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Cover image: Bathing Bathsheba, Rembrandt.
The following comes from ‘On Sovereign Wings‘. It is republished here with permission.
A few years ago I was on the phone with an old friend. We were talking about another friend of ours, a man who was about to be incarcerated for some poor decisions he had made. As we were talking about the case, my friend drew a familiar parallel. “If she hadn’t acted like Bathsheba and seduced him,” he said speaking of the girl involved, “this never would have happened.”
I knew very little about the circumstances surrounding our friend’s arrest, and blessedly I was not his judge. What I did know was that something about that comparison felt incredibly wrong to me. It seared my chest with pain and sank into my stomach like a weighted piece of brimstone.
His implication nagged at me for months. What was it about his analogy that felt so off? Finally, I decided to pay attention to those persistent feelings, and I sat down with Bathsheba’s story.
The discoveries I’ve made through my study of Bathsheba have been healing and enlightening for me. As we approach our annual Sunday School lesson about this woman in this Old Testament year, I believe we can offer this same healing and enlightenment to many others, to the degree that we are willing to share a more complete perspective as we teach our classes and our families.
In an era when so many women are coming forward with their own stories of sexual abuse and assault, Queen Bathsheba offers a path forward towards the reclamation of self and female power, and David, in his own way, offers a model of accountability and repentance. The two journeys actually inform each other, because both the victim and the perpetrator heal as they uncover and tell the truth about their experiences.
And the truth is… Bathsheba wasn’t on the roof.
Evidence in the Bible
“And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself…” (2 Samuel 11:2)
That’s the Biblical verse that immortalized this event. And what does it say? It says that David was “upon” the roof, and that “from the roof” he saw Bathsheba. The verse doesn’t mention her whereabouts. This might not immediately seem like an important distinction, but if we return to the scriptures a few more relevant tidbits emerge from the text.
“And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.” (2 Samuel 11:4)
Bathsheba’s bath wasn’t strictly hygienic. It was a ceremonial washing ritual; it is still observed by Orthodox Jews today! Bathsheba was living according to the law of Moses, which required her to wash herself monthly—after her period (or state of ‘uncleanness’) ended—to return to a state of spiritual readiness to create life.
It is incredibly unlikely that Bathsheba would have participated in this washing ritual somewhere as public as on a rooftop! Bathsheba’s washing was a faithful and personal act of devotion to God. She wasn’t a seductress in this, and there is no evidence that she strategically positioned herself on a roof—or anywhere else for that matter—to catch the king’s eye.
The blame rests squarely on David’s shoulders.
Rape in Old Testament Times
Today, we might call what happened to Bathsheba rape, but in Old Testament times there wasn’t as much nuance surrounding the term as there is today. In fact, according to the law of Moses rape was only rape if the victim was a virgin, was forced down, and vocally protested (Deuteronomy 22:23-29).
While aspects of this narrow definition of rape are still alive and well today, we can gratefully acknowledge that the law of Moses has been done away with, and that we now are called to live a higher law. And what is this higher law exactly? I love how Benjamin Ogles, a professor at BYU, answers this question in his recent 2018 BYU Devotional:
“The most respectful approach in real life is to honor the personal space and physical autonomy of others and only… touch when you are sure you have consent. Remember, sexual contact without consent is assault.”
If we are to truly honor the law of chastity we cannot do it without honoring the agency of our partner, or would-be partner. We must respect their body, their wishes, and their desires; while simultaneously respecting the laws of God. When David took Bathsheba (the word used in the Biblical passage) his actions were selfish and capitalized on his position of power.
But did Bathsheba consent?
In her book All the Women of the Bible (1983), Edith Deen explains, “According to the laws, Bathsheba could not have resisted had she desired, for woman in these ancient times was completely subject to a king’s will. If he desired her, he could have her. Consequently her part in the story is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy.”
Exonerated by Prophets
Although Nathan, the prophet at the time, soundly condemned David for his actions, he did no such thing to Bathsheba. In fact, he likened her to a “little ewe lamb” that was stolen from her poor master and slaughtered. Could this ancient prophet have chosen an image that would have evoked more innocence than that of a lamb?
Modern-day prophets likewise speak of David’s culpability without mentioning Bathsheba’s. In fact, there has never been a modern-day prophet, apostle, or seventy who has placed Bathsheba on the roof (scriptures.byu.edu). Which might not matter so much if her location weren’t used elsewhere to indicate that she was complicit in her rape.
It is imperative that we let go of Bathsheba as adulteress! When we misread these ancient and sacred stories we also misread our lives. Nephi’s admonition that we “liken the scriptures unto ourselves” can be spiritually dangerous if we are likening ourselves to partial truths or false truths. The way truly is narrow in this respect, but finding it is worth any effort we put forward. This is the path to true healing and to Christ.
Can a woman who is blameless ever find forgiveness if she is constantly searching for some evidence that she is actually at fault for what happened to her? And can a man who has perpetrated an offense of this kind ever find the Balm of Gilead if he is constantly running from his own guilt?
Accountability and honesty are the keys that will set both parties free. This is true for those whose stories fall into simple categories of “guilty” and “not guilty” and for those who have more complex stories. As we sift through our hearts seeking that “truth [which] will set [us] free” (John 8:32) we will be enabled to identify what is broken, take it to Christ, and be healed.
I believe that David and Bathsheba, in their own ways, demonstrated the fruits of this process.
As David lay dying his kingdom was in tumult. His oldest living son, Adonijah, was gathering followers and attempting to take the throne from the heir presumptive, Solomon. Nathan, knowing that Solomon was God’s anointed, enlisted Bathsheba’s help.
Bathsheba went to David and reminded him that he had once promised her that Solomon would rule as king. The scriptures say she made “obesience” to him and that in response he said, “As the Lord liveth, who hath redeemed my soul out of all distress… Solomon thy son shall reign after me” (1 Kings 1:29-30).
This exchange happened many years after the initial suffering David had inflicted on Bathsheba. He sexually assaulted her, yes, but he also murdered her husband and brought her into his harem as one of his wives. In modern times many women maintain relationships with their perpetrators, if only because of the familiar ties that first connected them. It is less common I think for a victim to be married to her perpetrator following the assault.
I cannot even imagine what that must have been like for Bathsheba. Being married to David must have meant that she was constantly, cyclically re-traumatized, and brought face-to-face over and over again with what could have so easily translated into a state of permanent, crippling victimhood. The strength she must have had astounds me.
And that’s what makes that deathbed scene so amazing. Bathsheba had transformed. She must have to become the figure of influence this story shows her to be. Nathan, the prophet, depended on her during a crucial and dangerous time to sway the king. And David trusted her good judgement too. She could not have stepped into that exchange without having arrived at some sense of her own power, and some sense of forgiveness.
Likewise, I see real repentance in David’s oath. He credits the Lord as having “redeemed his soul out of all distress,” which I think is a dual acknowledgement of God’s goodness toward this very fallen man, and an acknowledgement of the pain he had caused Bathsheba. By reiterating that the throne would belong to Solomon David was guaranteeing Bathsheba’s future security and sovereignty. David was giving Bathsheba the position of Queen Mother; the single most power and influential office a woman could hold in ancient Israel.
The Day Cometh
According to LDS theology David’s choice to arrange the death of Uriah will ultimately bar him from receiving exaltation, a heavy edict indeed. I take comfort in the scriptural promise that “mercy cannot rob justice” and that yet “mercy [will] claim all which are her own… the truly penitent” (Alma 42: 24-25). If David was truly penitent, and I believe he was, then there must be a way prepared for him to obtain peace, if not exaltation.
And for Bathsheba?
She did become Queen Mother. After Solomon’s coronation, Bathsheba went to him to advocate for Adonijah. When she entered Solomon’s court he bowed to her, and had a seat placed on the right side of his throne for her (1 Kings 2:18-19). That image of her seated on a throne beside her son, the king, speaks to me of holier things, and of the future glory awaiting Bathsheba.
Long after her death she was commemorated in the New Testament as one of four unconventional women listed in Christ’s lineage. Surely, being a doorway through which humanity’s Savior would come to mortality is a great honor indeed. And it was an honor extended to Bathsheba. All this reminds me of a beautiful promise contained in The Doctrine and Covenants.
“Ye cannot behold… for the present time… the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory” (D&C 58:3-4).
If we search out Bathsheba using the lens of truth it becomes clear that this promise resides at the heart of her story. When we characterize her as a woman who rose from the ashes, instead of as a mechanism serving David’s narrative, she can become a mentor and a beacon for contemporary women who are oppressed and downtrodden. If Bathsheba was crowned with glory in this life, how much more will she, and we all, receive in the world to come?