TL;DR two different Hebrew phrases are used and no, neither one implies that Bathsheba consented.
CONTENT WARNING this post discusses accounts of rape in the Bible.
I recently wrote an article where I said David raped Bathsheba — in those words. I was, of course, referring to the story recorded in 2 Samuel 11. Have a read if you’re less familiar with it (though, massive content warning for rape and murder).
Before long, people were asking “was it really rape?” and “how do we know?” etc. Which was quite tiresome, because even conservative circles acknowledge that Bathsheba couldn’t have said no in the circumstances.
And, if a woman is unable to refuse consent, and a man has sex with her anyway, that’s rape.
Anyway, I then came across an article suggesting that the Old Testament had a particular definition of rape. According to the article, it was different to our modern understanding of rape, and what David did wasn’t rape according to the ‘Hebrew biblical’ definition.
It baffles me that anyone thinks that this is a meaningful argument to make. And from what I read, it was deeply flawed. But I’ll leave the full take-down until after lockdown, because I want to read the source paper first.
However, it got me thinking. I thought it might be useful to see what the Hebrew words were for David’s sexual relations with Bathsheba, how these words are used in other parts of the Bible, and whether there are implications for her consent.
Because the ancient world definitely had a concept of women’s consent, even if people didn’t give it the same importance that we do today.
What are the Hebrew terms?
David’s actions are described twice.
The first time is in 2 Samuel 11:4, which is the main account of what he did with Bathsheba.
The second time is in the title of Psalm 51, which says that David wrote the psalm after Nathan confronted him.
In 2 Samuel 11:4 there are two Hebrew words: one is a marker of proximity, and the other means to lie down or sleep with, often as a euphemism for sex.
In the title of Psalm 51, there are again two Hebrew words – but different ones. It’s the verb for coming or going, followed by the preposition for ‘to,’ ‘toward,’ or ‘into.’ Literally, it’s saying David went in to Bathsheba. Which is how some English translations even render it. Again, it’s a euphemism for sex, but gets used with other meanings too.
How is the phrase in 2 Samuel 11:4 used elsewhere in the Old Testament?
It’s used twenty-four times in total, in a variety of ways.
In the story of David of Bathsheba
Let’s start with the two additional uses in the story of David and Bathsheba.
Uriah uses it in 2 Samuel 11:11 when he refuses to sleep with Bathsheba, saying it wouldn’t be right for him to do that when his fellow soldiers are on the front lines. One presumes he’s referring to consensual sex.
It’s also used in 2 Samuel 12:24, again to refer to David having sex with Bathsheba. However, this is after Nathan called David out and after he ate some serious humble pie. We don’t know whether Bathsheba consented or not on this occasion, but we do know the context was very, very different from the first time.
Given everything that had gone before (see 2 Samuel 12:1-25), it’s hard to imagine David threatening Bathsheba or even having anything he could use to threaten her. Bathsheba was also pretty empowered later in David’s lifetime (she negotiated for her son Solomon to succeed him as king, see 1 Kings 1), so it’s not like she didn’t know how to assert her agency. All in all then, we don’t know that this instance of sex was consensual, but the possibility is at least plausible. Which was not the case the first time.
In other Old Testament passages
OK, I’ll now go through all the other instances of this term.
Actually… fair warning, all of these verses I’m about to reference are troubling in one way or another, even when the woman gave her consent.
Genesis 30:15-16 uses it twice when Jacob has sex with Leah, after she bargains with Rachel for the right to sleep with him that night. So, in the context of a problematic polygamous marriage, but Leah consented.
Genesis 39:7-14 uses it three times by Potiphar’s wife when she tries to solicit sex from Joseph and then later when she gives a false account. Her actions were undoubtedly abusive though I suppose she was talking about consensual sex. It’s also used in 2 Samuel 13:11 when Amnon tries to solicit sex from Tamar. Again, he was talking about consensual sex, though his actions were abusive.
Genesis 19:32-35 uses it three times of Lot’s daughters when they get Lot drunk and impregnate themselves with him. This was definitely not consensual on Lot’s part, though evidently the daughters wanted it.
Leviticus 15:33 uses it in the prohibition of having sex with a woman while she’s on her period.
Deuteronomy 22:22 uses it twice in a law where a man commits adultery by having sex with another man’s wife.
Deuteronomy 22:23 uses it in a law where a man commits adultery by having sex with a betrothed virgin woman, where the woman is understood to have consented. (For the record, this law is not about rape.)
Exodus 22:16 uses it in a law where a man who seduces a virgin woman.
Deuteronomy 22:25 uses it in a law where a man rapes a virgin woman, but it’s used in conjunction with other words that have connotations of force and violence.
Deuteronomy 27:20-23 uses it three times in the prohibitions against incest.
Exodus 22:19 and Deuteronomy 27:21 both use it in prohibitions against bestiality.
I grant you, when I looked up all of these references, I was struck by how many of them refer to a situation where the woman is definitely considered to have consented, and how many of the others were ambiguous. And you could argue the bestiality law is in a class of its own.
I began to wonder if there was a sustainable argument for this term ever being used in isolation to refer to sex that was known to be non-consensual, even in the ancient world.
Well, yes there is.
You see, there’s one other time this phrase gets used.
Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Samuel 12:11
When the prophet Nathan confronted David for what he did with Bathsheba, he said the king wasn’t going to die immediately, but also predicted that bad things would still happen to him. One of these was that a member of David’s own household would have sexual intercourse with David’s wives in broad daylight — in contrast to the secrecy in which David had intercourse with Bathsheba.
This prophecy is all kinds of weird and raises very difficult questions about God, but that’s not what I want to discuss right now in this post.
The point is, the verb that Nathan used is the same one used of David and Bathsheba.
And there is absolutely no way that the women would have consented in the situation Nathan described. Moreover, there is no way that people in the ancient world would have thought the women were consenting.
Because yes, this prophecy came to pass. The whole story is in 2 Samuel 15-17.
David’s son Absalom led an insurrection; when he took over Jerusalem, he pitched a tent and used it to rape ten of David’s concubines. Perversely, he did this to turn people against David, but there is no way that David’s concubines would have willingly participated. No matter how they personally felt about David and Absalom, they would have known that they would bear public disgrace and humiliation.
And of course, they did. Sigh.
The verb in Psalm 51 is also used for Absalom’s act
We’ve covered off one of the verbs used of David, but what about the other one from Psalm 51?
Well, that phrase also gets used when Absalom rapes David’s concubines, in 2 Samuel 16:21-22. Twice.
By my count, the phrase is used a total of 28 times in the Old Testament to refer to sex, including: when Jacob slept with his wives and concubines, when Abram slept with Hagar, and when Judah slept with his wife and then later with his daughter-in-law Tamar (when she posed as a prostitute).
And we can debate the complexities of consent in all of those situations. But none of that will overcome the explicitly non-consensual nature of Absalom’s actions against David’s concubines.
This matters because the Hebrew words used to describe David’s actions with Bathsheba are the same words used to describe Absalom’s actions with David’s concubines.
So if Absalom committed rape, then we can’t use the Hebrew words to argue that David didn’t. That’s the point.
The next question is:
Does the account of Absalom use any other words to show his act was non-consensual?
And the answer is… no.
Hebrew has a number of words associated with the use of force, violence and affliction that are used in the context of sex. None of them are used in Absalom’s account.
So, the fact that none of them are used in David’s account is irrelevant to the question of Bathsheba’s consent.
One of the oldest rape myths is the idea that rape has to involve physical violence.
In both David’s rape of Bathsheba and Absalom’s rape of David’s concubines, the men had overwhelming control over the situation. The women had effectively been conscripted. It doesn’t matter that the biblical account doesn’t record any struggle from the women. It does’t even matter whether or not they struggled. They had no choice; the freedom to express their agency freely was taken from them.
Yes, it would be easier for us to see their non-consent if their voices weren’t so absent from the text. But this was an ancient account written by men, about men, to explain why Absalom never became king and Solomon did.
It’s therefore simply not enough for us to look at the particular words that were used for sex and consider whether they have connotations of violence. Rather, if we want to ask whether or not the women consented, we have to read the wider context and ask ourselves what would have been plausible.
And, while I wish it weren’t true, the most plausible explanation is this: these women did not consent and what David and Absalom did, what they both did, was rape.
 Weird fact: he did this on the advice of Bathsheba’s grandfather. Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam. Eliam was the son of Ahithophel. See 2 Samuel 23:34.
If you want to read the article I wrote where (initially) I used the words “David raped Bathsheba”, it’s here: Accountability, Abuse, and Awareness. There are some cracking comments at the bottom, and I also put there my reasons for believing David’s actions constituted rape.
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