Why David and Bathsheba is not about adultery
A friend of mine said to me the other day that she feels sad for Bathsheba, that her name is forever associated with adultery, while that’s not the first association that people make with David. He is king, hero and poet. It just didn’t seem fair to her.
Of course the double standard is galling. For adultery to sully the reputation of one but be ignored in the other is outrageous. But it is doubly foul in the case of Bathsheba, because hers is not a story of adultery but of rape.
At no point in the narrative are we given any indication that Bathsheba was a willing partner in her sexual encounter with David. Neither does the biblical text ever treat anyone other than David as responsible.
The David and Bathsheba narrative in 2 Samuel 11 begins with the statement that in the spring when kings go out to war, David didn’t. He sent others while he stayed at home (11:1). Immediately, we have reason to question whether David is in fact a good king. It’s not like he has pressing business at home either: he’s napping, and strolling around on the roof of his palace (11:2). From his position of of prominence, he sees a woman, Bathsheba (11:2).
She is washing. While she’s outside and visible from the palace roof, there is nothing in the text to indicate that this means she was even aware of David’s presence, let alone interested in seducing him. Remember, David should not even have been there: it was the time when kings go out to war. Aside from the fact that she’s beautiful, what we do know about her is the reason she was washing: she was following the Law which commands her to cleanse herself after her period (11:4). In other words, while David is shirking his God-given responsibilities, she is fulfilling hers.
David sends someone to find out who she is. With the full knowledge that she is another man’s wife, he orders her brought to him, and he lies with her (11:4). It is a royal command that Bathsheba receives. She has no choice but to obey this man who in every sense is higher and more powerful than her.
When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David embarks on an elaborate ruse to try to get her husband to return in order that he might sleep with her and the child be passed off as his (11:6-9). When that doesn’t work (11:9-13), David has her husband killed (11:14-15) and Bathsheba brought to him to be his wife. The narrator’s pronouncement on his whole sorry affair is: “The thing that David did displeased the Lord.” (11:27) Note that the thing that displeased the Lord is not a thing that David and Bathsheba did together: it is David’s actions which are on view. If we indict Bathsheba when we read this story, we accuse someone whom God never does.
But just in case we are in any doubt, Nathan the prophet is sent by God to David, to tell him what is blindingly obvious in the text: the he has done evil in the eyes of the Lord by ‘taking’ Bathsheba and striking down her husband (12:9). No mention is made of what Bathsheba was wearing, what she was doing, or whether David’s actually a good guy so this indiscretion ought to be overlooked. On the contrary: Nathan describes David’s actions as showing contempt for God himself (12:10).
The story of David and Bathsheba as told in the Bible is a story of David’s abuse of power, and his rape and possession of a woman, and victimisation of her husband. If we are to be biblically faithful people, this is how we must tell it too. That the church has failed over the years to read the truth of the David and Bathsheba story is even more reason to speak the truth now. Bathsheba is blameless in this story, and her innocence cries out for vindication.
We must tell this story as a story of rape not adultery for another reason as well. There are many women today who, like Bathsheba have found themselves desired, taken and possessed by a man who had no right to their bodies, simply because they were visible and a woman, perhaps a beautiful one. When they too are accused of sexual indecency, they also need vindication. These women need us to tell Bathsheba’s story as the Bible tells it — as the story of a powerful man who, because of his own ego and sin, considers himself entitled to a woman’s body — so that when we come across their stories, we can recognise them for what they are.
Let us take our cue from the prophet of God and lay blame squarely where it belongs, not with an abused woman, nor with ‘both parties’ as if they are equally responsible, but with the abuser.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES).