Bathsheba and the myth of unconscious seduction

“The Scripture says ‘[David] was a man after God’s own heart.’ He was a man who wanted to please the Lord. He didn’t get up that morning and say, ‘I think I’m going to lust after a woman. I think I’m going to commit adultery. I think I’m going to kill this man so I can have his wife.’ He didn’t have wicked intent initially, but he was weak. He was particularly weak in the presence of an undressed woman, and most men would be.” Nancy Leigh DeMoss, “Mixed Messages

“King David … was lazy; he was disobedient; he was out of God’s will. But also he saw a woman washing herself. She was either out in a yard where everybody could see her, or else she was in the house without the curtains drawn. And she was equally guilty in that lusting experience. I know David was out of God’s will and should have been out fighting the battles, because the Bible starts off that chapter by saying that it was the time that kings went out to war that David stayed at home. I know that was wrong, and she likewise was wrong in taking a bath where a man could see her.” Bruce Lackey, “Bible Guidelines for Clothing

“It remains a fact that Bath-Sheba’s [sic] little sin was the cause of David’s great sin. Her little sin of ignorance, her little thoughtless and careless exposure of herself, was the spark that kindled a great devouring flame. … David was not wicked. … But in the presence of an unclothed woman, he was weak.” A Brother in Christ, “The Sin of Bathsheba

Original painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Original painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

A few weeks ago, I was driving with my roommate and one of her friends. We were talking about our church backgrounds, and my roommate mentioned one of her favorite Bible characters is Bathsheba. Her friend looked baffled. “I’ve never heard anyone say that,” she said, curious. “What is there to like about Bathsheba? She just, like, slept with David, right?”

I don’t blame her for being confused. When I think about Bathsheba, I think of Sunday School. I think of the story we were told, in sanitized terms: A king sees a lady bathing on the roof, then sends for her while her husband is away, and she ends up having the king’s baby. I think of myself and my peers, small and curious, asking why anyone would take a bath on the roof. What was she thinking? That Bathsheba, so silly.

When I think about Bathsheba, I think of sermons and modesty lessons. I think of how the story is termed: She was naked on the roof and the king was seduced by her beauty. By that temptress, Bathsheba.

When I think about Bathsheba, I think of a long lineup of the scandalous women who populate Bible stories: Eve, Delilah, Jezebel, Sapphira. There she stands in the middle, and we’re quick to identify her crimes: Bathsheba the provocative, Bathsheba the schemer, Bathsheba the adulteress.

Cultural context

Those things aren’t really in the Bible, you know. They were in lessons, the interpretations, but they aren’t in the text. When I read about Bathsheba now, and look at the background, I find a very different story.

Most commentators agree that Bathsheba was taking her mikvah, cleansing herself from ritual impurity after menstruation. By bathing — and the text doesn’t say where, just that she was visible from the king’s rooftop — she was following religious law. (David, meanwhile, was supposed to be off at war. By being home, he was breaking God’s law.)

So King Peeping Tom summoned Bathsheba. This wasn’t considered criminal at the time, because the king had the legal right to claim any woman. But today, if Secret Service agents abduct a woman and take her to the White House for sex with the president, that’s called kidnapping and rape. Call in Liam Neeson, because she’s been taken. In this situation, Bathsheba could not say no and therefore, by definition, could not consent.

Now it’s true we don’t know Bathsheba’s intent here — it is possible she purposefully took her mikvah in a place the king could see; or it is possible she was thrilled to inadvertently catch the king’s eye. It’s possible, but we don’t know. But we assume.

She was powerless, but we cast her as seductress.

Today, I grieve for Bathsheba. I grieve for this woman coerced and bereaved. I grieve for this woman who mourned, her clothing torn and her life upended. I grieve for this woman who has been reduced to adulteress, to a naked body in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

Modern parallels, modest promises

Why is it we say he was seduced by her beauty, as if her body was a separate, sentient entity which posed a threat by its mere existence? Why is it we so often phrase it in the passive, as if David was being acted upon? What are we saying about sin and responsibility?

You know what we’re saying. Even if you’ve never flipped through the Old Testament or listened to a sermon, you’ve heard this story before. You hear it all the time.

She shouldn’t have been there. She shouldn’t have been wearing that. If she hadn’t _____, then he wouldn’t have _______.

You heard it in the horror of Steubenville, where two Jane Does received vicious hate mail after being publicly raped while passed out at a party. They were unquestionably victims, yet the accusers said: They shouldn’t have been there. They shouldn’t have been drunk. What sluts. It may be imprudent to get wasted, but I’m pretty sure the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the rapists — and those who recorded and cheered them on.

But the media said: The poor boys, they had such potential. They made a mistake, but must their kingdoms fall for these girls’ indiscretion? As if the victims seduced the boys while unconscious, just by having (clothed!) bodies. As if the girls were the actors in this story.

You hear it in modesty momblogs, too, where they bemoan how poor innocent boys can’t see a girl near a towel or bedroom without apparently associating them with nakedness and perversion. The girls shouldn’t have been there. They shouldn’t have been wearing that. How immodest.

You hear it when convicted child abusers are given their ministry back, when they are given a platform to tell “their side” of the story. She was so enticing, and we were so in love, we couldn’t stop. The blame is shifted to be shared with the victim, who is reduced to a temptation, a cautionary tale. The rapist’s misperception gets an editorial stamp of approval, and makes it’s clear: In the eyes of men who fancy themselves kings, we are all Bathsheba.

Listen, it’s not that no woman ever could intentionally seduce a man, steal another woman’s husband, arouse lust. It’s that regardless of a woman’s intentions or actions, it too often is assumed she is at fault. Too often, she is temptress until proven victim, whore until proven saint. And even if innocent, she is idiotic: ignorant of the powers of her body, naive of the impulses of men. We reserve some blame even for her naivety, for her unconscious seduction. She will always be Bathsheba, and the subtext hasn’t changed: A woman is in the wrong merely for having a body, for being beautiful, for being visible. To be sinless and safe, she must cover up.

The promise and reprimand of modesty is that if Bathsheba had been covered, a king could not have sinned; her husband and baby would not have died, a kingdom not divided. (Should I point out that, too, there would have been a gap in Jesus’ lineage?)

The promise and reprimand of modesty is that women can control the fates and fantasies of men, while protecting themselves from being degraded or assaulted. That virginal Marys receive blessings and safety; that whorish Bathshebas suffer for their ignorance or indiscretion.

That women are insidious in their scheming, men defenseless in their lusts. That men cannot sin in the absence of flesh, and cannot refrain in its presence. That women are more powerful than the devil himself, deciding with a flash of clavicle or cleavage whether a man will fall.

Modest girls don’t end up in the king’s bed, the myth contends. Modest girls don’t get raped. Modest girls don’t lose their husbands, to murder or infidelity.

We don’t know much about Bathsheba. But that’s the point: it is indicative that because we first encounter her naked, we automatically place her in a lineup of seductresses and sinners. We assume she was partially responsible for what happened to her, partially in the wrong.

We assume she was scheming her way into the king’s bed, and she deserves whatever happens next.

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38 comments

  1. Wow, I had no idea Bathesba’s story was ever taught this way. That interpretation doesn’t make sense if you know mikvah, and it doesn’t make sense as far as the Biblical text goes. In Samuel 2, it says David “one evening David got up from his bed” which implies it was late. (hardly Miss B. flashing her wares around.) Later when her husband dies, the text says she mourns him. .In Sam 2:12 when Nathan the prophet rebukes David about taking Bathesba as his wife, Nathan never mentions that God finds Bathesba responsible and is very clear that God DOES find DAVID responsible. And David himself replies, “I have sinned against the Lord,” not “we have sinned.” Geez. The pretzels people will twist Scripture into, to suit their ends….

    1. Wow, it’s unfathomable to me — but good to hear! — that you were never taught this. When I read Samuel 2 last year, it was crazy to me that it’s such a black-and-white portrayal as David being in the wrong, because while I’d certainly heard him called an adulterer, Bathsheba was always implicated as well, and so often used as a Modesty Lesson.

      1. I never heard that Bathsheba was at fault growing up in mainline Protestantism and in Catholic schools. The first time I heard that interpretation was at an evangelical Bible study in college and my reaction was along the lines of WTF?. This story was always presented as David sinning, David taking what was not his, David lying, and David needing to repent. It really was never about Bathsheba. Which is how the text reads as well.

    2. That’s what I was thinking too. When I was growing up in Sunday school, the fault was always on David. Until I read this, I had never heard anyone blame Bathsheba. Interesting.

  2. Cara Strickland · · Reply

    Thank you for this, Kate. So true.
    The Junia Project did an Advent series this year about women in Jesus’ lineage and I came to love Bathsheba too. Good to see her getting some truth spoken over her.

    1. Thanks for reading, Cara. It’s amazing to me how quickly we forget she was in Jesus’ lineage, or even just Solomon’s mother.

  3. Yes, I too was brought up under the teaching that listed Bathsheba in a long line of temptresses and sinful women. Always painted scarlet. Yet I wonder, since the character of Ruth is so brazen and forward in her approach to Boaz, why she is not similarly tarred with that brush?

    I don’t have any answers, just something which I have only just thought about now… I wonder if that complicates the modesty-pushers’ message too much, because the text doesn’t say anything about the state of her dress? I don’t know… I’m no scholar so I’m sure there are more factors here. But I can guarantee you certainly wouldn’t find someone sermonising women to go and lay at the feet of a man they fancy in the middle of the night.

    1. I’ve seen some teachers get reeeal uncomfortable talking about Ruth and Boaz. And also get pretty funny. It’s one of those times even hardcore literalists say, “Errr, it may be in the bible, but don’t you go sleeping on your crush’s feet now, ladies.”

  4. jmellison · · Reply

    Kate, this is beautifully written. This past year I, as I was teaching a Bible overview class, I remember being struck by the idea that what happened with David and Bathsheba was most likely rape. I don’t think I ever really thought of her a seductress but I had apparently been working under the assumption that she was complicit or that she didn’t mind.

    I think this is my favorite paragraph: “Listen, it’s not that no woman ever could intentionally seduce a man, to steal another woman’s husband, to arouse lust. It’s that regardless of a woman’s intentions or actions, it too often is assumed she is at fault. Too often, she is temptress until proven victim, whore until proven saint. And even if innocent, she is idiotic: ignorant of the powers of her body, naive of the impulses of men.”

    Thanks for writing.

    1. Jen, I’m always glad when you comment. And I’m glad there are people like you teaching Bible classes.

  5. This is amazing. Excellent excellent excellent!

  6. This is a brilliant post and really resonated with me. I feel like you summed up more than a Bible story, but a huge world wide cultural dialogue problem that bothers me constantly, “In the eyes of men who fancy themselves kings, we are all Bathsheba.”

  7. Great writing, great points! My own story bears out these truths, thank you for speaking up xx

  8. I tried going to a “trauma recovery” class at a local mega church last year which opened with the story of David and Bathsheba. With a wink and a nod the teacher spoke of how “Bathsheba knew better than to bathe on that roof” and ladies around me hooted and laughed in agreement. I furiously wrote in my journal to contain my rage. I was used to their spin on the story, but I’d had enough of the slut-shaming and wondered how many other women in the room wanted to crawl into a hole at her suggestive tone. I left more “traumatized” than when I came.

    “…A woman is in the wrong merely for having a body, for being beautiful, for being visible. To be sinless and safe, she must cover up.” This lie. THIS LIE, needs to DIE. The image of a woman should inspire us to praise the one who created her. Nothing in the bible indicates there is anything inherently wrong or shameful in our bodies. Thank you for writing this. For shining light on the fact that nakedness does not equate sinfulness, for shining light on this story.

    1. I wish I could say that I was shocked that someone would begin a “trauma recovery” class in such a re-traumatizing, victim-blaming sort of way. Then again, maybe it was best that they laid their cards out on the table right away and let survivors know upfront: you will not find compassion here; you will not find understanding; you will not find wisdom; you will not find those willing to sit with you and weep with you and show you the love of Jesus.

      Sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ve heard too many similar stories. I am so sorry, Rebekah, that you had to live this one.

  9. Thank you! Well said. Basically, yes. Exactly. :) Will be sending people over here because you expressed so so well the ridiculous, infuriating, dangerous thought patterns that not just evangelicals, but people in general have for women.

  10. […] See more here: Bathsheba and the myth of unconscious seduction | kate schell […]

  11. Sarah Louise · · Reply

    Modest girls totally get victimized too.

  12. Reblogged this on Musings Of A Beckles and commented:
    An excellent blog about Bathsheba. And I can see how a patriarch interpretation of the Bible in this case has caused detrimental attitudes towards women in society. I think its about time to change. I realize that many women are naive to how men think in certain ways. But its not our responsibility to become meek modest & submissive. It mens’ responsibility to learn respect, honor, & decency and to not take advantage of others. This applies to everyone. It’s time to change the destructive attitudes towards women in general. it’s time to heal the wounds between genders.

  13. I was also taught this interpretation of Bathsheba. That she was the one who tempted David with her nakedness. I was not taught about mikvah and this is the first time it clicked in my head (of course always actually knowing, but not really making the connection in this case), that when the King calls you, you answer and he does with you whatever he wants. Conservative Baptists and Evangelicals shame women into submissive positions any chance they get with Scripture. I feel empowered and also sad at the same time.

  14. […] Bathsheba and the Myth of Unconscious Seduction Listen, it’s not that no woman ever could intentionally seduce a man, steal another woman’s husband, arouse lust. It’s that regardless of a woman’s intentions or actions, it too often is assumed she is at fault. Too often, she is temptress until proven victim, whore until proven saint. And even if innocent, she is idiotic: ignorant of the powers of her body, naive of the impulses of men. We reserve some blame even for her naivety, for her unconscious seduction. She will always be Bathsheba, and the subtext hasn’t changed: A woman is in the wrong merely for having a body, for being beautiful, for being visible. To be sinless and safe, she must cover up. […]

  15. I don’t believe that Bathsheba was responsible for David’s downfall. If David had been where his responsibilities lay … on the war front with his soldiers, if he had remained in God’s will, had not strayed from the path, he would not have been subjected to such temptation. Even so, where does it say that temptation cannot be overruled? Mankind has faced temptation since the beginning of time and here are the battle lines between good and evil, between God’s will and self-will. Nevertheless, I do believe Christian women should dress with reasonable modesty so as not to reveal too much flesh, eye-catching cleavage and excessive leg exposure, particularly near her privates. This brings to mind a cautionary scripture that basically says temptation will come but woe unto them by whom it comes.

    Another aspect of this is that prophetic scriptural lineage had to be preserved for the advent of the Messiah. But if David had not sinned, could not God have had another way to preserve the lineage? Maybe if David had behaved himself, in time Bathsheba would have become a widow without David’s interference, and he could have married her in a respectable manner.

  16. I too have never heard the story in the context that it was Bathsheba’s fault. Rather the stress has always been applied to David playing the truant from war and NOT being where he was supposed to be. Also that it was completely his sin and the cowardly attempt at cover over the sin by murdering Bathsheba’s rightful husband, only compounded it. It is sad that this story (and much of the rest of the Bible) is taught incorrectly and used as a verbal rod rather then a guide.

  17. Appreciate the article. Some good thoughts. If I may add a correction, though…David wasn’t wrong to be home. It wasn’t a sin for him to be in Jerusalem when his soldiers were fighting. The text indicates that it was customary for kings to be gone in this season, but there was no moral obligation.

    And that still doesn’t make him right. Thank you for this.

  18. magpie11 · · Reply

    This is powerful. Thank you.

    “The promise and reprimand of modesty is that women can control the fates and fantasies of men, while protecting themselves from being degraded or assaulted.”

    I am often told that the reason Islam suposedly insists that women cover themselves completely is exactly this.

  19. Kieran · · Reply

    IT will change when mothers first and then fathers also teach their sons. I know this from experience. Too often in the cultures of my upbringing – mothers make themselves akin to the Virgin Mary – but ALL other women (the ones intent on STEALING HER SON) are whores. Mothers wield power over their adult sons in Roman Catholic, Hindu and Islamic cultures…. but to a certain extent also in Protestant cultures. I pray that change would come through nurture and upbringing by both parents. Neither men nor women are sexual objects… beings – but not objects. Sad to see how prevalent rape culture exists in America where it is “assumed” most people are “believers” and the American media finds it easy to criticise Sudan, India and other such places. I pray for us all. Thank you for sharing.

  20. […] Bathsheba and the Myth of Unconscious Seduction by Kate Schell […]

  21. magpie11 · · Reply

    With the reference to rape above this thought had also occured to me….. I then thought me of Azdak’s judgement in The Caucassian Chalk Circle:Scene 5 I think.
    Azdak has been appointed Judge under the logic that “The Judge was always a rascal. Now the rascal shall be the Judge”
    A case is brought by an innkeeper who charges that his stableman raped his daughter-in-law, Ludovica. He caught the stableman in the act, he says. Azdak hints he would like a bribe from the innkeeper; he asks for the innkeeper’s little roan horse. The innkeeper refuses. Azdak tells Shauwa to drop a knife, and then asks Ludovica to pick it up. Ludovica’s hips sway suggestively, and then Azdak rules that the rape is proven. Ludovica obviously committed the crime with her fat bottom. Azdak fines the innkeeper the roan horse and takes Ludovica to the stables to investigate the scene of the crime for himself.

    Azdaks’s argument is tha by eating sweet things and lying toolong in the bath Ludovica is guilty of raping the stableman.

    I always think that Brecht is pointing up this idea that women are responsible for what happens to them…. and how ludicrous itactually is.

    David raped Bathsheba…..

  22. Who does the term “we” refer to in this blog? The writer only? Perhaps one of the authors quoted at the top? I don’t judge Bathsheba, or assume anything about her, because we’re not given details to make a judgment. And she wasn’t reduced to an adulteress for the rest of her life; she became the wife of the king. For all the wrong that David did, and his adultery with her, there’s no indication she lived a life as a shamed adulteress. I don’t understand what’s to grieve.

    I’m concerned many women nowadays have a victim mentality—they scorn all blame and shame, perhaps because of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t judgmentalism against themselves, against other women, and against men, that they cannot seem to shake. So they automatically recoil when it’s pointed out that many times victims do share blame. Many times people claim to be victims when it isn’t true. Incredulity and victim-blaming are good and necessary, and are part of love and justice.

    In reality the man is presumed the villain by courts, academia, and popular culture. Those who cry misogyny today are the very ones who hate men and decent women (for example, look at how Sarah Palin is scorned, laughed at, and brushed off by the average college-educated person).

    1. “In reality the man is presumed the villain by courts, academia, and popular culture.”

      Which is why only an estimated 4% of rapists ever do jail time…why “academia” is coming under fire for the dismal way colleges treat rape victims…why I could recount case after case of how women I know personally were re-traumatized in court, treated as if they were on trial rather than the defendant — and very few achieved anything close to justice. Men were found innocent or given slaps on the wrist despite compelling evidence such as DNA, hospital reports, other physical evidence, video tapes of the actual rape, the defendant’s own admission, etc.

      “Many times people claim to be victims when it isn’t true.”

      I suggest you do some careful research.

      “Incredulity and victim-blaming are good and necessary, and are part of love and justice.”

      If you are ever the victim of a violent crime, please contact me at once. I won’t have the stomach or heart for it, but I will be more than happy to send someone your way immediately to treat you with incredulity, and heap blame on your head. All in the name of love and justice, of course.

      1. Thank you. I could not have said it better.

  23. […] Schell’s whole blog is beautiful, and her post on Bathsheba and the Myth of Unconscious Seduction brings up some extremely important points about how we view women and female […]

  24. Kieran · · Reply

    rrprewett to James. Well said! Thank you.

  25. […] throw around so many tropes and metaphors. Stumbling brothers and naive sisters, lusty Davids and available Bathsheba, meat and prey, women who tempt and men who just can’t resist. Inter-sex relationships seem […]

  26. When you google mikveh you’ll find pictures of a bathing house. So Batsheba was at a bathing house, not on her rooftop or in her house with the curtains open….. David was on his rooftop and could probably see her walking to or from the mikvah. It says nowhere he saw her naked…..

  27. Wow, I’m truly delighted to have found myself here!

    In the interest of fairness, I’m going to disclose up front that I’m an atheist. Before that turns anyone completely away from the rest of my comments, I’m not here to argue against anyone’s beliefs.

    I found my way here from Libby Anne’s blog on Patheos. I found your voice so intriguing, I continued reading, including your modesty series, and eventually got to this post. I want to start by applauding your clear and accessible analysis.

    I may be somewhat influenced by the order in which I’ve read various posts, but I also want to thank you for comprehensively addressing the issues raised by the objectification of women that naturally flows from interpreting biblical texts from certain perspectives. I like to think that I’m open-minded enough to be respectful of people who are simply trying to live their lives guided by principles that are meaningful to them, regardless of what faith tradition they follow (or don’t ;)). Yet as I’ve become more aware of the patriarchal practices of fundamentalist and evangelical denominations, I’m frequently unsettled by the misogyny that seems so apparent to me, looking in from the outside. And that is an insidious danger that I find deeply disturbing.

    Any practice that removes a person’s right to self, and then blame’s them for being victimized because they have no personal power is unsettling when seen as a cultural reality. In application, this doctrine seems to take all responsibility for self-control from the males, and demand that females be responsible for controlling the behavior of men by following impossible standards and judging other women for failing to uphold them. It takes only two generations to become self-fulfilling, enforced by women themselves, no longer able to see beyond the limits of what their culturally imposed boundaries have established for them.

    In many ways, women become the perpetrators of their own imprisonment (I know that may sound harsh, please bear with me), not because they are doing anything intentionally harmful, but because they have been raised to believe that this is the way things HAVE to be. Women limit each others basic human rights to simple self-expression, to explore the limits of our abilities and intellect, our emotional needs, and even our empathy.

    And we do it to each other with the best of intentions. This isn’t limited to religious beliefs or particular traditions. Women are culturally encouraged to be hyper-critical of other women and to see them as rivals, competing for scarce resources. The kind of religious practices that embrace these norms are only one way in which this happens. I just find it particularly disturbing that it has the force of biblical interpretation behind it; faith is a strong motivating force.

    If only… women’s culturally imposed strengths – compassion, fairness, nurturing, and concern for others well-being – were valued as much as money, personal power, and physical prowess. What a different world that could be.

  28. […] misdirected here. But there’s one that especially bothers me. Because of the post “Bathsheba and the Myth of Unconscious Seduction,” I get variations of […]

  29. I agree with the concepts you present in this article. I’ve heard so many Christians claim that Bathsheba was hauling all that water up to her rooftop just so she could bathe there on the off-chance that the King would possibly be unable to sleep and would happen to be up on his roof where he could see her roof. Ridiculous!

    A point which you might delve into a bit further is the concept of the mikveh pools. Obviously they were in low-lying areas where water settled. The people of Israel built up walls to hold the water in a pool deep enough to completely immerse themselves with water. The pools were there *BEFORE* David selected a place to build his house. So, if we are going to question motivations, why does no one question David designing his house so that he would have a clear view of the mikveh pools? That would seem like a huge question that no one asks.

    It is a given that it was understood that a person going through the waters of immersion would do so without any blockage of clothing between the water and their body. In fact, we see in early Christian writings that the baptisms were done naked as well. Maimonides commented that anyone going through the waters of immersion with as much as a bandage on their finger, it was as though they hadn’t immersed at all. So, the entire idea of “baptism garments” almost comes across as being something of a joke on those new (unstudied) people who are being baptized.

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