The Rape of Bathsheba
David is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible. He was chosen despite being the youngest and weakest of his brothers to be the next King. He defeated the giant Goliath. He survived Saul’s attempts to kill him while refusing opportunities to kill Saul. He becomes King and raises Israel to its greatest heights of power. He is referred to as a man after God’s own heart and is thought to have written many of the Psalms in our Bibles. He also made some pretty terrible mistakes.
Of all of those great stories, I’m going to just stick to one here, probably the most heinous of his mistakes at least in modern eyes: his rape of Bathsheba.
From the 1951 movie David and Bathsheba. In this screenshot she clearly looks to be in control, but the reality is probably the exact opposite.
Late one afternoon, David got up from a nap and was walking around on the flat roof of his palace. A beautiful young woman was down below in her courtyard, bathing as her religion required. David happened to see her, and he sent one of his servants to find out who she was.
The servant came back and told David, “Her name is Bathsheba. She is the daughter of Eliam, and she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite.”
David sent some messengers to bring her to his palace. She came to him, and he slept with her. Then she returned home. (2 Samuel 11:2-4 CEV)
It is sometimes popular to portray Bathsheba as a temptress who lured the King by hanging out naked in a public place. We might put some blame on David, but we are sympathetic and say that he couldn’t resist while putting the vast majority of the blame on Bathsheba. There are at least four major textual problems with this conclusion.
This particular translation does a little bit of commentary by specifying that she was bathing as her religion required. There is some scholarly debate about whether this bathing was religiously required or not, most likely for cleansing after menstruation if so, but the general consensus I’ve encountered believes that this is the case. This would essentially make her bathing the exact opposite of flaunting to lure the King: a devout religious action.
Even if not, there is absolutely no reason to believe that she was deliberately exposing herself. She was bathing in her courtyard (open roof so rain could fall in the well – remember they didn’t have plumbing), as anybody would do. She seems wealthy enough that this was probably a private courtyard, but even if not, a public well would have still been blocked out from prying male eyes. Prying male eyes, that is, except for the King who was neglecting his duties at the battlefront and had the benefit of a much higher rooftop from which to look out over the city. David had probably already seen that well and others plenty of times. It may not have been ethical for him to hold that view over Bathsheba and many others, but as King, he did have that power and there was nothing she could do about it.
There isn’t even any reason to assume that she was naked. We typically bathe naked, but that isn’t the case for all cultures, where some women bathe(d) with a cloth wrapped around them. Particularly if there was a chance that somebody else would see, this is a likely scenario. David could have been just as enamored with her while she was covered up, and part of why we assume otherwise (along with the cultural gap, of course) is the purity culture instinct to blame women for men’s failings.
There is simply nothing to suggest that she ever wants anything to do with David. She is never given any personal autonomy in the situation either way. It is possible she did want it after David initiated it (it doesn’t say that) but it is probably more likely that she knew this wasn’t going to end well for her or her husband, who as we read on was a pretty great guy, and consequently never wanted to have sex with him.
Depending on the translation, it may say that Bathsheba came to the palace or that David “took her.” The latter definitely implies the forcefulness of it more strongly, suggesting maybe she did resist, but either way it is clearly a case of David using his power to get what he wants. This isn’t like if Stephen Harper were to pick somebody off the street and solicit sex. Harper’s power is nothing like David’s power. Theoretically David was bound by certain laws of God, but his messengers weren’t really going to challenge him even if they knew that was why he was summoning her (there’s no hint they did). He could easily have them fired or imprisoned or killed if they stood in his way. The same goes for Bathsheba – if the King calls, you can say no and she may or may not have tried, but you really aren’t going to do anything to stop him.
To sum that all up, this is a good example of being careful what assumptions we bring to the text. In our world where men usually hold the power and usually do the interpreting, we tend to give men the benefit of the doubt. We also sadly have a tradition of blaming the way women dress for how men act. In this case it has led many over the centuries to portray the situation as the exact opposite of the much more likely scenario.
This was rape, plain and simple. It was a powerful man using that power to exploit a woman. Then he realizes he did something wrong, but instead of repenting, he tries to cover it up through more misuses of his power that ultimately end with Bathsheba’s husband’s death. Using the power of the King to rape and murder – it doesn’t get much more unjust than that.
If there is any doubt about this story being squarely about an injustice committed by David, as we read on in the story we’ll see how the prophet Nathan summarizes it. I’ll pick up there for my next post.