The other day I watched this video from Lutheran pastor and heresy-hunter Chris Rosebrough:
It’s about the big Bathsheba debate that blew up on Twitter recently. This might seem silly to some, but if that’s you, I’ll tell you that this is serious stuff and is taken very seriously by scholars these days. It’s not just Twitter.
Overall, I thought that the Pirate Christian had some very good things to say in his video, and I do believe I have been chastened in my lack of careful attention to parts of this parable. That said, after some further reflection, I do have some real critiques, which I hope are taken in a charitable spirit, as that is how I mean to give it…
First of all, for some, I note that it seems really, really important that this story must be about rape.
And like Pastor Rosebrough points out, it is being used by some to push for women pastors and like causes. Still, I am told that I must show respect…
I do want to learn. And I will indeed show respect towards this assertion by taking it seriously and trying to produce the best argument that I can against it. Again, I know that to some this might seem petty or like overkill, but I think some important principles and points are at stake here.
I begin the process with two assumptions:
First, if we are going to talk about “eisegesis,” this kind of thing—the current activism and agitation of #MeToo and beyond—can’t help but be in our wider picture.
Second, let me make one thing very clear from the outset: whether or not David raped Bathsheba is neither here nor there for me. I don’t know and I don’t think the text tells me. It doesn’t affect my faith in Christ at all.
I do think it is unlikely though.
And here then, is a third assumption: I think it is more likely that as is the case with some certain kinds of men, David could have had his pick, and that he’d have no need to resort to sexual assault.
My main concern about the video is that comparing this question about Bathsheba with the Brian Houston situation really seems out of line (see 23:40 in the video for this disturbing account).
Regarding the text though, Pastor Rosebrough, the Pirate Christian, is certainly correct.
It never talks about Bathsheba’s sin – of adultery, or being complicit in murder. Also, as he notes: the impression is given that she was devout, and of course she really did mourn the death of her husband!
Still, does this necessarily mean that she was “sexually assaulted” (see around 19:00 in the video)? And that if you deny this you are “victim-blaming”?
First, the fact that she was evidently doing a ritual washing (Lev 15:19,28) and also that she mourns her husband do not necessarily mean that David raped or sexually assaulted her. Again, we simply do not know how this played out (as Pastor Rosebrough hinted at earlier in his video, with his remark about “wining and dining” her).
Was she coerced? Coercion has traditionally been defined as “persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.” Again, if any threats were involved, explicit or implicit, we simply don’t know. The obvious presence of “soft power” alone does not necessarily make David a rapist[i] — unless one insists that one can never meaningfully give consent in such a situation – even in the event that one wanted to (see p. 89 here).
In any case, while no one should assert that Bathsheba was “asking for it” or “glad to bed the King” much less should anyone assert that she was an “innocent lamb” (see p. 92 here). Instead, as a friend put it, “David became like the prototypical tyrant Gilgamesh(/Nimrod?) before him, devouring the sheep he was anointed to shepherd. David took the side of Ezekiel 34 opposite that which he was supposed to typify.”
The point is that he stole Uriah’s lamb. Whether or not he stole her heart too we can’t say.
If the above points are valid ones to make though, why then does the text exclusively talk about David’s actions and how he was responsible and to blame?
Well, first, he was the King! He had a lot of power, to say the least, and as Spider-Man reminds us, “with much power, comes much responsibility.”
If soldiers greedily and gladly follow their King into an unjust war, all here sin, but the greater sin is, to be sure, the King’s. In like fashion, even if Bathsheba had found herself enjoying being in the King’s presence, David certainly would bear guilt for that too (even attempting to seduce her, would, of course, be sin!). Again, even if this had been true about Bathsheba, her sin, relatively speaking, was not the issue. I certainly had no trouble just focusing on David when I did this video covering the story for my class.
(and, btw, ultimately, when we sin, we all follow the Prince of this world, and woe to anyone through whom the things that cause people to stumble come… )
Second, it seems to me that another completely reasonable interpretation about why only David’s sin is mentioned—nay, the more likely one—is because the book was about the kings, and particularly a king, David.
And this is verified by the fact that the assertion was made that David raped. To put it bluntly, this isn’t about Bathsheba. I agree with Jonathan Petzold, who said “I’ve seen this debate pop up before. I guess I fail to see why this matters? The biblical narrative keeps it focused on David and his wrongdoing (and forgiveness). What theological point are we going to take away from figuring out whether Bathsheba was guilty?” My guess is that Bathsheba’s comments would only be on the radar insofar as they tell us more about what is going on with David….
That is why “the thing David did had displeased the Lord…” and why we ultimately hear: “why have you despised the Word of Yahweh?”
In the end, I’d say that this is a more traditional way of looking at things—the one I can really respect.
Again, let me repeat:
Whether or not David raped Bathsheba is neither here nor there for me. I don’t know and I don’t think the text tells me. It doesn’t affect my faith in Christ at all.
All this said, that does not mean that I, for one, am ready to fully endorse the following Christological interpretation of the 6th century Christian Gregory the Great, which certainly assigns different significance to the events (in yes, a disturbing way…):
“For who, that hears of it, not only among believers but of unbelievers themselves also, does not utterly loathe this, that David walking upon his solar lusteth after Beershebah the wife of Uriah? Yet when he returns back from the battle, he bids him go home to wash his feet. Whereupon he answered at once, The Ark of the Lord abideth in tents, shall I then take rest in my house? [2 Sam. 11, 11] David received him to his own board, and delivers to him letters, through which he must die. But of whom does David walking upon his solar bear a figure, saving of Him, concerning Whom it is written, He hath set his tabernacle in the sun? [Ps. 19, 4. Vulg.] And what else is it to draw Beersheba to himself, but to join to Himself by a spiritual meaning the Law of the formal letter, which was united to a carnal people? For Beersheba is rendered ‘the seventh well,’ assuredly, in that through the knowledge of the Law, with spiritual grace infused, perfect wisdom is ministered unto us. And whom does Uriah denote, but the Jewish people, whose name is rendered by interpretation, ‘My light from God?’ Now forasmuch as the Jewish people is raised high by receiving the knowledge of the Law, it as it were glories ‘in the light of God.’ But David took from this Uriah his wife, and united her to himself, surely in that the strong-handed One, which is the rendering of ‘David,’ our Redeemer, shewed Himself in the flesh, whilst He made known that the Law spake in a spiritual sense concerning Himself, Hereby, that it was held by them after the letter, He proved it to be alienated from the Jewish people, and joined it to Himself, in that He declared Himself to be proclaimed by it. Yet David bids Uriah ‘go home to wash his feet,’ in that when the Lord came Incarnate, He bade the Jewish people turn back to the home of the conscience, and wipe off with their tears the defilements of their doings, that it should understand the precepts of the Law in a spiritual sense, and finding the fount of Baptism after the grievous hardness of the commandments, have recourse to water after toil. But Uriah, who recalled to mind that the ark of the Lord was under tents, answered, that he could not enter into his house. As if the Jewish people said, I view the precepts of God in carnal sacrifices, and I need not to go back to the conscience in following a spiritual meaning. For he, as it were, declares ‘the ark of the Lord to be under tents,’ who views the precepts of God as designed for no other end than to shew forth a service of carnal sacrifice. Yet when he would not return home, David even bids him to his table, in that though the Jewish people disdain to return home into the conscience, yet the Redeemer at His coming avouches the commandments to be spiritual, saying, For had ye believed Moses, ye would [Vulg. would perchance] have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. [John 5, 46] And thus the Jewish people holds that Law, which tells of His Divinity, whereunto that people deigns not to give credence. And hence Uriah is sent to Joab with letters, according to which he is to be put to death, in that the Jewish people bears itself the Law, by whose convicting testimony it is to die. For whereas holding fast the commandments of the Law it strives hard to fulfil them, clearly it does itself deliver the judgment whereupon it is condemned. What, then, in respect of the fact, is more foul than David? What can be named purer than Uriah? What again in respect of the mystery can be discovered holier than David, what more faithless than Uriah? Since the one by guiltiness of life prophetically betokens innocency, and the other by innocency of life prophetically represents guilt. Wherefore it is with no inaptitude that by the things that are well done by the friends of Job we have represented to us those to be done amiss by heretics, in that it is the excellency of Holy Writ so to relate the past as to set forth the future; in such wise to vindicate the case in the fact, that it is against it in the mystery; so to condemn the things done, that they are commended to us as fit to be done in the way of mystery.”
[i] Did the cultural context expect this kind of thing? Well, even if this was the case, and such an event could have been legal in some ancient cultures, this was clearly not the case in Israel.