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Why the biblical story of David and Batsheva keeps trending on Twitter

The episode is key to the debate around sexual abuse in evangelical churches

You know that line in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” about seeing a beautiful woman bathing on the roof? He was referencing the biblical story of David and Batsheva. Cohen got a few details wrong — David was the one on the roof, actually — but he was probably drawn to the story because it’s one of the most loaded in the bible. The story has been controversial, debated by theologians from time immemorial, and also by Christians on Twitter every few months, usually in conversations about sexual abuse in the church. This week, the debate raged again.

The basic story, in II Samuel, goes like this: Batsheva was the beautiful wife of David’s loyal soldier, Uriah. David sees her bathing and thinks she’s beautiful. He sends his men to take her, David and Batsheva have sex, and she gets pregnant. Afterward, David tries to get Uriah to come home from battle and sleep with his wife, but Uriah stays with his men. So instead, David arranges for Uriah to end up on the front lines of battle where he will be killed, which he is, and then David marries Batsheva. 

“But the Lord was displeased with what David had done,” reads the last line of the chapter. 

In the next chapter, the prophet Nathan uses a lengthy parable about a lamb to illustrate God’s anger. In it, a rich man steals a poor man’s beloved lamb and slaughters it, which David agrees is a major transgression worthy of death. Nathan tells David that he has done the same thing, and in punishment, the son that Batsheva is carrying will die, which he does.

Clearly, there’s some moral murkiness. It’s also obvious that Uriah got the short end of the stick here. But the details are, well, contested. Why is God upset with David — for killing Uriah or sleeping with Batsheva? And did Batsheva sinfully seduce David — “girl was taking a bath on a roof across from the palace,” one currently viral tweet asserts. “Come on y’all, women aren’t stupid” — or did David rape her? The question has major theological implications, which has led to a Twitter debate over an esoteric piece of exegesis.

The furor started — this time, at least — when Owen Strachan, an evangelical theologian, tweeted a “reminder” that “David sinned badly, but he was no rapist,” referencing a 2019 tweet from lawyer Rachael Dennhollander arguing that David raped Batsheva. Though Strachan’s tweet seems apropos of nothing to an outside observer, it’s bound up in the intricacies of a scandal currently fomenting within the evangelical world.

Dennholander was one of the first women to accuse USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, and has recently been tweeting critically about major evangelical theologians and patterns of sexual abuse in the church, part of a movement known as #churchtoo, referencing the #MeToo movement. Dennhollander has argued, repeatedly, that theological beliefs held in some Christian communities about the seductive and sinful nature of women have contributed to a pattern of abuse and cover-ups within the evangelical world. She has particularly criticized John F. MacArthur, an influential evangelical pastor who leads Grace Community Church, a 3,500-seat megachurch outside of Los Angeles; his books and recorded sermons have an even larger reach.

This is where Batsheva comes in; some Christians, including Strachan, re-aired Dennhollander’s 2019 statements — made both on Twitter and in an interview — that “David raped” and “it’s important that we get that right.” They argued that Dennhollander’s scriptural interpretation is wrong and proves her poor grasp of the bible, even accusing her of setting out to turn people away from God. It’s hard to ignore the implicit — and sometimes explicit — dismissal of her accusations of sexual abuse in other situations.

Criticizing biblical figures, particularly ones generally held up to be heroes and leaders like King David, is always fraught. Some Jewish sources defend David — Chabad’s summary even frames his choice to kill Uriah as justified. Talmudic passages assert that Batsheva was already divorced from Uriah, thanks to practices of the time in which soldiers preemptively divorced their wives in case of death on the field.

But nearly all Jewish stories are united in their depiction of Batsheva — who only speaks to announce her pregnancy — as innocent. One midrash, a style of ancient Jewish exegesis, asserts that Batsheva was so modest that she was bathing behind a beehive to hide from prying eyes; it was only when David shot an arrow that shattered the hive — he was aiming at Satan in the form of a bird — that he saw Batsheva and desired her.

None of this is in the biblical text, but neither is the Christian assertion that Batsheva tempted David into adultery. Many of the people tweeting in defense of David this week have pointed out that the text doesn’t say David raped Batsheva but ignore that it also doesn’t blame her for adultery. (It bears mentioning that the biblical differentiation between rape and adultery hinges on the woman’s virginal or married status, not consent.) Little in the bible is obvious; the meaning of any given story always comes down to interpretation, something Jewish tradition places particular emphasis on.

We all have a desire to guard our heroes. But that doesn’t require blaming the victim. Jewish tradition paints David as a laudable yet complex character, with a tumultuous relationship with God; while it sometimes depicts him as sinful and lustful in the episode with Batsheva, other times it presents him as righteous. But Batsheva, at least, is presumed innocent. Jewish institutions are certainly not free of sexual abuse, but at least no one says Batsheva “knew what she was doing.”

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