Guest Post: How should we describe David’s sin with Bathsheba?

This is a guest post by Dave Williams, minister at Bearwood Chapel in Smethwick. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

This week’s big evangelical twitter argument has been over what exactly was the sin that David committed with Bathsheba.  Was David an adulterer, abuser or rapist? Was Bathsheba complicit in the sin or a helpless victim?

The debate kicked off when Rachael Denhollander (former US gymnast and now  campaigner on behalf of sexual abuse victim) responded to a tweet by Matt Smethurst which described David as a fornicator.

Denhollander responded with this tweet insisting David was a rapist.

Relevance to us?

This subject matters because the issues of abuse are real and present among us, so there is the need to offer:

  • Protection within our churches from potential abusers so that people are, and feel, safe.
  • Pastoral care for victims to help them find recovery and healing
  • Gospel confrontation for abusers so that they may be convicted of sin, take appropriate steps towards justice and even find forgiveness in Christ.

If we are going to do that well then we need to have both an accurate handle on the text and a sensitive understanding of the life experiences of those to whom we minister.

A look at the text

The relevant Bible passages are found in 2 Samuel 11-12. The whole story goes on to describe how David attempts to cover up his sin by murdering Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, and how it is exposed by Nathan the prophet. The key section is 2Sam 11:1-4:

  • David sends Joab and the army to war (v1). Note the sense that David remaining behind is not right. He isn’t where he should be. The word “send” is also significant in the passage.
  • David is walking on his rooftop when he sees Bathsheba bathing (v2). It has often been suggested that Bathsheba is at fault; that she seduces David. But the text does not state or intimate that. Later, we see that Bathsheba was following God’s Law – this was ritual bathing from uncleanness. Also, she (rightly) expects David to be fighting alongside her husband, not spying on her! Perhaps most tellingly, it is David who has the vantage point on the roof looking down from above her.
  • David sends again for knowledge (v3). The woman is the daughter of one of his mighty men and wife of one of his soldiers.
  • David now sends his messengers to fetch her and he takes her (v4). She comes to him. The text does not portray the incident as violent and this is where much of the discussion centres.

What can we definitely conclude?

We can certainly draw the following conclusions from the text:

  • That David is not where he should be
  • That David desires what is not his to desire
  • That David takes what is not his to take

We can also conclude that David shows little concern for what Bathsheba wants or any choice she may have. He has no concern for anyone but himself. He even has no concern for God or his Law.

The question marks

Traditionally commentators have treated this as adultery or fornication. There are four reasons typically given for this:

  1. David is tempted and seduced by Bathsheba (we have already shown this to be questionable).
  2. Although brought to David, Bathsheba also comes to him.
  3. Bathsheba goes on to marry and have children with David, even being “comforted” by him.
  4. The text lacks the violent (rape) language of 2 Samuel 13 with Amnon and Tamar.

Treading carefully

In trying to understand what is going on, we need to be clear that the primary focus of the Bible passage is on David. Bathsheba is not under the microscope. This is because the passage is doing a few things.

First, it provides a big story redemptive narrative regarding David’s line; the story of the coming Messiah’s line. Second, it shows David’s sinfulness. Although David is a type of Christ, he is not the Christ. He fails to love, protect and defend his people, seeking to be served and gratified by them. Third, the narrative pushes us towards the undeserved grace of God which we find in the Gospel. David repents and becomes a forgiven sinner despite his heinous sin (c.f. Romans 4).

The main challenge

The problem both for those who want to insist the sin was rape and for those who want to say it wasn’t is that both try to align Biblical descriptions with contemporary definitions. All sides risk reading their own cultural experience back onto the text.

When we talk about rape and sexual assault, a lot of people have a definition that amounts to forced sexual intercourse. This is significant because, if that is our definition, we are likely to associate rape with violence or, at least, substantial force.

However, legally, rape is essentially sexual intercourse where consent was not present, either because it was not given or because it could not be given (statutory rape and minors). This means that our modern law really wants to know is, “Was consent given?”

The Bible is asking something altogether different. Consider two types of sin. First, Jesus speaks of murder including hatred, violent thoughts and action as well as the taking of life. In the death of Uriah, David follows this track. Second, there is desiring what is not yours. Within this bracket we might include lust, adultery, fornication, coveting and theft. In taking Bathsheba, David follows this line of sin. We might argue that in the case of Amnon and Tamar, Amnon both takes what is not his and uses violence to possess it.

In its laws, the Bible asks and answers different questions to our modern legal system. But, both the Bible and our modern law (rooted in Christian heritage) recognise that the use of power to fulfil selfish desire is morally wrong.

Why does this matter?

In the context of Rachael Denhollander’s tweet, this matters because she has been seeking to advocate for women who have experienced sexual abuse who have often been blamed as somehow complicit even by the church. Denhollander’s view is that this is influenced by how we view Bathsheba and that there is a long history of victim-blaming.

Second, pastorally, it is helpful for us to stop and think. It is important to be alert to the point that not all abusive relationships are violent and that there are a number of factors why someone might choose to stay in a relationship. These may include fear of the abuser or even genuine love for them.

Third, we may be missing the point pastorally if we hear someone say, “that sounds like rape” and we answer with a technical debate about Biblical definitions. You see, whilst we must not read our experience into God’s Word, God’s Word does speak directly into our experience. What we are missing is that people are saying, “The Bible seems to describe something very much like what I have faced.” What they then need to know is that whatever cultural or legal words we use to describe that experience, God’s Word not only describes it but also deals with it. In other words, does the Bible say what we all think is wrong is actually wrong and does God offer any justice, vindication, healing and forgiveness from it?


Personally, I am not so concerned about how exactly we try to define David’s sin in contemporary terms, though pastorally I would encourage freedom for people to use contemporary language that describes their experience in the light of Scripture. 

Far more important is to see how this narrative shows both the full horror of sin and the hope of redemption. This means that we must not lose sight of the Gospel’s power both for victim and perpetrator. The Gospel is all about the loving saviour, our good shepherd and true king who steps in to rescue ruined lives, to forgive, to heal and restore. This gives us the hope we need both when we are perpetrators and when we are victims.