Commentary: David raped Bathsheba, and why that matters

(Tribune file photo) A Bible is read at the Utah Capitol Rotunda in 2013.

“David raped. It’s important we get that right.”

This crucial bit of biblical interpretation came in a tweet in early October from Rachael Denhollander, the first young athlete to accuse Gymnastics USA physician Larry Nassar of sexual assault and now a speaker and author on surviving abuse. She was responding to a tweet from evangelical leader Matt Smethurst who, while listing the various sins of biblical figures, stated, “David fornicated.”

Denhollander followed up her response the next day and again a few days later, outlining the biblical support for her assertion that what David did to Bathsheba was not fornication or adultery, but rape.

As it’s often told, Bathsheba’s story is one of a lustful king who “saw her bathing on the roof, (and) her beauty and the moonlight overthrew” him. Bathsheba is the irresistibly nubile woman who knowingly derobed in David’s line of sight so she could seduce him. What followed was only what happens between a man lured by the wiles of a beautiful woman. If David transgressed, this reading goes, it was in murdering Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.

Denhollander’s contradictory interpretation shouldn’t be controversial. As Denhollander pointed out, when the prophet Nathan tells David the parable of the rich man who took his neighbor’s ewe, David is portrayed as stealing, and Bathsheba is portrayed as a lamb that is slaughtered.

This is important, because the Old Testament distinguishes between consensual and nonconsensual sex between married people who are not married to each other. In Deuteronomy, the laws even mulled whether the act took place in a city, where the woman could cry for aid if the sex was unwanted, or the country, where her ability to resist fell only to her, and her innocence was presumed.

That Nathan equates Bathsheba to an innocent lamb suggests that she could not resist David. Therefore he was guilty of rape.

Nor is Denhollander’s take novel. More than a decade ago, popular author and preacher John Piper also called David a rapist. Scholars such as George Athas, Richard Davidson, Cheryl Exum and David and Diana Garland likewise argue that David raped Bathsheba.

But really we need only use our own eyes and heart to see this truth. The most powerful man in a monarchical society saw a woman he wanted, sent other men to bring her to him, vaginally penetrated her, then murdered her husband to avoid being found out. That’s rape, folks.

Even David recognizes his crime. Nathan’s parable angered David so much that he called for the execution of the perpetrator, to which Nathan famously responded, “Thou art the man!” The consequences plague David for the rest of his life. As Nathan promised, destruction makes its bed in David’s home.

When most people hear the term “rape,” what comes to mind is a masked man physically overpowering a woman and violently penetrating her. That is rape, to be sure. But using one’s power over another person to coerce that person into sex acts is also sexual violence. Some have claimed that David’s coercion was not physical (though it could have been; the Bible does not say). Bathsheba could have defied the king’s order — just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego chose death rather than worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.

That argument proves the point exactly: Forcing a person to choose between sex and death is rape.

So why did Denhollander’s assertion create a Twitter storm? One person, accusing Denhollander of “modern arrogance,” chimed in, “If it was rape, funny how no one bothered to let God know. He condemns David for sinning against Uriah and God himself. Nothing in the text indicates rape.” Another argued that since the Bible doesn’t indicate there was “physical force,” then rape was impossible.

An anonymous commenter added, unhelpfully, that “David actually raped all his wives because he was more powerful than all of them.”

The root of these objections seems to be a concern not to apply our 21st-century understanding of sexual abuse to the Bible. However, as Nathan’s story and Deuteronomy make clear, even then people understood that there are situations in which a person does not have the agency to say no.

But there’s another reason why some resist calling David’s crime rape. The Southern Baptist Convention, like the Roman Catholic Church, is reckoning with decades of sexual abuse. Those covering up or defending abuse use words like “moral failing,” “inappropriate relationship” and “sexual incident” to describe what actually happened.

If we can use a softer label or somehow chalk sexual violence up to lust or hormones or a woman’s seduction, we are off the hook. It allows us to think that the preacher just had a lapse in judgment. And lapses in judgment are understandable, unavoidable even — “Boys will be boys.” This is what we do when we fail to call Bathsheba’s rape what it is.

Particularly relevant to this conversation is the story of Jules Woodson, whose alleged abuser recently announced plans to start a new church. Woodson was 17 years old when, she has publicly declared, her youth pastor, Andy Savage, sexually assaulted her. He never faced charges, due to the statute of limitations.

Years later, when Savage addressed his church about Woodson’s accusations, he called his assault a “sexual incident,” his response “biblical,” and the counsel he received “wise.” His self-acquittal, he said, “was done believing that God’s forgiveness is greater than any sin.”

The church stood and applauded while Savage wiped away tears and his pastor embraced him. Savage has since confessed that his sexual assault was “an abuse of power” but carefully referred to an “inappropriate relationship.”

Should Savage and others like him be forgiven? Yes, absolutely. But, as Woodson recently said to me, “Grace is not the issue; this is not about forgiveness. This is about justice and accountability.”

This is why it matters that we get it right that David raped Bathsheba. Victims will be denied justice as long as we can’t come to terms with clergy rape as rape. Ideology drives action, and, for many evangelicals, a skewed perception of power dynamics and sexual violence is at the wheel.

In many ways, evangelical tradition has preferred the alternative: that Bathsheba be the one called to account. In the dark undercurrent of purity culture, boys are allowed to be boys, while a woman must guard her sexuality with all her might, because that is what ultimately matters about her. It is the standard by which a future husband will judge her.

This view of female sexuality may seem unrelated to the debate about David and Bathsheba, but enshrining virginity (vaginal virginity, at least) while excusing men for deviant sexual behavior perpetuates a view that women are objects for sexual pleasure — not human beings made in God’s image.

Consider the widespread evangelical Christian response to viewing pornography. A 2016 study showed that some 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors have looked at or currently look at pornography. Most approaches to the problem focus on reducing access — porn-blocking software, accountability groups, etc. Women have a role here, too; they should always dress modestly so as to avoid causing their brothers to lust. If all access is cut off, the logic goes, men would not lust.

The problem with pornography, though, is not that men like looking at naked women, but that it reduces women to sexual objects. Like Bathsheba, their human agency is stolen. Instead of restricting access, we need to see women, and all humans, as God’s image bearers. Until then, sexual abuse survivors will have no justice, and enablers and abusers will thrive among us.

Russell L. Meek is a writer, editor and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.