Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When Perception Matters Most: David, Bathsheba, and Hearing the Victim's Story

by Crystal St. Marie Lewis
R3 Contributor

First published at Crystal St. Marie Lewis Blog

One of my classes is on the subject of human sexuality in scripture. This week, we were required to read the story of David and Bathsheba. We were also required to read two different commentaries of our own choosing. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the famous story of David and Bathsheba opens like this:
Late one afternoon, after his midday rest, David got out of bed and was walking on the roof of the palace. As he looked out over the city, he noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking a bath. He sent someone to find out who she was, and he was told, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” (Uriah was away at battle.) Then David sent messengers to get her; and when she came to the palace, he slept with her. She had just completed the purification rites after having her menstrual period. Then she returned home. Later, when Bathsheba discovered that she was pregnant, she sent David a message, saying, “I’m pregnant.” (2 Samuel 11:2-5, NLT)
I chose to use the brief commentary inside my Life Application Study Bible (LASB) and my copy of The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NISB). The LASB is a conservative publication that is mostly marketed to Evangelicals; the NISB is a far more liberal publication that is marketed to people who are interested in higher criticism.
I quickly noticed two different interpretations of the story: The NISB (the liberal study tool) says that David’s act was “rape.” Its editors consider Bathsheba a victim. However, the LASB depicts David as a fallen king, and brands Bathsheba an adulteress… See the following excerpt from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible:
David destroys the family of one of his most trusted warriors. In the past, he has been ruthless (8:2) but he was always concerned with public opinion (see notes on 4:1-12). Both are evident in this story of rape and murder…
…Having learned that the men of Bathsheba’s family are away and that she is defenseless, David sends people to bring her to him. She is not consulted [about her own choice in the matter]... Even if she is not physically forced to be David, she is nonetheless powerless against the king and the servants he has already used against her. (pg. 455, emphasis mine)
And now, see this excerpt from the Life Application Study Bible:
David put both Bathsheba and Joab in difficult situations. Bathsheba knew adultery was wrong, but to refuse a king’s request could mean punishment or death… We sometimes face situations with only two apparent choices, and both seem wrong. When that happens, we must not lose sight of what God wants. The answer may be to seek out more choices. By doing this, we are likely to find a choice that honors God. (pg. 521, emphasis mine)
Bathsheba’s Weakness and Mistake: She committed adultery
Lessons from Her Life: While we must live with the natural consequences of our sins, God’s forgiveness of sin is total. (Profile of Bathsheba, pg. 555)
I’ll be honest and say that when I read the conservative commentary, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Contrary to any of the dialogue in the story and contrary to the context, the editors interpret Bathsheba’s post-menstrual ritual bath as an act of seduction.
They don’t bother to consider that Bathsheba likely thought she was alone and unseen while bathing in the courtyard. After all, as James Freeman notes in Manners and Customs of the Bible, “the bath in which Bathsheba was washing was secluded from all ordinary observation”… The LASB’s editors also don’t consider that Bathsheba likely missed her husband and longed for him (after all, she grieved when he was killed later in the story). Finally, they don’t consider that she may have been terrified when David’s messengers came for her.
Instead, the LASB’s editors write that she “may have been rash in bathing where she may have been seen,” and that upon hearing the king’s request, she should have “sought another option” to avoid committing her sin. (What kind of “other option” could a woman– a piece of property with no status of her own– have presented to the most powerful and most ruthless human being in the land?)
As I’ve reflected on the David and Bathsheba story, I’ve thought about the attitudes that often surround sexual violence in our own society. There is still some belief that women who wear “sexy” clothing are “inviting” sexual assault, and that the solution to a rash of rapes is to  impose a “protective curfew” on law-abiding women. Like Bathsheba, women are expected to “choose another option”– another route to work, another outfit, or another shade of lipstick. We don’t hear as much chatter about the real issue. We don’t hear solutions that will address the behaviors of men whose inner demons have overcome them. We seek to fix the victim, and not the victimizer.
As I’ve explained in my paper about this topic, the conservative editors wander close to the real issue when they write that Bathsheba’s refusal “could mean punishment or death”… They touch lightly on power abuse, on coercion, and on the terrible status occupied by women in scripture… But then, the editors back away from the real issues and turn this very complicated matter into something black-and-white. In their effort to determine which “sins” were committed, they target the victim. The editors found a way to assign culpability to a woman who barely spoke at all in the story. It’s almost as if David stripped her of her power and dignity, and the editors stripped her of her right to have her story heard.
As John Shelby Spong wrote in Living In Sin, the LASB’s editors asked the wrong questions when it came to David and Bathsheba. They asked about sexual sin when they should’ve asked about power/powerlessness– and in so doing, they drew what I feel is the wrong conclusion.

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