Over the past few years, a little debate has kept cropping up about whether it is right to suggest that David committed adultery with Bathsheba or whether in fact we need to say that he raped her. I wrote a guest post for Steve Kneale here when the debate first came up but it has raised its head again and I wanted to respond a bit further here.
What’s at stake in the discussion?
There are a couple of things that are affected by our conclusions here but also by our methodology. Specifically, I would highlight two that matter. The first is our understanding of grace, forgiveness and restoration. If David was guilty of rape then what does it mean for us today to observe that he was able to continue as king. Does that diminish how seriously God takes abuse? Does it mean that church leaders who have been found guilty of sexual abuse should be restored into ministry?
Here’s the second thing at stake. If Bathsheba was complicit in adultery, then does that mean that she was a temptress. Does this mean that women are a danger to men and especially to men in ministry? Does the fault in the Hybels and Zacharias scandals not lie primarily with the men but with women seductresses? Are women and girls asking for it? Was Doug Wilson right in his response to an abuse/safeguarding case in his church to suggest that the girl’s apparent maturity and interest in a relationship mitigate?
What appears to be at stake in the discussion but isn’t?
One thing that I’ve seen suggested to be at stake is our evangelical hermeneutics. It has been suggested that to read back the crime of rape into the story of David and Bathsheba is to use critical theory methods (those also associated with CRT) and a focus on power dynamics that is irrelevant to the question. In other words, those who believe that the sin and crime was rape are imposing meaning onto the text through eisegesis. Further, they are also accused of doing this out of a feminist and postmodern agenda.
This may appear to be at stake to some but I would argue that it isn’t really. Why? Well because there are clear definitions of rape.
rape is when a person intentionally penetrates another’s vagina, anus or mouth with a penis, without the other person’s consent.”What is rape and sexual assault? | Metropolitan Police
It is a legitimate question to ask whether what happened in the David and Bathsheba story would be considered rape under contemporary categories. The question is an objective one and doesn’t need us to appeal to controversial social theories. Rather, the question is whether or not a close reading of the text points to a consensual relationship or a forced act without consent.
So what does the text say?
2 Samuel 11 tells us that David, the King was where he shouldn’t have been. He should have been on the battlefield but he was on his palace roof. It goes on to tell us that Bathsheba, the wife of one of his men was where she should have been. She was taking a bath but this was not just an evening soak in the tub. Nor was it a display in order to seduce some poor unsuspecting male. Rather, she was going through her ceremonial purification from uncleanness.
David then sends for Bathsheba. He then takes her and sleeps with her. The language places David as active and Bathsheba as passive. We are told about what he does to her. And yes, it is legitimate to point out that this woman would have had very little or in fact no say in the matter. We don’t need critical theory to work that out. The account concludes with the verdict that “The LORD was displeased with what David had done.” (v27).
There is a postscript to the story however which offers an interpretation. The prophet Nathan comes to see David and tells him a story about two men and their sheep. In 11:4 we are told how the richer man with lots of sheep takes the poorer man’s lamb and kills It before serving it up. Bathsheba is the lamb in the story who is taken, subject to violence and serve up.
Now, if we are going to look at wider context, it is reasonable that we look at other relevant Bible passages that deal with these types of issues. Of immediate relevance then are two other passages that refer to Bathsheba. Psalm 51 is introduced as resulting from Nathan’s visit. Some translations of the introduction read:
“…after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
This would suggest that the collator of the Psalms understood the sin to be adultery. However, that is an interpretative gloss and one that I would argue relies on some traditions and assumptions. Literally, the introduction simply refers to David going in to Bathsheba.
The second reference is in Matthew 1:6 where Bathsheba is singled out as a mother in the lineage. This is unusual and some have suggested that this is to highlight the inclusion of a sinner in Jesus’ ancestry as was Rahab the prostitute. I certainly agree that it was important for Bathsheba to be included but it is worth noting that Ruth and Tamar are also included. The singling out may therefore be less about sin and more about the outcast, the defiled and the alien being included. So, I don’t think that these additional references require us to see Bathsheba as complicit.
Therefore, whatever the episode does describe, it does not describe an illicit affair between two consenting equals. Rather, as seen through God’s eyes and portrayed in the parable, we have a rich and powerful man who abuses his power. David violates Bathsheba and defiles her. David’s sin is against God, Uriah and also against (not with) Bathsheba.
What are the challenges/risks with referring to this as rape
I explained in my earlier article that it may not be as simple as saying that David raped Bathsheba but not because we are imposing critical theory. However, there may be a risk of anachronism because we are applying a contemporary legal definition to a historic event so that we may be using terminology that doesn’t quite fit with the categories used at the time.
Now, it is important to be clear that this is not because the Bible didn’t take consent seriously and wasn’t bothered about consent. Both of those things mattered. A key question in such cases was whether or not a woman was able to and had cried out for help. However, from a Biblical point of view, even if David had sought and received consent, this would not have made him any less culpable. He would still have been guilty of violating and defiling Bathsheba.
This is important because once again it reinforces the point that Bathsheba was not the seductive temptress who was asking for it. David was the sinner who violated and defiled a woman at the very point when she was seeking purity in God’s eyes.
If we are seeking to be technically precise, we might say that David violated Bathsheba sexually. This was a serious sin in his time and the facts involved mean that it is likely that a modern day court would have found him guilty of rape.
But the risk with that language is that it might still be seen to lose the force of things. The point is that what David did is what we call rape. This is something that God’s Word treats just as (if not more) seriously as contemporary society treats it today.
So, as I said in my previous article, I have no problem with people choosing to say that David raped Bathsheba and on reflection I would now suggest that for the purpose of clear communication, we would do better to talk in those direct terms when describing what happened.
It is also worth emphasising here that I also appreciate that some, looking at the text will not be convinced by this conclusion and may prefer to continue to choose other language. My concern is more with those who discount the possibility that we are looking at a rape case, accusing others of eisegesis for political ends when they themselves are at risk of doing the same. If others look at the evidence and find the case complex and not cut and dried then I’ve no problem with that. There has to be room for disagreement on these things. Indeed, that only goes to highlight how tricky such cases are because we are rarely dealing with clear cut cases with eye witnesses and forensic evidence.
I’ve cautiously come to a conclusion on this, others, have also done less cautiously. All I ask is that where we disagree that we do so on the basis of careful exegesis and examination of the evidence.
What are the implications?
Whatever language we choose to use, it is important first of all that we are clear that David was the sinner and that Bathsheba was a victim who suffered both directly from his sin and indirectly as a consequence of what happened next. This means that when we’ve seen powerful men take and abuse women for their gratification that there is no place for victim blaming whatsoever. Blame and responsibility lie firmly at the feet of the perpetrator.
Now, regarding the question of ministry. Does this mean that following David’s example, men who are guilty of sexual offences should be restored to ministry? I believe there are a couple of good reasons for why we can say a categorical no. First because the purpose of the incident being in Scripture is not to model ministry methods and rules. Pastors are not (whatever some have suggested) kings. That David finds grace in the situation and even stays in the line of Jesus points us to the depts of grace and mercy available to us (just as the presence of a prostitute in the same hereditary line does). Indeed, it is odd that some people would struggle with David being a rapist but forget that the same incident also points to him as a murderer. We need to consider what to do with that as well!
But further, it is worth remembering that David doesn’t get to continue without any consequences. To be sure he receives grace and mercy but the affects of his sin are felt for the rest of his reign seen in the revolutionary, murderous and sexually violent deeds of his sons. So, the lesson is clear, serious sin brings consequences.
Communicating accurately and effectively to a contemporary audience means that we need to be clear about the nature and seriousness of David’s sin. We need to use up to date language which clearly conveys the meaning of the text, language that describes the gravity of the situation so modern day listeners can understand it. We certainly cannot go around saying that he committed adultery with Bathsheba. It is clear that David violated and defiled Bathsheba. It is clear that his sin was against her, not merely with her.
Do we have a word for that? I believe we do.