When Perception Matters Most: David, Bathsheba and Hearing the Victim’s Story

One of my classes is on the subject of human sexuality in scripture. This week, we were required to read the story of David and Bathsheba. We were also required to read two different commentaries of our own choosing. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the famous story of David and Bathsheba opens like this:

Late one afternoon, after his midday rest, David got out of bed and was walking on the roof of the palace. As he looked out over the city, he noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking a bath. He sent someone to find out who she was, and he was told, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” (Uriah was away at battle.) Then David sent messengers to get her; and when she came to the palace, he slept with her. She had just completed the purification rites after having her menstrual period. Then she returned home. Later, when Bathsheba discovered that she was pregnant, she sent David a message, saying, “I’m pregnant.” (2 Samuel 11:2-5, NLT)

david and bathshebaI chose to use the brief commentary inside my Life Application Study Bible (LASB) and my copy of The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NISB). The LASB is a conservative publication that is mostly marketed to Evangelicals; the NISB is a far more liberal publication that is marketed to people who are interested in higher criticism.

I quickly noticed two different interpretations of the story: The NISB (the liberal study tool) says that David’s act was “rape.” Its editors consider Bathsheba a victim. However, the LASB depicts David as a fallen king, and brands Bathsheba an adulteress… See the following excerpt from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible:

David destroys the family of one of his most trusted warriors. In the past, he has been ruthless (8:2) but he was always concerned with public opinion (see notes on 4:1-12). Both are evident in this story of rape and murder…

…Having learned that the men of Bathsheba’s family are away and that she is defenseless, David sends people to bring her to him. She is not consulted [about her own choice in the matter]... Even if she is not physically forced to be David, she is nonetheless powerless against the king and the servants he has already used against her. (pg. 455, emphasis mine)

And now, see this excerpt from the Life Application Study Bible:

David put both Bathsheba and Joab in difficult situations. Bathsheba knew adultery was wrong, but to refuse a king’s request could mean punishment or death… We sometimes face situations with only two apparent choices, and both seem wrong. When that happens, we must not lose sight of what God wants. The answer may be to seek out more choices. By doing this, we are likely to find a choice that honors God. (pg. 521, emphasis mine)

Bathsheba’s Weakness and Mistake: She committed adultery
Lessons from Her Life: While we must live with the natural consequences of our sins, God’s forgiveness of sin is total. (Profile of Bathsheba, pg. 555)

I’ll be honest and say that when I read the conservative commentary, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Contrary to any of the dialogue in the story and contrary to the context, the editors interpret Bathsheba’s post-menstrual ritual bath as an act of seduction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey don’t bother to consider that Bathsheba likely thought she was alone and unseen while bathing in the courtyard. After all, as James Freeman notes in Manners and Customs of the Bible, “the bath in which Bathsheba was washing was secluded from all ordinary observation”… The LASB’s editors also don’t consider that Bathsheba likely missed her husband and longed for him (after all, she grieved when he was killed later in the story). Finally, they don’t consider that she may have been terrified when David’s messengers came for her.

Instead, the LASB’s editors write that she “may have been rash in bathing where she may have been seen,” and that upon hearing the king’s request, she should have “sought another option” to avoid committing her sin. (What kind of “other option” could a woman– a piece of property with no status of her own– have presented to the most powerful and most ruthless human being in the land?)

no-rapeAs I’ve reflected on the David and Bathsheba story, I’ve thought about the attitudes that often surround sexual violence in our own society. There is still some belief that women who wear “sexy” clothing are “inviting” sexual assault, and that the solution to a rash of rapes is to  impose a “protective curfew” on law-abiding women. Like Bathsheba, women are expected to “choose another option”– another route to work, another outfit, or another shade of lipstick. We don’t hear as much chatter about the real issue. We don’t hear solutions that will address the behaviors of men whose inner demons have overcome them. We seek to fix the victim, and not the victimizer.

As I’ve explained in my paper about this topic, the conservative editors wander close to the real issue when they write that Bathsheba’s refusal “could mean punishment or death”… They touch lightly on power abuse, on coercion, and on the terrible status occupied by women in scripture… But then, the editors back away from the real issues and turn this very complicated matter into something black-and-white. In their effort to determine which “sins” were committed, they target the victim. The editors found a way to assign culpability to a woman who barely spoke at all in the story. It’s almost as if David stripped her of her power and dignity, and the editors stripped her of her right to have her story heard.

As John Shelby Spong wrote in Living In Sin, the LASB’s editors asked the wrong questions when it came to David and Bathsheba. They asked about sexual sin when they should’ve asked about power/powerlessness– and in so doing, they drew what I feel is the wrong conclusion.

25 responses to “When Perception Matters Most: David, Bathsheba and Hearing the Victim’s Story

  1. I could barely contain my indignation and rage when i read the LSAB commentary on the story of David and Bathsheba. “They drew what I feel is the wrong conclusion.” Well, that’s a pretty mild way of putting it!

  2. I’ve heard a lot of people say “Well, Bathsheba shouldn’t have been bathing on the roof!” That’s stupid. David was the one on the roof, not Bathsheba. Read the story. And just because a woman is naked doesn’t mean a random dude has the right to her body. It’s sad how much victim-blaming is part and parcel of this narrative’s retelling.

  3. Great post! Though you might want to correct this sentence in your introduction “; the LASB is a far more liberal publication that is marketed to people who are interested in higher criticism.” – I think you meant NISB here.

  4. Crystal:
    This was the first time the line “She had just completed the purification rites after having her menstrual period” stood out to me in this story. Why does the original writer think it’s important for readers to know what B.’s menstrual cycle was? No idea what the original writer would have known about egg cycles and fertility, but contemporary knowledge does affect how I read the story today.

    Does the note about the mikveh signal that sexual contact of any kind is now permitted? Some women who observe this clearing ritual perform it immediately after their period ends; some, 5-7+ days afterwards. If B. performed it much later, she’d be approaching the middle of her cycle, and would be more likely to become pregnant whether she wished to or not.

    Either way, why is it relevant to this story? Is it neutral background to explain her ritual bath and release her of culpability for being seen Bathing While Beautiful? Is it an attempt to explain her post-rape pregnancy (not all bible rape stories end with pregnancy)? Is it part of the minor folk tradition that babies conceived during a woman’s “impure” period would be at higher risk of birth defects; does it foreshadow the baby’s death? (http://bit.ly/Xs7SIK) Does it compound David’s evil in asserting sexual authority over her despite her relationship and her fighting-for-the-king husband, but also against the spirit of the purity/impurity law?

    These are all things I think about today beyond the important issues you raise about power and responsibility. As you say, in the text itself, B. plays a bit part, so to me it’s not surprising that the commentaries have to project and their projections match their respective traditions. Given their differences though, you’re making me curious about how they interpret the story of Esther!

    • KME– You raise an interesting question! What’s more interesting is that this detail is present in each of the versions I read… It’s important to the writer for some reason, but I am not entirely sure why. I suppose, given the conflicting interpretations of Bathsheba’s responsibility here, one could argue one of the following three things about this detail’s inclusion in the story:

      The first option is that she was performing a ritual bath with the intention of cleansing herself in preparation for sexual intercourse with David. I don’t personally buy this explanation because it assumes that B. would know when D. would awaken from his nap. This interpretation also assumes that B., in preparation for her grave “sin,” would name (of all things) a religious rite among her important to-do’s.

      The second possibility is that she was bathing because she was devoted to her religion. This option casts Bathsheba in a very good light, and supports the argument for her innocence.

      A third option is that the writer needed a good explanation for why B. would be taking a bath in the courtyard. So, he or she used the menstrual cleansing ritual as a literary convention to enhance the context and plot continuity.

      What do you think? (And thanks for the thought-provoking question!)

  5. The biblical text places responsibility on David, not Bathsheba. In fact, Bathsheba was obeying Torah by bathing after her cycle. The text makes clear up front that David was not where he ought to have been (“In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab, along with his servants and all the Israelites, and they destroyed the Ammonites, attacking the city of Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem,” 2 Sam. 11.1 CEB). This note to open the account is signaling the reader that something is off. David is not behaving as a king. In the events that followed, David abused his power; he abused Bathsheba, and he abused Uriah. And the story proceeds from there out to show how David’s life–both personal and political–unraveled following these events. I’ve always been appalled by preacher boys who want to turn the story into an object lesson about female modesty. In fact, the first time I ever read that story, I thought, “Why isn’t someone taking David out and stoning him for adultery and murder? Why is the king seemingly above the Law?”

    • @JMar: I’ve heard a few sermons acknowledging that David was out of place during war season as well.
      Never heard them ask about stoning him, though, which is interesting.

  6. I think another clue to what happened in the story is the fact that they got married. Now, granted, Bathsheba was married and not a virgin, but if adultery was the offense, they’d have been put to death…right? Leviticus 20:10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 28 If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, 29 the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.

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  10. As appalling as the LASB commentary is, even in the rather conservative evangelical churches I’ve been in, David is always seen as the perpetrator. They may refer to the sin as adultery and thus glossing over the massive power imbalance in the sex act itself, but they do generally point out that David’s sin is the greatest. (Of course, I don’t recall the narrative implicating Bathsheba at all.)

  11. I can’t find the verse now, but I think there’s also an admonition that a person, if they can see into their neighbor’s house, should fill in their window. Davis should not have been in a position to see her.

  12. I’m not sure if it’s just because you’ve presented it selectively, but what I find notable in the LASB version is how active the language about Bathsheba is, and how passive the language about David is.

    We hear about Bathsheba’s choices, about her moral insight into the consequences of her own actions, and about her ability to affect the final outcome. David, on the other hand, is painted as playing a passive and almost incidental role in all of this. Yes, it was David who “put Bathsheba in [a] difficult situation”, but the onus was on her to react properly. The ball was always in her court, and never in David’s.

    Take the sentence “to refuse a king’s request could mean punishment or death”. This sentence is framed so passively that David’s presence has been totally erased from it! It seems to me that a more faithful and historically accurate sentence would have included him explicitly, and read more like “had she refused his request, David would likely have reacted by punishing or killing her, because – as his track record had shown – he was something of an arsehole.”

    It’s as if the characters of the story were trapped in a large, mechanical, pre-scripted system, and all but Bathsheba were impotent and powerless to influence the outcome. It’s as if only Bathsheba somehow possessed the responsibility to affect change in this scenario. As if she alone possessed the free will required to make the necessary changes. She had the choice of where to bathe, and she had the choice of how to react to David’s advance. And it was she who should have plucked out “more choices” from thin air to somehow rescue her from her catch-22.

    David’s choices (he could have stayed indoors, he could have averted his eyes, he could have chosen to not act on his lust, he could have had a wank and a cold shower, he could have let Bathsheba and her husband raise his child as their own, he could have come clean, he could have apologised) seem to be off the radar. It’s a twisted and ingenious kind of sexism that manages to degrade a woman’s experience by putting her in a role of empowerement while putting the man in a role of powerlessness and moral impotence.

    Even if you strip back all the moral and political dimensions to this issue, the LASB version just plain fails on an intellectual level. Placing Bethsheba’s choices as the main fulcrum of this narrative makes as much sense as explaining how a clock works by looking only at one of its cogs. Or by explaining a car by ignoring the driver and the engine and instead focusing on the windscreen wiper. As commentary, it’s just plain bad and inaccurate.

    However, I think there’s more to this than just plain old sexism and an attitude of ‘let’s twist this any way we can to make the man come up on top’. The way LASB have treated this story actually has very strong parallels with how conservative Christian theology views the human universe in general.

    Christians are taught that humans are a broken, sinful species, and that the necessary consequence of this is damnation. And there is only one thing we can do to avoid this damnation: successfully become a Christian. The ball is squarely in our court, and God is – bizarrely – powerless to do much about it. Presumably, God had choices – he could have made us unable to sin, or stopped us from sinning, or redefined “sin” to be something that’s within our control to actually avoid, or lowered the penalty of sinning to something less horrific, or forgiven us unconditionally, or simply stopped taking sin so seriously, or decided upon a better way to address the problem than torturing his son to death and requiring us to believe that he did so.

    But God is unable and/or unwilling to use any of these powers, says the conservative Christian. The world is as it is, and God’s just playing by the rules, however unfair they may seem. Whatever chance we have of getting out of this catch 22 lies squarely on our shoulders, and on our ability to make the right judgement call despite being fundamentally ill-equipped to do so. The ball is in our court, just as it was for Bathsheba.

    So, although the misogyny inherent in the LASB commentary is disgusting, I think the main driving force behind their interpretation is not sexism, but their theology and worldview in general.

    • Thank you for this, Dave. I am rather reeling from your commentary, having a “doh!” moment, because this, that our view of sin and hell renders poor God powerless, is so obvious once you see it. This is a profound idea, and it will take awhile to process. Thank you.

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