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Was King David a Rapist?

Every few months, theologians, biblical experts and sex abuse survivor advocates contend with a thorny and uncomfortable topic on Twitter — probably the worst place to have such a conversation — but one that needs to be discussed. Was King David, the beloved hero of the Old Testament, guilty of rape?

The question centers on the story of David and Bathsheba, as told in 2 Samuel 11. The key text is in verses 2 – 5.

“One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, ‘She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, ‘I am pregnant.'”

You probably know the rest. Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is a soldier in David’s army, so David conspires to have Uriah sent into a deadly part of the battle so that he would be killed and David was free to marry his widow.

Many of us grew up interpreting this biblical story as an illicit affair between consensual adults. But there has always been another, far darker read on what exactly happened in the events of 2 Samuel 11. Popular adaptations of the story, from the 1951 Gregory Peck movie to the Leonard Cohen song, have depicted Bathsheba as everything from lovestruck damsel swept off her feet to a conniving temptress who deliberately led David astray.

But as Rachael Denhollander pointed out a few years ago, the power imbalance implicit in David and Bathsheba’s interaction suggests something else: a woman with very little social capital in ancient Israel called before a king with an extraordinary amount of power of her. David may or may not have physically forced himself upon her, but it is hard to imagine that Bathsheba felt at liberty to refuse the king.

Some take offense at this interpretation, which has predictably been swept up in partisan culture war nonsense. The idea that David’s offense may have been rape is seen as “intersectional” politics with a “modern political agenda.”

First thing’s first. The Bible does not use either the word “rape” or “fornication” in this passage. Readers are expected to understand what’s going on and what the precise sin is based on the contextual given — context that might not be easy for a modern audience to interpret this far removed from the time of King David. 

It’s also true that truth does not shift with the times. Whatever King David and Bathsheba were or were not guilty of in life does not change based on shifting ideas around sex, gender and power. The only thing that might change is our human understanding of these things. If David is guilty of rape, that was what he was being rebuked for then and it is how we should think of it now. 

And as Denhollander notes, the interpretation that David is guilty of rape has some evidence. It’s enforced by Nathan the Prophet, who confronts David in 2 Samuel 12 with a metaphor.

“The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, ‘There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.’ David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.’ Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!'”

Denhollander points out that this illustration is not of two people running off together, but of a powerful man selfishly taking what he wanted and butchering it. The metaphor isn’t about two people violating their vows, but of one man slaughtering an innocent lamb. It is perhaps notable that in Nathan’s story, the lamb is a female. 

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There is some pushback on this view. A few commenters have brought up the ancient argument that Bathsheba, by bathing on her roof, was inviting David’s lust. But the text itself throws a wrench in this argument, revealing that Bathsheba’s bath was a ritual washing mandated by the Torah.

Other commentators suggested that a 21st century view of sexual abuse was being placed on an ancient context. Nevertheless, the original Hebrew is far less coded than our modern interpretations, as highlighted by Richard M. Davidson in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society. David “takes her” and he “lies with her.”

The word laœqahΩ [“take”] in this context (of sending royal messengers) should probably be understood in the sense of “fetch” (NJB) or “summon” and clearly implies psychological power pressure on the part of David and not voluntary collusion on the part of Bathsheba. According to the text, David sends “messengers” (plural), but the verb laœqahΩ [“take”] has a singular masculine subject (“he took her”).

Although many modern versions are ambiguous at this point, giving the impression that it was the messengers who “took” Bathsheba to the palace, the Hebrew unambiguously indicates that “he,” i.e., David himself (by means of the messengers, to be sure,) “took” Bathsheba. By using the term laœqahΩ [“took”], the narrator clearly implies that “the primary emphasis is on the responsibility of the subject for that act.” David’s “taking” Bathsheba makes him responsible for her coming to him. The whole narrative flow here suggests Bathsheba’s vulnerability once she is inside the palace, yes, even before.

In addition to all this, any argument that Bathsheba was complicit in an affair with David raises a very obvious question: Why wasn’t she condemned for it? David was rebuked and punished. Bathsheba is not. 2 Samuel 11:27 says that “the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” Again, Bathsheba is not mentioned.

It’s a complicated issue that involves a correct understanding of the Bible, sexual abuse and the ways misogyny has infiltrated our understanding of both. The conversations on Twitter have been complex and occasionally testy, but if ever there was a better time to sharpen our understanding of sexual abuse, it’s now.

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