Denhollender and David, and the Question of Rape

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So another tempest has arisen, again, and it is once more over whether King David was guilty of rape in the incident with Bathsheba. And, as a corollary, the issue is whether modern conservative pastors are complicit in all this sort of stuff by denying that this could even have been the case.

Because nothing would be worse than being falsely accused on this kind of thing, as I know right well, let me begin by asserting that I believe that such a thing is certainly possible. King David did fall into grievous sin, as is acknowledged by all, and if we moved it from the charge of “adultery and murder” to “rape and murder,” we are still dealing with something that Nathan would have come and rebuked him for. David was in bad enough spiritual shape to kill a man. So why wouldn’t he be capable of taking a woman against her wishes? Such a thing is certainly possible. So the question is whether or not it is borne out by the text.

But I am writing about this now because something else is going on.

Tell Us More, So What Else Is Going On?

In this clip above, Rachael Denhollender does a number of unfortunate things, and I believe that it is really necessary to answer her, straight up the middle. The first thing she says is that when dealing with survivors of sexual abuse, we have to handle the Scriptures well. She says this, right before she doesn’t do that. In response to someone who said online that David fornicated, she says “David didn’t fornicate, David raped.” To draw this conclusion, she says, you have to understand power dynamics, and Hebrew, and Nathan’s parable, and so on. Pastors who do not follow her counsel in this line of thought behave in devastating ways.

She then goes on to assert (not demonstrate) that pastors in the church are very sloppy in how they handle the story of the woman at the well, or the case of Mary Magdalene, or the responsibility of a woman being abused to cry out, or the passages concerning the handling of evidence, and so on. This sloppiness amounts to a “betrayal” of the women being counseled. Conservative pastors look at such passages and “minimize,” “downplay,” or “completely twist” what was happening. The impact on the women being counseled is “devastating.”

And so here is what is actually going on. While recognizing that all are sinners, biblical thinkers believe that the line separating the righteous from the unrighteous is a vertical line, and it runs from the greatest to the least. That line starts in palaces, and ends in the slums. There are good kings and evil kings. There are good rich people and bad poor people, and vice versa. There are good men and bad women, and good women and bad men. There are bad rapists and innocent victims. There are also evil rape accusers, like Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:14-15), and innocent defendants facing years in prison for something they didn’t do, like Joseph (Gen. 39: 20). The line is vertical. The culprit could be anybody, which is why we labor to have fair trials. We are not to show favoritism to any class, rich or poor (Ex. 23:3). We expect the admonition to not show favoritism to the rich (Jas. 2:1), but Scripture surprises us by saying we are not to show favoritism to anybody.

But under the influence of critical theory, the line between good and evil is becoming a horizontal line, and it separates classes of people. Whites are one side, and POCs on the other. Men are on one side, and women on the other. All of society is divided up between the oppressor classes and the oppressed classes. That line is horizontal, and if you are on the wrong side of the line you are unjustified. And if you listen to Denhollender carefully, you will see that she is drifting into that world. Not good.

A Sweet Little Power Dynamics Story

One of the Henrys of France, and I think it was a Navarre, one time noticed a lovely lady of the court, a gracious Huguenot, and he asked her for directions to her bedchamber. Her reply, and I think it should be registered and recorded in the annals of all power dynamics, was “through the chapel, sire.” Every godly parents wants a daughter like that—someone who will stand up to manipulative managers, power-tripping princes, and lustful bosses.

Exegetical Bad Faith?

Please note that Denhollender insinuates that differences of exegetical opinion on this question are instances of bad faith.

But wait just a minute. We all acknowledge that power dynamics do exist, and that they exist in the sexual realm. We also know that powerful men use their power to get sex. But do we also not know that attractive women use sex to get power? Has no woman ever used her sexual power to leverage her way to the top? Our current landscape offers more than a few examples. The entitled Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. The entitled Delilah tied Samson up, in more ways than one. Some powerful men divvy out women after a battle, as Deborah imagines for Sisera in her song (Judg. 5:30), every warrior getting “a damsel or two,” and other powerful men have to be told to “give not their strength to women” (Prov. 31:3).

So we now have a question before us, one that needs to be answered from the text—as Denhollender herself acknowledges. Did David abuse his power as king to intimidate the wife of one of his chief warriors into having sex with him? This is where the charge of rape would lay. Or did Bathsheba use her beauty to attract the attention of a powerful king, a man who could provide her with a much higher status than her husband? We need to remember that the end of the story finds Bathsheba as the queen, and queen mother.

Why don’t we start by granting both as possibilities, and without charging people who differ with us of outrageous things?

In other words, to believe David guilty of adultery and not rape does not in any way exonerate him, and—more to the point—it does not mean that an exegete who comes to that conclusion is somehow a defender of rape. It may be that such an exegete would condemn the rape as strongly as anyone, provided that he believed that it actually happened.

So here are some additional considerations. The situation arose because David stayed behind in Jerusalem when he should have been with the army in the field (2 Sam. 11:1). So David had time on his hands, which he shouldn’t have had. Then the occasion for his sin arose because Bathsheba decided to bathe in such a way as for the king to be able to see her (2 Sam. 11:3 ). David was not skulking in alleys, peering through mostly closed curtains. Is there a possibility that she knew what she was doing? You bet.

Since I am being even-handed here, it is also possible that she thought she was secluded, and that she didn’t know about the gap in the foliage. That’s possible. But it is also possible that she knew exactly what she was doing.

The text gives us no indication of a protest or resistance on her part. She was summoned and she came. This is not because Scripture does not know how to record rape as rape, for it plainly does. The rape of Dinah is obviously described as such, even though no protest from her is recorded (Gen. 34:2). The rape of Tamar is described as such, and in addition it records her heartbreaking protest (2 Sam. 13:12). Nothing like that is recorded as coming from Bathsheba.

When she discovers she is pregnant, she tells David about it. She didn’t tell her husband when the rape occurred, and she didn’t tell her husband when she found that she was pregnant. She hands the situation over to David. His eventual way out of their dilemma is to murder her husband indirectly, after which he summons her again and she comes to him.

Now it is quite possible that she is terrified by this point, and sick about it, and feeling trapped. It is possible that she didn’t know it would end in murder. It is possible she didn’t know about the murder. All of that is a very real possibility—even if she had been complicit at the beginning of the affair. But it is also quite possible that she was a player. If she was, then she was sinning, right along with David. If she was not, then David was the guilty party.

In the later revolt against David, conducted by Absalom, one of David’s chief counselors, Ahithophel, threw in his lot with the treacherous son. Remember that Ahithophel was Bathsheba’s grandfather (2 Sam. 11:3; 23:34), and his awareness of that whole situation may have soured him on David a bit. But Bathsheba remains firmly in the David camp.  

We know about David’s repentance, both from the historical narrative and his psalm of repentance, but we can infer Bathsheba’s repentance—if she had anything to repent of. In the palace intrigues that arose later, in the rivalry between Solomon and Amnon, she was in league with Nathan the prophet—the same prophet who had rebuked David for his wickedness. She is working closely with him, and they appear to be genuinely like-minded.

They Never Want to Topple Just One Statue

So let’s get back to the point about critical theory.

When there is a big fracas over toppling a statue of Robert E. Lee, only a fool believes that it is going to stop with Lee. Lee was a slave owner, and once you accept the logic that insists that slave owners need to be scrubbed from our history, and never spoken of positively again, you have just deleted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Edwards, Cicero, Cato the Elder, Philemon (Phile. 16), the centurion who had more faith than all in Israel (Matt. 8:8), the slaves (nethinim) of the tabernacle and temple of God (Josh. 9:27; Ezra 8:20), and Father Abraham (Gen. 14:14). Down the memory hole they all go.

All because some people can’t read a history book without wearing two white gloves, a persnickety one for the left hand and a fastidious one for the right. But as has been well said, the past is a different country. They do things differently there. And having said this, I want to insist that there is a biblically responsible way to rejoice in the historical growth and development of kingdom ethics—meaning that I rejoice that we no longer have concubinage—but that as we do this we have to ensure that we do not make room in any way for the tenets of critical theory. This is because spiritual maturation through history is quite different from spiritual rebellion in history.

Now here’s the problem, and the relevance of the cancel logic above. If David is to be treated as a rapist because of this sin of his, where it is possible that he used the power dynamics to coerce Bathsheba into sex, what are we to make of concubinage? A concubine is a slave wife. Her consent is not required, and that makes it—in Denhollender’s world of anachronisms—institutionalized rape. And Solomon had 700 of them. And the Bible regulates it, in multiple places.

And please remember that I am just pointing out where the logic of all this goes. I am not defending Solomon and his problems with the wimmin. The law said not to do what Solomon did (Dt. 17:16-17), and Solomon’s heart was led off, just like the law had warned that it would be (1 Kings 11:3). So I am not arguing that Solomon was making godly choices throughout. But I am wondering if it would really be helpful to categorize Solomon as a serial rapist. I mean, 700 is a pretty high number.

So the real point of conflict is not going to arise with this Bible character or that one, the ones who had concubines. The flattening is just starting with them. The discrediting just begins there. They are the Robert E. Lees in this little scenario. David the rapist is the Jeb Stuart in this game.

The real issue is going to arise with what biblical law expressly allows.

“And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.”

Deuteronomy 21:11–14 (KJV)

So, hey. Is there a power dynamic here?

The authority of Scripture is one of the “statues” that is going to have to come down. It is the statue they are actually after. In my little parable here, it is the Washington monument.