Sex, Power and the Church: David and Bathsheba
If you grew up in a conservative evangelical church like I did, it is possible there is a story from the Bible that was repeatedly used to teach you about sex – the story of David and Bathsheba in 2nd Samuel chapters 11 and 12. While our teachers’ intentions were good, the way the story was taught has planted seeds in our minds that have grown into weeds we must now deal with if we are to side with Jesus in the time of #MeToo and #TimesUp. In this short essay, I hope to give you a different understanding of David and Bathsheba, one that doesn’t just focus on sex, but also on power.
The Way I Learned the Story
David has outlasted his predecessor and been crowned king. He has defeated his enemies, he has returned the ark to Jerusalem, and he has constructed his place. He is at the peak of his power and his place in the history books as Israel’s greatest king was secure.
Then, on a Spring night, David took a stroll on the roof of his palace. While walking, he saw a beautiful woman bathing on a neighboring rooftop. He asked his servants to find out who the woman was. They told him it was Bathsheba, the wife of one of David’s soldiers. David sent a servant to get her, he had sex with her, and then he sent her home.
A little while later, Bathsheba sent the king a note that read, “I am pregnant.”
David’s first thought was to cover up that the baby was his. He brought Bathsheba’s husband home from war thinking the man would have sex with his wife while he was on leave, but out of loyalty to his troops who were still on the battlefield, Bathsheba’s husband wouldn’t sleep with her.
When David’s original plan failed, the king told his generals to arrange it so Bathsheba’s husband would die on the battlefield. After the husband was killed, David gave Bathsheba time to mourn before he married her.
This might have been the end of the story, one more political scandal cleaned before it damaged the throne if it had not been for God. In the story, God sent Nathan the prophet to speak to David. Nathan told David a story about two men, a rich man, and a poor man. The rich man had lots of sheep. The poor man had one sheep for which he cared a great deal. One night the rich man needed to feed a traveler. Not wanting to waste his own sheep, the rich man took the poor man’s sheep.
At the end of Nathan’s story, David was angry at the rich man and wanted justice for the poor man. With dramatic flair, Nathan explained to David that David was the rich man and Bathsheba’s husband was the poor man. Nathan then told David that his power would begin to fade because of the terrible thing he has done.
What I Learned in Church about Sex
Growing up in an Evangelical Southern Baptist church, I heard this story at least once a year. My Sunday school teachers and youth leaders pulled it out whenever it was time to talk about sex. It was used as a warning for boys on the dangers of sexual temptation. The central message was, “Have sex before marriage and bad things will happen, like a girl getting pregnant.”
I was told that David’s first mistake was being on the roof at midnight. If David had been in bed like he was supposed to be, this would have never happened.
David’s second mistake was looking for too long. My teachers explained that, Yes, there are beautiful women in the world, but don’t look at them. If you do, sexual temptation might overtake you.” Through this analysis of the story, my teachers gave the power to Bathsheba’s beauty. If lingered on, it would be more than any man could bear.
Above all else, it was important for young men to know that they should never investigate sexual temptation. That was David’s third mistake. He was tempted by Bathsheba’s powerful beauty and he then he dwelled on it. He did the Old Testament equivalent of Googling her. My teachers were clear, “Don’t Google sexual temptation.”
According to this line of teaching, David’s great failure was having sex with Bathsheba. All the other bad things that happened (trying to trick the husband, then killing him, then being lectured by Nathan) were born from the act of sex. If David just hadn’t of given in to his desires, everything would have been alright. It was implied (and sometimes openly stated) that if a man lingers in lustful thoughts, those thoughts will when and the man will fall into sin. The only way to escape such temptation was to run from it.
These teachings stuck with me for a long time. When I was in college, I remember walking through the mall with friends who had come from similar upbringings. As we walked by the Victoria Secret store, we’d talk loudly about how much we liked our shoes. The absurd exercise was a way to acknowledge to everyone around us that we were not going to be like David. We weren’t going to look at Bathsheba. We were going to look at our shoes because the beautiful women advertised in the windows of the store would not tempt us. We were aware that just one lingering glance at a poster could take us down a road that would end in an unwanted baby.
When I started in the ministry as a young adult, I was warned about meeting one-on-one with young women. If a meeting with a woman was necessary, it should not be done in public because people might think the meeting was romantic in nature and that would be bad. It should also not be done in private because then I wouldn’t have accountability for my behavior. I also should not ride to meetings in the same car with a woman, because that could lead to sexual temptation. Honestly, the only way meeting one-on-one with a woman would work is if I did it in my office, with the door open, and another guy was sitting outside just in case. Therefore, in the end, it was best just not to have one-on-one meetings with women unless another guy was around.
Consequences of that Teaching
Now in my forties with young boys of my own, I realize this line of teaching, although well intentioned, planted some bad seeds in my mind.
§ It taught me that David, and all men, were the victims in the story. David was being challenged by powerful temptation, the beauty of a woman, and he understandably failed to resist it. The teaching never went so far as to excuse him from responsibility, but it implied that giving in was the foregone conclusion if he remained exposed to the power of a beautiful woman.
§ It also taught me that Bathsheba and beautiful women like her were tools of temptation. Therefore, they were on the side of temptation. While they weren’t the problem, they weren’t helping. Their beauty was powerful and should be avoided unless appropriate romantic involvement was intended.
§ Finally, it taught me that the perspective that matters was David’s. This story was about him, and it was a tragedy. Poor David had fallen into temptation and lost things because of it. Just think of what an amazing king he might have continued to be if this hadn’t happened to him.
As women have begun to speak out about how they were assaulted, I feel the presence of these teachings in our cultural conversation.
When an allegation arises, we whisper about the women because we can’t help but ask Bathsheba, “Should you really have been bathing on the roof? Don’t you know how dangerous your beauty is for men?” We want to know the man’s side of the story, wondering where his moment of failure came; and after the second or third story is shared, we start asking if this whole thing has gone too far. We question allegations, asking for investigations into them, and then questioning the validity of the investigations when they do happen. We even mourn the loss of the assaulters when they are held accountable, saying things like, “Isn’t it sad that David never reached his full potential as the king because this happened to him.”
The Misuse of Power
Teachings like this version of David and Bathsheba have not served us well. I would, therefore, like to take a different look at the story. One that doesn’t place sex at the center, but focuses on the real issue – the issue we tend to ignore in conversations about sexual assault – power.
Let’s start with Bathsheba since she is the true victim of the story.
Notice that she is never the one taking action.
§ David looks at her.
§ David summons her.
§ David “lays” with her.
§ David tries to trick her husband.
§ David murders her husband.
§ David then marries her.
In contrast to David, she has no power in the narrative. At every turn, she is acted upon. This is not something she chose. This was forced upon her.
Also notice that, excluding a three-word note she writes, Bathsheba is silent in the story. In not giving her a voice, the storyteller is communicating to us that she could not speak. It is a stretch to say that she likely felt denying the king was impossible. He clearly had the power to kill her husband and end her life. She had no choice. Which is why this is not a story about an extra-marital affair. It is a story about sexual assault.
David had all the power. Bathsheba had no power. David abused his power to take what he wanted from Bathsheba.
Yet it is her life that is over. Because David stole her, she loses her home and her husband, and she is forced into a harem she didn’t ask to be a part of. Bathsheba’s life as she knows it ends because David took her.
To hammer this point home, let’s consider Nathan. The prophet speaks for God in the story. God and Nathan do not seem to think the problem is sex. They don’t lecture David about being in the wrong place or letting his eye linger on Bathsheba for too long. When Nathan arrives on the scene to speak to David, he tells a story about power. There was a rich man and a poor man. The rich man took the poor man’s things and this was the great injustice.
Notice also that Nathan does not lecture Bathsheba. He does not hold her accountable for tempting David. He does not criticize her for bathing on the roof. He does not tell her she should have covered up or been more careful. He does not have a story for her about sheep and power. In this story, Nathan sees Bathsheba as the innocent victim that she is. She is the poor man who did nothing wrong.
In Sunday School, we never got to the end of the story, and the end of the story is important.
Before leaving David, Nathan explains that because of David’s sin – his abuse of power over Bathsheba – the baby Bathsheba has given birth to will die.
And then the child gets sick.
And David refuses to eat, lying on the ground in mourning all day and night.
And after seven days, the child dies.
The conclusion of the story is that David is made to feel as powerless as Bathsheba was. Through his abuse of power, he is given a son, an heir, a symbol that his family name will go on; but then he is left to lay on the floor helpless and mourning as he watches that future die, just as Bathsheba had to watch as David destroyed her life.
It is clear to me now, as a grown man with sons, that while this story has sex in it, it is not about sex. It is about power. David had all of it, he used it to sexually assault Bathsheba, and the future she was building was destroyed because of it.
Where Should Christians Stand?
The biggest lesson for me (and the lesson I’m trying to teach my boys is) from the story of David and Bathsheba is about how Christ followers should respond when the story is repeated.
When the course of a person’s life is changed because someone with power abuses it to take what they want, where should the people of God be?
Nathan has two roles in this story.
First, he fearlessly holds power accountable.
David is king. He has armies of warriors at his disposal. He has proven himself to be a mighty warrior in battle. He has all the money, all the fame, all the resources of the kingdom.
Nathan only has his reputation and his integrity. He is the man who speaks for God.
Yet Nathan does not hesitate to look David in the eye and say, “You were wrong. You were wrong and you are going to pay for it.”
If we are going to call ourselves followers of God, we must not hesitate to speak truth to those in power. When they abuse their power (and they will because they always do), we must stand and say, “No. This behavior is unacceptable and it will be made right.”
Second, Nathan stands with the powerless.
After this story, Nathan disappears from the narrative. He doesn’t come back until David is an old man, on his deathbed. And when Nathan appears again, in the first chapter of 1st Kings, we see him standing next to Bathsheba. He encourages her to go to David and advocate for her second son, the son who was born after her life had been reset, Solomon. It is Nathan that orchestrates Bathsheba’s son Solomon becoming king. In the same way, when we see injustice happen, if we want to follow God we must also fight for the empowerment of the victims.
I tell my sons at every opportunity, “If you want to know where God is, find the people with the least amount of power, and go fight for them. You’ll find God there.”
The lesson the story of David and Bathsheba should teach us is not about sex. It’s about power. And if the church of America wants to call itself the people of God, if it wants to play the role of Nathan in the story, then it must fearlessly speak truth to power and stand alongside the victims, because that is where we will find God.