Bathsheba Survives by Sara M. Koenig
A comprehensive overview of how, throughout history, Christians have read all 76 verses of Bathsheba’s narrative in every way imaginable
By Sara M. Koenig
Reviewer: Amanda Higgin
Koenig’s book, which has developed from her dissertation, is a good introduction to reception history for those interested in an overview of its methods and concerns. Using Bathsheba’s narrative as a case study, particularly the infamous bathing scene from 2 Samuel 11, Koenig lays out the various methods with which Christians through the ages have read the Bible. Some see Bathsheba as the victim of David’s power, some as a sinful seductress, and others treat her as a piece of scenery in David’s story. Koenig maps how these interpretations shift and change, influenced both by the prevailing culture and by the medium in which the story is explored.
For those who have not engaged with the study of reception history before, Bathsheba Survives is an excellent starting point. The very limited scope of the biblical material makes it easier to comprehensively overview its many interpretations: Bathsheba appears in only 76 verses of the Bible. She features in 4 chapters of David’s story in Samuel and Kings, is mentioned briefly in the superscription of Psalm 51, and is merely alluded to in Matthew’s genealogy: ‘David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife’.
Koenig takes this sparse material and point out all its gaps. These gaps invite interpretation, motivating people to elaborate on Bathsheba’s motives or what kind of bath she took. Different readers throughout history fill these gaps in their own, very different, ways. Koenig maps this interpretation from the sermons of the Church Fathers, through medieval prayer books, all the way to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Veggie Tales.
For those who are already familiar with reception history, however, Koenig’s short book can be frustratingly sparse. She covers such a wide timespan and enumerates so many examples that her study seems exhaustive, yet she fits in this breadth of material at the expense of examining it in depth. I would have liked to have seen choice examples examined, interrogated, and compared against the reception of different times and genres in order to show what is particular about each example. While you close this book with a thorough knowledge of how Bathsheba survives through the centuries, you still lack understanding of that reception’s significance.
I recommend Bathsheba Survives for anybody interested in the kind of overview that it provides, a bird’s-eye reconnaissance of the whole span of Bathsheba’s reception. For those interested in Bathsheba herself, Koenig provides an admirably thorough treatment of her every appearance, every character she has been made to play by those retelling her story. This broad sweep is an eye-opener for anybody unfamiliar with the variety of biblical interpretation.
Amanda Higgin is a pastoral assistant at Wallingford Baptist Church, recent Theology graduate and prospective ministerial student