but I think the author of this pericope more
            likely just took an example of the sort of thing Jesus would do and then inserted her/his own dialog to convey a message they thought Jesus would endorse.

            On David and Bathsheba, I suspect that people did bath on roofs, since ordinarily that would provide more privacy than inside the house under most circumstance, and water would readily collect in a tub on the roof. I also think that there was something scandalous about David and Bathsheba’s relationship since the clearly pro David
            author would not have included this notice unless he thought it was true and in a small town like Jerusalem I don’t think such a rumor would have been allowed
            to circulate unless it was undeniable. In all probability at the least a discrepancy about the time of Uriah’s death and the birth of Bathsheba’s child would have
            made it undeniable that something was up, and possibly David’s servants may have known details or perhaps Uriah’s acquaintances may have suspected that there
            was something wrong with David’s treatment of him. Now the question is who knew the details of how David met Bathsheba and how the writer of this story got them. I doubt that any official report was made of the
            incident at the time or private notes. So we are dealing with what would be to the author hearsay and second hand reports, since I don’t think this story was
            written until after the time of Solomon. Now as written, the story has a certain simple romance, a man seeing a beautiful woman bath and being smitten by Eros and all. For the audience, they may have taken this to mean that David could hardly control himself, so wasn’t totally
            vile and Solomon’s mother was just a victim of circumstance so cannot be blamed. But I have no way of knowing if this took place or if David encountered
            Bathsheba by other means, the author, even if using an existing tradition wouldn’t have been in a position to fact check it either. I think it is better to take this story as fiction or at most hearsay than to try and use it as
            evidence to do an investigation into the nature of David and Bathsheba’s relationship.

          • Just Sayin’

            No, I haven’t said any of those things. I’m attempting to put some flesh on a typical OT bare bones narrative, where motivations are not specified. There are different ways to do this, including yours and mine.

          • “I’m not blaming the victim; I’m wondering if she *was* a victim.” Those are your words, so yes, you have said those things.

            And, seriously, “How do you know there was a communal bath?” Are you being purposefully trollish, or do you really know ZERO about Hebrew culture, and not just of the Biblical time?

          • Just Sayin’

            Well, please tell me how *you* know there was a communal bath below the king’s palace, upon which much of Dr. McGrath’s scenario rests? The text doesn’t mention one and neither do any of the (admittedly few) books I’ve read on this story.

          • What you need to research to understand why this seems obvious to others but not to you is whether ordinary people had baths in their homes, or whether bathing was something communal in this time and place.

          • Just Sayin’

            Are you saying that all bathing at this time and in this region was communal bathing?

            The (again, admittedly little) I’ve read about the Bathsheba story postulates that she was bathing in the courtyard of her home. E.g. Friedman & Dolansky, The Bible Now, p. 96: “The setting fits with the excavation of the City of David in which we participated. The city stands on a steep hillside, with the best housing, which presumably included the king’s residence, located at the highest elevation. So the king could look down from his roof at the *homes* below.”

          • For people who were not among the very wealthy elite, definitely. I have never seen a home that did not belong to royalty from this part of the world and within a millennium of this period which had its own bath. I suppose that one could make the case that Uriah was of such a high status that he would have had a private bath. But then that would simply make it unlikely that Bathsheba would have needed to go out publicly to bathe where David could see her. So I don’t see how that would help your thesis.

          • Just Sayin’

            How did menstruating women way up in Judean hill farms fulfil the Law every month?

          • That is why most communities had a mikveh in later times. Whether, in David’s time, the purification rituals that became normative in later times were already being followed is impossible to say. But baths for communal use existed in many ancient societies, even those without the concern for ritual purity.

          • Just Sayin’

            Hmmm… with respect, you didn’t answer my question!

            You may well be right in your interpretation, but in my view the story is so vaguely told in terms of motivations and inner dispositions that multiple interpretations are both possible and plausible.

            For example, I’ll cite one view that’s very different from yours (I think). In her book ‘Unprotected Texts’, in a chapter entitled ‘The Bible and the Joy of Sex’, Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust, Prof. of Religion at Boston University, writes:

            “When David spies the beautiful Bathsheba bathing, he invites her for a sexual rendezvous in the palace, though he already had many other wives to enjoy. … In these biblical passages, sexual longing refuses to be limited to the love between a husband and a wife.” (p. 24).

            I don’t see it quite like that myself. I agree with you that there are very very unequal power relations going on and not just sexual frolics. But Knust’s scenario is plausible enough for consideration, in my opinion.

          • Again, I’m not seeing in Knust any hint of the idea that Bathsheba was somehow responsible for enticing David. We can obviously speculate about whether David sent troops or a messenger with flowers, and how Bathsheba felt about the latter or the former. But the very fact that nothing about Bathsheba’s feelings or even consent is mentioned tells us that such things were generally not concerns of men in the society that told this story.

          • Just Sayin’

            To take another scholar pretty much at random: Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament, refers to this story as “David’s affair with Bathsheba.” (his blog post today). Affair implies mutuality.

            What Knust is indicating is also some sort of mutuality (her “joy of sex” approach exemplifies this), rather than the forcing of Bathsheba against her will i.e. rape that you seem to be envisaging.

            But the text doesn’t say either way, any more than it says communal baths or courtyard bathing, so we could be debating this till the end of time!

          • Indeed, the text does not say a great many things, and thus we need to fill in the background with what we know of the historical and cultural context. One can speculate that Uriah was a really awful husband and that Bathsheba had a serious crush on David if one wants to. But there is no evidence for that, as far as I am aware. And so what I am saying is that, at the very least, a reading that takes seriously that this ancient context was not one in which women lived lives like in a modern soap opera needs to at the very least be considered seriously.

          • Just Sayin’

            I’ll throw one more reference into the pot. I don’t have access to this scholarly work but you probably do. All I have is a quote from it:
            “Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, was taking a full body bath, possibly in her courtyard, when David, who was on the roof of his house, saw her and liked her.” Oded Borowski, Daily Life in Biblical Times, Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

            The courtyard of her home seems quite plausible to me.

          • And that is within the realm of possibility. Is taking a bath on one’s own property inappropriate?

          • Just Sayin’

            My point is that it sounds to me a more plausible scenario than your communal baths hypothesis.

            Bathsheba’s motives “are… suppressed”, as Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, Professors of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies and of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, put it (The Meaning of the Bible, p. 58). As they explain:

            “The narrator… does not tell us what Bathsheba was thinking. Did she know that David took his afternoon constitutional on the palace roof at the same time each day? When he saw her, had she seen him? Had she planned for him to see her? Was her reaction upon being summoned worry (had the king news of her husband’s death?), pride (did she think Uriah had acquitted himself heroically in battle?), or satisfaction (got him!)?”

            I am in complete agreement with these two respected scholars on this and I think they sum it up admirably. These are unanswerable questions and I think we have to leave it at that, as we simply don’t know, and will never know, the answers. Hence, in my view, we cannot say one way or the other if the David-as-rapist or the Bathsheba-as-seductress scenario is right or wrong, or if it was some other scenario entirely. Personally, as often in real life, I suspect that it was probably neither extreme.

          • But why does it seem more plausible? Because it better fits the historical context, or because it better fits what seems normal to you in your own historical and cultural context?

            You seem not to notice that Bathsheba’s will is pretty much entirely ignored in the narrative. The entire story is about how David wronged another man by taking his property – as is highlighted in the parable Nathan tells.

          • Just Sayin’

            Yes, I (as a non-scholar with limited reading) am persuaded by those scholars I’ve read who favour a “bathing in her courtyard” scenario as historically probable.

            Bathsheba’s will is as “suppressed” (ignored) by the narrator as her motivations! We simply don’t know because the story simply doesn’t say!

          • Okay, first, I’d like to apologize for insinuating you were behaving like a troll. I often forget that everyone is coming from a different place, and not everyone has the same background.

            A “mikvah” or ritual bath was probably one of the first structures built in any town or village. The mikvah is always communal, though women did not enter it together. It would definitely have been constructed before David’s palace. It was used not only for women, but also for purifying vessels and eating utensils, and even bridegrooms! Because one of the stipulations of these baths was that the water could not be gathered, such as from a well. Hence, they were often located on rooftops, where the water would be rainwater. (You can Google a lot of this. I would lean toward Jewish sites. Christian sites, especially Evangelical ones, often spin Jewish customs in ways which are not relevant to actual Jewish practice.)

            The custom of bathing at all, in a relatively arid location, is quite unusual. Ordinary people (obviously the very wealthy were different, but I’m guessing probably not) did not have baths in their homes, for the simple reason that it took too much water. Water that was more useful for crops and livestock. I’m pretty sure the Hebrews were thought strange for this practice of bathing, especially since, for the purification to be valid, the body had to be fully immersed. That’s a lot of water.

            Using an argument like, “the text doesn’t mention it,” isn’t a very good way to establish authority, though lots of people do it, often with good intentions. For example, Genesis never mentions Adam and Eve’s use of toilet facilities…

            I have no idea about the how readily accessible a university library is for you, but you can even just Google “Bathsheba Mikvah” and see the plenitude of articles supporting the assertion that Bathsheba was, in fact, performing her post-menstrual obligations. That so many of these articles (often written by Jewish women) rely on what I like to call “the d’oh factor,” gives even more credence to this. When it’s your culture, and this is the natural assumption you’re making, those of us in the different culture would be wise to start from that premise.

            I hope this is helpful.

          • Another point I’d like to make here is that we really are not at all sure of how well informed “primitive” people in this part of the world were about such matters as women’s fertile times and how any of that affected conception and pregnancy. We can’t assume that Bathsheba (or any other woman) had any clue about such things. Especially given the constant Biblical ideas about God being the one who “opens the womb” and other such metaphors.

            In fact, it was only in the 20th century that Western doctors were able to decipher the mysteries of conception. Medical writings of the late 1800s (even the most reputable) are rife with nonsense. Even with some latitude given for the self-awareness of a very savvy woman, it seems unlikely that Bathsheba had all that much knowledge.

          • Guess I’m responding to myself! LOL

          • Just Sayin’

            Yes, they didn’t know how it worked, but I think they were well aware of monthly fertility peaks.

          • Based on what? Because scholarly research into contraceptive practices even as late as as the early years of the 1900s points to a complete lack of understanding on that very thing. It seems so obvious now (women who go to the hospital for “back pain” only to find themselves new moms notwithstanding), but you can’t have contraception if you don’t get conception. And they didn’t.

            I would be quite intrigued to read scholarly works to the contrary, as this is an area of great interest to me.

          • Just Sayin’

            The point of the post-menstruation/ ritual bathing details are to establish Bathsheba’s fertility i.e. that the child was David’s. But we well might wonder how the authors of the story knew these details about Bathsheba’s private life!

          • No, we only see it that way now, because we understand the mechanics behind conception.

            Really, the point of the ritual details is to establish that she wasn’t already pregnant. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have needed to perform this ritual. And that she was actually Jewish, since she was the wife of a Hittite.

            As to how the authors knew that she had accomplished this. Well, since women were totally unclean from the onset of their menses, they couldn’t participate in, basically, anything. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out if some lady in the community hasn’t been outdoors for a couple of weeks, and then is seen in the market, or even just cooking, what she’s been up to.

          • Just Sayin’

            I think we know where the palace was, on the highest part of the city (small town by modern standards). So, yes, he could see most things from his flat roof.

            I’m not blaming the victim; I’m wondering if she *was* a victim. In lots of OT stories there is more going on than meets the eye. Scholars take various positions on this passage: that Uriah was the real father (meaning, no, she wasn’t doing post-menstrual bathing), that the baby was really Solomon, and so on. They have reasons for postulating these things, none of which are specified in the story itself.

          • But the scholarly discussion you mention is addressing the possibility that the author is trying to hide the fact that Solomon was Uriah’s son rather than David’s by rewriting history. The reasons why an author might emphasize the things you mention does not amount to evidence that things happened that way.

  • guest

    Bathsheba would most likely have been raped by David, he certainly could have applied a lot of pressure on her, being the king and all.

    Women were treated appallingly in Biblical times. That God never speaks out against their treatment is a strike against his ‘goodness’, in my mind.

    • Anne Weeks

      About to agree with you, until the last sentence. God often speaks out against abuse of women – eg Malachi 4 “I hate when a man covers his wife with violence”.