The story of David and Bathsheba has a lot of gaps. It’s a brilliantly told narrative that requires us to draw conclusions based on what we already know. The downside to this sophisticated mode of storytelling is that readers will make unjustified assumptions to fill in the gaps.
As Sara Koenig notes in Bathsheba Survives, the history of this passage’s interpretation makes a fascinating case study of how each generation thinks about sexuality.
Today is no exception.
In the age of #metoo and #churchtoo, the conversation is trending again on Twitter. (As far as I can tell, #sbctoo sparked this latest round.) Once again, various personalities are arguing that David committed adultery, not rape, or vice versa.
Those arguing that David committed adultery often try to pin blame on Bathsheba for bathing in public, thereby seducing David, while those arguing that David raped her point to the uneven power dynamics between them.
But here’s the problem: We think of “adultery” as consensual by definition, while the Bible defines it as the responsibility of the male head of the household to keep his hands off his neighbor’s wife (Ex. 20:14).
That doesn’t mean a woman can’t sin sexually. However, the Ten Commandments are addressed to men by default. They were called to restrain their strength for the sake of community.
It’s hard to think of another Old Testament story that fits the bill more precisely. Bathsheba is literally David’s neighbor’s wife, which means she’s totally off limits to him.
She’s also off limits because of David’s warfare practices.
We learn in 1 Samuel 21:4–5 that he prohibited sexual relations during battles or “missions” from the king. The rule was meant to maintain ritual purity so that soldiers could carry out the divine will.
In those days, battles were considered religious. That’s why Uriah refuses to go to his wife when he answers David’s summons. He shows more restraint when drunk than David does when sober—for the sake of the men’s mission, and to show solidarity with them.
By contrast, David fails to take the mission seriously. He doesn’t lead the troops in battle. Instead, he stays home and preys on the “war widow” next door. He violates Uriah’s marriage covenant, which the narrator reminds us of by repeatedly calling her “the wife of Uriah.”
The incident could be called adultery only in the sense that both David and Bathsheba were married, not in the modern sense of consent. The one difference between this case and Amnon’s violation of his half-sister Tamar (described a few chapters later) is that neither of the latter two was married.
Otherwise, the stories are parallel: He saw; he wanted; he took. But still, some will ask, “Didn’t Bathsheba seduce him?”
The first thing to note is that she is not bathing on the roof (2 Sam. 11:2). It’s David who is on the roof—a normal place to be in the cool of the evening. He ought to be at war with his men, but nevertheless, there he is, bored.
Why is she bathing where he can see her? In David’s day, the city had no indoor plumbing. Bathing normally happened in public.
If Bathsheba is bathing in a public pool, then, she can hardly be implicated for immodesty. And if she’s bathing in the courtyard of her own home, her bath is more private than normal. In fact, the text never says that she was naked.
Isn’t nakedness an obvious inference? Not necessarily. We lived for two years in the Philippines and regularly visited a crowded Muslim neighborhood with no indoor plumbing. Despite rather strict notions of modesty, men and women found ways to scrub clean under adequate cover (usually generous tube skirts for both men and women).
A public approach to hygiene may be foreign to many of us, but it’s quite common in some areas of the world.
This was no ordinary bath, either. She was purifying herself ritually following menstruation (2 Sam. 11:4). This practice indicates that she was a pious keeper of Israelite purity law (and also that she was not already pregnant, which is important to the question of parentage). David’s sexualization of her religious hygiene should raise an eyebrow or two.
David summons her. Does she have a choice? Her husband and her father are both soldiers under his command. No one can refuse the king.
Bathsheba’s only words in the entire story are “I’m pregnant.” David has put her in a predicament: If her husband returns and finds her pregnant, she could be stoned for adultery. But the situation is not her fault, and David knows it.
David’s Plan A is to bring Uriah home from the front to make love to his own wife. It’s still early in her pregnancy, so Uriah may later think it’s his own child. When he piously refuses to come, David has him killed and takes Bathsheba into his harem.
For me, the clincher is this: The narrator is unequivocal in blaming David (2 Sam. 11:27). The prophet Nathan is unequivocal in blaming David (2 Sam. 12:1–12). And Bathsheba is never chastised.
Yes, she loses her son, but that loss is never characterized as her punishment. She suffers for David’s sin, as subjects always do when their leader is recalcitrant.
Pinning the blame equally on Bathsheba ignores how God assesses the story through Nathan. It ignores the culture of the city of David. And it ignores the clear exegetical signals throughout the chapter.
For David, as for every Israelite, the neighbor’s wife is like a daughter to be protected, not an experience to be collected. David knows Bathsheba is unavailable. But this doesn’t deter him in the least. Like a predator, he summons her. He’s come to believe that because he has power, he can have whatever he wants when he wants it.
To me, the most shocking part of the story comes after the murder of Uriah, when David tells his commander, Let this matter not be evil in your eyes (2 Sam. 11:25). David attempts to redefine his own behavior as acceptable.
If David had been king of any other ancient Near Eastern kingdom, his actions would have been unremarkable. Kings could do whatever they wanted. But this wasn’t any other kingdom; it was Israel. And David’s power was not absolute, nor did he make the rules. Yahweh did.
Nathan the prophet makes absolutely clear that the king had done evil in God’s sight (2 Sam. 12:9). His rebuke lands squarely on David. And David knows he’s in the wrong.
David’s response is simply I have sinned against YHWH (v. 13). Standing at a crossroads, he offers no defense, no equivocation, no excuses. He’s been caught in the act. He takes sole responsibility, repents, and chooses a better path forward.
In other words, he too affirms that he’s the guilty one.