I had not realised just how powerful my mother was until I saw my half-brother Absalom swinging by his hair from the thorn tree. He had tried to seize the throne from King David, our mutual father, but Joab, the King’s captain, had decisively defeated his forces. Absalom had fled on his mule and in a bold move had ridden the beast at speed under the low branches of some thorn trees. If he had succeeded he would have delayed his pursuers sufficiently to make good an escape. I think that his hair – that beautiful hair which made the maidens sigh and of which he was so proud – fell into his eyes as he crouched low on the mule’s neck. The movement to toss it back was probably quite involuntary and so it was he had become entangled.
He was crying with pain when we came up to him and perhaps also with humiliation and fear. The boughs were springy and one foot touched the ground from time to time. His sword had fallen some way off, or he could have saved himself at the cost of his vanity. “Take me to my father! Take me to my father!” He was pleading, but trying to appear peremptory. Absalom knew that the King’s heart was soft towards him, in spite of his rebellion.
Joab never said anything. He just smiled and slowly, very slowly, and with great relish, fitted an arrow to his bow. We were all shocked and surprised. It was well known that the King had ordered that Absalom be brought back alive. In order to defy this instruction, Joab must have had the promise of support from someone close to the King - someone very powerful. When they threw Absalom’s corpse into the ravine, I remembered how Joab had walked for a long time with Bathsheba, my mother, in the gardens at Mahanaim, before setting out for the battle.
Absalom moved me greatly at that moment. We may not have had the same mother but we had played together as children. He had been so handsome. He had been so helpless, dangling in the air. Perhaps if he had been successful in seizing the throne he might have had me, Solomon, killed, but I resolved there and then that if ever Joab sought pity from me, he would find the sword.
Not one speck of the subsequent odium attached itself to my mother. It never did. She had such powerful friends: a high priest, a prophet, and the head of the army. If there was blame, she carefully deflected it onto David. So much so that it sullied his reputation and could have fed the rebellions which nearly unsettled all her plans.
I imagine how she first ensnared him. She knew all too well where the King took his evening strolls along his palace roof. She knew it was possible to look down from there into the chamber where she bathed. She undressed languorously, as though almost overcome with fatigue. Only at the moment when she slipped into her bath would she have turned so that her belly and breasts were briefly visible to David. A slave girl in a tavern could not have given such a consummate performance. And she would have been excited, so excited that her heart pounded in her breast – excited not by sexual desire but by the thought of her power, by the thought of the greatness to come.
She told me – yes, she told me, for she gave me two gifts: the throne and the wisdom a Prince must have – that she was already with child by her husband, Uriah, when David slept with her. What games she played with the two of them – deadly games in the end!
David panicked when she told him her condition, for she had sworn the child was his. He recalled Uriah from the siege. He thought that if Uriah and Bathsheba slept together soon enough, the child could be passed off as a premature birth. But she told her husband that the King was testing his loyalty and he must not to leave his side, even when ordered to do so. Poor Uriah, night after night longing to hold his lovely bride and having to sleep with the other armour bearers outside the King’s door! And imagine David’s own frustration! He even got Uriah drunk, in the hope that this would inflame his sexual desires, but the man just snored loyally all night outside his chamber and kept him awake.
The scheme to send Uriah back off to the war? Yes, that was hers. As were the secret instructions to Joab to make sure Uriah got himself killed, although she made sure that David delivered them. The game was still too precarious for her role in these things to become known.
All this while she had to keep David interested. Not just interested but infatuated. She was my mother and I try to be gentle with her memory, but now I myself have learned a little about women. One of my wives (in innocence, for she came from far away) once said of a particular practice she excelled in, “We call this a Bathsheba.” Word travels.
Then came the brilliant stroke. With Uriah dead and after David had added her to his wives, she told the prophet Nathan that the King had slept with her when she was still been Uriah’s wife. That took some skill I can tell you. She had to avoid appearing to be a schemer. She had to make it seem that she and Uriah had both fallen foul of the King’s uncontrolled lust. She had to pass herself off as a young bride with a troubled conscience! But she did it and she knew that Nathan had no awe of the King and would bring down the wrath of the Lord on his head. Moreover, she had correctly judged David’s character. She knew that guilt would bind him more closely to her.
I think that some of the things that Nathan said proved a gift for her, a way out of another little difficulty that was playing on her mind. The child she was expecting was unlikely to look like David when it grew up. As though on cue, Nathan prophesied that the child, conceived unlawfully on another man’s wife, would die. Children sicken easily. I have heard that David donned black and slept on sackcloth in an attempt to avert the Holy anger. But a strange thing happened when the child died, David straightaway went and washed himself and put on white. Is it possible? Could it really be that her hold over him was such that she could whisper to him in the night that this ailing infant might – just might – not be his? Could she go to the very edge of exposing the tangled web of deceit she has wrapped around him, and still retain his loyalty and his impassioned love? I am not sure, although I learned never to underestimate her talents.
She assured me that David was my father and I have no reason to doubt that. Sex for my mother was a weapon to be used to achieve power. I think she played some kind of sexual games with Joab, although I doubt that she ever went so far as to lie with him. What purpose would that have served? Joab was a soldier and had taken and discarded many women. Allure was the thing, vague hints, perhaps half suggestions that Joab, if King, might have Bathsheba as his Queen. Why else should he dispatch Absalom, who although he was a rebel was the declared inheritor of the Kingdom, and risk David’s condemnation for doing so?
Later Bathsheba persuaded David to make a public declaration that I, Solomon, was to be his successor. This meant she had exposed her hand to Joab. He now knew that all her machinations were to the end that her son, not himself, might rule. Moreover, among us Jews, the mother of a powerful man has no small share of that power. From now on he was beyond her reach and he made a desperate bid to retain at least some power. He threw in his lot with Adonijah, David’s son by Haggith. Joab, the crusher of many conspiracies, was now himself a conspirator.
David was in his dotage, kept warm in his bed at night by his latest wife, the virginal Abishag. Adonijah knew it was now or never and he had some powerful allies. When Joab threw in his lot with him, Adonijah thought that the throne was as good as his. He threw a party to celebrate what he thought was his accession.
Adonijah had reckoned without the prophet Nathan. Not much happens without a prophet knowing, perhaps because God reveals things to him, or perhaps because prophets are powerful and therefore have many friends. To whom did Nathan take the tale? Why, to my mother, which shows the depths of the loyalties that had been forged! Between them they could pull every string that moved by father’s passions. Nathan claimed to know the mind of that Lord to whom David had written so many poems. Nathan told him that I was the Lord’s chosen one. And Bathsheba? – why Bathsheba, even if she could no longer stir the loins of this impotent old man, could stir his thoughts. He was persuaded to declare me King, there and then.
The partygoers scattered to try and save their lives. Adonijah clung to the horns of the altar and I was moved to pity him. Genuinely moved, for I realised that his claim to the throne was as good as mine. Also I was still a little naïve and believed that if he promised loyalty, he would keep that promise. I have never forgotten the rage of Bathsheba at this action of mine. “Have you learned nothing? Have I spent all these years working to give power to an idiot? Your father is senile, but even he would have had more sense!”
After David had died - he did not live long after these events – she made her trap for poor Adonijah, who perhaps wasn’t the brightest of men. She encouraged him to come to me to ask for the hand of Abishag. Now this woman was perhaps even more beautiful than Bathsheba had been in her youth and nobody doubted that my father had left her a virgin, but it did of course look as though he was laying claim to the King’s own. It justified my feigned anger. In public at least it passed as sufficient excuse for my ordering his execution. I did not enjoy this. It was breaking my promise to him. “Get used to it!” said Bathsheba.
Now what I did enjoy was having Joab slaughtered, even though he was still clinging to the altar. If it had not been unseemly, I would have relished doing it myself. I would have done it with a smile and raised the sword very, very slowly.
Before a Prince can become a King there are many obstacles to overcome and one needs to be wise. The beginning of wisdom? – I learned that from my mother.