“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”
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.
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.