The biblical King David is commonly referred to as a “man after God’s own heart.” The Psalms are filled with his inspiring praises and heart-wrenching lamentations about feeling forgotten and abandoned by his Lord, left to languish in the hands of his enemies. Those passages of despair and righteous anger have given me permission to express my hurt to God, knowing he can handle it.
But the character of David is complex, to put it mildly. We also know him as a man who made a series of decisions that caused devastating ripples in his family and in the lives of those around him. David was a violent military leader who destroyed villages when he felt it necessary. He was also charismatic, attractive, and popular with women.
We also know that he was a man who fell into a trap of entitlement, taking another man’s wife for himself, and later having that woman’s husband killed to cover up the resulting pregnancy. Finally, his daughter, Tamar, was raped by her half-brother, also David’s son, right in his household, and he appears to have done nothing about it.
I have a hard time seeing David as a holy patriarch, and have had to divorce his authorship of many of the Psalms in order to read and appreciate them. My heart goes out to Tamar, because I know what it’s like to be abused by someone you thought you could trust. I feel for her because I too have had to suffer the reality of knowing that justice will not be done this side of heaven. My heart also goes out to Bathsheba, whom David determined he would have from the moment he spied her bathing from his rooftop.
Christians often read and teach this story as a cautionary tale of the consequences of adultery, but consider the treatment and status of women in ancient Israel: they barely had any. Bathsheba had to have known what would happen if she dared to refuse a king, no matter how immoral his request. Because the power balance was so unequal, Bathsheba’s consent is sketchy at best. We can’t know for certain, but she was likely coerced, which would characterize King David’s actions as rape.
My boyfriend of many years had similar characteristics to David. He had a captivating, magnetic personality coupled with striking looks and above all, a “heart for God.” As a devout Catholic, he was active in his church community and deeply respected. Around me, he compartmentalized that faith, believing he was entitled to my body no matter how much I tried to refuse.
It’s not surprising, then, that I have great trouble reading about David as a man worthy of admiration. We know that God was creative and class-bending when it came to selecting the ancestors of Jesus. The Son of God’s family tree contains prostitutes and reformed offenders of many kinds, but it churns my stomach to know that a possible rapist is also included. How could God do that? Doesn’t he care about the suffering of women like me? Doesn’t he care about women who suffer in silence?
Ironically, it is the Psalm written by the man who offends me that gives me encouragement:
1 O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
3 Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
4 Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
6 I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me. (New Living Translation)
It’s hard to deny that there is genuine remorse in these verses, particularly in the last two: “But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.”
I have to assume that “rescue” in this context means David was shown the error of his ways and brought to redemption. I love this Psalm because it reminds me that repentance and reformation are possible. It tells me that justice ultimately belongs to God, and therefore repentance from my own rapist is not a complete impossibility. I’ll just have to accept that it may not come within this lifetime.
As for Bathsheba, she was not forgotten either. It was her son, Solomon, conceived with David, who became one of ancient Israel’s greatest teachers of wisdom. He is believed to have authored several biblical accounts, including selections of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Though likely conceived in violence, his existence was used for greatness.
The disturbing story of David is an example of how violence and poor moral choices can be turned around and redeemed. But more importantly, it’s a reminder that women who have been hurt and abused can be used for glory, too.
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