Social media currents today flow with a discussion over sexual assault, consent, and the story of David’s encounter with Bathsheba, as recorded in 2 Samuel 11. I’ve discussed the matter with students in some of my classes at a small Christian university. As well, I’ve spent hours debating it with myself while I’m at my night job; a more challenging debate partner would probably serve me better.
And so I’m wading into the matter, but not in order to answer the question of whether King David raped or sexually assaulted one of his subjects, the woman Bathsheba. Instead, I want to use this passage and discussion to examine our own filters, eisegesis, and tendency to assume the text has always meant what it means to us today. Perhaps I’ll end up gesturing in the general direction of an answer, but I assure you that will be accidental. So as to avoid confusion, allow me to clearly state my goal: To drive us to understand our bad Bible-reading tendencies by examining some assumptions and interpretations of this passage.
I’ll not quote the text since you’re all literate enough to find it on your own. I’ll work through the pericope chronologically, touching only on those moments where our tendencies to see what we’re looking for are most obvious.
“Why,” the thinking goes, was Bathsheba bathing in such a place to be seen easily by others?” The usual responses I’ve received, both as a child and in the more recent discussion, centered on Bathsheba’s morals. She flaunted her nakedness, her beauty, knowing the king would see her. Or perhaps she merely didn’t care who saw her, apathetic towards the temptation her physique presented to others.
We need to pause in the earliest portion of the chapter and note the timing of this event: evening. David rose from his bed in the evening to wander the rooftop of his own home. Too often we assume she bathed in broad daylight, and yet here we have a clear statement of the timing. It was late enough to be evening, which I assume (dangerously) to be after sundown, the end of the Jewish day. David was resting in bed, though perhaps he just had nothing to do and was not asleep yet. Regardless, a very real possibility exists that Bathsheba waited until dark or near-dark to bathe precisely to avoid “flaunting her beauty.”
May I just note here the egocentrism required to conclude that Bathsheba washed herself for another person’s visual benefit? Women don’t necessarily wear tight pants or loose blouses for the benefit of others. Perhaps they just like how they fit. Moving on.
“But wait…if she were innocent, why bathe, naked, in full view of others? I mean, I know exactly which way my bathroom window faces, and am aware of the possibility of tempting…I mean, flashing the neighbors.” Good point, but what makes you believe she had an indoor bathroom? Other questions, assumptions, and realistic possibilities abound.
- She bathed behind a lattice of sorts, and David could only see her from the neck and up, sufficient to see her beauty.
- She bathed after dark because that was the only safe time to do so.
- She bathed in a location unseen by all but the highest house in the area (the King’s), but assumed he would not stoop so low as to ogle her.
- She bathed in the knowledge that social contracts among Israelites forbade viewing a woman bathe herself (especially in the city and without plumbing), and trusted the King (and his servants) to honor such a contract. In small towns in South America, for example, men and women sometimes change clothes or visit the river for bathing without a privacy wall or vast distance between them. To watch the opposite gender would be to invite public rebuke. Perhaps the same was true in ancient Israel.
- She bathed in full view, but wearing a light garment with afforded her access to water as well as privacy from others. After all, just because we get completely undressed before a bath doesn’t mean she did. In the Middle East today, rural women still go to the river covered completely, and head into the water to swim/rinse/bathe without removing anything obvious. Bathsheba could have done this without diminishing her beauty in any way.
Some amongst our readers may be learned enough to dispel a few of these, and I thank them. My point remains: we read the text with a certain interpretation, and yet many readers, including myself, overlook multiple possibilities and rush to assume a certain attitude by Bathsheba.
“David raped her, but the text said instead he simply ‘lay with her’ or ‘had sex with her’ because the Hebrew writer was uncomfortable with the language of sexual assault.”
While Hebrew scholars may (should?) disagree with me, doing a little homework leads me to believe this assumption is eisegesis, a reading of a personal agenda or assumption into the text. If you were to skip over to 2 Samuel 13, you’ll read the story of Amnon and Tamar, two of David’s children. Amnon raped his half-sister. In both chapters, the writer used the same Hebrew verb which means “to lay with, to lay with sexually.” However, chapter 13 adds in another word to emphasis the violence of the act. If the writer were comfortable with explaining a violent sexual act in chapter 13, it hardly follows the same writer would be uncomfortable using a similar term in chapter 11.
“Yeah, but the earlier case involved the King, so the writer had to be careful.” Think about that; I’ll wait. Good…right, doctrine of inspiration. If we’re going to hold to divine inspiration of the text, then we either must say the Spirit inspired both linguistic expressions of the accounts, or we have to claim the writer corrupted the original text in disobedience to God. We can’t claim “God-breathed” simultaneous with “the writer altered…”
Consent in the Face of Authority
This is the stickiest of the issues, and I’m as sensitive as I could possibly be to those who have been backed into corners without the chance to say “no” to their attackers. Please – do not read this as a critique of the experiences and testimonies of men and women today who have been denied the chance to say no, especially in cases of power imbalance, as we will examine here. Remember my personal goal: to examine the filters, assumptions, and even eisegesis we use when reading this text.
Could Bathsheba deny her king? Did she have no choice but to say yes, thus removing a rape claim (“she never said no”) but opening the King to a charge of criminal sexual assault (“power structure removed ability to deny consent.”) Let us proceed, but carefully, as we examine David’s (presumed absolute) authority and her response to it.
“As King, David’s power was absolute, and Bathsheba could not have said, ‘no.’ David therefore assaulted her sexually.” We assume the King possessed absolute authority because we conflate ancient Israel with slightly less-ancient first century Israel and the power of the Roman emperor and his appointed local kings. Herod slaughtered toddlers and Caligula named his horse to the Roman senate, after all. Perhaps we also carry with us the “Off with his head!” view of medieval European kings. Either way, we should not assume the monarchial absolutism just yet.
Consider the nature of Israel during this time in relation to David’s kingship. The Book of Judges paints a picture of a loose confederation of tribes which sometimes cooperated and sometimes fought amongst themselves. One tribe nearly disappeared through inter-tribal war. The entire nation rarely cooperated because they had little sense of a national identity. Instead, they focused on tribal connections and regional concerns more than national ones.
Then comes King Saul, who reigned for 42 years. David reigned over part of the kingdom for seven years before assuming control over the entire nation.
Here’s the payoff: are we seriously going to claim that in roughly 50-60 years, the scattered people of Israel had fundamentally altered their perspective from “tribe first” to “what that ONE guy says is law for us all”? Said more briefly, how long did it take to alter the tribal mindset to the point that we can safely assume they accepted an absolute monarchy? Recall, too, David was a youth when Saul assume the newly-created throne, meaning even he was more tribal than monarchial in character. Would he have assumed personal authority over Bathsheba’s body?
This is not to say it didn’t happen; I’m simply trying to find our assumptions about David and Bathsheba, modern filters through which we interpret their ancient actions.
Perhaps I’m rushing through this, and ignoring some biblical examples of true absolute authority. Let us turn, then to the account of Naboth’s vineyard, 1 Kings 21. Evil King Ahab wanted a vineyard owned by Naboth. Instead of utilizing (abusing?) kingly authority, Ahab had the temerity to attempt to purchase the land, and Naboth refused. Instead of insisting on his rights as king, Ahab pouted. His wife, the dastardly Jezebel, declined to demand her husband seize the property and instead initiated a complicated scene in which others falsely accused Naboth of capital crimes. Naboth expired due to rock poisoning and Ahab got his vegetable garden.
If, in the hundreds of years between David and Ahab, the kings of Israel had not yet developed a social or political doctrine of absolute authority, then David likely lacked the authority to command Bathsheba to disrobe and perform for him.
But, and this is the most subtle point of contention, we can neither rule in or out the idea of unspoken pressure brought to bear by the simple inequality between David and Bathsheba. We just cannot. In our day, we know of men who bulled their way through relationships without the slightest inkling of how their power pushed unwilling people into sexual encounters. Of course, we also know of men who pushed and shoved using power, not their hands, and knew it.
We are sensitive to power imbalance, but were the Israelites? Did not Araunau the Jebusite attempt to override David’s purchase of his property by giving it freely? Didn’t the nation reject the reforms of Rehoboam without flinching? Nathan fearlessly confronted David regardless of power, resting on a divine command. Could not Bathsheba have invoked something similar, the command regarding adultery, with a similar boldness?
Have powerful men intentionally used their position to take? Yes. Have powerful men behaved cluelessly with regards to how their power bends others to their will? Yes. Have powerful men assumed “Why wouldn’t she say yes?” in foolish yet unintentional arrogance? You bet. Can we draw any conclusions about David’s intent or awareness based on the words of the text here? No, we cannot. We could look at who David was most of the time and draw inferences, but those are about as valuable as looking at cultural studies of sex during that time and drawing competing inferences.
“So Bathsheba turns up pregnant. Immediately, King David springs into action to hide his sin.”
Really? Chapter and verse, please. Show me where the text implies David’s actions were focused on hiding his behavior, then tell me why he would do so; and if you say, “To get away with it,” I’ll need that chapter and verse as well.
David arranged for Uriah to die, obviously. His motivations, though, remain a mystery. Here are possibilities and responses:
- He was afraid people would find out. Response: If his authority were absolute, why would he care?
- He knew the law said adulterers would be stoned. Response: Did he or Bathsheba die? No, and it wasn’t even brought up by Nathan.
- He didn’t want to lose the respect of his soldiers. Response: Sure, but he could arrange with Joab to abandon Uriah in battle in full view of thousands of Hebrew soldiers without anyone thinking anything bad (sarcasm font).
- He was just protecting himself. Response: From whom? The servants? Joab? The neighbors?
- He didn’t want Uriah to return home and accuse him, along with Bathsheba’s testimony. Response: If, as many claim, Hebrew women could not testify in court, then all David had to do was say, “I just had her over for coffee – she’s lying to protect her real lover” and it would have carried more legal and social weight than anything she could have said.
Here are two more possibilities:
- The King wanted to raise his child, and the only way to bring the child into his palace would be to arrange for the death of the legal spouse of the child’s mother. Jewish law made no provision for the King to adopt the child without the mother or her husband objecting. Besides, it’s not like he had absolute authority to seize the child (or did he?).
- King David acted to protect Bathsheba. Consider the events many, many years before involving Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar (Genesis 38). Judah slept with what he believed was a pagan shrine prostitute, but Tamar was nearly burned for (ironically) the charge of being a prostitute. If (a loaded word) this attitude were still prevalent, David had nothing personally to fear from a charge of adultery, but knew Bathsheba faced a very dangerous set of options.
Which set of assumptions will lead us to the truth? If you can tell me that, you are certainly a smarter person than I.
Uriah the Cuckold
The rich military tradition in the South and Southwest led to the interpretational narrative that Uriah was the only honorable person in all of this, save Nathan. He served his king, and had such deep respect for the bond of brotherhood with his fellow soldiers that he declined to take advantage of the chance to run home and see his wife.
Personally, I view this as an egregious case of cultural ethnocentrism.
Travel today to countries with standing militaries and ask about this bond. You won’t always find it. In South America, where we lived for years, the “brotherhood” narrative made little sense to my audiences. Military service was a path to a job, not some manhood or womanhood inducing experience through which one gained lifelong siblings and friends.
But let’s think about Uriah’s time period, not our own. I think the Bible makes clear David’s role in creating the first Israelite standing army. Throughout the Book of Judges, leaders periodically issued a call to arms. Farmers and carpenters responded. 2 Samuel, though, records lists of David’s mighty men, soldiers who trained and worked together. This means the notion of a long-standing army and subsequent “brotherhood” ideas was truly in it’s infancy during David’s life. Therefore, the interpretations of Uriah as the Noble Solider Honoring His Brothers are not as easily justified.
Here’s a second view: Uriah drove his wife to seek the arms of another. Consider: David, the guy with authority, told him to go home and he refused. That’s not very obedient to one’s king. As well, remember David and Uriah lived in the same neighborhood. After all, in the evening twilight their homes (if she was bathing at home, another assumption) were close enough for David to recognize Bathsheba’s beauty and for a servant to identify her by name. Instead of “Uriah respected his friends” we’re left with, “Uriah was a block or two from his wife, his Two-Become-One, but decided to respect some guys he knew from the army – guys with whom he didn’t even share a tribal bond, being a Hittite and all. Of course, Bathsheba was gonna find comfort in another’s arms! What woman wouldn’t?”
Uriah the Bad Husband is not a common view in the United States, but it has more logical support than the idea David killed Uriah out of fear he’d get caught.
C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” to describe our tendency to assume we possess greater intelligence than those who have gone before. We know stuff, things those poor primitive peons of yesterday could only imagine. We look back at the passage and see things we claim others had never known, and yet we too often only see that for which we are already searching.
But there’s another point raised by smarter people than I: we cannot make a text mean something the writer (God) never intended. Can we assume, from the vast silence on the question of assault and consent, God intended us to learn something about power imbalance, consent, authority, and sex? Or are we free to read between the lines and see what God left implied for us to discover?
When we read His Word, God’s revelation of Himself to us through His acts in human history, we must begin with the text and move towards life, using the Bible as our filter. Too often, though, we use our experiences (sexual abuse), our culture (military history), our assumptions (she wanted it) to interpret and exegete the scriptures.
Read carefully, friends, and read critically. Search the Word for the kingdom of God, and everything else will become clearer along the way.