Every couple of months, a certain debate swirls among Christians on Twitter who for some reason keep returning to the same question: Did David rape Bathsheba?
The biblical account in question, which is recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12, is an infamous story of King David’s failure to live up to his moniker of “a man after God’s own heart.” Though he ought to have been leading his troops in battle, David was strolling the roof of his palace when he caught a glimpse of a woman bathing on the roof of her home. Finding her attractive, he inquired about her.
Her name was Bathsheba, and she was married to Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s soldiers. Nevertheless, David summoned her to his palace and slept with her.
Later, Bathsheba discovered she was pregnant. After failed attempts to conceal his offense, David had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed by ordering his troops to betray him in battle.
Following Uriah’s death, David took Bathsheba as one of his wives. Mark that: one of his multiple wives.
Bathsheba has long been characterized by Bible teachers as a temptress, an adulteress, who caused David to stumble into an extramarital affair. However, Bible interpreters in more recent years have begun to question the wisdom of that characterization, noting that the narrative does not depict the sexual encounter between David and Bathsheba as consensual.
In this view, Bathsheba is not a guilty participant in a racy affair but a victim of David’s abuse of power, which included sexual violence.
This interpretation of Bathsheba as a victim has been met with suspicion by a number of pastors and Christian influencers who believe it to be a feminist reading of the text that is more concerned with social justice than sound biblical interpretation. Do they have a point?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but no. They don’t.
By taking a closer look at the text, it isn’t a difficult case to make that Bathsheba was a victim of sexual assault rather than an adulterer—from both a narrative perspective as well as a theological one.
But perhaps even more important is questioning why so many evangelical leaders are willing to die on the hill of painting Bathsheba as a wrongdoer.
Evidence Pointing to David’s Actions as Sexual Assault
It is certainly true that the author of Samuel does not explicitly say that David raped Bathsheba. Nevertheless, all signs in the text point to that reality.
Here are three evidences from within the narrative text itself that point to the encounter between David and Bathsheba being not merely an extramarital affair, but sexual assault.
Nowhere Does the Text Characterized Bathsheba as a Guilty Party
Bathsheba is often characterized as a temptress because she was allegedly exposing herself to David, hoping to be seen by him. However, nothing in the text suggests this is the case. What’s more is that David shouldn’t have even been there. He should have been leading his troops in battle, among whom was Bathsheba’s husband.
If Bathsheba was bathing on the roof of her home, it is reasonable to assume that she could expect a certain measure of privacy. That is, unless someone was peeping from just about the only place in the city that was looking down on her house: the palace, which ought not to have had anybody on its roof at this particular moment anyway.
What’s more is that Bathsheba was not merely bathing but performing a ceremonial cleaning ritual after her monthly cycle, which indicates that she was committed to honoring the Mosaic law. It makes sense that her mikveh (ceremonial bath) was on her roof, where it could gather rainwater. She may have even been clothed, but perhaps not.
Either way, Bathsheba was not doing something salacious but actually performing a religious rite commanded by God. Yet David was leering at her.
And when you get summoned by the king, you don’t have the option of saying no.
Later, when Bathsheba sent word to David that she was pregnant, she was likely fearful for her life. According to the law in Deuteronomy 22, the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. If it was discovered that Bathsheba had become pregnant despite her husband being away at war, it would be assumed that she had cheated on him, and she would likely be executed.
Conversely, in instances of rape in cases where the woman was married or betrothed, only the assailant was put to death. In other words, only David could exonerate her and save her life.
David had committed a capital offense by sleeping with another man’s wife. And though it is unlikely he would suffer the same consequences for his crime as would a rank and file citizen, he did not come clean. Instead, he attempted to conceal his guilt by summoning Uriah to Jerusalem in the hopes Uriah would go home and sleep with Bathsheba, thus believing the child she bore was his.
When Uriah refused to go home out of solidarity with his fellow soldiers, David sent word to those troops—by the hand of Uriah no less—to betray Uriah so that he would be killed in battle.
With Uriah out of the picture, David took Bathsheba as one of his wives, to provide for her for the rest of her life. In this way, David seems to offer a tacit admission of what he really did, imposing on himself at least part of the penalty incurred by a man who sexually violates a woman with no husband.
In Deuteronomy, the penalty for raping a woman with no husband was a one-time monetary penalty to the father of the victim plus the requirement that the perpetrator marry the victim and financially provide for her for the rest of her life.
To the modern ear, this sounds pretty awful. Marry your abuser? But in the ancient world, this law was actually progressive.
In the culture of the day, women had virtually no rights. They could not own property. When they were given in marriage by their fathers, it was only after a business arrangement between the families was reached. If a woman was not a virgin, she was essentially unmarriable and likely to become destitute. So the financial security ensured by marriage, even marriage to an abuser, was actually a legal protection for women that was unheard of in contemporary cultures.
By marrying Bathsheba, David was apparently compensating her for his sin against her.
When the prophet Nathan came to visit David, however, he indicated that God’s justice had not been satisfied. His words to David are as illuminating of David’s true offense as they were excoriating.
Nathan Uses Language of ‘Theft’ To Describe David’s Wrongdoing
When the prophet Nathan came to rebuke King David for what he had done against Bathsheba and her late husband Uriah, he did not use language of adultery or affair. Instead, he told a parable about theft.
There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)
Upon hearing the parable, David became angry and declared that the thief deserved to die and would be required to pay back what he had taken fourfold, “because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Samuel 12:6). It was then that Nathan delivered his now-infamous line: “Thou art the man!”
David had no pity. He had stolen Bathsheba’s dignity. He had stolen Uriah’s wife. He had stolen Uriah’s life, thereby robbing Bathsheba of her husband.
Therefore, Nathan prophesied, the latter days of David’s reign would be marked by loss and bloodshed. While the covenant God had made with David was irrevocable, the consequences of this crime would follow him for the rest of his life.
In this exchange with David, the prophet Nathan never assigned any guilt to Bathsheba. She was not a perpetrator in this ordeal but rather a victim of David’s abuse of power.
The Power Dynamics at Play Indicate Bathsheba’s Lack of Agency
Certainly, the author of Samuel did not likely have the same understanding of consent as we do now. Again, he wrote at a time when women had virtually no rights.
Nevertheless, what was understood in those days was that the king’s power, given to him directly by God, was absolute. Consequently, by a wave of his finger, the king could determine your fate. And if he expressed his wish for you to do something, it was not a request but a command.
To the modern mind, consent is not possible when one person does not have the power to say no. And to the ancient mind, the Mosaic law actually provided a provision to give Bathsheba the benefit of the doubt.
Going back to Deuteronomy 22, a rape could only be considered such if the woman had attempted to resist it. That is, she needed to cry out for help in order for the charge to stick. However, in cases where a woman was assailed in a place where her voice could not be heard and no one could come to rescue her, such as out in an isolated field, she would be taken at her word that the sexual encounter had occurred against her will.
Bathsheba was not assailed by David in an isolated field. But in the palace of the sovereign king, who would be coming to save her from his advances?
In the end, this was not an ill-fated romance that ended in tragedy. It was an act of violence perpetrated by David that wreaked disastrous consequences for Bathsheba’s family as well as his own.
Examining Why so Many Want To Die on This Hill
Despite the fairly transparent fact that David sexually assaulted Bathsheba, this reading of the text has been met with considerable resistance. To some, it is completely reasonable to imagine that our biblical hero David was a murderer, yet it is somehow beyond the pale to recognize that he was also a sexual abuser. Why?
Important to note is the context in which this debate about Bathsheba’s relative guilt or innocence has arisen. For the past number of years, the evangelical world has been facing a reckoning with regard to sexual abuse, particularly clergy sex abuse.
Whether we look to the apparently isolated cases of high profile leaders, such as Bill Hybels or Ravi Zacharias, who used their spiritual influence and institutional power to coerce women into sexual encounters, or the more systemic example of the decades-long failure of the Southern Baptist Convention to address credible allegations of clergy sex abuse, it is not difficult to see that something horribly rotten has been allowed to fester within the framework of the evangelical tradition.
These revelations have come to light in part because of the faithful work of abuse survivor advocates and journalists who have long fought for the truth to be told and justice to be done. As a result, both evangelical individuals and institutions have begun to look with a critical eye upon the institutional structures that have allowed these injustices to persist, as well as the underlying assumptions about certain power dynamics at play.
Nevertheless, with change always comes resistance. Whether it is a blanket dismissal of “not all churches,” a theological commitment to patriarchal ideals, or questions of church polity, any number of influential evangelicals have been suspicious of systemic change at every turn. As a result, they see any exoneration of Bathsheba as an abuse survivor rather than a seductive temptress as an attempt to destroy the institutions within evangelicalism that have been key in advancing the mission of the gospel.
David and Bathsheba in the Context of the Broader Narrative
When taken within the broader context of the books of Samuel and Kings, the fact that David leveraged his power to perpetrate unjust violence, both physical and sexual in nature, to his own downfall makes complete narrative sense.
As the people of Israel reflected on the history of their kingdom while in exile, they were faced with the cold reality that their kings had failed them. The kings of Israel had repeatedly used their throne to advance their own godless agendas rather than to help Israel become a light to the nations.
Even some of the greatest kings throughout the generations were guilty. Take David’s son Solomon as an example. While Solomon began his reign with an earnest pursuit of wisdom over and against wealth and acclaim (1 Kings 3:7-9), by the end of his life, Solomon had turned his heart from wisdom—ultimately leading to the dissolution of his kingdom.
When he died, Solomon left behind 700 wives, and 300 concubines, many of these marriages simply symbols of his political alliances with foreign powers that rejected God and whose violent pagan gods Solomon also made his own. To amass power and influence, Solomon trafficked in human lives who were then relegated to his harem. He was an unjust man.
As a result, the kingdom descended into civil war, with the two smaller kingdoms that emerged languishing for generations under a myriad of evil kings, many of whom did very much the same as those who came before them. Never achieving their former glory, both kingdoms were eventually conquered, with only a remnant remaining.
Whenever a king rose to power, he abused that power. He abused people. And it was always disastrous. God’s people, generation after generation, suffered.
What Israel needed was a truly anointed king who would lead them in righteousness. They needed a king who would not use his power to murder, rape, or abuse, abandoning his right relationship with God and his people—but would instead faithfully serve them both.
By God’s grace, this is what had been promised to them through David, who despite his grievous sins, would be the ancestor of this anointed king, this Messiah. His name is Jesus.
As Jesus said himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Ultimately, this liberty is found in eternity through personal faith in Jesus. But as citizens of that spiritual kingdom that will one day be fully realized, we champion its values at every level of society today, especially to the benefit of those who are abused or oppressed.
FOR FURTHER READING
“Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality” by Rachel Joy Welcher