Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Did David rape Bathsheba?

Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar molested Rachael Denhollander when she was a young gymnast.  According to her bio on her website, Rachael was “the first woman to file a police report and speak publicly against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, one of the most prolific sexual abusers in recorded history. As a result of her activism, over 250 women came forward as survivors of Nassar’s abuse, leading to his life imprisonment.” She also used her victim impact testimony at Nassar’s trial to present the gospel. That background gave her the platform as an author and speaker. Denhollander recently spoke at “Caring Well” Conference by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. During that time, Denhollander sent out a “tweet” that has set the SBC astir. She tweeted, “David raped. It’s important we get that right.” It is important that we get that right, but she got it wrong. Rachael Denhollander should get all the credit she deserves for all the good she has done. That credit does not make a theologian whose word must be accepted just because she says so.

This idea that David raped Bathsheba is not new, but has gathered steam in the current climate of sexual ethics in our country. Paul Carter answered the question in the affirmative Did King David Rape Bathsheba?, on a Gospel Coalition posting in April 2018. Two years earlier, this position was posited by Hilary Lipka, an instructor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of New Mexico, in David and Bathsheba: Affair or Rape? In 2006 Adventist theologian Richard M. Davidson, in Did King David Rape Bathsheba? A Case Study in Narrative Theology, declared “that Bathsheba was a victim of ‘power rape’ on the part of David.”[i]  I am not sure how much earlier this idea was in vogue.

The event in brief is that the king stayed in the capital city while sending his soldiers to war. One evening David was walking upon his rooftop. From his vantage point, he saw a woman washing herself. David noted how beautiful she was and inquired concerning her. The woman was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah was one of David’s mighty soldiers (2 Samuel 11:3).[ii] That should have ended the matter. However, even knowing the woman in question was married, David summoned her to the palace. They had sexual relations. The account can be read in 2 Samuel 11:1-5.

Did David rape Bathsheba? I suppose if we define rape in modern terms (as Davidson did with “power rape”) and apply that to the situation, we could answer in the affirmative. However, is that a biblical approach? Is it the right historical approach? Is it even an honest approach?

Just last week Denny Burk called attention to a theological article written by Alexander Abasili, titled Was it Rape? The David and Bathsheba Pericope Re-examined.[iii] Rather than apply our modern standards to the situation, Abasili interprets the text in light of the Mosaic biblical definition of rape – an approach that is not unknown to other Bible students and certainly proper one – but often overlooked in the desire to defend a modern conclusion. The passage that expounds the Old Testament legal definition of rape is Deuteronomy 22:23-27. Abasili explains it this way:
In the Hebrew bible, however, the concept of rape, without excluding psychological or social or political or emotional domination, of necessity includes the use of physical force/violence in compelling a woman to nonconsensual sexual intercourse.
For the interpretation of the text, it does not matter what are the 21st century standards of rape. By God’s standards under the law, which law David was under, the act was not rape. His sin was heinous, and resulted in sure, swift, and ongoing punishment. Nevertheless, when speaking of biblical events we should speak in biblical terms and not invoke presentism as the deciding factor.

In addition to the law of Deuteronomy 22:23-27, the Old Testament contains a number of places where rape is described or implied.[iv] The writers were not afraid to tell us in those cases, but did not tell us such in David’s case. There is no physical act of force described in the text. The language used does not express or imply it. To interpret the act as rape, in light of the story given by Nathan the prophet, in the end actually minimizes rape (Cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-10).[v] Further, while the bulk of the sin, responsibility, and even punishment fell on David, the death of their child punishes Bathsheba as well (2 Samuel 12:15-22).[vi]

[i] Davidson defines “power rape” as an event “in which a person in a position of authority abuses that ‘power’ to victimize a subservient and vulnerable person sexually, whether or not the victim appears to give ‘consent’.”
[ii] She was also the daughter of another soldier, and granddaughter of David’s counselor, Ahithophel; cf. 2 Samuel 11:3 and 2 Samuel 23:34.
[iii] Vetus Testamentum 61, no. 1 (2011): 1–15.
[v] For example, “thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife” rather than “thou hast killed Uriah and raped his wife.”
[vi] While Bathsheba was wrong in not rejecting the David’s suit, David was the initiator and bears the greater responsibility. Bathsheba the seductress who set out to snare David must be imported into the reading. The text does not even say Bathsheba was naked. The word used – “wash” (Heb. rachats, v. 2) – is the same word used of Uriah washing his feet (11:8). A man certainly does not have to see a woman’s naked body to think she is beautiful (v. 2). In context, Bathsheba washed according to the law for purification (11:4), which was done in the evening.

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