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Published Date: December 2, 2015

Published Date: December 2, 2015

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“He Will Take”: David and Bathsheba

In 1 Samuel 8, Israel demands a king. In response, God warns through Samuel the prophet that kings are takers. Six times in one paragraph (vv. 11-18), God says of the future Israelite kings, “he will take….”

Whenever I teach about the story of David’s sin against Bathsheba, I encourage my students to stand up for her. That is, when they hear someone place the blame on Bathsheba, in whole or in part, I want them to chime in. I want them to point out that this was no ordinary case of adultery. It was not a tryst. Rather, David took. It was a sin of power, committed by David against—not with—Bathsheba.

Well, it’s time for me to follow my own advice, for I recently heard someone claim, from the pulpit, that Bathsheba shares the blame. The sermon claimed that, at very least, Bathsheba was unwise to bathe in such a careless place. More likely, the preacher said, she was actually trying to seduce King David by bathing where she knew he could see her.

I disagree. But perhaps it’s simply my word against the preacher’s, or, more specifically, my bias against his. Are we both simply giving our own biased interpretations of the text? I don’t think so. Rather, I will now argue that the biblical text offers nothing whatsoever to lead us toward the view that Bathsheba was a willing, perhaps even seductive, partner.

2 Samuel 11

The sermon claimed first that Bathsheba was bathing “in the back yard” and later that she was “on her roof.” The text makes neither statement. It is David who is on the palace roof, significantly higher than all surrounding structures, high enough that his view of Bathsheba may be from quite a distance, as suggested by his inquiry about her identity (v. 3). The text simply says she was bathing, and the implication is that her bath was one of ritual purification after menstruation (v. 4).

The sermon also suggested she knew David would likely be watching. But does the story not begin, “It was the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to war”? Thus, if Bathsheba for some reason knew that David spent many afternoons on his roof or had a tendency toward voyeurism, this was a season when she shouldn’t have had to worry about such things. To quote A. A. Anderson, who wrote the volume on 2 Samuel in the Word Biblical Commentary, “There is no real reason to assume that Bathsheba actually intended to be seen by the king” (p. 153).

When royal messengers fetch Bathsheba, she is not given a choice. Moreover, to quote an ESV Study Bible note written by David Toshio Tsumura, “it is hardly likely that he [David] makes his intention clear when he summons Bathsheba.”

2 Samuel 12

In the following chapter, Nathan the prophet confronts David about his sin by means of a parable that culminates in the famous accusation, “You are the man!” What feature of Nathan’s parable represents Bathsheba? An innocent lamb. If Nathan intended for her to share the blame, his parable surely missed the mark. Bathsheba is neither the parabolic rich man (David) nor even the poor man (Uriah). She is an innocent victim, a pawn in someone else’s power game.

After the parable, does Nathan accuse David of giving into seduction? No. His sin was taking what he had no right to. Verse 10 clearly states the reason for David’s guilt, “because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite…” (NIV, italics added). Even in that part of David’s punishment which intimately affected Bathsheba—the baby’s death—the text focuses on David: “the son born to you (singular) shall die.”

Psalm 51

This famous Psalm of repentance comes to us with a superscription: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba” (NIV). The last part of the superscription says, “after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (see KJV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, ESV). The more modern translation “committed adultery” can be misleading here. The Psalm itself does not mention Bathsheba. Neither does David position himself as a victim of seduction or as sharing guilt with anyone.

And Beyond

Bathsheba is mentioned several times in the book of 1 Kings, once in 1 Chronicles, and once in the New Testament. In none of these places is her guilt asserted or her character questioned.

Under this subheading of “and beyond,” I’d like to point out a sin of David which regularly goes unmentioned. This sin of intent adds to my claim that David’s sin was against, not simply with, Bathsheba. David’s plan for Uriah to spend the night with Bathsheba, resulting in the assumption that Uriah was the child’s father, reveals that David intended to let that assumption prevail. He clearly planned never to reveal his relationship to the child. Thus both Bathsheba and their son would have lived out their days without support from the king, financial or otherwise, and for their own safety, Bathsheba would have had to keep secret this sin against her.

The sermon I heard invoked a scholarly source in defense of its accusations against Bathsheba. Thus I too will end by quoting a scholar. The following is from Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series (p. 273):

The verbs rush as the passion of David rushed. He sent; he took; he lay (v. 4). The royal deed of self-indulgence does not take very long. There is no adornment to the action. The woman then gets some verbs: she returned, she conceived. The action is so stark. There is nothing but action. There is no conversation. There is no hint of caring, of affection, of love—only lust. David does not call her by name, does not even speak to her. At the end of the encounter she in only “the woman” (v. 5). The verb that finally counts is “conceived.” But the telling verb is “he took her.”