Was King David a rapist?
David was the second king of ancient Israel. He was known for his military prowess. He was also a poet; many of the poems of the Book of Psalms are attributed to him. He was called “a man after God’s own heart”.
One night, he was walking on his palace roof and saw Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, bathing in the evening. Desiring after her, he called her to him and slept with her. When she became pregnant, he tried to convince her husband, Uriah, to sleep with her, to cover up the adultery. But Uriah was on active duty, and remained faithful to the ancient kingdom rule of remaining with the troops rather than sleeping in his own bed. In the end, David conspired to have Uriah killed, and then married Bathsheba.
Clearly, David committed adultery by sleeping with another man’s wife. But was he a rapist? Historically, rape laws contained the elements of sexual penetration, force, and lack of consent. Did Bathsheba consent to their encounter? What does consent look like when the one asking is the king? Did David coerce Bathsheba, through either threat of physical violence or economic pressure? What if this were a modern context, and the CEO of a company pressured the wife of one of his employees to have sex with him?
We don’t have enough information to determine if David committed rape, mostly because we don’t have much information about Bathsheba’s response. How would it change our image of him if he did?
What’s also noteworthy is how David escaped the typical consequences of adultery. Under the laws of Leviticus, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” But that did not happen. Neither David nor Bathsheba were put to death. The son of their adultery was born very sick, and died after only a few days. David would marry Bathsheba, and she would give birth to another son, Solomon, who would become the next king; Jesus came from his lineage. The fact that David was not punished according to the Levitical law speaks to how powerful people shield themselves from the law (if the tables were turned and Uriah had slept with one of David’s wives, he would have been killed immediately). But the story of Solomon and of his descendant Jesus speaks to how God can bring restoration into the deepest brokenness (although King Solomon had his own problems).
And let us not forget that it was the prophet Nathan who confronted David about his actions. Nathan reminds us to speak truth to power, to take a stand against powerful interests. David was not willing to recognize his sin, but Nathan forced David to reckon with what he had done. Nathan was probably not the only one who knew what happened, but he was the only one willing to rebuke David.