This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.
Lectionary First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 (The Rape of Bathsheba)
Our first reading this week is the second part of the sad saga of David and Bathsheba. It is fraught with problems and triggers that can do harm to victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and parents who have suffered from infant death or miscarriage. There is little good news in this story, but perhaps it is a chance to undo some damage that preachers and interpreters have done over the centuries. Bathsheba is perhaps the greatest victim of “victim-blaming” in history, and the one shining light from this text makes this clear.
The Common English Bible puts it bluntly: “But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes” (2 Samuel 11:27b, CEB). At no point in the text is Bathsheba blamed. Generations of interpreters have read consent into Bathsheba’s actions. A blog post from the site womeninscripture.com says, “David did not rape Bathsheba, as evidenced by his subsequent actions. He vehemently loved her.” The idea that David’s love for Bathsheba exempts him from raping her is appalling.
Womanist scholar Wilda Gafney has a different reading of the situation: “To come when beckoned by the king does not imply consent. I argue that Bathsheba’s going with David’s soldiers on her own two feet should in no way be read as consent, but rather as holding on to a shred of dignity by not being dragged or carried out… Rape is an abuse of power that can include relational and positional power, in addition to physical power. The power dynamic is clear: David uses the power and authority of his office to wield lethal violence to keep her. He sees her, sends for her, and has sex with her without her consent. He rapes her. In the subsequent narrative [this week’s text], Nathan and God treat David as a rapist by condemning him but not imputing sin to Bathsheba as a complicit, consenting person. Their treatment of her is consistent with the treatment of women who are raped in the Torah statues” (Gafney, Womanist Midrash, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017; p. 215)
God’s judgment is upon David. Unfortunately, the punishment of David is laid down at the feet of his children and his family. The fact that David’s children – especially the child in Bathsheba’s womb – would be punished for David’s sin is disturbing. Especially to those who have suffered from infertility, infant death, or miscarriage, this does not feel like justice.
If, however, you read more into the story of David’s life, you may see something else is revealed. David spent his life treating women as pawns. He used, manipulated, and discarded women as was politically expedient. David set up a household built on violence against women, and violence against women lived on in his line. The narrative reveals that David’s children were torn apart by rape, vengeance, murder, and rivalry. His kingdom, while going to Solomon, crumbles soon thereafter. A student of family systems, generational trauma, and domestic violence might recognize that the patterns David set up in his own family continued. And while I do not believe that this was God punishing David for his sin, the trouble in David’s children’s lives does feel as if it is the fruit of David’s actions.
So, where is the good news in this story? I do not think there is good news in this text. The good news is left for today’s interpreters, preachers, and commentators to see the story for what it is: a cautionary tale that has tragic consequences for all involved. Instead of ignoring Bathsheba (or worse, blaming her), perhaps we can give her a voice. We can give voice to the millions of women who have been victim to violence. We can speak against the power dynamics, misguided understandings of love (I’m looking at you, author at womeninscripture.com), and toxic masculinity that allows for men in power to thrive in their abuse.
In the end, David found grace and forgiveness, but he was also held accountable. His actions, while forgiven by God, also had dire consequences. We who follow Christ know that Jesus came from David’s line. David’s earthly kingdom split quickly and disintegrated in time. Jesus’ Kingdom, unlike David’s, is not built on violence. It is built on the dignity of all people. It is built on love and compassion. It is built upon the things that first helped David rise to power – faith, hope, and a good shepherd’s care for others.