Does the Bible Whisper About David Raping Bathsheba?

Twitter was abuzz for an entire weekend with apparent newfound exegetical expertise regarding the account of David and Bathsheba in the Bible. The account describes how David sent for Bathsheba, got her pregnant, and afterward had her husband killed.

The Twitter dustup started when Rachael Denhollander corrected a tweet from Matt Smethurst, Managing Editor of The Gospel Coalition, who had written that “David fornicated.” Denhollander replied, “David raped. It’s important we get that right.” She then mentioned this Twitter exchange in her interview with Russell Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Caring Well conference.

On pages 89-90 of her book, What Is A Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, Denhollander relates how a substitute Sunday School teacher asked whether or not Bathsheba bore any responsibility in David’s sin. A female classmate pointed out that Bathsheba could not have refused King David, since he held her life in his hands. But a male classmate immediately spoke up in response and said that Bathsheba could have chosen death instead. Yikes.

Harmful Hermeneutics

Imagine being an abuse survivor and hearing this; hearing that even when a person has complete control over you, and you cannot do anything to fight back, you are still at fault for your sexual abuse. Moreover, think through what this communicates to those who are already afraid to speak up about their abuse. We see how serious an issue our interpretation of this text actually is.

But the seriousness of the consequences in our interpretation is not what Denhollander is driven by in her understanding of the text. Rather, she explained, “To start, when Nathan tells David the parable of the rich man who took the ewe, David is portrayed as stealing, not as two people running off together. Bathsheba is portrayed as an innocent lamb that is slaughtered. This is the *exact* imagery for rape from the OT.” She went on to write, “The evidence is in the imagery used, where blame is placed (not on both parties as the law would require) and in the cultural mandates/power dynamics. It’s clear, when we understand abuse. Getting this wrong is crushing. I talk about this in my book. It IS all over the place. This (and several other serious errors along these lines) are part of why women and victims feel such a deep sense of betrayal from the church. Scripture that protects us is twisted and weaponized to crush with unfounded guilt and shame.”

Immediately, people began to note that Denhollander’s reading is not the majority reading. Complex implications were pointed out, such as the idea that if Joseph had succumbed to Potiphar’s wife, who had control over his life, he would not have been in sin, but a victim of rape. Others noted that God put Bathsheba’s baby to death based on David’s sin. That is, Bathsheba not only suffered rape at the hands of David, and the loss of her husband, but then bore the brunt of the punishment for David’s sin in the sickness and death of her newborn baby boy.

The worst parts of the many exchanges on Twitter were the awful assumptions Christians were making about one another. Some assumed that the minority reading was motivated, not by careful exegesis and study, but by the supposed emotionally-driven and clouded judgment of victimhood. Gross. Others assumed that a rejection of the reading that David raped Bathsheba was evidence of a deep-seated misogyny bent on hurting women and abuse survivors. Ouch. Neither of these were charitable assumptions.

Denhollander is correct that we need to get this right, and doing so should involve careful exegesis and study, an understanding of ancient and modern cultural and legal assumptions, consistency in implications, and the like. None of these are something a person can usually do in a day on Twitter. All of this to say, Denhollander faced some overly dismissive detractors, some of whom unlovingly assumed the absolute worst about her.

Scripture Shouts About Sexual Sin

But this post is not about the dustup over David and Bathsheba, nor is it about Denhollander. Rather, this post is an argument from the ‘lesser’ to the ‘greater.’ As important as the account of David and Bathsheba is to our understanding of power dynamics and abuse – and it is – it is one of many such stories of the Bible that pertain to that issue in particular. No matter your view, Denhollander has done Southern Baptists, and others, a great favor in reminding us of this. We need to read and teach the Bible more carefully, and think through how what we say can comfort or crush others, particularly when it comes to sexual sin.

However, we want to note here that this is one of the reasons why we have raised some concerns about the teaching and preaching of J. D. Greear on the topic of sexual sin. (See the open letter and blog series in A Civil Summary of Concerns with J. D. Greear’s Public Statements on Homosexuality.) What Greear says and writes about homosexuality has far-reaching implications for what one thinks about other sexual sins including sexual abuse. Obviously, sexual abuse is far more than mere sexual sin, but it is certainly not less than sexual sin. Sexual abuse can be criminal, as homosexuality and adultery once were, not only in ancient Israel, but also in the United States of America. Sexual abuse, such as that carried out by preferential offenders, does not stem from natural desire, but unnatural. And its effects on victims are absolutely devastating. The best thing a supposed theological conservative in the Southern Baptist Convention can do right now is to speak loud and clear on sexual sin, because the Bible does. Far from whispering about sexual sin, God shouts about it. And it is important to get this right.

The De-emphasis of Sexual Sin

This is one of the reasons why it was so disheartening to hear Greear’s quote from Jen Wilkin in one of his sermons. Wilkin serves on staff at The Village Church, which is currently being sued for more than $1 million due to alleged gross negligence regarding child sexual abuse. Matt Chandler, the pastor of The Village Church, was called out by Denhollander during her appearance on an ERLC panel on sexual abuse at the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, for having made a critical error in how he handled the situation. Chandler also serves as president of the Acts 29 church planting network. Boz Tchividjian, who was also a speaker at the ERLC Caring Well conference, is the lawyer representing the alleged victim in the aforementioned case. So, what happens here could have sweeping implications for both the SBC and A29.

Greear was not clear in his sermon to mark where Wilkin’s quote ended and his began, but to say that God “whispers” about sexual sin, as he did, in relation to other sins like greed and religious pride downplays the seriousness, not only of the sin of homosexuality, which Greear was addressing, but of every other sexual sin as well, including sexual abuse. Survivors have noted this as well. Greear’s statement, and the material he has written since, which seem to downplay the seriousness of sexual sins like homosexuality, are untimely at best. We can nevertheless be thankful that Greear has otherwise handled himself well in addressing the abuse scandal in the SBC.

An Unspoken Implication

A summary of concerns with Greear’s public statements on sexual sin can be found here. The reader is encouraged to pay careful attention to them, and note that many of the claims made about the sin of homosexuality could just as easily be applied to the sin of sexual abuse. Obviously, we do not believe that is what Greear intended to say, and obviously, homosexuality is different from sexual abuse. But neither do we believe Smethurst intended to wound abuse survivors with his pithy list. That does not change what followed.

As important as the account of David and Bathsheba is to our understanding of power dynamics and abuse, it is one of many such stories of the Bible that pertain to that issue in particular. We need to read and teach the Bible more carefully, and think through how what we say can comfort or crush others, particularly when it comes to sexual sin. The Bible does not whisper about sexual sins, even in relation to the other sins it addresses.

We have a mess in the SBC. Let’s at least be loud and clear about what the Bible says.

Published by Chris Bolt

Wretched sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Husband, father, pastor, seminary professor, and author.

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