Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: Bathsheba by Angela Hunt

Bathsheba: Reluctant Beauty (A Dangerous Beauty Novel #2)
By: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1696-1


The story of David and Bathsheba is arguably one of the Bible’s most notorious tales. It has all the trappings of a contemporary soap opera – love and lust, secrets and murder. And all of this drama stems from the unlikeliest of sources – the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), the shepherd boy turned king, David. To believers David is often viewed as an unassailable paragon of virtue, one incapable of willfully being led astray by another man’s wife. And so setting aside any other possible truth, Bathsheba is all too often cast as a seductress, a woman who willingly sought to seduce the king and make her husband a cuckold. Scripture provides almost no insight into Bathsheba’s feelings during this episode – other than to say she mourned Uriah following his death (2 Samuel 11:26) – and much is assumed in the echoing silence. In film and fiction, even in a cursory reading of scripture, it is all too easy and tempting to romanticize David and Bathsheba’s relationship, because the alternative is too hard to comprehend. It is easier to view both as equal partners in adultery, overcome by passion, but historical reality paints a very different picture of the fateful night David summoned Bathsheba to his palace. In a patriarchal culture where women possessed little to no agency, as a woman alone, her husband away fighting the king’s war, Bathsheba would have had little if any recourse when faced with David’s demand for her body.

Hunt is the first novelist I’ve encountered to portray the result of Bathsheba’s summons into David’s presence as a rape. This novel strips their meeting of any vestige of romance, forbidden or otherwise, and leaves readers with the unvarnished, unsettling truth that no man or woman, no matter how revered as a titan of the faith, is incapable of committing a horrific act. And in so doing, Hunt delivers one of the most powerful, heart-rending depictions of the cost of sin and the restorative power of forgiveness that I’ve ever encountered outside the pages of scripture. This novel is unsettling in the best sense of the term, a difficult, challenging read that has stayed with me long after I finished the final page.

Little is known of Bathsheba’s life before or after her entry into David’s household. But given that she is one of only five women mentioned (though unnamed) in the lineage of Christ (Matthew 1:6), it is safe to assume that she is included for a greater reason than simply as a token adulteress. As a tob woman (one of extraordinary beauty and sensual appeal), Hunt takes the liberty of positioning Bathsheba as a woman destined for greatness from birth thanks to a prophetic word from Samuel, claiming that she would be “’mother to a great man’ and ‘affect the future of Is’rael.’” But far from craving power, Bathsheba is passionately in love with her warrior husband, and thus the position she is put in when David claims that to which he has no right is extraordinarily untenable. For not only is she the survivor of an assault, the king’s actions strip her of the life she once expected and hoped to live.

One of the things I appreciate most about this retelling of Bathsheba’s story is Hunt’s effort to place both the initial act and its cascading effects within the broader context of David’s reign and the socio-political challenges he faced during his rule. Although David attempted to conceal his sin, like all such acts they are not committed in a vacuum, and its affects would be felt long after the prophet Nathan unmasked his secret to the entire court (2 Samuel 12). In 2 Samuel 11:3 Bathsheba is identified as the daughter of Eliam, and several chapters later in 23:34, Eliam’s father is identified as Atithophel, who is also as one of David’s advisors in 2 Samuel 15. Atithophel chose to back Absalom’s revolt, a tragic and bloody episode that fulfilled Nathan’s prophesy that “the sword shall never depart” from David’s family as a consequence of his sin (2 Samuel 12:10). It is no great stretch to imagine that David's attack on Bathsheba and Uriah should give birth to her grandfather Atithopel’s desire for revenge against the king who dishonored his family. It’s a twist of deliciously Shakespearean proportions, a tragic example of the consequences of David’s sin bleeding far past the edges of his personal life.

If David can rape Bathsheba – and make no mistake, his position left her with no choice other than to do what was required to survive, and choosing survival does nothing to make the act consensual – how then does one reconcile such an unflinchingly honest portrayal of David at his worst with the psalmist and penitent, from whose lineage came the promised redeemer? Within these pages Hunt explores the concepts of forgiveness and redemption, wrought to an extent far beyond that which this reader’s finite understanding can only hope to understand. For out of David’s worst choice and Bathsheba’s worst day, God in His infinite mercy brought redemption the form of Solomon, the son who would fulfill his father’s dream of building a permanent house of worship, and Jesus, the Davidic messiah who would fulfill the promise of seeing David’s throne established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

I’ve long loved biblical fiction for its potential to illuminate familiar scriptures in fresh ways, but rarely have I ever been quite as moved by a retelling as with this novel. David’s attack against Bathsheba seems insurmountable, but despite the sin, despite the reality that sin has consequences, woven throughout this tale of violence and heartbreak is an unmistakable thread of forgiveness birthed by a holy grace. David is redeemed and forgiven not simply because he was discovered and repented, but through Bathsheba’s forgiveness – and thus he loved her most “’because…[she] forgave the most.’” As Nathan reminds Bathsheba, “’no pain exists without purpose, no grief without comfort.’” Living out one’s faith when life is easy is an entirely different proposition from living it out when life cuts to the quick. Reluctant Beauty is a gorgeously-rendered reminder that God can bring forth breathtaking beauty as He births redemption from the ashes of our failings. Bathsheba’s story is a crowning achievement for Hunt, that rare novel that not only entertains and informs but challenges and edifies, cutting to the raw, hidden places where we hide our worst secret selves and reminding us that even there, even then, redemption is possible.

About the book:

One of the Bible's most misunderstood and misjudged women, Bathsheba comes to life in this new biblical reimagining from Angela Hunt. Combining historical facts with detailed fiction, this is an eye-opening portrait that will have you reconsidering everything you thought you knew about her.

After receiving God's promise of a lifelong reign and an eternal dynasty, King David forces himself on Bathsheba, a loyal soldier's wife. When her resulting pregnancy forces the king to murder her husband and add her to his harem, Bathsheba struggles to protect her son while dealing with the effects of a dark prophecy and deadly curse on the king's household.