The political implications of a Biblical rape
Why Christians are suddenly arguing over whether King David was a rapist
On a fine spring evening in the ancient Near East, a king took a stroll on the roof of his palace. Surveying his capital city, he caught sight of a woman purifying herself in a ritual religious bath. The moment was devotional, private — and the woman another man's wife. But the king watched and wanted her. He summoned her to his chambers for sex. She became pregnant, and the king sent her husband to the front line of battle to die. After widowing her, the king married the woman before she gave birth to his son.
This may seem an odd case to litigate some 3,000 years after the fact, but whether David raped Bathsheba is the Christian Twitter debate du jour, and it has fascinating implications for white evangelicals' much-analyzed support for President Trump.
Before we turn to Trump, however, let's dive into the rape debate. The topic was raised in the Twitterverse by Rachael Denhollander, the lawyer and former gymnast whose sexual assault allegation against Larry Nassar, once a doctor at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, helped lead to his conviction for a host of sexual offenses against minors. Denhollander has become an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, particularly in evangelical Christian contexts, and she responded to a tweet about the sins of prominent biblical characters by correcting "David fornicated" to "David raped."
"It's important we get that right," Denhollander added, appending a brief explanation for her interpretation of the scriptural account. Though not universally held, the rape reading is neither novel nor theologically liberal. Among its adherents, as has been noted in the Twitter spat, is influential author and pastor John Piper, a conservative Calvinist Baptist. Other theological conservatives agree.
I was raised in evangelical churches, and it's a funny thing: When I think of the story of David and Bathsheba, I default to picturing Bathsheba bathing out in the open, on a roof. This is a curiously common assumption, perhaps influenced by how the incident is commonly depicted in Renaissance art. Gentileschi's Bathsheba, for example, admires herself in a mirror while bathing nearly nude on a balcony with a clear sight line to David's palace. This imagery lends itself to the adultery interpretation, where Bathsheba is a willing participant, a seductress even, deliberately displaying herself to tempt the king.
But none of that imagery is in the biblical text, which never specifies where Bathsheba is bathing. As this takes place well before indoor plumbing and in a culture with strong modesty norms (Bathsheba may have been bathing clothed) it is unlikely she would have hauled water to the highest part of her home and exposed herself to her neighbors. We have no reason to think Bathsheba was doing anything but faithfully completing a religious ritual with an expectation of privacy.
Bolstering the case for Bathsheba's innocence is the message of divine judgment the prophet Nathan brings to David after the baby is born. He has no words of rebuke for Bathsheba. Rather, as Denhollander explains, he describes David as a murderer and a thief, likening Bathsheba to "an innocent lamb that is slaughtered."
And perhaps most compelling, beyond these textual details, are the broader power dynamics in play: David is king. Bathsheba cannot reject his uninvited attention. "David sent armed guards to bring one of his subjects into his bed," writes Paul Carter of The Gospel Coalition, a conservative evangelical network. "[I]n every civilized country in the world," he adds, "that is considered rape."
This all strikes me as straightforward. Granted, the scriptural account doesn't use the word "rape," but that reading is hardly an interpretive leap. So why was Denhollander's post so controversial, and what does it have to do with the president?
Denhollander herself has a suggestion: "[T]he way we interpret and understand this story guides how we understand abuse today. If blame for rape can be spread to the woman somehow, it changes things dramatically. It is a way of absolving men of responsibility for their sexual sins." And if the responsibility for David's sin can thus be shared around, she agrees elsewhere, perhaps others' guilt can be laundered in the same way.
To Christians (and most people of any religious or ethical persuasion), adultery and sexual assault are both morally wrong. But there is a substantive difference between cheating and rape. In one case, the two primary participants are both involved willingly; in the other, we have a clear villain and victim. Yes, there is at least one victim in adultery — the cheated spouse, to say nothing of any children involved — but the victimization is indirect, and the harm is not physical. This is the distinction we're making when we say rape is a crime punishable by law and adultery, though horrible, is not.
Three years ago this week, The Washington Post released audio of then-candidate Trump discussing his behavior toward women with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. "I moved on her and I failed. I'll admit it," Trump infamously said of an unspecified woman. "I did try and f--- her. She was married. ... I moved on her like a b----, but I couldn't get there." He then engaged in broader boasts. "I'm automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab them by the p----."
Was this adultery? Or was it assault? To paraphrase Denhollander, if blame for these encounters can be spread to the women somehow, it changes things dramatically. If they are willing participants — if "when you're a star, they let you do it" amounts to consent — it's adultery (Trump was married at the time of these remarks). But if they aren't — if "I don't even wait" means exactly what it sounds like: that he doesn't wait for consent to force himself on women — it's assault. In that case, Trump is not one of two willing participants. He is the villain, the abuser, and the women he describes are his victims.
This question of culpability is not limited to sexual sins. Again and again we've heard from white evangelical Trump supporters that he "has the skill set we're looking for," as one put it, that fighting the culture war is integral to the president's job and Trump deserves their backing because he's willing to be their champion. It's a messy, bullying, even amoral task, and that means that the very skill set which makes Trump so suited for the role also means having to "put our blinders on" where some of his ethical choices are concerned.
Yet there's an intuitive difference between supporting a president you believe is playing dirty as the job requires and covering for a president who is actually hurting innocent victims. It's one thing if Trump deceives and manipulates political enemies while they try to do the same to him, if he's just giving as good as he gets. That's just what kings — er, presidents have to do. It's quite another if he's truly the villain, harming innocents. Is Trump committing the political equivalent of adultery or assault?
David has been a favorite biblical model for Trump among some of his evangelical fans — like Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., Fox News host Sean Hannity, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — on the theory that both can be powerful, godly leaders after committing great sin, adultery included. There are two problems with this reasoning. The first, as I've noted before, is that David repented, describing his behavior in unsparing terms and begging for forgiveness. The president has explicitly stated he has never done the same.
The second is problem is that, unlike David, Trump didn't live three millennia ago. Whether David committed adultery or rape is important for Christian theology and, as Denhollander says, for how we understand abuse today. But whether Trump committed adultery or assault — both personally and in political analogue — has more concrete consequences now, because he holds the most powerful position on Earth. If Trump is like David, and "David raped," well, you can begin to see why a Christian Twitter fight about a 3,000-year-old rape matters.