Growing up in the church, I have heard the 2 Samuel narrative of Bathsheba and David many times. Often, I have heard this narrative retold by preachers who believe Bathsheba is a dangerous woman and who utilize this narrative as a cautionary tale meant to warn men of the dangers of promiscuous women.
But while reading, do we ever think about how Bathsheba felt?
I have sat through many sermons listening to preachers yell proudly that Bathsheba is an adulteress, or that by bathing naked outside, she was asking for David to be aroused by her. I have heard her be shamed for cheating on her husband with the king, for whom he is away fighting a war.
However, as a student of religious studies, I have spent a lot of time reading this Scripture passage in classes. Something about Bathsheba’s narrative strikes me, and now I think preachers have gotten her wrong.
Our conception that Bathsheba is a temptress or adulteress is a product of modern evangelical purity culture’s teaching that male sexual desire is uncontrollable.
“Our conception that Bathsheba is a temptress or adulteress is a product of modern evangelical purity culture’s teaching that male sexual desire is uncontrollable.”
We constantly hypersexualize the minds of men and boys, teaching them they are inherently sexual beings whether they want to be or not. In turn, we teach women their bodies are the cause of this uncontrollable sexuality because our bodies are sources of sin for onlookers who may be potentially aroused.
This is unfair to both sexes. It is oversimplified.
Men do not become aroused at the very sight of a woman’s ankle or shoulder, simply because it is exposed. Believing this sentiment reduces men’s sexual desires to basic and selfish pleasures, leaving no room for the complexities of love.
And I do not believe the carefully formed bodies of God’s image-bearing women would have been made in such a way that they cause sin without trying. Believing this reduces our bodies into something that is, from a theological standpoint, inherently bad, contradicting our likeness to God.
Sexual desire is complex, emotional and cannot be oversimplified in the categorical ways evangelical purity culture has attempted to do for so long.
Bathsheba’s narrative, when I remove this lens of purity culture, seems to me like an account of sexual violence or coercion.
2 Samuel 11:2-3 tells readers that David and Bathsheba did not know each other. He watched her bathe from his own roof and sent someone to inquire about her identity. Here, Bathsheba is partaking in the normal bathing ritual that any Israelite woman would have regularly completed; in no way does her bathing here seem to indicate this is a seduction. In fact, she probably was embarrassed to find out a man who was not her husband saw her naked.
When David learned who Bathsheba was, he called her to his home with messengers and “lay with her” (2 Samuel 11:4). This all happens within the span of three verses, and nowhere within those verses do the writers offer an account of Bathsheba’s thoughts.
Readers do not have a record of her consent to this exchange.
In fact, the only words that come directly from Bathsheba in this entire passage are, “I am pregnant” in verse 5. But even here, there is no description of emotion — she may be devastated or joyed by this knowledge.
In the next chapter, the LORD sends Nathan to rebuke David, and in 2 Samuel 12:15-19 strikes down the child as punishment.
“I invite you to put yourself in Bathsheba’s shoes for a moment as you interpret this passage.”
Reader, I invite you to put yourself in Bathsheba’s shoes for a moment as you interpret this passage. You are a woman living in ancient Israel and are the wife of a soldier who has been sent off to battle. So, you currently live by yourself (and perhaps with a few enslaved persons who serve you).
Loyalty to the king is an essential part of your daily life as an Israelite.
The king sends for you, so you listen because you do not think you are allowed to say no and are aware that as a woman you have limited socioeconomic ability to defend yourself against a government official, or in a trial.
And faced with King David, surrounded by his loyal soldiers and servants, when you are asked (or perhaps just instructed) to have sex with him because he felt aroused by your bathing body, how do you say no?
How do you refuse the orders of the king, knowing you have no means to defend yourself as a woman with no political power living alone while your husband is gone?
Further, what do you do when you become pregnant and learn that your husband has died after the king sent him to the front lines?
David gets to save face by marrying you, sweeping up the pregnant widow, and giving her a home with the king so she is not a single mother. And you must, yet again, be obedient to David because he is the king, and because your only alternative is to live as a poor widow.
And before you finish grieving, you must marry a man who violated you by spying on your naked body during an intimate bathing ritual, then ordered you into his home to demand sex, got you pregnant, and had your husband killed in battle.
Then your child dies.
Bathsheba is not an adulteress. She is the victim of an abuse of power. Her presence in the biblical text is unsatisfyingly tragic — we do not get to see her triumph over her oppressor. And yet we often blame her for being a temptress.
I do not think the Bible’s writers wanted this narrative to be shared as a representation of hope or goodness. I also do not think that they wanted to portray Bathsheba as a temptress.
Purity culture’s reading of this narrative speaks to the hyper-sexualization that occurs within the church. She was not asking for it by doing a normal act of ritual at her own home, and he could have controlled his sexual desires.
Mallory Challis serves as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. She is a senior at Wingate University.
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