Reading parts of a recent bad-tempered Twitter row about David and Bathsheba, I began to wonder whether Bathsheba is to be regarded in any sense as responsible for the turn of events. I was told that “she was really asking for it” interpretations are wildly inappropriate fantasies and that I should go away and think about why I was interested in this interpretation. I can understand the modern sensibilities at play here, but this is not a modern text, and “she was really asking for it” seems to me to miss the point. The question is whether Bathsheba saw an opportunity, if not at the outset then somewhere along the way, to become the mother of a royal son, which would make her much more a resourceful agent in the story than a victim.
There is nothing explicit in the text to suggest that she intentionally displayed her beauty in the hope of being noticed by the king (2 Sam. 11:2-5), but I’m not sure the inference can be ruled out. Her husband Uriah was one of the Thirty, a group of elite warriors who presumably served as David’s bodyguard (2 Sam. 23:39). Bathsheba was likely to have been familiar with the ways of the palace and may well have known that David had not gone out to battle (2 Sam. 11:1). Anderson says that there is “no real reason to assume that Bathsheba actually intended to be seen by the king,” but he notes the view of Augustin to the contrary.1
That Bathsheba was purifying herself from her uncleanness would have signalled that this was a favourable time for conception (2 Sam. 11:4). The detail certainly needs explaining, and I rather suspect, given its placing in the narrative, that more is at issue here than simply making it clear that the child would not be Uriah’s.
David sends messengers to fetch her and the narrator gives us no reason to think that she has been coerced or comes to him reluctantly. Perhaps she felt she had no choice but to submit to the king, but that “she came to him” and was not merely brought gives her a measure of independence and control. The liaison seems to have been managed politely and respectfully. By contrast, when Amnon tries to seduce his sister Tamar, in the same cycle of stories, she protests loudly at the violation, though the “shame” may have been a consequence of incest rather than of rape (2 Sam. 13:1-14).
David lies with Bathsheba, and she returns to her house. Nothing is said about her state of mind. Some time later she sends someone to David to inform him that she has become pregnant. It looks as though the whole object of the exercise was that she should conceive, and as far as the story goes, there is reason to think that it was more in her interest than his.
David tries to persuade Uriah, back from the battle field, to go and lie with his wife so that she will not be accused of infidelity and divorced, but to no avail (2 Sam. 11:10-13). He therefore arranges to have him killed in battle. Bathsheba laments over the death of her husband, but when the period of mourning is over, David brings her to the palace; she becomes his wife and bears a son. Only at this point are we told that the God is displeased with David’s behaviour, and the prophet Nathan enters stage left.
David’s offence, according to Nathan, is that he had Uriah killed and took his wife (2 Sam. 12:9). The message of the parable is that the rich man has wrongfully taken something which belonged to the poor man. It is not quite theft, but it is clearly regarded as a gross injustice. The “remedy is to restore the lamb fourfold… because he had no pity”—that is, pity with respect to the poor man, not to the lamb, which could simply be replaced.
David had coveted the woman who belonged to his neighbour and had committed adultery with her (cf. Exod. 20:14, 17). The God who had anointed him king over Israel had already given him the wives which belonged to Saul, and would have given him more if necessary (2 Sam. 12:7-8). Therefore, David’s house would suffer evil: “I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun” (2 Sam. 12:11–12). The immediate punishment is that the child conceived in the adulterous act will die. But the point is underlined that at least at this social level the women were a currency of male status and honour. Later David will be humiliated when Absalom publicly has sex with his concubines (2 Sam. 20-22).
Following the death of the child, David comforts Bathsheba, lies with her again, and she bears a son, who is given the name Solomon and who is loved by the Lord. It has been suggested that the name means “his replacement”: Solomon replaces the child of the adulterous relationship, who died. This may also lead us to think that it was always her intention that she would conceive a child who would become king.
When later Nathan comes to David to ask why he has designated Adonijah as his successor, David calls Bathsheba and says to her, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my soul out of every adversity, as I swore to you by the LORD, the God of Israel, saying, ‘Solomon your son shall reign after me, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ even so will I do this day” (1 Kings 1:29–30). Bathsheba bows her face to the ground and says, “May my lord King David live forever!” (1 Kings 1:31).
Finally, in Psalm 51—a psalm of contrition following Nathan’s rebuke, “after he had gone in to Bathsheba”—David (supposedly) prays that God will blot out his transgressions, restore him, and rebuild Jerusalem. The reference to Bathsheba here rather than Uriah may suggest that it is the act of adultery that is primarily at issue, but the request to be delivered from “blood” may have the killing of Uriah in view (Ps. 51:14).
In the end, we may have to conclude that the question of whether Bathsheba was “raped” or was complicit or even ambitious cannot be answered definitively. But it seems to be the case, on the one hand, that the narrator took David’s offence to be against Uriah rather than against Bathsheba, and on the other, that at some point Bathsheba took advantage of the circumstances to ensure that she would be the mother of David’s successor.
- 1A. A. Anderson, 2 Samuel (1989), 153.
Very brave in writing such an article in our modern context today. ;) It is seemingly difficult to tell by the text alone. One has to ‘read between the lines’ to conclude many things. Another approach could be that we have to understand the account written in a patriarchal setting. They wouldn’t have made as big a deal of it 3000 years ago compared with our current age of reckoning when it comes to sexual abuse. Of course, David doesn’t ultimately get off the hook for such an action and the Scripture makes clear that rape is problematic with Amnon’s raping of Tamar (though it was perhaps more about incestual rape).
Scott, you’re right about reading between the lines. But the spaces between the lines do matter, and the overall storyline seems to work its way towards the conclusion that it was important for Bathsheba that her son should be king. It is just unclear at what point that theme emerges.
Despite the fact that it can’t be answered definitely, I’m interested that you argue that David didn’t rape Bathsheba (the general direction of the arguments).
I think the fact that the narrator took the offense to be against Uriah is key here. I note that the narrator is an educated male in a patriarchal society. It seems in this situation obvious, then, that the narrator of course takes this perspective and would believe that Bathsheba is taking advantage of the circumstances. If women are simply property, is it even possible to sin against them? Would non-consensual / coercive sex even be note-worthy for that narrator? If Bathsheba was trying to have a child who was the king’s heir, it is odd that the death of that child is seen as David’s punishment, rather than hers. I wonder how she felt about her baby being first killed to punish someone else, and then ‘replaced’.
I wonder how the telling of the story would have been different if the narrator was female. I wonder how retellings would be different if historically, interpretations by women had been given equal attention. We don’t know what happened, but we do know that when men with lots of power who are morally bankrupt want something, and see women as a some thing, that they will get it — that he will get her. The status of her consent is not even on the table.
Well said. I find it interesting the Almighty is willing to address David’s individual sin of taking something that isn’t his, but fails to address the larger issue of how women are regarded. How much suffering in history could have been avoided if He had addressed male superiority? Can we really accuse a deity of being morally good if he fails to address patriarchy as sin?
I’m not sure it helps from a historical point of view to regard traditional patriarchy as a sin or as an inherent moral evil. It is possible to identify sins within patriarchal systems, which are an abuse of the system, but if we impose the sweeping moral judgment on the ancient past, we risk seriously distorting history. It’s a bit like—not entirely like—blaming the ancients for thinking that the earth was at the centre of the cosmos. I would be inclined to regard traditional patriarchy as morally neutral for the purposes of historical reconstruction.
I would also say that theology in the biblical tradition never transcends historical perspectives and cannot really be expected to. At a basic level, it is always culturally conditioned people trying to work out, as they make their way across the fractured landscape of history, how best to speak about the God who created the heavens and the earth.
I find it problematic you would regard patriarchy as morally neutral. The suffering it produced was on such a large scale it can only be concluded it was a feature — not a bug.
I think you make matters more complicated than they really are. My question is not about theology, but about God himself: how is it that a deeply moral God, who stands outside of time and culture, who can and does break in on time and culture by giving his commandments and sending his prophets, can confront people with their individual sins, yet fails to address the underlying societal patterns?
I didn’t say that I regard patriarchy as morally neutral. I said it should be regarded morally neutral “for the purposes of historical reconstruction.” That’s quite different. No one in the biblical period thought that patriarchy as a social-economic system was inherently sinful and should be abolished, but it was certainly acknowledged that various power dynamics (patriarchy, but also notably monarchy) could produce serious injustices. So some effort needs to be made to understand the Bible on its own terms.
You may think that I’m over-complicating things because you are primarily interested in how we assess God now, given our current understanding of the world. That’s quite reasonable. But as soon as we introduce the Bible into the discussion, we have to decide whether we are going to read it from the perspective of the modern reader or of the ancient reader (as far as that is possible, which may not be very far).
It seems to me that most of the people who are arguing about whether David raped Bathsheba are trying to make the text serve some modern agenda or another, applying modern moral values, and so on. That’s one way of approaching it, but like much current theological discussion, I think it may give a very poor representation of the narrator’s point of view or of how his or (improbably) her readers heard the text, how they assessed the rights and wrongs of the passage.
People say confidently that David raped Bathsheba against her will, largely, I suspect, because it is morally unacceptable these days to ascribe blame to the woman in such circumstances, but I struggle to find anything in the text that supports that view.
While I agree that there is value reading the story on its own terms (i.e. as men at the time understood the situation), and much can be learnt from that reading, there is also value in reading the story through our own eyes, as well. This is not the same as “trying to make the text serve some modern agenda”, (though to be clear, when the agenda is addressing the frequency that women worldwide are coerced into sex, I have no problem with that), it is asking the question, “What does this story have to say to society today”?
Personally, just as you struggle to find anything in the text that supports the view that David raped Bathsheba, I struggle to find anything in the text that supports the view that he obtained consent, or that she came willingly through her own choice. In contrast, I think that given the power dynamics, it seems to be almost impossible to imagine that her permission was asked in any way that included the option of saying no without negative consequences.
It isn’t about what is “morally unacceptable”, it’s about understanding — and taking responsibility — for the consequences of your interpretation. I believe the interpretations we choose and the stories we tell today about those stories are powerful. Blaming Bathsheba in this story continues a precedent of choosing, in the face of sexual moral failure, to blame the party with less power, and to prioritise and vindicate the story of those with more. The consequence, whether or not you choose it, is the continuation of women being told to cover up but men never being told to avert their eyes, something prevalent in church culture especially, and yes, of men getting away with sexual abuse of women, for which the women are blamed.
At the end of the day, no-one knows “what actually happened”, but at least allowing the interpretation that David raped Bathsheba to stand as an equal possibility provides space for the possibility of another dimension to this story: one which did not make it into the text explicitly, but which testifies to the experiences of countless women worldwide throughout history, in which coercive sex (i.e. rape) has always been wrong, even if it was not labelled as such by men at the time.
This is fair comment. I’ve tried to address a couple of the points about “blame” and how we use biblical texts to address modern issues in a second post. But what you say highlights the need for hermeneutical candour. I think probably my basic concern is that we allow ancients texts to speak on their own terms and not to be made mouthpieces for modern ethical and theological (my more serious concern) opinions.
But the text itself never ascribes any blame to the woman, and in fact describes her as a lamb that was devoured. I don’t know how it could be more clear? I could give an educated guess that sleeping with David was one of the very last things in the world she would’ve wanted to do, considering that her husband was away and she was fertile at the time. Adultery was a life or death issue for women then, and if she already had other children, they could have been orphaned. So no, she didn’t want it and if she went along with it, then it was only to preserve her life. I would bet money on it.
If you could try to put yourself in her shoes or understand the horror and chaos of what some men do to women, you would not be yammering on about a “modern agenda” or “modern moral values”. He raped her and then he murdered her husband. People back then may not have *consistently* cared about a woman’s consent, but there were laws against rape. Ancient men actually did know better, they just didn’t always care.
And before you say that David was a “man after God’s own heart,” no he was not. Samuel made that statement about him while he was a young boy, long before he ever became king. After he came to power, he became selfish and mostly unconcerned about others. That’s why God tried to warn Israel against setting up a monarchy.
Malissa, thanks for this. I don’t know if you looked at the three further posts on the Bathsheba story, but some of the concerns you raise were addressed there, so I won’t try and repeat everything.
- Further notes on David and Bathsheba
- No one’s blaming Bathsheba
- The narrative vocabulary of rape in the Old Testament and the counter-example of Amnon and Tamar
I will, however, make a few comments in direct response.
I agree that Bathsheba is not blamed for what happened, but since the ultimate outcome is that her later legitimate son becomes king after David, there is some ground for thinking that she is credited with significant agency.
David is clearly in the wrong, but as far as the prophetic critique goes, his offence is against Uriah, not against Bathsheba—and against God for not having asked first for more children. This is in sharp contrast to the story of Amnon and Tamar, which is part of the same cycle.
I do think it is important to yammer on about modern agendas because a good deal of theological, ethical, historical, etc., misunderstanding arises because we consistently read our personal or ecclesiastical biases into the biblical texts.
This is not to dismiss, in this case, the moral agenda of countering sexual exploitation, only to ask whether that was what is going on in this particular case. There is no reason why this has to be a story of rape and not the account of a more complex courtly transaction. Just because something is important to us doesn’t mean that it has to be in the Bible. The doctrine of hell as a place eternal conscious torment is important to a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean it is in the Bible. We need to read critically, and I think that must mean historically critically.
Yes, we can try and put ourselves in Bathsheba’s shoes, but I think we probably first need to put ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, because it is only to his telling of the story that we have direct access. If we follow the arc of the narrative, as I said, it arrives at the succession of Solomon, when Bathsheba becomes mother of Israel’s king. It seems to me that the narrator is sympathetic towards Bathsheba not because she was coerced into having sex with David (nothing is said that points in that direction) but because she was instrumental in the historic development.
If women are simply property, is it even possible to sin against them? Would non-consensual / coercive sex even be note-worthy for that narrator?
The same narrator is very sympathetic to Tamar’s predicament when she is raped by her brother Amnon. The morality of the incident is complicated but the violence against the woman is unequivocally condemned, and Amnon is later killed for his crime.
I wonder how she felt about her baby being first killed to punish someone else, and then ‘replaced’.
We are told that David “comforted” his wife after the death of the child (2 Sam. 12:24), and presumably his later insistence that her son would become king indicates some concern for her feelings. But that’s about it. These histories are by and large the accounts of the actions of men; women operate below the radar.
Is this a story about rape, or is it a story about incest? I’m not convinced that this one story is strong enough evidence to justify your point, as there are other things going on in that story.
It’s not rape or incest; it’s incestuous rape. So it would not be entirely different from the rape of Bathsheba, if that’s what it was. But not exactly the same either.
I think you are bang on the money, Alice. The woman in a patriarchal society is a commodity. The man has the power, and especially when that man is the king.
Bathsheba had no choice about being summoned before David.
many argument that seeks to defend David’s behaviour merely ends up supporting patriarchy.
Speculation about Bathsheba’s motives are answered by the prophet Nathan’s assessment (from God’s lips to David’s ears in a very public forum). Bathsheba was as vulnerable and innocent as a ewe lamb.
Lambs have no agency.
Nathan positioned David’s actions as a rich and powerful man using his power to take the one beloved treasure a poor man had. David instantly understood how profoundly wrong and bad his actions were, and made no attempt to share blame with Bathsheba.
And in any case, the hypothesis that Bathsheba was angling for a royal son falls apart with David sending Uriah to have sex with Bathsheba and thereby assign the unborn child’s fatherhood to Uriah. Rather, this is the story of one wrong action leading to more and more wrong actions in an attempt to distance himself from his own wrongdoing.
Joanne, thanks for this. I addressed these points in the two subsequent posts:
But just briefly:
- I agree that lambs have no agency, but the point is that the lamb is a possession, not an innocent victim; the only victim in the parable is the poor man.
- David acknowledged his guilt for having killed Uriah and taken his wife, and it would make no sense to implicate Bathsheba on this account; Nathan does not accuse him of having “violated” (see the discussion of the rape of Tamar) Bathsheba in the first place.
- I don’t think the narrator allows us to conclude that Bathsheba was “angling for a son”; but I think he encourages his readers to see the potential in the story for Bathsheba to become the mother of David’s successor.
- It is only Bathsheba who will benefit from bearing David’s child; David has no interest in her conceiving, which is why he tries to get Uriah to have sex with her.