The Substitute Campaign: David and Bathsheba, Part II

Over two thousand baskets of food sent out, one to every wife of a soldier, just to provide cover for giving Bathsheba a pressed orchid. This was ridiculous. He had to stop taking next steps.

The next day, David was determined not to give anyone any reason to wonder about him, question his actions, or speculate about what might be going on in his mind, so he gathered all his advisors and finally dealt with all the people hanging around the palace looking for favors or decisions. He received messages from King Hiram of Tyre and King Nahash of Ammon and dictated measured responses in return. He made a decision on a land dispute between two villages, and eleven other disputes among village elders. They didn’t even break for the midday meal, but had food brought into the throne room and ate while they worked. He received reports on his fields, his flocks, his storeroom of taxes and gifts, and the level of water in all the pools and cisterns. By mid-afternoon, they’d managed to clear all available business.

David leaned back on his throne, his face glazed with sweat, feeling a sense of accomplishment he hadn’t in days. “Why don’t you all go home and rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, or even the day after that, if nothing comes up.”

His advisors barely had energy to smile at the idea that nothing might come up. The shuffle and scrape of their sandals on the floor was louder than their conversation, but David managed to hear one man say he was going home to pour a bucket of water over himself.

That’s all it took. David had thought about Bathsheba only two or three — or four — dozen times over the course of the morning. His mind produced a perfect image of her tipping a cup over her head, the water rolling over her skin. He gripped the armrests and tried to keep himself in the throne room, but it was futile. He somehow managed not to race to the roof.

She wasn’t there.

Of course she wasn’t there. It was the heat of the day. Only crazy people were up on their roofs where there was no shade. Disappointment knifed through him. He needed to see her again.

He scraped his fist against the stone of the parapet. He either had to stop looking for her, stop imagining her, or stop fooling himself.

Stop fooling himself, it was. He swept over to the guards at the tower and asked them to have Ahithophel and Abigail and his kitchen manager brought to him in his throne room. He waited, in a daze, in his private rooms until a servant told him everyone was assembled.

David smiled and held his arms open as he entered the room. “Thank you all for coming. Especially you,” he turned to Ahithophel. “After you left such a short while ago, I was thinking back to the good advice you gave me about the issue in Bethel. I thank the Lord for you, Ahithophel.” David had to clear his suddenly thick throat. It made him sound overcome, which his audience seemed pleased by, but he knew it wasn’t with gratitude: it was with guilt at bringing the Lord’s name into this mess. He swallowed hard and forged ahead. “You and your family have been faithful to me since before I was king of Judah.”

“My lord,” Ahithophel said. “It has always been our honor to serve Israel and her rightful king.”

“Now you have three generations involved. You at the palace and your son and the husband of your granddaughter in the Thirty. I’d like to bless you and your entire family by inviting you to dine with us at our family meal this week. Abigail, do you think we can handle a few more?”

Abigail was always ready to extend hospitality — a trait David was counting on. She smiled with genuine pleasure at him and then at Ahithophel. “Of course. So long as you understand that the king’s table at family dinner is different than it is for official business.”

David managed an easy-sounding laugh. “That’s an understatement. With all the talking and laughing and singing—”

“And bickering amongst the children,” Abigail added.

“Can’t forget that.” David winked at her. “My six wives will be there, along with around twenty of my children, so any number you bring will fit right in. How many is your family here in Jerusalem?”

“I’m overwhelmed, my lord.” Ahithophel bowed his head.

“Let’s not play the game of you refusing because your family is not ready or not worthy, and then I insist, and you refuse, and I insist, and finally you agree.” David clapped him on the shoulder, and let his hand rest there. “Let’s just get straight to the part where you tell me how many extra people to expect so my kitchen manager can plan accordingly.”

Ahithophel sighed. “With the army away, our number in Jerusalem is small. It’s just myself and my wife, Elias’s wife and three younger children, and Bathsheba, my granddaughter.”

David grinned. “We’ll expect you all here tomorrow evening.”

The next day, David flitted from one room to the next, ducking in and out of the servant’s hallways, practicing all possible routes. He took a bath, oiled his skin and hair, and changed his clothes four times, finally settling on his first royal robes, made after he became king of Judah. The red embroidery had faded, but the linen itself was so soft and smooth, it flowed like warmed olive oil over his skin. Then he warmed up his voice twice, hung about the kitchen to taste the food and had them changed three dishes, and fussed with the scented water bowls on the low table.

When the servants began filing in from their hallway with the food, he hurried back to his room. The king shouldn’t be the first one there. He waited, his back flat against the inside wall next to his door, and counted to two hundred before sauntering back to the dining room.

The room was in barely controlled chaos, which was good. He wasn’t prepared for the jolt of seeing Bathsheba this close. She was even more … everything in person. Her skin glowed and her hair was as dark as the night sky.

He didn’t know how long he’d stood there when Abigail walked up to him, put her hand on his upper arm and steered him towards his place at the middle of the table. She leaned close and whispered, “She’s beautiful.”

David frowned. “What? Who?”

Abigail gave a low chuckle. “I’ve been married to you long enough to know that look. Will we have to make more room in the family wing soon.”

The back of his neck burned as he shook his head. “She’s married.”

Abigail gave him a sharp glance. “You are an honorable man, my king.” She pinched under his bicep and squeezed until it stung. “Remember that.”

That took some of the bloom off his mood, enough that he could function like a normal host and father for most of the meal, although he couldn’t taste any of the dishes he’d been so obsessive about earlier.

Then one of the little ones put a lyre in his lap and asked him to play something pretty. He smiled at her and snuck a glance at Bathsheba, who was looking at his daughter with hunger and longing in her eyes. Hadn’t Ahithophel said something about Bathsheba complaining about wanting a child? He snorted. He knew exactly what his advisor had said about his granddaughter. His storeroom of information about her was small, so he’d gone over and over every item he had.

He strummed a few notes, but then his fingers stuttered. What could he play? He couldn’t sing his normal repertoire. They were all songs for the Lord. Seducing a married woman by singing about the Lord’s faithfulness was wrong. All he had left were silly kids’ songs and bawdy soldier numbers. His wives wouldn’t stand for the army material, so it had to be the other.

Bathsheba clapped and sang along. David played wilder and wilder songs, hoping she’d get up and dance with the children and two of his wives, but she didn’t. When two of the younger ones cracked their heads together, Abigail suggested he bring it down. He sang a song that was usually a lullaby, but all the words about letting go of your cares, about surrendering to the night, about laying down twisted in his mind and became about other things. He closed his eyes and sang for Bathsheba.

The youngest children were almost asleep when he finished and looked around. The mothers of the little ones picked them up and carried them away, ushering everyone under ten to the family wing. His guests looked like they were getting ready to go.

No. The evening couldn’t be over yet. “Now it’s tour time,” David said. He turned to Eliab’s wife. “My oldest two boys would love to lead your children on a tour of the secret passageways and we adults can have a more sedate tour of the palace. How about it?”

It turned out that they weren’t comfortable having their children running amok in the palace, so Bathsheba offered to go with them. In the end, David wasn’t sure how he’d managed to do it or whether he’d managed to do it gracefully, but he and Bathsheba were with the children, and Abigail was taking the adults away.

David let his oldest, Amnon, lead the way to the pillar closest to the table. The children grasped hands in a line and slipped into the dark behind a banner. David maneuvered so he was second last, his left hand clasped with a child and his right reaching out to Bathsheba.

She hesitated. “It’s dark in the hallway.”

“Put your trust in your king.” The children were yanking and yelling for them to come on, pulling him farther into the hallway. He gave it one more shot. “It’ll be fun. When’s the last time you did anything just for fun?”

She grabbed the ends of his fingers and let herself be dragged into the hallway. It got darker and darker as the boys snuffed out the lamps until there was nothing to see but slivers of light where the hidden entrances were. After that, it was a small matter to detach himself from the children and lag behind.

“Uh oh,” he said. “We’ve lost them.”

Her fingers tightened on his.

“Don’t worry.” He took her hand and tucked it under his forearm. “I know these passages as well as they do. It’s my palace after all.” He slowed his pace and edged her closer to his side. “You smell beautiful, like new rain.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

In the depths of the hallway, hemmed in by two walls of stone, it seemed like a different world, different enough that he could say, “Must be from all those baths you take.”

She stumbled. “My lord?”

His heart was trying to leap out of his throat. “Your roof is visible from my private rooms.”

She pulled her hand free and halted. He stepped towards her and she stumbled back, her breathing loud in the narrow hallway.

“You have nothing to fear, Bathsheba.” It was the first time he’d said her name out loud and it rolled off his tongue like a caress. “Let’s return to the others.”

“But.” He could barely hear her horrified whisper. “But I’ve bathed up there every day this week.”

“It has been the highlight of my evenings.”

“I was just doing my purifications,” she said. “I never thought—”

“Bathsheba.” David spoke gently and didn’t reach out to her, as much as he wanted to. “Do not be ashamed that the Lord made you beautiful.”

Her breathing quieted. “You won’t tell my husband?”

David lowered his voice. “It’ll be our little secret.”

She whimpered, so he acted like it was no big deal, grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the next entrance, where he made a big show of surprising the children there and making them scream. Then those children wanted to scare the other children, which David happily encouraged, as long as Bathsheba’s hand was nestled in his. Too soon, the other adults returned. The children were gathered and good-byes were made.

David glanced at her. She was giving him one of those sidelong looks with a little half smile. It set off a sandstorm inside him. He knew a welcoming look when he was on the receiving end of one.

He managed to keep his dignity, but that only lasted until he returned to his room. He summoned the guard who’d first found Bathsheba for him and told him to bring her to him at the kitchen courtyard door. It only took a moment to change into a plain dark brown tunic and travel through the servant’s hallways to wait in the shadows. He didn’t think he drew a complete breath until he saw her face in the moonlight. They didn’t speak to each other or to the guard, although David pressed some silver nuggets into his palm.

David took Bathsheba’s hand and waited as long as six steps in before he cupped the back of her head with his palm and kissed her. The wine and figs they ate earlier tasted even sweeter on her breath.

Stuck in the Palace: David and Bathsheba, Part I

[David is king of the united Israel, living in his palace in Jerusalem. His uncle Jonathan is one of his advisors.]

David stared, unseeing, straight ahead. He’d already passed through “pretending to listen” and had gone into “not listening,” but someone kept saying his name in a harsh whisper.

He blinked several times and turned his head toward the sound. It was Uncle Jonathan. “What?”

“Do you have anything to say to the messenger?”

“Oh. Yes.” David rotated his shoulders and tilted his head. No more letting his mind drift off. “Does Joab need me to send reinforcements?”

“No, my lord,” the messenger said. “This month’s rotation of tribal units is waiting a day’s travel away, and Joab hasn’t even called for them yet.”

David gouged a groove in the arm of his throne with his thumbnail. “So his message is that he has everything under control?”

The messenger glanced left at Jonathan and then right at nobody before repeating his spiel from earlier. “The siege at Rabbah is continuing. We don’t have a lot of experience with a long siege, but the commanders—”

“I was listening earlier,” David lied. “What do you think?”

“Think, my lord?”

“Yes.” David slid forward a bit. “Unless my nephew has sent a fool to run his errands, you will have an opinion, your own analysis of how the siege is going. I served in the ranks myself, at one time. I know how soldiers talk. So?”

The messenger looked to Jonathan again.

When had it gotten so David couldn’t talk with a fellow soldier?

“I asked a-” David smacked his palm on the throne, “simple question.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, he knew he was overreacting, that the messenger wasn’t the one frustrating him, but he couldn’t stop.

“My lord.” The messenger’s face turned red and he dropped onto one knee. “Forgive me.”

David addressed the linen banner hanging on the opposite wall. “All I wanted was the opinion of a man on the ground. Is that too much to ask?”

Uncle Jonathan cleared his throat. “King David has always listened to and learned from even the least of his soldiers. It’s one of the things that makes him such a great king.”

“Of course, of course.” The messenger stood. “It’s going as well as can be expected. Some of the foreign soldiers have experience with sieges so they’re always in with Joab and Benaiah.”

“And running off their mouths to the rest of you, I bet.” David quirked an eyebrow.

The messenger blinked rapidly and swallowed hard.

David somehow prevented himself from sighing. Everyone thought they had to be so dignified around him now. There was a time a soldier would’ve bust out laughing at such a dig against the mercenaries, and maybe shared a story or two. Those were good times.

“We’re learning so much.” The messenger sounded like an overeager child. “The outlying garrisons are sending us plenty of supplies. And there’s a water source a short walk away. The men feel confident. The Ammonites can’t outwait us.”

“Sounds like you don’t need me at all,” David muttered. He squeezed his temples. Of course they didn’t need him. He’d chosen each commander because of his expertise, ability to lead, and wisdom on the battlefield. Chosen them precisely because they didn’t need him. It’d be worse if they did need him. Wouldn’t it?

Jonathan stood. “Thank you for your report and your opinions. We’ll get a food bundle made up for your return trip tomorrow.” He ushered the man out of the room, but threw one questioning frown over his shoulder at David.

David wandered over to the wine table and poured himself a cup. His uncle returned and they circled each other at the table. With the rim at his lips, he said, “I should be there.”

“So that’s what this is all about.” Jonathan tugged the corner of the linen covering of the table.

“I should be in the field with my soldiers.” David drained the cup. “Not stuck in my palace, on my comfortable bed in my clean clothes, dealing with petty arguments and disputes and granting royal favors to rich people.”

“Do I need to tell you the story of–”

“No,” David said. “I know it was smart strategy to put the garrisons in the north and it shows trust in my men that I don’t have to be there for every campaign—”

“But you’re itching to go, like when you were fifteen.”

David swirled the dregs in the bottom of the cup. “Guess I haven’t changed that much.”

Jonathan humphed. “You’ve changed plenty. Why else do you think you’re here instead of there?”


It used to be that doing his duty meant being in the thick of the action. Now it meant sitting around. Uncle Jonathan was right, he was itching. In fact, his skin was crawling at the idea of spending the rest of the day in careful conversation. “Call off the jackals and the foxes for the rest of the day. I’m done.”

His uncle said some stuff about David needing to do something constructive, but he wasn’t listening. Maybe he’d visit one of his wives. That’d put him in a better mood. He clasped his hands behind his back and headed towards the private quarters.

Of course, being with one of his wives would mean being subjected to complaints about the other women, or sly requests for privileges, or pointed observations about how he didn’t see her as often as he used to. Except Abigail. But she wanted to have real conversations about how he was doing, especially when something was bothering him, and she could always tell when someone was. He didn’t need that kind of pressure today.

A nap? If he could sleep now, during the heat of the day, when he awoke in the cooler early evening, things would be better, clearer.

When he got to his room, he unwound his mantle, took off his robe, his armlets and his crown and curled up on his side on his mat. His room was stifling. He got up and threw open his shutters. No breeze. He opened his mouth top bellow for a servant to fan him while he slept, but he didn’t want even that much company. Instead, he pulled his tunic over his head and lay down, spread-eagled, on his mat in just his loincloth.

It was so quiet. The army wasn’t in town, so there was no noise of soldiers marching or training, no officers trash-talking each other and boasting about their unit’s prowess. No Joab galumphing around the palace.

The farmers and merchants had packed up after the morning’s business, so there was no haggling to be heard, no cart wheels rolling, no donkeys braying. Even the birds must’ve been resting in shady spots. There was nothing to keep him awake.

Except all that silence. It was distracting. He kept cataloguing all the things he wasn’t hearing.

He flipped over onto his stomach. In the field, he’d always been able to sleep, even on the night before a battle, when his heart would be pounding and his blood churning and his mind going over and over the battle plan. Even then he’d always been able to get rest.

The only time he hadn’t been able to sleep was when King Saul had made him play all night long because Saul couldn’t sleep. Lack of rest had to be part of what had made Saul so paranoid and volatile. That’s why David lived  as righteous a life as possible: so there was nothing to keep him awake. “Adonai, give me rest. Don’t let me wind up like Saul.”

When David was conscious of himself again, the sun was blasting through his western windows, beaming on his face and chest. He awoke covered in a film of sweat, wrinkling his nose at his own scent and at the sour taste in his mouth.

He rolled onto all fours to avoid the glare of the sun and then staggered to the bench that had a bowl of cassia water on it, soaked a cloth with the liquid, and swiped it over his exposed skin.

Air was what he needed. Maybe the early evening breeze had sprung up.

He glanced at his tunic and robe but rejected them. The idea of putting on even those thin and fine linen clothes was abhorrent. The chance of anyone looking up at the palace roof at the exact moment he was there and recognizing him was slim.

There was slight movement of air on the roof, very slight. Not enough to cool the skin, but just enough to feel like the stroke of a soft hand.

He leaned against one of the taller pillars of the parapet, holding his hair off the back of his neck, looking down over Jerusalem.

People were still not out and about in the streets, for the most part. Wisps of smoke curled up, so some women must be at their ovens. Groups of people were huddled under the broad atad trees near some of the threshing floors outside the walls. Snippets of a woman’s voice drifted up to him; it sounded more like melodic sighing than like any song that David recognized. It was entrancing.

Where was that singer? He searched the rooftops below him until he saw her. Maybe it wasn’t her, but the song was suddenly the last thing on his mind. This woman was bathing on the roof of her house, lifting her hair off the back of her neck, just like David was. Her back was turned to him. Now she was squeezing water from a cloth onto her skin. Her skin that was naked.

David stalked across the length of his roof until he was as close to her as he could get from the palace. Who was she? If he got the layout of the city right, the house was in the professional army section. So she’d be alone and lonely without her soldier.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. Those were not the kind of thoughts he should have.

His eyelids popped open.

She was still there, except she had turned. Now he could see her from the side.

He gripped the parapet with both hands, the stone scraping his skin. It felt like his heart was trying to leap out of his chest towards that woman, that beautiful woman. He needed the rough stone digging into his palms, needed the pain to interrupt the direction his imagination was taking him.

He pushed himself back and walked resolutely down the stairs to his private quarters. He had to put his clothes and his royal items back on. That would remind him who he was and what kind of thoughts and what kind of behaviors were expected of him. The fabric was rough against his sensitized skin, but that punishment felt right.

He headed for the door, but the south facing windows caught him. He couldn’t stop himself from looking out. Her arms were stretched to the sky. All of her was exposed to his gaze and his breath flew away.

He tore himself away from the window and walked in a daze toward the lower, public areas of the palace. Halfway down the upper hallway, he came across two of his guards with their heads half out a window. A south facing window. They were so engrossed that he snuck up behind them and clapped, startling them into cracking their heads together.

He couldn’t bring himself to yell at them, because he was just as guilty. “You were watching her, too?”

The taller one blinked hard and shook his head and denied knowing what the king was talking about, but the shorter one gave David a curious look. He was the one David took aside.

“Do you live in the army section of the city or in the barracks at the fortress?” David asked.

“In the barracks, my lord.”

David glanced at the solid wall in the direction of the woman. “Do you know who she is?”

“No, my lord.”

“Find out. She must be in the household of one of my officers. Beautiful as she may be, I don’t want anyone to bring dishonor to my forces.” How David managed to say that with a straight face, he didn’t know. His order had nothing to do with avoiding dishonor.

“Yes, my lord. Right away.”

“Shh.” David hauled him back within whispering distance. The words, “Bring her to me,” almost left his tongue, but he wasn’t a pagan king. He was the shepherd of the people of God. “Let’s keep this quiet. I don’t need every soldier begging to guard the city side of the palace.”

When the evening meal was almost over, the soldier came back to him: she was Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah.

David excused himself from the table without finishing and took an oil lamp up to the roof. He sat between two of the teeth with his feet dangling over the side, staring in the direction he saw Bathsheba in earlier. Bathsheba.

This was complicated. Eliam and Uriah were both in the Thirty. She was the daughter of one of his most elite fighters and the wife of his most loyal and skilled Hittite mercenary. The connection with Eliam meant she was also the granddaughter of Ahithophel, one of his most trusted advisors. Which added up to someone he couldn’t trifle with.

He bumped the side of his head against the stone. When had this turned from a vague fantasy to something he was actually considering? It was wrong. And now that he knew who her family was, it was all tangled up. Nothing could happen. Nothing should happen.