Monday, August 13, 2012

Deep Seated Assumptions

Have you ever run into a new take on something that you've been reading forever that makes you sit back and notice assumptions that run so deep you never noticed you were making them at all? I do this from time to time and it's funny to me how many assumptions I really do have.

In this case, I was reading this article on the Huffington Post: 2 Samuel 11:1-15: The Story of Patriarchy and HIV/AIDS.

It's an interesting article but the thing that struck me, apart from the tragedy, was the portrayal of Bathsheba as a victim rather than a complicit seductress. I read through the article thinking that the author was stretching things; that yes, while it is absolutely possible and common for men to abuse positions of authority in order to gain sexual favors from those beneath them that it's very clear in the story of David and Bathsheba that she was seducing him.

Then I went back and reread the chapter. Below is just a portion of the entire event, of course.

Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said, “ I am pregnant.”

I read and reread, expanding my parameters until I had the entire event on the screen.

Nowhere is there any indication of what Bathsheba thought or wanted. Which shouldn't really be a surprise since the majority of the Bible is written from men's points of view and we rarely get the thoughts or motivations behind the actions of the women in the Bible.

It really set me back on my heels though because I was left wondering how I'd never seen it before. The written account doesn't give us any clue, so I will immediately admit that this is simply a *possibility* and I am not claiming that this is exactly what happened. But from what is written, the argument can be made that David raped Bathsheba. It's the same scenario that can be seen in the 'relationships' between slaves and their masters, or any man in a position of power who decides to abuse it.

David was the king. It's not a concept that we're intimately familiar with, at least not in the West any longer, but the king had absolute power or the next best thing. Bathsheba could not have refused to go before him and once there, the power imbalance is so great that even if Bathsheba did not actually want to have sex with David, she was in no position to refuse him. Rape doesn't have to be violent, though it most often is.

Is it just that I was raised in a rather conservative church and so was only presented with the most traditional understandings of the stories in the Bible? Or is it that the idea of David as a great king is so deeply ingrained in our minds, even when we cease to believe in Christianity itself, that it never occurs to many of us to look at his actions in anything less than a positive light? Or is it the same old story - the base assumption that the woman is the catalyst, the seducer even when she's done nothing but take a bath in her own home?


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  2. I doubt it would have actually been considered rape at the time, because like you say, she wouldn't have been likely to refuse a king whether she wanted to or not. It was definitely an abuse of power and would be rape today, but it's not recorded that way because women never had much choice over who they slept with. What I think is interesting about this story is that the writer didn't even bother to include enough information to judge whether Bathsheba was a willing partner here, her perspective and desires are not in any way important to the story the author is telling. She's more the object through which David sinned than a person in her own right. From my modern perspective, that makes any interpretation other than rape impossible here. Even if she was interested in David and wanted to sleep with him, that doesn't matter because neither David nor the author care what she wanted. Her yes or no was unnecessary. That's the sort of dehumanization that occurs in rape, and in my opinion it's the real crime in rape. That's what makes it such a terrible, unforgivable thing to me. It's worse than murder, because the rapist erases the victim's humanity and makes it clear that they don't actually have basic rights like safety and choice. It's a murder that happens again and again every moment of every day unless and until the victim is able to overcome it and regain their sense of self-worth. And it can take a very long time to do that. Living in the sort of culture Bathsheba apparently did, where even long after the fact, when it's being recorded, still no one cares about her choice, to me that makes it clear that it would be rape as defined today.

    So why don't we typically recognize that today? Well, I think part of it comes from the point you made about us not being familiar with the setting of the text, with ideas like kings having total power and authority, or women being treated like property and rape being mostly a question of who gets punished for trespassing on a husband's (or father's) property. So we assume that if two people had sex and the text doesn't say it's rape, it must be consensual. So at the very least, we assume Bathsheba and David must have been equal partners in sin.

    But I think another part of it is that this devaluation of women still occurs to some extent. Things are better now, and at least in this part of the world we're told as women that we are equal and that we are protected the same as men. But it doesn't always happen that way in practice. Women who have been victimized are still blamed for dressing a certain way or not staying in at night. Men still let themselves off the hook for pressuring and sexualizing women because it's just what guys do and women don't understand how strong their sex drives are. To a pretty large extent, women are still blamed and ignored when men commit crimes against them.

    1. And most times, when the Bible is read, no one pays a whole lot of attention to the women's perspectives. The text doesn't devote much time to them, and in the cases where teachers do encourage people to put themselves in the shoes of the female characters, I think that actually can be dangerous and helps to cover up how little power and agency women are given in the text. We imagine that they were like us, that we understand them and that they had the same rights women are supposed to have today.

      I've found that it's very shocking to people and a lot of people resist it when they are shown that women are treated primarily as objects and that, as in this case, the author rarely concerns himself with what the women involved thought or wanted. It's difficult for people to accept that women have been treated this way or are still treated this way. That's why men get so defensive when misogyny is pointed out - it challenges their assumption that they're good people, that they respect women and that the reason they don't fight misogyny is because it doesn't exist today. It's easier to ignore it and assume anyone who complains about it is just a man-hating feminist inventing problems.

      Suggesting that David wasn't such a good guy in modern terms, that he wouldn't have cared whether a woman said yes or no before he had sex with her, challenges a lot of deeply held and cherished beliefs. It challenges Christians to confront the ideas that their holy text isn't always so holy and that their important figures weren't always good people. For Christian women in particular, it's an uncomfortable reminder that their sacred text sometimes doesn't much care about them. It's easier to assume Bathsheba should have known better, or that Dinah shouldn't have been walking outside her house, and therefore even if they didn't want it, their actions caused it and in their time they shouldn't have acted the way they did. (Yes, both of those are justifications I've heard multiple times, from pastors.)

      (Yikes, sorry for the wall of text. This is kind of a big issue for me, could you tell?)

  3. I read that article, too! I'm glad you read it and it lead to this post. I enjoyed it a lot.

    Can I admit I've never been a fan of King David? Sure there are some good traits about him, but I've never forgiven him for being an adulterer and murderer. I should have thought of him as a rapist as well. Thankfully I've never had people try to excuse those sins in David's lives. That he is "a man after God's own heart," yes, I've heard. But no one, thankfully, has tried to tell me these horrible actions are OK.

    I know my Muslim friend thinks these are invented lies about David so "the Jews will have an excuse to sin." Whatever. I still recall telling him about Solomon's numerous wives and concubines and his shocked reply, "Oh,I've seen you've made Solomon into a sinner, too."

    Uh, The Bible is full of 'em!

    Your post prompted me to reread what Nathan said to David when Nathan confronted the king with his sin. He use the analogy of rich and poor men, the former owning lots of sheep, while the latter has one which he cherished.

    Women as property still. I'm glad we've moved on from that thinking!!

  4. The interesting thing is that I was always taught that what David did was really horrible - and that it wasn't Bathsheba's fault. Don't think I've ever really considered any other interpretation, that's just how it was.

    Not sure I back then would've put as strong a word as rape on it (although I definitely would today), but I always felt she was coerced into it.


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