This week, theologians, biblical experts and sex abuse survivor advocates contended with a thorny and uncomfortable topic on Twitter, 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 deliberately deadly part of the battle so that he’ll be killed and David was free to marry his widow.
Over the weekend, Gospel Coalition managing editor Matt Smetherst tweeted a reminder about the fallibility of biblical heroes, saying “David fornicated.” Sexual abuse victims advocate Rachael Denhollander responded with an edit, saying “David raped.”
This kicked off a lengthy discussion about the nature of sexual abuse and 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 a everything from lovestruck damsel swept off her feet in spite of her vows to a conniving temptress who deliberately led David astray.
But as Denhollander points out, 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 who had an astronomical amount of power of her. David may not have physically forced himself upon her, but it is hard to imagine that Bathsheba felt at liberty to refuse him.
As Denhollander explains, this interpretation is further enforced by Nathan the Prophet, who confronts David in chapter 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.
There was some pushback on this view. A few commenters 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.”22 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.”
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.