As a kid growing up in the church, I certainly heard a lot about Jesus. But just short of the Savior, I heard countless stories about King David: stories of bravery, courage, power, trust, risk, battle, war, triumph, and conquest.
Christians have always recognized David’s brokenness to an extent, particularly his pursuit of Bathsheba, which has typically been considered (and decried as) adultery. Lately, there has been quite the debate over what exactly happened between David and Bathsheba, and whether it should be characterized as rape.
This is not a new conversation, which is always important to remember in our age of hot takes. Denny Burk, Boyce College professor and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, points to a journal article by Alexander Abasili that addressed this question in detail in 2011, years before the scrutiny of the #MeToo movement.
Not all interest in this issue is a result of current cultural pressure or capitulation; there is a legitimate, significant question over how we understand David in this story.
I agree with Abasili’s analysis that the story doesn’t include the details that seem to be specific to instances of a Hebrew understanding of rape—namely, the use of direct physical force and the victim crying out in anguish for help. And yet, the story of David and Bathsheba appears to many modern readers, including me, to meet contemporary definitions of rape.
So how should we think of it? Did David indeed rape Bathsheba? And why does it matter that we, as Christians, get this right today?
Jesus Expands the Law
While Abasili establishes that the David and Bathsheba story does not meet the criteria of rape detailed in biblical law, Old Testament professor David Lamb previously wrote for CT describing a basic argument that David was guilty of “power rape rather than adultery” since Bathsheba had no choice.
But the question is not just a matter of whether we go by the Old Testament laws or our own modern ones. Scripture itself points us to a deeper look at the heart behind David’s behavior.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ doesn’t diminish the impact of the law, he expands and intensifies it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).
According to a basic reading of Old Testament law, looking upon a woman with lustful intent doesn’t meet the criteria of adultery. But, when we read the command against adultery through the lens of Christ’s instructions on the law, we find that looking upon someone who is not one’s spouse with lustful intent is, and has always been, adultery.
Jesus moves the focus from the details of the law to the intent and motivation of the heart. And Jesus doesn’t just do this with adultery. He does it every time he discusses the law.
If we approached the Old Testament law on rape the same way that Jesus addresses various aspects of the law, we would have to look beyond the explicit details enumerated in the law code and ask: What is happening in David’s heart and mind when it comes to Bathsheba?
Thinking of the question this way, the defense that David’s actions don’t meet the criteria for rape weakens considerably, and in fact, misses the point.
A Prophet’s Rebuke
Using the basic hermeneutical principle that Scripture should interpret Scripture, we find further context regarding David’s motivations just a few paragraphs away, in 2 Samuel 12, when he is rebuked by Nathan the prophet.
Nathan describes an imbalance of power between a rich man and a poor man, where the poor man had one precious lamb that he loved dearly, like a child, and the rich man took the poor man’s sole lamb to prepare for a guest (a way to accrue further social capital by hosting this guest well) because he had no pity.
Nathan tells him, “You are the man!” in the story, and then expands on David’s self-condemnation: God made you King, he delivered you, he gave you all that you have, and this wasn’t enough. You stole, you exploited, you killed, and you did it “secretly” for selfish gain. Even according to David and Nathan, David’s sin isn’t merely that he slept with Bathsheba, but that he did so in a way mired by his exploitation of power, deception, and self-gain. The power imbalance is clearly called out.
Nathan goes on to describe the fate of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah: “You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Sam. 12:9).
Nathan uses conquering language that positions David as a murderer, the one who “struck down” and “killed him.” And yet, we know that Uriah didn’t die by David’s own sword, but by proxy after being sent to the front lines. While his actions would not constitute murder according to the detailed terms set out in the Old Testament, we absolutely see him as responsible for his death.
When the issue is whether David murdered Uriah, readers generally feel free to expand how the Old Testament murder law should be read. But when we ask whether David raped Bathsheba, then some readers push back demanding precision around what the law says explicitly about rape.
Both Jesus and Nathan’s focus on the intent and motives of the heart give us good reason to look beyond the letter of the law. The story of David and Bathsheba is not a story of adultery or an affair, but one where a powerful man is sexually exploiting a vulnerable woman and is willing to use coercive power to call her to his chamber and cover up his actions.
Our Defense of David
Perhaps more intriguing than determining David’s motives is our own determination to spare him from disrepute. We don’t want David to be a rapist. We actually find it easier to stomach him being a murderer of a man than an abuser of a woman.
And, if the preponderance of sermons is any indication, Christians have historically been willing to slut-shame Bathsheba to keep any stink (beyond adultery) off of David. It’s nonsensical, particularly because in Scripture, Bathsheba is never accused, indicted, or even maligned in any way for what happened.
David, though, is not just another figure in the Bible. He is the “man after God’s own heart,” championed both as a heroic figure for young boys in Sunday school and the subject of Christian studies on manhood and masculinity.
The phrase we so often associate with the biblical king is not a blanket endorsement for David’s example, nor the idea that he represents what it means to be like God as a man. It means that David was God’s chosen man as king of Israel. John Woodhouse says this phrase “is talking about the place the man has in God’s heart rather than the place God has in the man’s heart.”
Scripture is full of broken people, and King David, for all his virtues, is a broken man. So why has this particular story become such a contentious one for us? I’m convinced that we don’t want David to be a rapist because we don’t want to reckon with the sin of abusive power.
If David was merely a weak man who fell prey to a tempting woman on a lonely night, then we don’t have to grapple with the far more insidious reality: David was one of many (mostly men) throughout history who used their power for sexual exploitation. He leveraged his position as king to have an innocent man killed after using his power to summon and sexually exploit that innocent man’s wife.
Is it any wonder that this great evil has largely remained unexplored in David’s story when the majority of those entrusted with telling the story stands to profit from not pointing it out? When we get to the story of David and Bathsheba the ones who would benefit most from sitting under the sobering impact of the story are those who are responsible for the telling. The spiritual leaders in our churches, mostly male pastors, must be willing to tell the story the way it is written: as an indictment of the spiritual abuse of power for exploitation. They must measure their life and the culture of leadership in their church in its scales.
We have to consider that we may have misread this story in a major way. Our misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what happened with David and Bathsheba may result in a truncated understanding of God’s good vision of power and sex, just when we so desperately need a holy vision for these things.
Perhaps the story of David isn’t just a cool story about giants defeated and battles won, but also a cautionary tale about the way that power can corrupt even the noble. And that the same power that a king had earlier used to defend the vulnerable could be turned to exploit the vulnerable.
The story of David and Bathsheba is an invitation to all of us, but particularly those in place of spiritual authority and leadership, to consider if we are making use of God’s gift in the way he intended. Power is a gift from God, but the temptation to use it for our own selfish gain is ever-present and endlessly enticing. Those entrusted with power must look to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the paradigm for faithful practice of power.
He, who possessed everything by right, surrendered it all for love. Christ, to whom the whole world belonged, approached the vulnerable with care and honor. Christ used his power to dignify the vulnerable and defend the shamed. What will we do with the power we’ve been given?
Kyle Worley planted and serves as one of the pastors at Mosaic Church in Richardson, Texas. Alongside Jen Wilkin and JT English, he serves as one of the hosts of the Knowing Faith podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @kyleworley.