What was David’s Sin?

Warning: this week I am taking on what I consider to be a sensitive issue which requires discussing assault.

Recently I have seen a controversy brewing on Twitter around the nature of David’s sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. There are any number of people who are extremely upset about the idea that some would suggest that this event is rape and angrily defend David as “merely an adulterer”. My purpose in addressing this conversation is twofold, I want to both address the claims made about this passage and further I would like to address why I think this issue is so divisive in some communities. To start with, while I do have some training in Biblical hermeneutics and Hebrew language, I do not claim to be so great a scholar that my opinion is definitive. I do understand that there can be legitimate disagreements over the interpretation here, I am giving my opinion based on my reading of the text.

Exegesis of 2 Samuel 11:2-5

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.”So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house.The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” 2 Samuel 11:2-5

The major objection I hear raised to seeing this as a case of rape is that the Bible does not directly call the incident rape. Let me point out that we are working in a translation and simply because that word does not occur does not mean that the story is silent on the issue. We will not get very far in interpreting the Bible if we rely only on the direct language used [case in point the Bible never says abortion does that mean it sheds no light on the issue?] The first thing we can consider in helping to understand the passage are the repeated words, words such as “sent”, these words are important for interpreting the situation. The author is clearly depicting David in a poor light as someone who sends others to do his bidding. He sends Joab to fight, he repeatedly sends his messengers and he attempts to send Uriah home. You might suggest that this is what kings do and that is true enough, but Deuteronomy 17 presents a portrait of a good king that does things for himself and a poor king who forces others to do things for him. David sending others to do his work is an indication he is falling into the model of the poor king. David cannot ever be bothered to leave the luxury of the palace to work for the people, rather he uses his power to have others do his work. From the beginning this repetition should give us a negative mental picture of David. The language also implies that when David sends others are obliged to follow those orders, we are given a picture of an authoritarian not a leader who inspires allegiance like the picture of David in 1 Samuel. We are meant to see that power has changed David the way power changed Saul, just not to the degree, he is no longer the brave hero of his youth.

Another important word to focus on is “take”, while the NRSV obscures this slightly verse 4 more literally says, “David sent messengers to take her and she came to him”. The author wants us to see a man who sees something he likes and wants and so takes it. This fact is highlighted in Nathan’s speech in chapter 12 where he repeats the word “take”, his point is that David is the same sort of selfish man who simply takes what he wants. Contrast David’s taking in verse 4 with the fact that after Uriah’s death David does not take Bathsheba he “gathers” her. [For those not familiar with Hebrew these “slight” differences in language usually have a purpose.]  The change in words shows that in the second instance David was legitimately marrying her (legitimate in the sense of legally). The author intentionally softens the wording in the second occurrence, the author is creating a sense of force in the first episode. The whole passage is designed to show that David has been corrupted by the prestige and power of being king. Further, the description of the encounter places the responsibility on David, some try to place blame on Bathsheba because she “came” at the kings summons but they are overlooking the rhetorical use of verbs in these verses, note the alternating pattern that is evident in English

  • David takes
  • Bathsheba comes
  • David sleeps with
  • Bathsheba leaves

Clearly the author is placing all of the responsibility for the event on David, Bathsheba is responding to the power of the throne in the only way possible. Further, Nathan picks up this thread when God sends him to rebuke David. His parable is not about a man coercing or seducing it is about a man using his power to take advantage of the weaker individual. Further we should note a potential connection between David seeing Bathsheba and taking her Eve in the Garden. The language of seeing and taking reflects back to the first couple’s decision to selfishly take what they saw as good. David (like Abraham and Sarah) is following the pattern that caused humanity to be removed from the Garden. David is clearly shown to see Bathsheba as an object to satiate his desires. I have heard people argue that in other places the word “take” is used of men marrying women, and this is true but in those situations there is of legitimacy. This instance is far closer to Eve’s taking of the fruit where the person has no right to it and takes it anyway. Bathsheba is not a person to David and she is certainly not a temptress. The story makes clear she is something pure (following ritual purification codes) who is preyed upon, in no way is she shown to be seducing David or even complicit in his schemes, the language makes clear that David acted on his own without concern for anyone else.

So no the Bible does not use a word for rape, but the Bible also expects us to be intelligent readers who can pick up on context clues and understand what is happening even without necessarily being upfront with language. What the Bible clearly wants us to see in this passage is David abusing his power and that Bathsheba is not active in this sin. She is, like her husband and Joab, doing the will of a man who has allowed power to corrupt him. Her will or desire is not discussed in this passage, but that is a narration tool to show us that David did not even consider the desires of those around him. What we are meant to recognize is that no one has a will apart from David. Even Uriah who is opposing the king is not truly defying him, he is simply showing concern for others. Uriah does not defy David’s order, he merely chooses to show sympathy for others suffering rather than take the advantage offered him by power.  In the end I conclude that 2 Samuel 11 is depicting a rape, I find this interpretation to be the most convincing because the Bible is clearly placing all of the fault on David and exonerating Bathsheba. In my Next post I intend to describe why I think people are trying to downplay this story and place some level of culpability on Bathsheba.

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