Safe at Home
Although I’ve lived away from my parents’ home many more years than I lived in it, I have an ongoing nostalgic desire to return to it. This desire is so strong that whenever the house comes up for sale, I have to fight the urge to buy it even though it is in North Dakota, and I happily live in Iowa. Since it was up for sale again this past summer when I was in the state visiting family, my sister-in-law and I went for a realtor’s tour. I remember the house as large, well-built and beautiful, a safe space where my parents loved my brother and me unconditionally and encouraged us to dream big dreams. Surrounded on each side by salt of the earth neighbors, it truly was a wonderful place.
Happy idealized memories gave way to present reality even before the tour officially began. The yard was a mess, and the neighboring houses derelict and in need of demolition. Rooms seemed so much smaller and more awkwardly arranged than I remembered, and most windows badly needed to be replaced. But most importantly, I no longer sensed there the presence of my parents, both of whom died 30 years ago. Facing reality at last, I finally was able to let go of my desire to go back and recreate what I had remembered.
Thanks be to God, I am able to cherish warm, albeit idealized, memories of the place where I was raised. Unfortunately, that is not the case for everyone. Abused sexually, ritually, and mentally in her childhood home, a friend of mine remains unable to feel safe in any home, including the house in which she has lived for many years. For her, terror lurks everywhere. No space is truly safe. (back to top)
Covering his tracks
The Bible study for this month takes us into a royal house—King David’s home—that should have been a safe space, but was not (2 Samuel 11). Seeing Bathsheba bathing naked on the roof of her house while he is walking on the roof of his, David sends for her, takes her into his house, and has sex with her while her soldier husband is out fighting David’s battles. Since the text explicitly states that Bathsheba is cleansing herself after her menstrual cycle, it is clear to the reader that David will be the father of the child conceived as a result of David’s action.
Trying to cover his tracks, David has Uriah brought home from the front and unsuccessfully tries to persuade him to spend the night in his own house with his own wife. When Uriah refuses, citing loyalty to his brothers fighting in the field, David orchestrates a series of events resulting in Uriah’s death at the front line.
After allowing Bathsheba time to mourn her husband in her own house, David has her brought to his, where she remains for the rest of her life. The child conceived in the royal house is born there and dies soon thereafter—a sad ending to a sordid story. Scholars, artists, and general readers long have puzzled over this troubling text. On the one hand, as becomes clear in the prophet Nathan’s subsequent parable (2 Samuel 12:1–5), David clearly is guilty of adultery. But, the argument has raged over the centuries, to what degree was it his fault? Did Bathsheba “ask for it” by bathing nude on the roof of her house at the precise time David was walking on his?
The answer, often given by male interpreters of earlier generations, was that indeed David was the innocent victim and Bathsheba the calculating perpetrator who consciously set out to trap him. (back to top)
The Bible is clear that David was a great king. Many of us have warm memories of stories of his heroism first told to us as children. From these stories, we may have constructed an ideal picture of David as the king who could do no wrong and may, like those early interpreters, conclude that his many contributions far outweigh his one little slip. We can forgive and forget.
Although we may try to cling to an idealized David, the Bible does not. 2 Samuel 11 marks the turning point in David’s career. Prior to the chapter, David is on the rise. All he does succeeds brilliantly.
Beginning with 2 Samuel 12, however, things spiral downhill for him and everyone even remotely connected to him. One son rapes a sister and is killed by another son, who later leads a revolt against David. No one will be safe in the royal home any longer. Eventually, David dies a confused, impotent old man attended by a virgin whose only task is to keep him warm (1 Kings 1).
What makes the events of 2 Samuel 11 so significant, as Nathan’s parable makes clear (2 Samuel 12), is the abuse of power by the king. David had power; Bathsheba’s husband Uriah did not. David took what he wanted; Uriah died as a result. Demonstrating the incredible pride that seems to accompany incredible power, David had no qualms about taking what was not his. For this, God holds him accountable. (back to top)
Abuse of power
Lost in Nathan’s explanation of the parable is any consideration of the abuse suffered by Bathsheba. In ancient times, females were considered property first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Within that worldview, Bathsheba simply was “collateral damage” in the wrong perpetuated by one man against another.
Our worldview, fortunately, is different. After generations of struggle, women are considered full human beings in their own right. Within our worldview, David committed sexual abuse against Bathsheba as well as his crime against Uriah. He had no more right to take Bathsheba than he did to have Uriah killed. In both instances, he abused his power as king.
But what if Bathsheba welcomed David’s advances? Or, beyond enjoying unplanned sex with David, what if she set out to seduce him by appearing nude on the roof of her house as he was walking on the roof of his? Could it have been as much her fault as his?
These often-asked questions miss the core of what sexual abuse is all about and illustrate the common tendency to blame the victim. Sexual abuse is about power, power that King David had and commoner Bathsheba did not. The vulnerable one is not the responsible party. David had no right to take Bathsheba. He, not she, is accountable for the abuse perpetrated against her.
And what about Bathsheba? How did she fare in the aftermath of David’s sex with her? We know very little about her life after she was taken into David’s house with his other wives.
It was in that house that David’s decision to have sex with her began the sequence of events leading to her husband’s death, and in that house that the son born to her through David died. Could she ever have felt safe there or any place else for that matter? Or, did she spend the rest of her life repressing or reliving the terror of the trauma she had endured? We simply do not know. (back to top)
And so it is with sexual abuse today. Partners justify abusing their partners, blaming the victim for whatever ails the abuser. For the victim, home is no longer safe. Adults abused as children often live in repressed fear that no place is or ever will be a totally safe place for them. Searing scars remain long after the abuse has occurred.
The statistics are staggering. As many as one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused in their childhood. Somewhere in the United States, another woman is raped every two minutes, and annually an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of sexual assault by an intimate partner. David’s abuse of power gets repeated again and again and again.
We all long somewhat nostalgically to live in a home that is safe and secure for us and those we love, a home where all are loved, boundaries are clear, and no one ever is hurt. That is a wonderful ideal. However it is not reality. Reality is messy and sometimes ugly. The need to protect David from the charge of “abuser” reflects the deep-seated desire to hold on to the ideal by ignoring the messiness the Bible exposes in order to call us to address it. We don’t want to think of someone we respect or even love as an abuser, so we try to protect him or her either by denying the abuse took place or by blaming the victim.
The power of the ideal affects victims as well as abusers and bystanders. Loving the ideal picture they may have of their partner, victims of domestic violence often blame themselves for the abuse. Or, they see themselves as worthless, blemished beyond repair.
Only when they are ready to name and face the abuse for what it is are they in a place where healing can begin. For victims, healing is a process that works on its own timetable, a process that cannot be rushed by imperatives to “just leave him” or “forgive and forget.” (back to top)
Beacon of hope
Far from protecting us from the messiness of life, the Bible exposes it, calling us to acknowledge reality as it is and to respond faithfully in our context. Confronting abusers with God’s judgment against their abuse of power, the Bible challenges bystanders to let go of the blinders shielding them from seeing abuse when it hap pens and to respond appropriately. The response may take a variety of forms—perhaps reporting the abuser to the authorities, particularly if the abused are children, or offering to travel with the victim on her/his journey through the abuse. While it includes helping the victim see what resources are available for assistance, it does not involve telling the victim what to do. That would be re-victimizing the victim by denying her/him the freedom to make his/her own decision.
For those who have suffered abuse, Bathsheba’s story is a beacon of hope. In a world where so many deny or minimize abuse, the Bible names the abuse of power for the crime it is. Moreover, “victim” is not the Bible’s last word on Bathsheba. Her name reappears in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, where she is listed as an ancestress of our Lord. The God who calls us to face reality did not let her go. Bathsheba remained safe within God’s embrace, a survivor whose story of victimization and healing takes its place in the procession of stories of ancestors through whom God sent Jesus to be Immanuel—“God with us”—for us and in us always.
Reflecting his own victimization at the hand of others, the author of Psalm 119:54 nonetheless confidently states “Your statutes have been my song wherever I make my home.” Perhaps in light of Bathsheba’s story we can paraphrase that conviction to say “God’s Word of accountability, healing, and hope is my song, and in God’s ongoing presence with me in all times, whatever my reality, there I make my home.”
Gwen Sayler teaches Bible at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and is a proud member of the Valpo Deaconess Class of ’71. (back to top)
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