What is at Stake in Our View of David

In my last post (here) I wrote a brief exegesis of 2 Samuel 11:2-5 in response to a debate circling about the nature of David’s relationship with Bathsheba. In this post I want to tackle why I think so many are upset by those identifying this incident as rape. I should say there are a number of potential reasons one could have for wanting to see this event as adultery, and one of which is an honest inability to read the text or an honest disagreement about the details of the text, but considering what I have read from some people I do not think their arguments are honest text based disagreements. Rather I think they have a theological outlook established and then attempt to read the text in a way which fits into their theology. I certainly would hate to lump everyone together and so I apologize to those who read the text and would honestly disagree with my understanding. I think the biggest two reasons people want to place the events of 2 Sam. 11 into the category of adultery are they do not like the idea of maligning David’s character and they do not like the idea of the pastor’s they heard throughout their lives being “wrong”. Both of the sound benign but there is a somewhat cancerous mindset behind each. I also believe there is a further belief that does not allow for change, but more on that later.

There will be those who initially laugh at the idea that, people claiming the events of 2 Sam. 11 are adultery do not want to malign David’s character. They will say we are accusing him of sin, and yes they are. However, they are accusing David of a sin they can excuse and explain away by accusing Bathsheba of seduction or by saying David simply was not strong enough to meet the temptation. I have heard numerous people say, “David was in the wrong place at the wrong time and so was tempted to lust”, “Bathsheba shouldn’t have been bathing where David could see her”, and even “Bathsheba was trying to get noticed by David”. All of these make David look like basically a good guy who was caught up in a bad situation. We can understand how “good people” can have major slip-ups and sin, after all we all sin and what man has stayed away from lust completely. What is appalling is that David “a man after God’s own heart” could be so heinous as to rape a person; because this is a class of sin that like murder, goes beyond the pale. We can handle character’s like Samson who fall in ways that are intelligible to us and we all understand lust, but we cannot easily understand or forgive rape and we do not want to consider one of those heroes of the faith described in the Book of Hebrews could be so depraved. The same is true when people talk about Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, they do not want to imagine this elderly couple who become pillars of faith conspiring to sexually abuse a woman. But in both cases we are shown a portrait of a sexual encounter in which the woman is not given the ability to consent, and our standard of abuse today includes, does the person have the ability to consent. If there is a structure at work that removes a person’s ability to choose such as we find in each of these situations then it is reasonable to say that a person’s ability to consent is denied. Yet, many Christians simply do not want to deal with these individuals in the same category as Lot’s daughters or Absalom. We see a clear difference between good and bad and we will not place David and Abraham into the bad, thus Bathsheba must bear some guilt and responsibility. I readily admit this is not an easy reality to deal with, God choosing to use people we would consider horrid. But there in lies the message of Scripture, God is willing to partner with and (hopefully) reform sinners for the purposes of God’s plans. This also magnifies the glory of Jesus who stands out as someone we do not turn our eyes from in disgust.

The second reality for many who want to claim that David’s encounter with Bathsheba was consensual and adultery is that they come from a theological tradition that values doctrinal purity. The ugly side of doctrinal purity is that part of it is often a commitment to an understanding that there is only one way to read the Bible and that way is considered God’s way. This is a problem similar to the Catholic Church’s dilemma that the pope speaking ex cathedra is speaking for God. If there is only one way to interpret the Bible then how the Bible was taught to you is how it is. We cannot change interpretations because that would be to change God’s word and thereby damn the ministry of those who have come before us or disagree with us. When doctrinal purity is the most important thing then maintaining a Biblical interpretation is vital. So we cannot have any of this “new” interpretation because it is inconsistent with the purity we have inherited. Those who grew up in this mindset then have two disincentives to listening to such an interpretation—it does not conform to their expectations of the Biblical character and it suggests that previous pastors “got it wrong”.  

These are the two attitudes I have seen and been taught by different people throughout my life. I recognize that not everyone who interprets this passage differently from me fits neatly into this box, but many do. And of those who have claimed this is adultery and based their arguments on the text the best I have heard is, “the text does not say one way or another and is designed so we only see David’s guilt.” In other words, they argue that “We do not know if David raped Bathsheba or not because the text does not say and designed to hide any guilt she may have had.” I do not agree with this interpretation but I have heard it expressed legitimately and so recognize it.

I did say that there is one ugly element that I think is behind some of this and it is summed up well in a tweet from New Testament scholar Matthew Thiessen.

What he is saying is that those who believe there is a natural and God ordained hierarchy, naturally assume that a patriarchal system in which men are in control is good.  Those who understand this power dynamic is both good and natural are unable (not simply unwilling) to see an abuse of such power. According to this mindset men are to rule over women and so the threshold for abuse of that power becomes ridiculously high. This means that David was only claiming his natural power as man and king. They do not recognize the power dynamic involved and believe that Bathsheba’s response to “come” was her consent to David’s invitation. Those who believe this hierarchical system is imposed by God are less able to see David’s sending of messengers as a demand (because after all God appointed him as king because he followed God’s heart that means he would not abuse his power). What seems to me as an inappropriate demand full of threat, seems to them as a polite request to spend time together, and if Bathsheba did not want to spend time with David she would have said no. Sadly this is the same mentality that hinders interpretations of Esther and undermines our recognition of sexual abuse and rape in culture today. “If she didn’t want it she would have fought back.” Let me be clear I think this mentality is the background noise which influences many as they interpret the passage it is not something that is necessarily even a conscious thought process, but it is real.  The reality is the New Testament seeks to undermine this patriarchal system that covers the abuses of those in power against the weak and vulnerable. And so long as we fail to read the Bible with the wisdom it demands we will inadvertently propagate the sin that has plagued humanity, including these types of abuse.

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