Most of us tried to let it go. You know. The recent flair up over whether David committed adultery with Bathsheba as recorded in 2 Samuel 11: 1-5 or forcibly and brutally raped her. But those who insist King David maliciously, violently raped the innocent, sinless Bathsheba continue to fuel the flame.
The fact is, there's enough ambiguity in the biblical text to sustain a possible rape if we allow the modern constructs I've noted. But only a possible rape not a definitive rape. To conclude a definitive rape is to go far beyond the biblical evidence we have. The overwhelming majority of exegetes from the Church Fathers until now interpreted David's fling with Bathsheba as adultery rather than rape, and I think they were not only more cautious in their interpretation than those today who insist it was a case of rape but also correct in their interpretation.
*On October 14, Christianity Today published a piece entitled "Why It's Easier to Accept David as a Murderer than a Rapist" by Texas pastor, Kyle Worley. While Worley agrees that the few verses in 2 Samuel describing the incident doesn't meet the criteria for rape according to the Old Testament, he nonetheless argues "the story of David and Bathsheba appears to many modern readers, including me, to meet contemporary definitions of rape."
My first inclination is to wonder why would we read modern definitions back into the text of Scripture? Would we read modern definitions of lust, pride, forgiveness, reconciliation, truth-telling, redemption or any number of other salvific or moral mentionables back into the text of Scripture? Why would modern constructs of rape be any different? One of the first rules of sound hermeneutics is to allow the text to speak for itself, define its own terms, and resist imposing categories upon the text it would not have recognized.
Worley favorably cited Old Testament professor, David Lamb, 'describing a basic argument that David was guilty of "power rape rather than adultery" since Bathsheba had no choice.' In Lamb's article published October 22, 2015 entitled, "David Was a Rapist, Abraham Was a Sex Trafficker," he claims we "downgrade Old Testament abuse stories to sexual peccadilloes." Thus, he dubs Abraham a "Pimping Patriarch" for "sex trafficking" his wife Sarah when Abram sojourned to Egypt because of a famine (Gen 12:10-20). In order to survive in a strange land, Abram instructed his beautiful wife, Sarah, to tell Pharaoh she was his brother not her husband lest he be killed, and Sarah taken anyway. She did. Pharaoh later discovers their scheme and exclaims to Abram, "Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife. Take her and go!" (v.19).
Lamb concludes, 'the language that Pharaoh "took her" suggests sexual engagement.' He later concludes of Abram,
'He was more concerned about his own safety than his wife's well being and dignity. […] Sarah must have felt betrayed, and Pharaoh suffered because of Abraham's deception… The only one "blessed" in this scenario is Abraham. He essentially trafficked his wife and profited richly, and it didn't take long for sexual exploitation to creep up again in his family.'
Those like myself who would not go as far as to label Abram a "sex trafficker" who callously "pimped out" his wife, Lamb accuses of softening the narrative because they fail to "pay close attention to the details, and as a result miss what the biblical authors intended to communicate." Personally, I don't think the biblical authors intended to communicate to their readers that Abram was a "Pimping Patriarch" who engaged in "sex trafficking." Indeed, I think that's a highly provocative perception of Abram and Sarah's sojourn to Egypt and their dealing with Pharaoh interjected into the text.
Even though Abram and/or Abraham is mentioned over 220 times in Scripture, nothing remotely either in Old Testament or New characterizes Abram the way Lamb does. Imagine the Apostle Paul speaking of Abraham as the father of our faith in the same breath as "Pimping Patriarch" who "sex traffics" his wife (Romans 4). Or, the Hebrews author suggesting that even though "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going" (11:8), Abram nonetheless went down to Egypt and, as the hardened, abusive "sex trafficker" he was, "pimped out" his wife for sex. Lamb finds in Scripture what appears absurd to the biblical authors themselves. While the sins of biblical characters and heroes are never sugar-coated in Scripture, neither are they embellished to make them even more depraved than they already were. I find the terms "pimp" and "sex trafficker" repulsive, having no interpretative basis in the text, and only used in the sense of the modern day "shock jock."
I find it interesting also that Lamb bases his entire conclusion on labeling Abram the "Pimping Patriarch" on two words Pharaoh spoke, "took her," as if there remains no other conclusion than his own that "took her" suggests sexual relationship (Gen 12:19). While it's possible it could suggest sexual relations, there's no reason in the text to suppose that sexual relations is necessarily implied in the phrase "took her."
For example, Abram later pulls the same survival stunt in Gerar in dealing with King Abimelech as he did in Egypt dealing with Pharaoh (Gen 20:1-18). Abram told Abimelech Sarah was his sister. Consequently, Abimelech "had Sarah brought to him" (v.2). Later on a certain night, God appeared to Abimelech in a dream telling Abimelech he was a dead man "because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman" (v.3, emphasis added). The biblical author followed up God's divine threat to Abimelech with a key interpretative phrase, "Now Abimelech had not approached her" (v.4). In other words, even though the King had taken her presumably as his wife, sexual relations were absent from the relationship thus far. Abimelech immediately proclaimed, "I did this with a clear conscience and clean hands" (v.5). God responding affirmed Abimelech: "I know that you did this with a clear conscience. I have also kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I have not let you touch her" (v.6).
Hence, Lamb is decisively mistaken to conclude "took her" indicates sexual relations. It certainly did not indicate such when Abimelech took Sarah. Consequently, there's no necessity to conclude sexual relations happened when Pharaoh took Sarah.
Similarly, but even more mistaken, are those who insist that David's sending his men to "get" Bathsheba implies she was taken by force (2 Samuel 11:4). No such reading is required by the text. Even noted Feminist theologian and literary critic, J. Cheryl Exum, who embraces the rape narrative,** remains convinced that the story in 2 Samuel 11:1-5 as it stands requires one to remain neutral as to whether David raped Bathsheba:
Is Bathsheba, like Rabbah of the Ammonites, taken by force? We cannot be sure, for although "sent" and "took" indicate aggression on David's part, "came" and "returned," the two verbs of which Bathsheba is the subject, are not what one would expect if resistance were involved.
And that's not all. Lamb also imagines 'Sarah must have felt betrayed, and Pharaoh suffered because of Abraham's deception… The only one "blessed" in this scenario is Abraham. He essentially trafficked his wife and profited richly, and it didn't take long for sexual exploitation to creep up again in his family.'
Far from this sour conclusion Lamb makes concerning Abram and Sarah in Egypt, God pours out abundant blessings upon Abram, Sarah, and Abimelech's household. Unlike Lamb's title of "Pimping Patriarch," God declares to Abimelech that Abram stands as His "prophet" and to seek Abram's prayers so he would be blessed (Gen 20:7). Later on, hardly feeling betrayed or abused, Sarah is blessed with honor and full vindication before Abimelech, Abram, and God (v.16). Finally, Abimelech's household is richly compensated because of Abram's prayers (vv.17-18). Thus, contrary to Lamb's picture before, Abram appears to be affirmed by God as His prophet whose prayers He hears and answers rather than essentially trafficking his wife and profiting richly.
One has to wonder why Abram's action in Egypt was the focus of Lamb's attention rather than Abram's identical action in Gerar with King Abimelech. Could it be that the narrative about Abram in Egypt was more adaptable to Lamb's presuppositions than the Gerar narrative? I don't know this is so and would readily give Lamb the benefit of doubt. However, because his conclusion concerning Abram as the "Pimping Patriarch" who engages in "sex trafficking" remains so provocative and frankly anachronistic, it's difficult to remain neutral about it.
Worley also seems to favorably accept Lamb's conclusion that the incident with David and Bathsheba was '"power rape rather than adultery" since Bathsheba had no choice.' Why would anyone blame Bathsheba, Lamb asks,
But why blame her? She could have been fully clothed and using just a bowl. The text doesn't say she was naked. And the text doesn't say she knew she was being watched. Finally, women generally didn't say no to men—not in ancient societies like theirs. And subjects certainly didn't say no to kings.
In response, while it's true the text does not indicate Bathsheba was naked, it's hardly persuasive to suggest she was "fully clothed" either. If so, upon what did David gaze that aroused such an intensive, burning lust, that he sent his men to inquire who this was? Moreover, the text emphasizes the exquisite beauty of Bathsheba— "a very beautiful woman" (2 Samuel 11:2). If she was "fully clothed," exactly what was "very beautiful" about Bathsheba?
Contrary to David and Diana Garland's summary of the David-Bathsheba event, we are not required, as artists, to transform Bathsheba into a "painted sex kitten" or "coquettishly parading [her] around naked to catch the king's eye" before concluding there was something that locked in David's mind to such heightened lust as to immediately inquire about her. And, though the text doesn't say Bathsheba knew she was being watched, the place and time of her bathing cannot be so easily dismissed. As George Nichol observes in his insightful essay entitled, "The Alleged Rape of Bathsheba,"
Although it is not often noted, this comment [i.e. "and the woman was very beautiful"] tells us something about the proximity of the woman to the palace; not only was she very beautiful, but she is portrayed as having been close enough for David to see that she was very beautiful, and from that we can judge that she is represented as having been no great distance away, and fully visible to the naked eye.
Lamb also asserts that "women generally didn't say no to men—not in ancient societies like theirs. And subjects certainly didn't say no to kings."
I'm surprised as anyone that an Old Testament scholar would make such an unguarded assertion like this. While in some ancient societies women may not have been used to saying no to either men or Kings, in Israel, women were obligated by Law to say no to unwanted sexual advances. Deuteronomy 22:22-29 specifically spells out a woman's obligation to resist unwanted sexual advances. If she were sexually accosted in the city, she was required to "cry out" lest the authorities presume she was an adulteress and would be stoned to death along with the adulterer (vv.22-24).
On the other hand, if she were sexually attacked in the open country, she was not required to "cry out" since no one would be expected to hear her. Consequently, she would be presumed innocent, but her assailant would be charged with rape and put to death (v.25). Hence, for Lamb to conclude that "women generally didn't say no to men" is strangely remarkable and grossly misinformed.
Nor is it true that "subjects certainly didn't say no to kings." Again, it may have been true in other cultures, but Israel was a nation of Laws—Divine Laws—not arbitrary laws written by men. One might compare the arbitrary decrees written by Kings Ahasuerus via Haman (Esther 3:1-15), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1-7), and Darius (Daniel 6:1-7) to Israel's Law rooted in God Himself (Joshua 1:6-9).
Nor was the King exceptional to the Law but was subject to it just as every other Israelite. Saul apparently thought Kings were above God's Law (1 Samuel 13:1-15; 15:1-23). They were not. Pertaining to sexual aggression, Deuteronomy 22:22-29 applied not only to all men and women generally but no exception is cataloged for the King.
Apparently, the social construct cited today of "power rape" is based upon the assumption that men who have enormous power advantages over women are particularly prone to take sexual advantage of the women who are under their power. Worley interprets David's action and the prophet Nathan's subsequent condemnation of David's sin strictly in terms of this "power imbalance":
Even according to David and Nathan, David’s sin isn’t merely that he slept with Bathsheba, but that he did so in a way mired by his exploitation of power, deception, and self-gain. The power imbalance is clearly called out.
Thus, since David was King, one is justified in concluding the relationship David had with Bathsheba was power rape rather than adultery since Bathsheba's choice did not exist. Lamb agrees with Worley concluding, "Based on the huge power differential between the king and his subject, it's more accurate to call this power rape rather than adultery. Bathsheba couldn't say no. She didn't even have a choice."
When one reads Nathan's response to King David's outrage concerning the callous actions of the rich man toward the poor man in the prophet's parable, however, conspicuously missing from Nathan's judgment that "You are the man!" is any allusion to David's initial night with Bathsheba at all (2 Samuel 12:7-10). Instead Nathan goes for the jugular, so to speak, in condemning David for "despising the Lord's command by doing what I consider evil" (v.9a). And in Nathan's understanding, just how did David despise God's law and commit evil? David had "struck down Uriah the Hethite with the sword and took his wife as your own--you murdered him with the Ammonite's sword" (v.9b).
Nor does the prophet mention the so-called "power imbalance" Worley insists is "clearly called out." For Nathan, David's sin was first and foremost against God--"you despised the Lord's command." And the evil David committed was a) striking down Uriah, and b) taking Bathsheba as his wife.
Even so, Worley and Lamb are not alone in their reading the fall of Israel's King in terms of "power imbalance." Others have concluded similarly. The Garlands are very clear.
Even if she was flattered by the attention of the king, however, and even if she found him attractive, she was not responsible for what happened. Since consent was impossible, given her powerless position, David in essence raped her. Rape means to have sex against the will, without the consent, of another - and she did not have the power to consent. Even if there was no physical struggle, even if she gave in to him, it was rape.
While "power rape" can and does exist in our so-called #MeToo society, it remains just another injection of flawed anachronism to simplistically read it back into the text. For my part, far too much Scripture is ignored by those who conclude that "power rape" existed in Israel because no one dared to challenge the King.
Besides what's already been established concerning the King being subject to the Law not arbitrator of the Law, one must remember that the King's subjects did in fact challenge his authority. Absalom, his own son, bucked David's authority and ran him out of Jerusalem. The Bible says Absalom "stole the hearts of the men of Israel," and David had to flee (2 Samuel 15:1-7). Shimei cursed and threw rocks at David without the King's retaliation (2 Samuel 16:5-14). Joab ignored David's orders more than once (2 Samuel 18:14; 20:7-10). And it was Joab who blistered David with shame while he was mourning over the death of his and Bathsheba's son, charging him with jeopardizing the morale of the troops (2 Samuel 19:5-6). Many more instances could be logged where the King's power over them was not nearly as imbalanced as many appear to suggest.
The bottom line is, Bathsheba possessed a way out of submitting to the King's sexual advances. Accordingly, she was to "cry out" since it was a city affair (Deuteronomy 22:22-25). No evidence exists in the text indicating she resisted David's advances. Hence, since she apparently did not make her objections known, whether or not she was actually guilty remains, according to the Law, irrelevant. The Law would presume her guilt in an adulterous affair. Hence, both David and Bathsheba deserved, according to the Law, the death penalty for their night together. Neither received it. And we should be glad.
The exchange concerning David and Bathsheba on Social Media was started by sexual abuse advocate, Rachael Denhollander, who categorically claimed we need to get this straight: David raped Bathsheba. While many of her fans coddled her as she boldly proclaimed what the Bible never does, some of us chose to challenge what seems to be a clear case of reading one's own presuppositions into the text rather than discovering the truth out of the text.
I wish I could say I have confidence that shallow interpretations like this will be rare in the future. Unfortunately, I cannot. This may be only the beginning.
For Further Reading:
Abasili, Alexander Izuchukwu. 2011. "Was It Rape? The David and Bathsheba Pericope Re-Examined". Vetus Testamentum. 61, no. 1: 1-15.
Andruska, Jennifer. 2017. "«Rape» in the Syntax of 2 Samuel 11:4". Zeitschrift Fur Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. 129, no. 1: 103-109.
Exum, J Cheryl. 1996. “Bathsheba Plotted, Shot, and Painted.” Semeia 74: 47–73.**
Garland, David E., Diana Garland. "Bathsheba's Story: Surviving Abuse and Loss." Baylor School of Social Work. 22-33.
Nicol, George G. "The Alleged Rape of Bathsheba: Some Observations on Ambiguity in Biblical Narrative." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 22.73 (1997): 43-54.
*Note: since first publishing the piece, I added a few extra remarks and sources to clarify what some believed to be vague in portions of my commentary.
**As a literary critic, Exum does not accept the story in 2 Samuel 11:1-5 as actual history. Perhaps more accurate would be she accepts it as historical fiction. For her, the narrator (author of 2 Samuel) created the characters in Samuel much like Margaret Mitchell created Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Thus, she provocatively concludes that while Bathsheba was raped, David did not rape her. Rather Bathsheba was raped by the narrator, the author of 2 Samuel.