Gospel Doctrine Old Testament Lesson #242 Samuel 112 Samuel 12:1–23Psalm 51

A couple weeks ago the Maxwell Institute at BYU hosted a Forgiveness and Reconciliation symposium bringing together speakers from Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. Speaking of the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, Mpho Tutu van Furth—Anglican theologian and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke about the steps required for forgiveness and reconciliation. First, victims need to tell their stories and name their hurt. If we skip the initial steps, we can never progress. If we call ourselves disciples of Christ, Mpho reminds us that taking part in the work of reconciliation is our vocation.

This lesson in the manual is focused on David, his sin, and his search for forgiveness. That we all sin and need reconciliation is the central claim of Christianity—certainly applicable to all of us. Yet, David can never be fully reconciled to the Lord without Bathsheba. Her story is crucial. Her story in the first two chapters of second Samuel is a textbook example of how we might benefit by centering women in the scriptural narrative. Refocusing the narrative on a woman who is only named twice in the text enables the process of reconciliation for David. Bathsheba is not given a voice in these chapters of Samuel, that becomes our responsibility.

Though women are without political and priestly power in the narrative of first and second Samuel, women play a significant role within this patriarchal structure. Biblical scholarship on the encounter between David and Bathsheba has been very polarized and aligns with our current #metoo context. The literature either depicts Bathsheba as the woman ‘asking for it’ or as the victim of rape by a powerful man. Though some scholars have worked to label Bathsheba the seductress, in my analysis one must make significant assumptions and leaps beyond the text to paint Bathsheba as a woman scheming to be the queen. Careful attention to the text yields important insight into her experience.

Bathsheba’s lack of a voice in these chapters points to her lack of autonomy—her agency has been stripped by a powerful man. In 2 Samuel 11, Bathsheba is consistently the object of David’s actions. Bathsheba was bathing on the roof to complete ritual cleansing after menstruation—highlighting her adherence to the Law and ensuring that we know that the resulting child could not be Uriah’s. David saw a beautiful woman, “sent messengers and took her” (11:4). In the KJV “took her” is a not so subtle idiom for sexual intercourse—David sees Bathsheba as an object. The text sets up David as “a consummate usurper—of kingdoms and of wives.” [1] This is David’s sin. He sees something beautiful, and he wants it. Bathsheba is initially valuable to him only as an object on which to focus his power.

Just as the definition of rape can be contested in contemporary discussions, some of the academic discussion of this episode points to the fraught nature of defining rape dependent on the biblical text. The Hebrew does not have a one-on-one equivalent for the English word rape. Beyond that, the biblical definition of rape is supremely narrow—a woman must cry out or else the assumption is that the sexual act is desired (Compare Deut 22:23-24 and 25-27). There is a significant distance between that and contemporary discussions of rape that importantly include a wider range of sexual coercion. David is the king, Bathsheba is not an equal in this situation. The imbalance of power leads us to consider how her agency has been curtailed. And without agency there can be no sin.

The last line of chapter 11 is clear where the text places the responsibility for what happens between Bathsheba and David—“the thing David had done displeased the Lord” (11:27). Then the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to ensure that David is aware of his sin. With a parable, Nathan calls out David’s sin and helps David to begin the process of reconciliation. Speaking truth to sin is essential. Forgiveness and reconciliation will never be reached without it.

Nathan’s words to David seem to hang in the air—“Thou art the man” (12:7). In my paraphrase–God gave you everything and you “despised” him. The punishment by YHWH aims squarely at David, though it is not without its effect on Bathsheba—she also loses a child. Bathsheba was not in a place to speak truth to power. Doing so could have had dire consequences. As prophet, Nathan had power. Nathan did what Bathsheba could not. (If there was any remaining question of David’s position before the Lord, the lack of response to his daughter Tamar’s rape by her half-brother Amnon in the following chapter further illuminates David’s depravity.)

Gratefully, this is not the last time we will see Bathsheba. The first two chapters of Kings offers us Bathsheba transformed from a woman without a voice to an assertive and autonomous woman acting as a shrewd diplomat united with the prophet to work on behalf of her son, Solomon. When Matthew later writes his genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1), he includes Bathsheba and a handful of other women in his patriarchal genealogy reminding his reader that though all of these women were involved in some sort of scandal (as some might also judge Mary), ultimately they all did what was right in the sight of the Lord and became the foremothers of Jesus.

Giving voice to Bathseba’s experience is essential. Her story matters. Only after we hear her voice can we turn to the possibility of redemption of David.

[1] Jo Ann Hackett, “1 and 2 Samuel,” Woman’s Bible Commentary, Revised and Updated Carol Newsom, et al. eds.