Above the Law?

Read: 2 Samuel 11:1-5

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (2 Samuel 11:2-3, NRSV).

Forget what you think you know about this story. Read it—as if for the first time—paying careful attention to certain details. I believe these details were included by the storyteller to protect the reputation of the victim. But you, the members of the jury, must come to your own conclusions.

Here is the first detail: David is on the roof, not Bathsheba. Just take a moment to readjust your mental staging of the story to make room for this fact. It makes her seem much less like an exhibitionist, and it makes him look much more like a voyeur.

But wait, you may be saying. Even if David is on the roof of the palace, how can he see a woman bathing in a nearby house? The answer to that has to do with the way houses were constructed in those days. A simple house would have been built around a central courtyard. That courtyard would have been the place where domestic tasks like cooking and bathing would have taken place—the cooking because of the oven and the bathing because of the cistern.

I suppose one could still argue that Bathsheba was an exhibitionist, but it seems much less likely. Who, after all, expects a peeping tom on the roof of the palace? The author even goes out of his/her way to explain that Bathsheba “was purifying herself after her period.” To us this may seem like a random—and somewhat weird—detail. But it’s important for two reasons. First, it portrays Bathsheba as a devout person. This cleansing had both ritual and practical significance. Second, it suggests that she is at the most fertile part of her cycle, since the ritual bath would have taken place seven days after the last day of her period, putting her at prime time for conception. Not that this is what is on her mind at this point, but alas, it does become significant later in the story.

There are only a few other details that shed light on Bathsheba’s character, but they are important, nonetheless. First, we are told that she is “very beautiful.” This, to my knowledge, is not a crime. Second, we are told that she is the “daughter of Eliam” and the “wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So, she’s from a good family, and is married to one of David’s most trusted soldiers (see 2 Samuel 23:39). Finally, the first time she gets an active verb in the story is when she goes with the messengers that David sends to get her (v. 4). Did she have a choice about that? Think about it. Royal messengers show up at your door. You might wonder if there is news of your husband from on the battlefield. But it would hardly occur to you to refuse the summons.

When we get to the crucial moment, the author gives David the active verb. “He lay with her,” it says. True, the author could have used a stronger verb, but the context makes it pretty clear that he is the one with all the power.

The statute of limitations has not run out on this passage. At the very least, David is guilty of adultery. (She is someone else’s wife, after all, and he knows it.) But I think there is room to argue that he is guilty of rape. We’ve just been slow to see it because—well—he’s David…and because we’ve been too busy blaming the victim. But if the Bible doesn’t make excuses for him, why should we?

The court will stand in recess until next week, when the list of charges will expand to include obstruction of justice and murder. Until then, the jurors are asked to prayerfully consider whether anyone should be above the law.

Ponder: What do we miss when we refuse to recognize David’s guilt in this story?

Pray: Bring healing to those who have been victimized twice, O God—first by their attackers and second by our prejudice