In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house…. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord…
2 Samuel 11:1-4, 27b, NRSV
I’ve always had a special fondness for Bathsheba and felt a particular defensiveness on her behalf. Most of the time when I hear the story, they call her an adulterer or a whore. They say she shouldn’t be sleeping with another man when her poor husband Uriah is faithfully off at war, and no respectable married woman should be bathing on the roof– even though that was the custom for all women at the time and David or any other man wouldn’t have been able to see her if he were at the battlegrounds where he was supposed to be rather than ogling the women he knew were prone to rooftop showers. But nevermind what our King David is supposed to be doing in this story, a king does what he wants. And when a king decides he wants to sleep with a woman, what choice does she have? There is a gulf of power between them, how can she say no? Companies have anti-fraternization and sexual harassment policies for this very reason. When I was in social work school I remember learning that even if a client does “say yes,” it still cannot be considered consent if he enters into a sexual relationship with his therapist because of the huge power differential between the two, and if such behavior does occur the counselor will be stripped of his or her license to practice therapy. How much more is this the case then with a king? No matter what she may have said or done or felt, Bathsheba didn’t have much choice in this relationship. I appreciate when I see the more accurate heading to this story in some Bibles: the rape of Bathsheba.
I know that’s not how we like to see our David, our man after God’s own heart. We like the shepherd boy who is strong and brave and beats the odds, defeating Goliath with a slingshot. We like the gentle musician who plays the lyre to calm his sheep and to soothe the insane King Saul in the midst of his violent outbursts. We like the boyhood friends David and Jonathan, his foster brother and the biological son of this abusive father, who would do anything for each other. We like the king who is chosen out of obscurity to honor God as the leader of God’s people. But God warned us that trouble comes with being king, that power and temptation can corrupt. Still, we don’t like to think of David as a rapist.
Now maybe I’m so sensitive about this story because of what I feel I share with Bathsheba. What happened to me will never be called rape in a court of law either; it was too confusing and blurry and there is nothing to go on but my word and his. Most people, myself included most of the time, would rather gloss over it as a mistake than acknowledge what really happened. And when I got home later that night, I overheard the church-going girls on the dorm hall who were missing key pieces of the story whispering behind my back that I was a whore, too. Meanwhile, he was last spotted leading worship at some church, still enjoying the spotlight as a poster child for Christianity. It’s not exactly a charming boy with a lyre, but it is close enough for me to feel a certain sting.
In our churches today we’ve finally begun to accept that abuse occurs in the lives of our congregants, even the sexual abuse that makes us so squirmy to talk about. We are looking at the statistics and doing the math and realizing that our pews are filled with men, women, and children who’ve endure rape, molestation, or other sexual assault. We are trying to figure out how to make church a safe place for them, somewhere they can tell someone what’s happening or what’s happened, somewhere they will be helped and loved. But we’re afraid to think about this a little further. For every victim, there is a perpetrator. And most sexual assault occurs at the hands of someone the victim knows, maybe even someone the victim loves and trusts, not strangers in dark alleys like we want to believe. That being the case, we have a more complicated problem. If our pews are filled with survivors of sexual abuse and assault, they are also filled with abusers and rapists as well. I know that’s a shocking and upsetting thought. I know we don’t want to think that of the folks we see playing guitar or singing in the choir or sitting in Bible study. I know they don’t want to think it of themselves. But for some– I’m not saying all or even most, but for some— of these men and women, it is true. The statistics don’t lie, and most men (as it is usually, but not always, men perpetrating these crimes) who hurt women, children, or other men this way never see anything like the justice we envision of all rapists ending up in jail. In fact, only 3% ever spend a single day there. Most are never even publicly accused, so there’s no one but them and their victim carrying around the weight of what’s happened.
That has to change.
The picture we like to hold of David as a stellar man of God who just “made a mistake” by sleeping with Bathsheba is more comfortable, but it means we’re willing to sacrifice Bathsheba, to blame the victim and call her a whore to protect our image of David. And that is not acceptable. That is what breeds the poisonous silence that allows this kind of abuse and assault to continue. That is why this story continues to play out today and victims/survivors feel isolated and afraid to share what has happened or is happening to them. That is why I did not speak up sooner.
Here’s the biggest and trickiest problem of all the ones I’ve raised so far: none of our characters are one-dimensional. No matter how you choose to tell the story and which identifiers you ascribe to each, no one can be summed up in a single word or epithet. Bathsheba is not merely an adulterer, whore, seductress, victim, or wife. David is not merely king, exemplar, stumbler, sinner, or rapist. Those who commit and survive sexual abuse and assault today are not so simple either. They may genuinely be faithful tithers and cheerful ushers and inspiring Bible study leaders and regular Sunday morning attenders and also be abusers and perpetrators of unknown assault, currently or in their past. Their victims may react by becoming broken-hearted and afraid to speak up or brave and free from the pain they’ve experienced or numb to what’s happened to them or a million other things while also being excellent preachers and faithful Sunday school attenders and everyone’s favorite VBS leaders and tireless volunteers who come early or stay late to get the sanctuary and fellowship hall ready for worship each week. This one experience is not what defines a person– it is not the most important thing about them– but it is a vital thing to name and to deal with from both sides.
We cannot settle for the narrative that makes us most comfortable, the one that let’s us off the hook of questioning the status quo. We have to commit to the hard work of being honest with each other and the even harder work of dealing with the fallout of our honesty. I’m not talking about a witch hunt or a round of baseless speculation about who may have done what; I’m just talking about a community that values truth over the party line. What someone has been or done or survived in one season of their life may be vastly different from who they are now, but it has shaped them. It has impacted them in ways that may be good, bad, or ugly, but ways that need to be voiced. For that to happen, we need to be sure that everyone involved has a safe person or people with ears to listen to their confessions or their pleas for help or their lament and to respond appropriately. Like it or not (and I will be honest with you, sometimes I do not like it to the point of nausea and screaming, rage-filled tears), we are all children of God, equally loved by our Creator. God is grieved when God’s children sin and are sinned against, and by not being honest about these stories of abuse, we’re doing both.
So how do we minister to both Bathsheba and David? How do we love them both while protecting Bathsheba and letting her be honest about what’s happened to her? How do we respond to the knowledge that they are both in our communities, whether that means the very same congregation or the larger Body of Christ across the world? I do not know the answer, but I know finding it begins by asking the question.