In the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, was David guilty of adultery, or was it actually much worse than that? On his “Ask Pastor John” podcast, pastor and theologian John Piper shared his thoughts.
The well known Bible story appears in 2 Samuel 11. In the account, David catches a glimpse of Bathsheba bathing while strolling on the rooftop of his palace. He then summons her so that he can sleep with her. After David discovers that Bathsheba is pregnant, he has Bathsheba’s husband killed.
In recent years, some debate has arisen as to how this story should be interpreted. Was Bathsheba complicit in an adulterous affair, or did David’s abuse of his kingly power and apparent coercion constitute sexual assault?
In the podcast, which responds to listener questions, Piper was asked, “Did Bathsheba sin with David? Was she complicit in the sin? Or was she simply taken advantage of?” The listener expressed that they had heard Piper use the word “rape” when discussing the David and Bathsheba story in the past, and had heard from “feminists” that the power David exerted as king would immediately classify the incident as rape. The listener asked, “Are there any pointers for us in the text itself?”
“Yes, I think there are pointers that David exerted a kind of pressure on her to warrant the accusation of rape, and I don’t say that because I think the act couldn’t be consensual given the power dynamics at play,” Piper said in response. “It is possible for a woman to be sinfully complicit in committing adultery with a very powerful man. I don’t see any evidence for that in this text.”
Piper went on to explain that the biblical narrative doesn’t use any language of wooing or seducing. It simply says that David “took” Bathsheba.
Piper further explained that the prophet Nathan’s parable about David’s offenses is also telling. In the story, Nathan speaks about a wealthy man with many flocks and herds who lived near a poor man who only owned one lamb. The poor man loved his lamb like a child. But when the wealthy man received a visitor, instead of taking from his own flocks or herds to feed the traveler, he instead stole his poor neighbor’s lamb, killed it, and served it to his guest.
“[Nathan] really re-created the adultery in the categories of theft and killing. Not Uriah’s killing—that’s an added evil—but as it were, Bathsheba’s killing represented by the little, little, helpless pet lamb being killed and served up as a meal,” Piper said. “So, I would say, for these two reasons, we are not exaggerating to use the word rape for David’s abuse of his power in the indulgence of his sinful lust in the way he took Bathsheba.”
Though this debate is not settled in the minds of some evangelicals, Piper is not alone in his understanding of the text. For example, sexual abuse survivor advocate Rachael Denhollander tweeted a link to Piper’s podcast episode, saying, “I have many concerns and disagreements with John Piper, especially on teachings that influence sexual and domestic abuse dynamics, but I truly appreciate his willingness to address a ‘controversial’ issue again and do so with clarity and firmness.”