The biblical story of David and Bathsheba is as dramatic as it is ambiguous: A powerful man sees a beautiful stranger and orders his subordinates to summon her. She becomes pregnant. The man clumsily tries to cover it up, but eventually he has the woman’s husband killed, and they later marry.
In recent days, a question about this ancient tale has inspired heated online conversations among evangelicals: Did David have an affair with Bathsheba, or did he rape her? The answer has implications for the way the famous story is taught to children and the reputation of a biblical hero. But the debate itself illuminates—and may even change—the ways that evangelical Christians think about gender, sex, power, consent, and abuse.
The story of King David and Bathsheba, a soldier’s wife, appears in the second book of Samuel in the Old Testament. It’s a sordid tale that begins with David spying on Bathsheba bathing; he later goes to great lengths to deceive her honorable husband, ultimately sending the poor sap to the front lines of an ongoing war. David and Bathsheba marry, and she gives birth to the future King Solomon. The central passage, which ends with the declaration that “the thing David had done displeased the Lord,” portrays the episode as a foreboding turning point in the biblical patriarch’s life. But the text isn’t clear about what, exactly, was so displeasing—not to mention what it should be called.
To lay readers, it’s impossible to know whether Bathsheba was excited to be summoned by the king or whether she feared it. The story refracts in different ways to different viewers, making her a popular subject in visual art. Rembrandt painted her as a downcast, conflicted nude; Rubens depicted her as eager and sensual; Chagall positioned her embraced by an apparently loving David. (Leonard Cohen seemed to let David off the hook: “You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya,” he sang.) In many Jewish interpretations, Bathsheba is a modest woman forced—physically and/or psychologically—into going along with the king’s whims. (The bathing David observed was a ritual bath that suggests she was religiously observant and obedient.) Even in conservative Christian settings, the possibility of Bathsheba’s innocence has often been acknowledged. Prominent conservative pastor and author John Piper aroused little controversy when he straightforwardly described David’s crime as rape a decade ago. Evangelical readers of Christianity Today similarly took it in stride when a 2015 column on sexual violence in the Bible ran under the headline “David Was a Rapist, Abraham Was a Sex Trafficker.”
In some Christian spaces, however, Bathsheba is portrayed as a temptress—and a useful illustration of the moral danger of attracting male lust, even accidentally. Bathsheba was bathing in a place where she could be seen, after all. “Why don’t we talk about Bathsheba’s sin?” asks modesty guru Dannah Gresh in a popular guidebook for young women. Gresh speculates that Bathsheba was lonely and wanted to be watched, comparing her to contemporary women who show too much skin; elsewhere, Gresh has compared Bathsheba to Britney Spears. Another modern writer on modesty chastises Bathsheba for her public nakedness and describes her as a contributor to David’s sin: “Bathsheba failed to govern her modesty; David failed to govern his eyes. Candle … gunpowder.” In this framework, Bathsheba and David had a consensual relationship. He may have initiated it, but she asked for it.
This week, the Bathsheba question became the subject of a suddenly heated public debate, sparked by a major Southern Baptist conference on sexual abuse in evangelical contexts. The conference, held last weekend in Dallas, meant that many evangelicals had already spent the weekend reading and discussing institutional complicity in sexual abuse. The event included sessions for church leaders on recognizing and responding to abuse; it also offered platforms to critics of the denomination’s record of mishandling claims. Rachael Denhollander, an author and victim’s advocate, emphasized that true reckoning requires specificity about past failures. Afterward, she reiterated the point on Twitter in response to a tweet that said David’s sin was that he “fornicated”: “David raped,” Denhollander replied. “It’s important we get that right.”
Denhollander is a theologically conservative evangelical and is widely respected within that community. But her activism also enrages a faction of conservatives who accuse her of placing “social justice” over biblical truth. Predictably, then, her tweet pissed some people off. Some critics accused her of letting her own experience cloud her reading of Scripture. Others worried that describing David’s encounter with Bathsheba as rape opens up the possibility of undermining the conservative “complementarian” relationship model, in which husbands are properly the leaders of their (straight, obviously) families. “This new woke hermeneutical lens is radically egalitarian at its core,” one pseudonymous Twitter account put it. “Because of the prevalence of power imbalances between men and women, this lens requires us to conclude that most sexual relationships in the [Old Testament] were actually rapes, and most of the [Old Testament] luminaries were rapists.” Others on various sides of the debate parsed the ancient Hebrew definition of rape, analyzed a later passage in which a prophet compares Bathsheba to an innocent lamb, and performed other high-wire feats of textual dissection.
But it would be a mistake to read this as a purely academic discussion. To devout Christians, especially evangelicals, biblical questions are never just academic: The text is sacred, and its interpretation has implications for everyday life. Online, women wrote about how the Bathsheba debate had prompted conversations about workplace harassment and dredged up painful memories of the moments when they realized that some men read the passage so differently than they did. In her recent memoir about exposing the sexual abuse of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, Denhollander describes how a callous interpretation of the Bathsheba passage contributed to her own initial silence after being abused as a teenager. In her high school Sunday school class, a teacher asked whether Bathsheba bore responsibility for what happened.
Denhollander was silently relieved when a girl in the class responded that Bathsheba couldn’t have said no. “I don’t think that’s right,” a boy replied. “She could have chosen death. This wasn’t abuse.” Denhollander easily grasped his point. “If they see Bathsheba that way, they would see me that way too,” she writes, “better off dead than violated.” This week, a pastor and ministry leader echoed the same perspective online: Bathsheba should have told David to “prepare the furnace” rather than obey him—and, he added, today’s daughters should be taught to do the same. For young people who have absorbed similar messages in Christian spaces, the redemption of Bathsheba matters very much indeed.