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Was David’s Encounter with Bathsheba an Affair or Rape?

Artemisia Gentileschi

The brief account of the first sexual encounter between David and Bathsheba in 2Sam 11:2-4 leaves much to the imagination. Among the details missing is any indication of what Bathsheba is thinking or feeling as these events unfold, and thus her character and motives are open to speculation. Some see Bathsheba as a clever opportunist who was a willing and eager participant in a torrid love affair, and others see her as an innocent victim, exploited by a powerful king.

Those who see Bathsheba as an equal partner in what transpired contend that she must have known that David could see her bathing from the palace roof, and thus she intentionally provoked him by flaunting her body before him. When David sends for her, she immediately comes to the palace without hesitation, and there is no description of her putting up resistance to his sexual advances. She is quick to tell David of her pregnancy and to marry him as soon as the mourning period for her husband is over. Moreover, since the author relays that both David and Bathsheba suffered from the punishment of the death of their child, they both must be considered guilty of wrongdoing.

Those who see Bathsheba as an innocent victim maintain that she probably assumed that David was at war leading his troops, not in the palace, and certainly not wandering about on the roof. Most likely she was bathing in an inner courtyard, a private space where she thought no one could see her. When summoned by the king, she probably feared that her husband had been killed or wounded in battle, so of course she immediately came to the palace. Once the king’s intent was clear, she was in no position to refuse his sexual advances, given the power imbalance between them. When Bathsheba discovered she was pregnant, she likely panicked. Since Uriah, her husband, was away at war, it would be obvious that the child she was carrying was not his. She could not have known that reaching out to David in desperation would result in the murder of her husband. Bathsheba also did not necessarily want to marry David, but she had no other option. She was pregnant and widowed, so when David sent for her and brought her into his household, she did not resist.

Although the description of the events in 2Sam 11 is so vague and lacking in detail that either of these readings is possible, there are indications further on in the narrative that the biblical author viewed Bathsheba as innocent of wrongdoing. The narrator puts the blame squarely on David’s shoulders when he comments in 2Sam 11:27 that what David did was displeasing to Yahweh. The prophet Nathan’s condemnation and pronouncement of punishment are addressed solely to David, and in his parable (2Sam 12:1-4), Bathsheba is depicted as an innocent lamb and Uriah as the loving owner from whom she is cruelly snatched. Though both David and Bathsheba suffer the loss of their child equally, the sin that the child dies for is presented as David’s. Lastly, Ahithophel’s advice to Absalom to have sex with 10 of David’s wives on the roof of the palace as a public display of power (2Sam 16:21-22) appears to be motivated by a strong desire for revenge for what David had done to Bathsheba, his granddaughter.

Though the text never tells us exactly what happened between David and Bathsheba on that balmy spring evening, the evidence appears to indicate that it was likely not a mutually consensual liaison. Rather, Bathsheba was an innocent victim who was subjected to an egregious abuse of power and who tried to salvage whatever she could out of a terrible situation.

  • Hilary Lipka

    Hilary Lipka is an instructor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).