“Did Bathsheba sin with David? Was she complicit in the sin? Or was she simply taken advantage of? It’s an important Bible question, one that I see pop up on social media every now and again. Of course, it’s also a sensitive question too, so a heads up to those of listening with the kids around.
“The particular question arrived recently in the inbox from a listener named Micah, who lives in Toronto. Micah asks this: “Pastor John, hello! I have a delicate Bible question I have been thinking about for a long time about the misuse of a woman. Back in APJ 234, you came right out and said that Bathsheba was ‘raped’ by King David — a violation that went against her will. Most Bible scholars I read today leave this situation more vague and simply say David ‘committed adultery’ with her, leaving her volition ambiguous, maybe even suggesting that she was a willing participant in the sin. Is there any evidence in the Bible of whether Bathsheba was willing or unwilling? And, from what I hear from feminists on this text, his power as a male king over her, a subject, would immediately classify this as a rape, even if she put up no resistance. Are there any pointers for us in the text itself?”
Yes, I think there are pointers that David exerted a kind of pressure on her to warrant the accusation of rape, and I don’t say that because I think the act couldn’t be consensual given the power dynamics at play. It is possible for a woman to be sinfully complicit in committing adultery with a very powerful man. I don’t see any evidence for that in this text.
‘He Took Her’
On the contrary, I see two indications that David threw his weight around — threw his power, his influence, his position — in such a way as to force her, apart from and against her commitment to her husband, to have sex with him. So, here’s the first pointer that I see in the way the story itself is narrated.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (2 Samuel 11:2–4)
“David didn’t invite Bathsheba. He didn’t woo her. He didn’t lure her. He didn’t trick her. He took her.”
He didn’t invite her. He didn’t woo her. He didn’t lure her. He didn’t trick her. He took her. That’s what the text says: he took her. In other words, the description is of a completely one-sided, powerful exertion of his desire, with no reckoning with hers.
Parable of David’s Sin
Now, here’s the other point, and I think it’s even more significant. When the prophet Nathan is sent to rebuke David on behalf of God and confront him with his sin, he did it by telling a parable to suck David in to giving his own self-condemnation, which he did. The picture he creates is telling. Here’s what he said:
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “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.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” (2 Samuel 12:1–5)
“We are not exaggerating to use the word ‘rape’ for David’s abuse of his power in the way he took Bathsheba.”
Oh, I love that. I love Nathan. Nathan did not have to create a parable in which there was a single, harmless pet lamb who wasn’t just taken, which it was, but was taken and killed and eaten. In other words, he really re-created the adultery in the categories of theft and killing. Not Uriah’s killing — that’s an added evil — but as it were, Bathsheba’s killing represented by the little, little, helpless pet lamb being killed and served up as a meal.
So, I would say, for these two reasons, we are not exaggerating to use the word rape for David’s abuse of his power in the indulgence of his sinful lust in the way he took Bathsheba.
But the Bible doesn’t just leave us with pointers — and I think this just needs to be said before we stop. It doesn’t just leave us with pointers to the reality, and the danger, and the sinfulness of the misuse of official authority or power in order to exploit, or threaten, or manipulate, or mistreat, or demean, or destroy other people. The New Testament is replete with warnings against a worldly use of authority. It is replete with beautiful descriptions of what Christians who hold positions of influence and governance should be like.
It starts with Jesus, it goes to Paul the apostle, it goes to the elders of the churches, and it goes to husbands — and indeed, it goes to all Christians, because all Christians are influential one way or the other, and they can be influential in harmful ways or influential in helpful ways. So, let’s just take a brief look at each of those stages.
Not only did Jesus say that he came into the world “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom” (Mark 10:45), but he also taught about this issue of power and servanthood. For example, he said,
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25–27)
Jesus commissioned the apostles to have foundational authority, tremendous authority, in the church to teach. If something that other people taught didn’t conform to what the apostles taught, they were not acknowledged (1 Corinthians 14:38). And yet, we get glimpse after glimpse into the way the apostle Paul and Peter and others used their authority by trying to set an example to the churches.
For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:5–7)
He acted exactly that same way with his authority toward Philemon when he wrote to him in Philemon 8–9, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” That’s the apostles picking up on Jesus’s example and teaching.
Then comes elders. Peter says concerning the elders, the pastors who have rightful governing leadership roles in the church, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1–3).
Paul applies the same principle to husbands in Ephesians 5. After teaching that wives are to submit to husbands as their head in marriage, he tells the husbands how to use that headship, that authority, that leadership, and he says this: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:24–25).
So it starts with Jesus, it goes to the apostles, it goes to the pastors, it goes to the husbands, and now it lands finally on all Christians, because all of us can throw our weight around with somebody in order to exalt our egos and manipulate or abuse them. So, Paul says to every Christian,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3–5)
And there it is — it all circles back to Christ: “Which is yours in Christ Jesus.” It all circles back to Christ. The only hope that David would ever have that he could be forgiven and be happily in heaven with Uriah and Bathsheba and a holy God is that Jesus Christ lived and served and died in a way radically different from David. All of us depend totally on the upside-down way that Jesus used his infinite power on the cross.