Rachael Denhollander said that David raped Bathsheba.
And then everything broke loose.
She said it two weeks ago at the Caring Well conference from the Southern Baptist Convention, talking about how to recognize sexual abuse. But after she said it, a pastor from Chicago tweeted this (and I replied):
Are you also saying that it’s impossible for a sexual assault victim to ever speak authoritatively on gender dynamics issues because they’re clouded?— SheilaGregoire (@sheilagregoire) October 5, 2019
But you can, because you’re not biased?
How is that not revictimizing the abused, by painting them in a corner?
Jacob, Rachael’s husband, called him out on this. He did an amazing job on Twitter last week defending Rachael and showing how a completely valid (and I think most faithful to the text) interpretation of Scripture is, indeed, that David raped. And many others jumped in, too, so it was quite a firestorm.
I’d like today to summarize those arguments about David raping Bathsheba, and then sum up why this debate matters.
So let’s go over some of the elements of the narrative in the David and Bathsheba story, found in 2 Samuel 11-12, that suggest the encounter was rape.
1. David was not where he was supposed to be.
The framing of this story, before anything else unfolds, was that David was not where he was supposed to be:
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
The story opens with David in the wrong.
2. Bathsheba was performing ritual bathing after her purification from menstruation.
In verse 4, the text says that “she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.” This tells us a few things: she wasn’t pregnant already; and she was a devout follower of the law. The story opens with David in the wrong–and Bathsheba being a faithful believer.
Also, many have said that she should not have been bathing there; that she was deliberately enticing David. However, many scholars argue that bathing in one’s courtyard was normal. It would have been private–except from the palace. David’s palace was on a hilltop, where he could overlook the city. She was going about her normal business, in her own home. He was snooping.
3. He sent for her and “took” her
David sent messengers for her. And you can’t say no to a king!
People on Facebook were saying that because she didn’t cry out, it wasn’t rape, and because it wasn’t violent it wasn’t rape. They were pointing to Deuteronomy 22, where the rape codes say that if you’re raped in a city, you have to cry out to charge someone with rape, whereas if you’re raped in the country, you don’t. Since Bathsheba was in a city, then to believe this was rape, she would have had to cry out.
However, the point of that Old Testament passage is a simple one, that Scott Coley deals with wonderfully in this twitter thread (click on the little blue bird to see the whole thread):
The Bible says you cry out when it will get you help; but you aren’t required to call out when there is no one who can rescue you (hence the distinction in the law between the way that rapes will be handled depending on the circumstances of the rape). In this case, no one could rescue Bathsheba. She is in the palace with all of the king’s servants. She has no choice.
And to say that rape has to be violent to count as rape? Please stop that. Please. Rape can even happen in marriage.
4. After everything, Bathsheba went back to her home, and she wailed and mourned for Uriah.
Bathsheba immediately returned to her own home; she did not stay in the palace. And after Uriah was killed, she mourned for him (verse 26), and the verb there denotes excessive wailing. Her allegiance was always with Uriah.
5. Bathsheba was compared to an innocent lamb.
When the prophet Nathan confronts David about what he did, he compares Bathsheba to a little ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:3). In that allegory, David took the ewe lamb; it did not go to him willingly or wander off with him. In Jewish custom, a ewe lamb represents innocence.
6. Her male relatives, who were loyal men of God, turned against David during the civil war.
[UPDATE]: This point wasn’t in my post originally, but a reader sent it to me, and I’m adding it after the fact because it’s so interesting.
Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam who was the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite (2 Samuel 11:3 and 2 Samuel 23:4). Ahithophel, Bathsheba’s grandfather, was painted as a man of God: “In those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God” (2 Samuel 16:23). Yet Ahithophel turned against David when his son Absalom rebelled. Why would someone with so much wisdom and insight turn against God’s anointed king? Perhaps it’s because Ahithophel was outraged at the way David had treated Bathsheba. Would he have been so outraged if he thought what David and Bathsheba did was consensual?
I can list a number of other suggestions from the text that it was rape, but I don’t want this to get too lengthy or too scholarly when others have done it better. If you want more information, I highly recommend this article:
Did King David Rape Bathsheba? from Richard M. Davidson.
Why Does Interpreting the David and Bathsheba Story as Rape Matter?
Many people were eager to say to me on Twitter something to the effect of, “We know David was a sinner; we know that he repented and he was restored. That’s what really matters. Why be so divisive?”
I’d like to answer that, because that’s really the point of this post. So here, then, are two reasons why our interpretation of this story matters.
If we can’t recognize power-rape here, we’re unlikely to see it when it’s right in front of us.
When people don’t recognize that a person in power coercing someone into sex, while that person has no way to say no, is rape, then what will those people think when a 16-year-old girl says that her youth pastor sexually assaulted her, but the youth pastor says it was consensual?
Understanding the power dynamics involved in sexual assault are really important, because it’s playing out right in front of us, right now. When we don’t understand how men in power can use that power to compel women to have sex (rape), then we won’t see it when it happens in our churches and communities as well. That’s why Rachael Denhollander is so passionate about this, and I support her in that.
We need to stop saying things like “the youth pastor had an affair with a student” or “the teacher slept with her student” or “the football coach had sex with the players.” We need to stop saying, “the pastor resigned because of an inappropriate relationship.”
It’s not an “inappropriate relationship”, it’s not “having sex”, it’s not “having an affair”, it’s not “sleeping with” when there is power involved.
When someone cannot say no, then they also cannot say yes. That means consent is not possible. That means it is rape. And in many/most jurisdictions in North America today, a pastor cannot have consensual sexual relations with a parishioner (just like a counselor or doctor can’t).
If we can’t see the David situation as rape, though, there’s no way we’ll ever recognize rape from a pastor or someone else in authority or power.
2. When we think rape has to be done by violent force, we won’t recognize rape.
Finally, I’m having a really hard time understanding why so many SBC pastors especially are unwilling to recognize that this was rape.
As one of my twitter friends said to me this weekend,
I’m most concerned that the real issue at play here is that many men relate to using “nonviolent force” to coerce sex. If David’s a rapist, rapists aren’t scary men in dark alleys. They’re in the mirror and small group and hanging out with us at the family barbeque.
I find it odd that pastors easily call David a murderer, but aren’t comfortable calling him a rapist. Could she have a point–that if David is a rapist, then rape isn’t just something violent done in dark alleys?
Do we HAVE to agree that David raped Bathsheba?
No, I don’t think so. But we must at least allow that it is an extremely like possibility, and a completely valid interpretation. We also have to agree that the text places all of the blame on David and that Bathsheba is portrayed as an innocent lamb.
I understand that many will look at this story and come to a different interpretation. However, to believe that Bathsheba WASN’T raped, you must believe that she was willing, and that she deliberately enticed David. Since the narrator goes out of his way to point out that Bathsheba was bathing for a religious purpose, and since the narrator said that David was on the roof while noting that he shouldn’t have been there, I personally find that interpretation much more difficult to believe than that he summoned Bathsheba and she was unwilling.
I know the Bible names certain other episodes rape–Dinah and Tamar come to mind. Why, then, if this were rape, does the Bible not define it as such?
The Bible only explicitly names things as rape when violence was involved. That does not mean, however, that other types of power-rape are not present in Scripture; they’re actually quite prevalent, even if not explicitly named. It was simply culture in that time that powerful men had the right to women’s bodies. The idea of “consent” as necessary for sexual activity just wasn’t accepted then.
For instance, the Bible does not talk about Hagar as a rape victim, but I believe she was. She had no choice when Sarah handed her to Abraham, and she was treated very badly.
And you know what? God saw and took care of her. And she was given the honour of being the first person recorded to give God a name–El Roi, “The God who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13).
God does see sexual assault victims. He does care. And even if culture at the time didn’t call something wrong, or our culture now doesn’t call something wrong, God still saw then–and He still sees today.
Sexual assault is deeply traumatic and deeply evil.
Saying that David sexually assaulted Bathsheba does not change how we see David; we know that he was a terrible sinner, but that he repented and he was restored. But we also see in the Bible that God took the sexual assault seriously. There were consequences for David. And God does not condone the sexual violence that appears in the Bible. Rather, I think it’s there to show us that He does indeed notice it. It is not just backdrop to Him; it is an essential part of the story which He one day wants to fully redeem.
So let me end this post as I ended the one on Facebook:
Bathsheba was never labeled in sin in the Bible.
All of this has blown up recently on Twitter because last week, at the Southern Baptist Convention Caring Well conference, Rachael Denhollander said that David raped. And then a whole bunch of pastors started calling her out on Twitter, saying that THIS was why abuse survivors shouldn’t be allowed to comment on the Bible. They’re too emotional and too biased, and they make up strange interpretations.
May I suggest that these pastors are themselves biased? The idea that David is a rapist is not a new one. It is not something Rachael made up. The fact that they had never heard this interpretation says more about them than it does about her.
And so, to sexual assault survivors, I say this: You have much to teach. Please speak up. And know that many of us DO see the sexual violence that is portrayed (but NEVER condoned) in the Bible. God held David accountable. God sees what was done to you, too. And He cares.
What were you taught about David and Bathsheba? What do you think today? Let’s talk in the comments!