Damming up justice: King David, power, and rape

Damming up justice: King David, power, and rape February 21, 2013
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As many of you know, I’ve been doing research on Christian dating books and their treatment of rape and sexual assault. One such book that I’ve been reading is the infamous I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris.

In one section that I found interesting, Harris is explaining that “purity does not happen by accident. After telling the story of David and Bathsheba, and reminding us that protecting our purity is a constant process, Josh Harris goes on to explain the “seductive spirit of idolatry” as symbolized in the “wayward adultress” of Proverbs 7.

Harris never directly ties this “seductive spirit of idolatry” to Bathsheba, but in the context of this chapter–David, the object, being led astray by some outside force–it seems that Harris is saying the spirit of idolatry comes from Bathsheba. That she is the wayward adultress.

I’ve heard this argument before.

Once I took part in a Mother’s Day banquet at my church that involved the youth group putting on a small skit in which we acted as the mothers of famous women from the Bible.

I got to be Bathsheba’s mother. Joy.

Of course, my lines were something along the lines of “Leave some for the imagination, Bathsheba! Cover up! Don’t advertise what’s not for sale.”

When my mother saw these lines? She was furious.


Because King David might have been a rapist.

No matter how you look at it, this story is not about consensual sex between equals.

My mother ended up going on a rant about how King David was a pervert. And I ended up ad-libbing all of my lines the day of the skit and basically repeating my mom’s rant. Much to the horror of the church ladies who put the whole thing together, I’m sure.

Reading Harris’ book, and remembering that skit made me think about this. Why is Bathsheba demonized throughout much of Christianity as the embodiment of the “seductive spirit of idolatry?” This woman, who was simply washing up after her period ended, like all Jewish women did? This woman who was simply following God’s purity laws, while, unbeknownst to her, a powerful King watched from above? This woman who had…what choice when the men of a King famous for killing tens of thousands came knocking at her door?

As this fantastic article by Crystal Lewis points out, even conservative commentaries on the Bible recognize Bathsheba’s lack of agency, of options (emphasis mine):

The conservative editors wander close to the real issue when they write that Bathsheba’s refusal “could mean punishment or death”… They touch lightly on power abuse, on coercion, and on the terrible status occupied by women in scripture… But then, the editors back away from the real issues and turn this very complicated matter into something black-and-white. In their effort to determine which “sins” were committed, they target the victim. The editors found a way to assign culpability to a woman who barely spoke at all in the story.

Christians don’t like to talk about the fact that King David might have been a rapist.

That would mean admitting that being “a man after God’s own heart” doesn’t make you a good person. That would mean admitting that maybe the men that God “calls” to leadership aren’t always good people either.

That would mean admitting that maybe the women in the Bible didn’t have it so good. That would mean that, maybe “Biblical womanhood” that focuses on submission for women and ultimate power for men isn’t actually what is best for the world. 

Maybe, admitting that King David might have been a rapist would mean admitting that if God’s desire for justice rolling down like waters is to be fulfilled, we need feminists and womanists fighting for this justice. 

Yet, much of the church isn’t ready to admit any of this. So they keep the same tired old story in place. And we keep the same old stories in place for the other women of the Bible. For Esther and Ruth and Mary and the woman at the well.

So, as Jason Dye points out, power structures stay in place.

Justice is stopped up by the dams that these structures built and goes stale.

Stories that could expose gross corruption become tame morality tales that we tell our children at bed time. The Bible becomes a book of fairy tales and Christianity becomes nothing but the purchase of a one-way ticket to heaven.

We don’t talk about power. We don’t talk about oppression. And we sure as hell don’t talk about liberation (except for our ambiguous discussions of freedom from sin).

And what’s the point of that? What does that do for women? For rape victims? For the hurting and for the oppressed?

Nothing, really. And that’s the point.

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  • Erin

    Yes, yes, yes! The other day my roommate was reading through the Psalms, and turned to me and said “I have a problem with Psalm 51. David didn’t just sin against God. He raped Bathsheba, and that is not okay.”

    This is something that people avoid far too much, and I’m glad you’re speaking about it.

  • Ivoire77

    Wow!!!!!! Sarah Wow!!! I always felt that story was odd and I could never put my finger on why….tour writing inspires me…thank you!

  • Yup. It’s often referred to by biblical scholars as the “rape of Bathsheba.” Frankly, David was much more a warlord than a king; even though he’s practically canonized in some texts, his true past as a warlord still shines through in places. It pisses me off that his victims so often take the blame for his actions.

    But I *love* your mom’s response, and how you incorporated it into the play!

  • I think as Christians we tend to want to focus on the good, and to make what isn’t good seem that way. Because to admit darkness is scary. To call the heroes of the bible just as fallen as joe blow seems irreverent.

    But there is such poetry even in the brokenness. The darkness. The fact that all men are both good and evil, a man after Gods own heart, and yet a rapist. And worse, a bad parent—remember he ignores that his own daughter is raped by his own son.

    If the bible, taken the way it was meant to, tells us anything it’s that we’re broken. And we need God. It breaks my heart that people would try to manipulate it to say otherwise—for power, for dominion.

    Thanks for your post. This all needs saying.

  • “Christians don’t like to talk about the fact that King David might have been a rapist.” Yes. This. It seems like, in the bible, it never occurs to anyone that a woman should have control over her own sexuality.

    Which makes it quite strange that purity culture promises “if you stay pure and pray a lot and obey God, then he’ll reward you with a PERFECT husband.” Umm, did that ever happen to ANY woman in the bible?

  • Thank you! I read Francine Rivers’ “Unspoken,” which was one of her books about the five women in the lineage of Christ, and the whole book sets up this tale about how Bathsheba had been secretly in love with David since she was a girl and how she knew the king was still in the city and she went up to her roof deliberately to entice him.

    Honestly, as part of a series of books that were supposed to triumph these women in some sort of pseudo-feminist-yet-tempered-enough-to-be-marketed-to-evangelicals, it was a little disgusting. I’ve gotten up from the middle of church services when I hear preachers start preaching on the sin of Bathsheba– I once heard an entire message dedicated to how calling it “The Rape of Bathsheba” was unbiblical.


    It’s staggering the lengths we’ll go to ideologically and the acrobatics we’ll perform mentally just to keep our gender dynamics in play.

    • in all fairness…Rivers is trying to write an interesting story from a woman’s perspective. she’s a romance writer, so she made their story a romance. (and no, she didn’t have Bathsheba deliberately enticing him on the roof) it’s fine to hate the slant, but I mean…take it for what it is. she could have written it from a raped-woman’s perspective. but she just chose to do something else. I know that was random, but as a writer myself – I feel like she should have the right to make that choice.

      as for Sarah’s article, however: BRAVO.

  • I’m so glad to see another blog on this! I hope others join in. I was just talking to a friend this past week about this story and I agree that there is a LOT we don’t talk about because it’s uncomfortable. Thanks for speaking up!

  • Not only that, but he condoned his son raping his sister. And in both cases, he let the whole country suffer rather than face a more personal punishment.
    God can bring good out of anything, and does, but how much better if we do right to begin with?
    Thank you for defending Bathsheba. I’ve heard several people teach or preach on how it was at least partially her fault. I remain thoroughly unconvinvced.
    But even if she had wanted to tempt him (which there is zero reason to believe), then even had she danced seductively in front of him wearing only a smile and some oil, it was no excuse. None. At. All.

  • abekoby

    Not exactly the same issue, but I remember my youth pastor’s teaching was that what David did was wrong, but he was still good and a man after God’s heart because he was contrite and asked God for forgiveness. That went along with the whole atonement theology stuff, where I’m a horrible sinner and I don’t deserve to be saved, but God in His grace and mercy would save us if we would believe in Him and ask for forgiveness. But it strikes me that in that case, David sounds a lot like the world leaders many Christians make excuses for when they do something horrible. But then the leader says he’s good with God, so the Christians are still cool with him, ala George W. Bush.

    • Those are some great points and I think that needs a follow-up, Abe. Because that was the kind of garbage I heard a lot and didn’t accept when I was a kid, too. In fact, even in my conservative Evangelical church, many of us – including leaders – didn’t necessarily accept that. But it was widespread.

  • Sophie

    Even if David didn’t rape Bathsheba (which he almost certainly did ), he was still a rapist. He forced another married woman to leave her husband and go live with him in his palace. Her husband followed her as she was lead out, weeping and pleading to keep her with him. The worst thing about that story is that God supposedly ‘closed her womb’ because she resented David and thought he was a fool. I wish people would stop defending this man. He was an unspeakable b*stard with attitudes to women that would make the Taliban look like the suffragists. He was probably no worse than a lot of powerful men at that time, but that doesn’t excuse a single thing he did.

  • Great thoughts. I think anyone who doubts whether or not Bathsheba was in the wrong should remember that God sent his prophet to accuse David and lay the blame at HIS door, not hers. Even in the story Nathan recounts to David, Bathsheba is represented as an innocent young lamb–not an evil seductress who coerced David into sin.

    Also, it’s really interesting to me that the conservative commentary in Crystal’s post seems to suggest that it would have been better for Bathsheba to submit to death rather than be raped. “Purity” at all costs…

  • What I find most interesting about this passage of Scripture comes from 2 Samuel, chapter 12. God sends Nathan to correct David. Nathan uses a parable to reveal the sin in David’s heart. David repents, but there are consequences for his sin. Ultimately, David is restored to God. Whether or not David was a rapist, it’s hard to tell. Whether or not Bathsheba sinned by giving herself freely or even pursuing David, that’s hard to tell as well. There simply aren’t enough details to be able to successfully draw any conclusions there. All one can do is make assumptions. What is absolutely confirmed, is that God disapproved of what David did and called David out for what was done. We also know that David turned from his sin. I think the takeaway for me in all of this is that when God brings attention to a specific sin in our lives, we must be careful as to how we respond. We can justify our decision. We can ignore the conviction that comes from the Holy Spirit or even from a direct confrontation from our friends or family. The only thing that restores us back to to God and allows us to walk in faith again, is to confess our sin, accept responsibility (and the natural consequences of our sin), and turn our hearts, humbly, to God.

  • I never understood that story as a teenager; never understood what, exactly, Bathsheba did wrong (wasn’t David being a peeping Tom instead?), or why she was held up as a villainous seductress when she was in no position to refuse. It took me a few years out of the church to learn that my instincts were right, though people tried to talk me out of them.

    I’m glad that your mother understood there was a problem with your lines in the skit, and that you stood up in church. I’m glad you’re standing up via your blog and Twitter account, too.

  • wow, I grew up hearing the same thing about Bethsheba, that it was all her fault. David, put on your blindfold!

  • Your mom is awesome, and so are you! Great post.

  • Kelsey

    Thank you for your blog. May God continue to speak truth through you!

  • Amy

    Hi Sarah, I just found your blog today, following a link from the slacktivist blog. I think I’m going to like reading what you have to say!

    I heard this story over and over growing up in fundamentalist Baptist churches. I never once heard it suggested that Bathsheba was anything but 100% to blame for seducing David. …Why is it that SO many pastors insist that Bathsheba had no business being naked up on the roof? That’s their proof that she was flaunting her body.
    Just wondering if that’s a common “interpretation” that others have heard too.

    The closest thing I ever heard to sympathy for Bathsheba was that she was taking a bath on the roof because that’s how houses were built in those days- with flat roofs (that apparently had bathtubs on them. and good plumbing with good water pressure?)

    I read that part of the Bible over and over and could only ever find where it said that David was on the roof, not Bathsheba. Must be something wrong with my Bible, huh.

    This actually was the “very last straw” in why I stopped listening to the K-wave (KWVE) Calvary Chapel radio station about 10 years ago. When for the third time in a week I heard one of their pastors say that Bathsheba was on the roof, I changed the channel and I’ve never gone back.
    At best, they just can’t read. At worst, they have a very harmful agenda.

  • You may be my new favorite writer. Please, please, please tell me you have a video of your Bathsheba’s mom speech sitting a drawer somewhere and you’re planning on posting it to YouTube. Please, oh please.

  • Iain

    I used to know this all a lot better – but I think the account in 2 Samuel 11 and 12 is directly and explicitly about abuse of power. The word ‘SEND’ is used 14 times in the 2 chapters, King David is the one who does the SENDing- he SENDS someone to find out about Bathsheba, SENDS messengers to get her, SENDS word to Joab to SEND her husband Uriah to him, SENDS Uriah to his wife, SENDS him back to Joab with a message to kill him, SENDS soldiers to their deaths in battle to cover up, and so on. This is a King who does what he wants to whom he wants, ordering around and not caring about anyone else. Bathsheba is an object used by David – her name is only mentioned once, by a servant who calls her ‘Bathsheba the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the HIttite’; David never uses her name, even the narrator calls her ‘Uriah’s wife’

    But then things are turned upside down- the Lord SENDS Nathan the prophet to David. David who has done all the SENDing and ordering around is seen not to be the one who has the last word; he can’t decide what is right and wrong and destroy people at will, because God holds the real power and decide what’s what. David is not in charge, David’s rules are not in charge; it’s not all about who is the strongest and most powerful or the greatest title; it’s about what is right and wrong, and God steps in and the weak have a chance, the unnamed people matter, and the poor man with one lamb is just as important as the rich man with flocks and herds.

    David abuses his power, rapes and murders, and then is called to account. If you can read this as an immoral woman seducing a helpless man, you’ve not begun to understand a thing about the text

  • I grew up hearing the opposite: that King David was the sinner, he was wrong (and he was) and that it was all his fault. The whole thing about him being a rapist is pretty much a fallacy, but all in all this is pretty decent article.