It’s the most notorious sexual encounter of ancient times. In a remarkably candid account in the Bible (2d Samuel chapters 11 and 12), the great King David impregnates Bathsheba when both were married to others. In the 21st Century, and especially with the recent rise of the #ChurchToo wing of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, there’s vigorous debate in print and online about whether Bathsheba intended to lure the king’s attentions, or the two shared equal blame for adultery, or David alone was responsible.
Last week on patheos.com, Jonathan Aigner satirized an old-fashioned attitude (often the work of male writers) by listing this among mock themes for youngsters’ summertime Vacation Bible School: “It Was All Her Fault: How Bathsheba Trapped David.” Such was the tone of some classic paintings or Susan Hayward’s portrayal opposite Gregory Peck in Hollywood’s popular “David and Bathsheba” (1951).
Or consider reference works favored today among conservative Protestants. The “NIV Study Bible” says “Bathsheba appears to have been an unprotesting partner” in sexual sin, and Charles Ryrie’s study Bible agrees that she “evidently was not an unwilling participant.” The “ESV Study Bible” even brands Bathsheba someone of “questionable character.”
On similar lines, noted Jewish commentator Robert Alter of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in 1999 that the Hebrew text may intimate “an element of active participation by Bathsheba in David’s sexual summons,” raising the possibility of “opportunism, not merely passive submission,” on her part.
But the “Women’s Study Bible” (2009) states that “adultery” signals mutual consent whereas this situation “was probably closer to rape.” Other modern analysts insist it was “rape,” period. What’s going on here?
The sordid biblical story, in brief: Late one afternoon King David was idly strolling on the roof of his palace when he saw a very beautiful woman bathing. He assigned an aide to learn her identity. He reported she was Bathsheba, the granddaughter, daughter and wife of men well-known and respected in royal circles. (Was this to hint that the king should therefore keep hands off?)
Then comes the laconic pivotal sentence: “So David sent messengers, and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.” Later, Bathsheba notified David she was pregnant. David summoned her husband Uriah from the battlefield, hoping to cover up his own sin and pin the pregnancy on her spouse. But Uriah refused to cohabit with his wife while fellow soldiers were denied this comfort, thus obeying David’s own rule of chastity for soldiers. The king then ordered commanders to assign Uriah to the thick of battle, making sure he was killed. David was then free to add the widowed Bathsheba to his harem.
Thus did David violate four of the Ten Commandments, against coveting a neighbor’s wife, adultery, lying, and then murder. The prophet Nathan dramatically pronounced God’s judgment in a confrontation with David. “You are the man!” Notably, Nathan did not meet to denounce Bathsheba as a sinner.
The weakness of the Bathsheba-as-wily-temptress scenario, her modern defenders note, is that the Bible says nothing about any romantic intent by her. Ancient homes lacked indoor plumbing so women would often bathe modestly upon roofs or in courtyards. Nor are we told she was fully nude or provocative in any way. (Some interpreters think she was a law-abiding Jew undergoing a ritual bath after her period at a communal mikveh, not at her house.) Meanwhile, the king was clearly a guilty peeping Tom.
Obviously, Bathsheba could not spurn a summons to meet her monarch, and the Bible does not tell us she knew David’s sexual purpose. The fact that he sent messengers (plural) to usher her to the palace underscored his royal power and prerogatives.
That brings us to the heart of the matter and how much to read into that pivotal sentence above. Was Bathsheba an aroused, flattered, and willing sexual partner? The Bible does not say so. And we might recall a warning in the Bible attributed to Solomon, the son of Bathsheba and David: “The dread wrath of a king is like the growling of a lion; he who provokes him to anger forfeits his life.” (Proverbs 20:2).
The “Women’s Study Bible” speculates on what Bathsheba might have pondered when David made his fateful move. What would the king do to Uriah or herself if she consented, or if she did not consent? What use was there in crying out in protest, since courtiers would never enter the king’s private bedchamber? Who would believe her word if she leveled an accusation against the all-powerful ruler?
Seventh-day Adventist scholar Richard M. Davidson, updating the view of his church’s female founder Ellen White in a 2006 article, said in modern terms this constituted “power rape.” He said this Bible passage levels the strongest possible condemnation not just against David but “all men in positions of power” who “victimize women sexually.”
Sarah Bowler (who studied at Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary), the author of “Bathsheba’s Responsibility” (2014), insists that David must be labeled as guilty of “rape” because otherwise Bible readers will suppose she was “partly at fault.” Australian Catholics Antony and Mark O’Brien say much the same. Erin Moritz, a chaplain at Berry College (and divinity graduate of Liberty University) concludes that “consent under duress is not consent” and Bathsheba was “a victim through and through.”
Evangelical Covenant Church Pastor Gricel Medina applies the Bible’s account to the present moment: “Our attitude toward abuse is reflected in how we often tell this story, in that we blame the victim and fail to see the abuse.”
Bathsheba appears two other times in the Bible. She works alongside the prophet Nathan to ensure that son Solomon inherits the throne of David rather than his older half-brother. Jewish tradition often honors her for this deed. Then in the genealogy that begins the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, the unnamed “wife of Uriah” is included as an ancestor of Jesus Christ, alongside David and Solomon.
Footnote: It is often thought that a passage about David in Islam’s Quran (38:20-25) makes an oblique reference to the Bible’s narrative about Bathsheba. But “The Study Quran” says in the Muslim view adultery by David would have been “an abomination that could not have been committed by a prophet.”