Further notes on David and Bathsheba

In response to the last post asking whether David raped Bathsheba a couple of online commentaries defending the rape interpretation were flagged up on Facebook: David’s Rape of Bathsheba and Murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) by the Theology of Work Project, and Restoring Bathsheba, a sermon by Wil Gafney. There are no doubt others, maybe better ones, out there, but these will serve the present purpose. I also want to take into account some of the arguments made directly against my suggestion that the narrator’s failure to condemn the sexual encounter opens up the possibility that there woman is seen less as the victim of coercive sex, more as an agent in this critical succession story.

Bathsheba was merely washing; she was not naked and had no thought of seducing David

According to the text Bathsheba was “washing” (rochetzet) as part of a ritual cleansing following her menstrual “uncleanness” (2 Sam. 11:2, 4). I don’t know if the ritual part meant that she was bathing her whole body in full view of the palace, but that may be beside the point.

There are two other instances of a woman washing herself in the Old Testament. Naomi tells Ruth to “wash” (rchtz) and anoint herself and go and meet Boaz (Ruth 3:3); and there is a suggestive passage in Ezekiel that certainly resonates with the account of Bathsheba’s trip to the palace:

They even sent for men to come from afar, to whom a messenger was sent; and behold, they came. For them you bathed (rachatzte) yourself, painted your eyes, and adorned yourself with ornaments. (Ezek. 23:40)

In both these texts the woman washes in preparation for a meeting with a man, one righteously, the other unrighteously. Obviously, in Bathsheba’s case the circumstances are different, but she has at least—wittingly or otherwise—put on display the fact that she is both beautiful and in oestrus. As I said before, there is reason to think that she would have been aware that the king was in residence. That the story begins with a woman washing, therefore, may well have suggested to the Hebrew reader that, as far as the storytelling goes, this was a preparation for a sexual encounter.

That David appears initially to have tried to pass the baby off as Uriah’s may mean that Bathsheba’s fertility is of interest only to the reader. Presumably some time has elapsed between her visit to the palace and the realisation that she is pregnant, so David’s motives are not entirely clear. In any case, it is not his but Bathsheba’s motives that we are asking about.

Bathsheba had no choice but to come to David

So David sent messengers and took (lqch) her, and she came to him, and he lay (yishkav) with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house.

It is no doubt true that Bathsheba would have felt obliged to accept David’s invitation to come to the palace, but that does not prevent her from protesting or resisting. It would have been easy enough for the narrator, who shared the perspective of Nathan, to have introduced some hint of coercion, some note of censure, into the story.

As it is, the manner in which David made enquiries about the woman and sent messengers, and her quiet return to her house, give the impression that this was all regarded as unremarkable courtly procedure. “She came to him” even grants Bathsheba a measure of agency. That she later sends (tishlach) word to David that she is pregnant balances his sending (yishlach) of messengers to her, creating a sense of reciprocity.

The Theology at Work commentary claims that the sex is a “one-way perpetration by David”: he lay with her, not “they lay together.” But no example of the mutual form is given. “He lay with her” emphasises the man’s action but it does not necessarily signify rape. On the one hand, when Shechem saw Dinah, “he seized (yiqqach) her and lay (yishkav) with her and humiliated her” (Gen. 34:2). That’s rape. On the other, Leah says to Jacob, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay (yishkav) with her that night” (Gen. 30:16). Uriah says to David, “Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie (shekav) with my wife?” (2 Sam. 11:11).

If there is any hint of impropriety in “he lay with her” (it would have been wrong for Uriah to lie with his wife in a time of war?), in David’s case this would simply be attributed to the illicit nature of the liaison.

David admits that he deserves to die for having committed adultery

David’s exclamation “the man who has done this deserves to die” (2 Sam. 12:5) does not amount to an implicit admission of adultery, as though with reference to stoning for adultery (Deut. 22:22-29). The translation is misleading. What he says is, “the man who has done this is a son of death.” The point is more likely to be that David’s action has not only led to the death of Uriah by the sword but will also mean that the violence will continue.

Again, it needs to be stressed that David is at no point reproached for having either raped or committed adultery with Bathsheba. His sin was to have had Uriah killed in order that he might take Bathsheba to be his wife:

Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. (2 Sam. 12:9–10)

Bathsheba is the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable and therefore an innocent victim of violence

The lamb in Nathan’s story is not the unblemished lamb that is sacrificed but a cherished possession, one that was bought. The offence is very clearly against Uriah, not against Bathsheba. Even then, Nathan says that God would have given him another wife if required. It is significant that in the parable the poor man remains alive and the lamb is killed. The “sin” highlighted is that the rich man already had a large flock of sheep-wives and didn’t need to take another one, certainly not in so unjust a fashion. The Theology of Work commentary is wrong to say that “David’s crime was an abuse of power carried out in the form of sexual violation”—at least, that’s not how either Nathan or the narrator judged it, however it may appear to us.

This is reinforced by the only reference to the original sexual encounter in Nathan’s judgment:

And 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)

This looks ahead to the story of Absalom having sex with his father’s concubines as a humiliating and public expression of his claim to the succession:

Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give your counsel. What shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. (2 Sam. 16:20–22)

As McCarter says, “Because David lay with Uriah’s wife in secret, Yahweh is going to arrange for someone to lie with David’s wives in public.”1 Just as David high-handedly took the wife of Uriah, Absalom will take the harem of the king. The emphasis, in different ways, is on the offence against the man, not any offence against the woman or women.

When we call this incident adultery or impugn Bathsheba’s actions, we are not only ignoring the text, but we are essentially blaming the victim

Of course, if the text clearly presents the incident as rape, the woman is a victim. This is so in the case of Amnon’s rape of Tamar a couple, which is part of the same narrative. It would be wrong to blame Tamar. But the text does not clearly present the incident as rape, so we ought to consider whether something else is going on before we read into it our own contemporary moral certainties. The larger story that is being told does not suggest that she is merely a slut or a passive victim; rather she is a significant capable and dignified actor in the process by which Solomon comes to the throne.

In literary-historical context—in the mind of the narrator, given how the story develops—it’s more likely that she is cautiously given credit for a turn of events that led to the enthronement of her “replacement” son, Solomon. Blame doesn’t come into it. She is not presented as a seductress, but she may have been an opportunist—and certainly becomes one.

It was put to me that by “suggesting her connivance in the adultery at the beginning of the narrative one is removing the responsibility from David alone.” But I struggle to understand why it is a good thing to remove responsibility from Bathsheba at this point. It is not unheard of in the Old Testament for a woman to take responsibility—with approval—for the process of conception, as we have seen with the story of Jacob and Leah (Gen. 30:16-17).

She married a monster

Wil Gafney imputes a wide range of emotions and motivations to Bathsheba that have no basis in the text. She could be grateful that David didn’t kill her too. She made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances as an act of angry defiance. Gafney can’t imagine how Bathsheba could continue to sleep with the king. “She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go.” That sounds to me like a wholesale recasting of the story in modern terms. It’s quite possible, of course, that the actual marriage between David and Bathsheba was nothing like it is portrayed in the annals, but that is a quite different type of historical criticism. For now, I am only concerned about how we read the text as it stands.

We need to make an example of David in order to register the suffering of women who are coerced into sex

I’m not convinced that we defend victims of rape well by over-interpreting or misinterpreting a biblical text simply because we have seen some egregious examples of powerful men abusing vulnerable or subordinate women in recent years. The church has created all sorts of problems for itself by modernising scripture, not least problems of intellectual integrity, and I think it would be unwise to make exceptions just where it suits a dominant moral or political agenda. We don’t need David to have raped Bathsheba in order to condemn male violence against women, and quite possibly we are doing Bathsheba a disservice.

  • 1P. Kyle McCarter, II Samuel (1974), 306.
Alice Codner | Mon, 07/18/2022 - 20:48 | Permalink
  • There are two separate questions being discussed.  One is “What did the narrator really say/mean?” and the other is “What really happened?”  I think it would be beneficial to separate these two questions out.
  • I agree that the Bible needs to “not to be made mouthpieces for modern ethical and theological (my more serious concern) opinions”.  I do think, however, that modern opinions can provide an opportunity for alternative understandings and interpretations that have not previously been given much attention.  
  • I still recommend ‘The Womanist Midrash’ by Wilda Gafney.  It’s less about updating the Bible stories and more about looking at the ambiguities in a close reading of the Hebrew text and what happens when those ambiguities are translated by a Black woman rather than white man — given that all translation is also interpretation.  If nothing else, I think you’d find her perspective interesting.
  • Thanks for the discussion, Andrew.  It’s important to have forums for discussions like this.  Much appreciated.

Sorry, I thought you would be alerted to the fact that I commented on your previous post. Here is a link to what I wrote:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2022/07/blaming-…

I found myself unable to keep reading after you blamed Bathsheba for washing herself after the end of her menstruation as the Law mandates, in a place that should have been private, because according to you she knew the king did not march out with his fighting men, had a vantage point to leer inappropriately, and she knew he would do so and…what? According to your reading, should she not have washed as the Law requires because there was a wicked man who could peer into anyone’s property inappropriately from his vantage point? How can you possibly twist Bathsheba’s right action, which in the story is a foil to the evil that David does, into something that makes her blameworthy?!