December 18 | Expecting Emmanuel | Bathsheba

Bathsheba: Nuancing Power/Nuancing Humanity, Bethany E. McLean Davey


Today’s sermon engages sexual violence, so I begin by inviting you to care
compassionately and deeply for yourself. I invite you to honor your capacities to
be physically and emotionally present—or absent—and I invite you to do what you
need to care tenderly for yourself in the midst. Taking care may look different for
each of us, but you are invited to give yourself permission to access this care. You
—and your stories—matter.

I would like to share with you an exercise I learned through Dr. Mari Ramler of
Tennessee Tech University. Fluent in trauma work and healing, Dr. Ramler taught
us the regulating power of this practice. I invite you to observe it or try it,
whichever is most comfortable for you. *Demonstrate This is My Hand* I’m
grateful to Dr. Ramler for so graciously sharing this practice. I share it with you as
an invitation to gift yourself self-regulation and comfort in this way, or in the ways
that most resonate for you.

And now, we head toward Bathsheba. As with the other women highlighted
throughout advent, Bathsheba’s reputation precedes her. Though I originally titled
this sermon “Nuancing Power,” the title, “Nuancing Humanity” might be more
fitting, as we engage Bathsheba’s very human existence. Bathsheba’s name is often
associated with words such as seductress, temptress, conniving, victim, widow—
all of which convey particular character associations. She is complex, to say the
least, and today we move toward her with curiosity—and hopefully—with

In 1 Kings, as Ruth just read, Bathsheba approaches King David—now her
husband—in the intimacy of his bedroom, at the height of his old age, to advocate
that her son Solomon be awarded kingship after David. Solomon is the son of both
David and Bathsheba, the son who reportedly demonstrates God’s restored favor in
David, following his prior errant decision-making. We are told Bathsheba acts on
the suggestion of the prophet Nathan, an advisor to King David. Nathan advises
Bathsheba to advocate for Solomon’s rise to power, to prevent Solomon’s half
brother and adversary, Adonijah, from taking the throne. Per Nathan, Bathsheba’s
advocacy may save her life and Solomon’s by avoiding Adonijah’s adversarial rise
to power. Bathsheba approaches David, reminding him that he’d previously
promised the throne to Solomon. The narrator does not affirm the validity of this
statement, yet depicts an elderly David as essentially saying, “Oops! I’d forgotten
all about that!”, and he then declares Solomon his successor.

In Joanna Harader’s Expecting Emmanuel, she notes that the biblical text does not 1
indicate David has made any such promise to Bathsheba, and other biblical
references to Solomon’s rise to power fail to include Bathsheba at all. Harader
invites us to consider the ways Bathsheba navigates her power—or, perhaps, her
lack thereof within the confines of her culture and time—regardless of whether or
not the claim of David’s prior promise is legitimate. This is certainly not the first
moment that we, as readers, may find ourselves curious about the actions and
motives of Bathsheba.

We are initially introduced to Bathsheba in 2 Samuel chapter 11 as the “wife of
Uriah,” infamously bathing on her rooftop when a lusty King David sends for her,
demands to “have” her sexually. David is at home in his palace though his
kingdom is at war; his soldiers, including Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, are on the
battlefield while he luxuriates in palatial comfort. The sex act that follows David’s
demand for Bathsheba results in Bathsheba’s pregnancy. We are told that
Bathsheba sends message to David and tells him of her pregnancy with his child.
To cover his tracks, David summons Bathsheba’s husband Uriah home from war,
hoping that the two will have sex and Uriah will then assume Bathsheba is
pregnant with his child instead. David’s plan continues to go awry when Uriah
refuses to sleep with Bathsheba. We are told he refuses this opportunity of pleasure
in solidarity with his fellow soldiers, who remain on the battlefield. Rather than
enjoying a conjugal visit, Uriah refuses to enter his own home, thus complicating
David’s coverup. David then plots Uriah’s murder on the battlefield, crafting a
situation in which his death appears to be an inevitable result of war. It is after
Uriah’s death and Bathsheba’s subsequent period of mourning that David brings
her into his home and makes her one of his wives. We are told of tragedy upon
tragedy: the child Bathsheba bears dies in infancy, God’s express punishment for
David’s egregious behavior.

The narrative offers frustratingly few details about Bathsheba. As Harader points
out, in the earliest account of Bathsheba we are told Bathsheba does two things of
her own accord: she bathes, and she tells David that she is pregnant with his child.
There are gaping holes in the story, allowing for significant conjecture about her
motives and her actions in between the limited details. It is within the ambiguities
of Bathsheba’s story that we most often find ourselves stuck. Conversations about
Bathsheba often revolve around questions of intention and consent: Did she lie to
save herself and Solomon by convincing David he’d promised Solomon the throne?
Did she consent to having sex with David, or did she refuse him?

The trouble with these questions is that they limit Bathsheba’s choices and
personhood to a binary, an “either/or,” that does not allow adequate space for her
full humanity, her reality and her story. As with the other women we’ve met
throughout advent, Bathsheba is a complex person whose story is often
oversimplified in search of a clarity we are not afforded as readers. Our desire for
clarity makes sense to me. As humans, our survival requires that we put things into
categories: is this berry poisonous? Is it safe to shove my finger into this electrical
outlet? However, as is the case with systems of oppression, the surface-level
comfort we find in “either/or” categories also contributes to “us/them,” “in/out”
categorizations that justify favor for those considered “us” and “in,” and the harm
of those considered “them” and “out.” One of the ways we can confront systems of
oppression is by identifying how they—and we—perpetuate “either/or” ways of
thinking and interacting. Confronting injustice requires an intimacy with ambiguity
and nuance because confronting injustice requires confronting the mythical “us/
them,” and “in/out” of “either/or.” We must embrace a different way.

Accepting the ambiguity and nuance of Bathsheba’s story—both in what we are
told and in what we are not told—can offer a liberative way of engaging
Bathsheba, and more liberative ways of engaging ourselves, our ancestral lineage
and our relationships.

I am deeply grateful to a dear professor and Hebrew Bible scholar, Dr. Paul Kim,
who introduced me to Rhiannon Graybill’s work on Bathsheba. In her book, Texts
After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence and the Hebrew Bible , Hebrew Bible scholar 2
Graybill proposes that we are asking the wrong questions of Bathsheba. Our
obsession with her motives, and particularly our obsession with whether or not she
consented to sex with David, is not only focusing on the wrong thing, but it is
limiting the personhood of Bathsheba. Bathsheba’s story is often told within the
binary of predation. Predation creates fixed categories of people, and it is up to
those outside of the story to determine who is who. Within this analysis, someone
is the predator and someone is the prey. Someone is the perpetrator and someone is
the victim. This is the common structure through which we engage societal
accounts of violence and assault. While I believe there are situations that legitimate
conversations of predation, I agree with Graybill’s assertion that predation is an
insufficient lens through which to perceive Bathsheba, our ancestral lineage, our
communities and ourselves. If we limit ourselves to a predation narrative,
Bathsheba must either be predator or prey. When our energy is devoted to solving
this supposed mystery, then regardless of whether Bathsheba is determined
predator or prey, temptress or victim, conniving or responsibly powerful, she has
been reduced to a one-dimensional characterization of a person, and not a person in
her own right.

Graybill notes the friction in one-dimensional categorization expressed by those
who have experienced sexual assault. Though the language of “survivor,” as
opposed to “victim,” helps to integrate a sense of personal agency, some who have
survived sexual violence have expressed a frustration with ways the categorization
of “survivor” becomes a limiting identity that disregards the full personhood of the
survivor; the complexity and breadth of survivor experiences go unrecognized.
What happens to Bathsheba when we limit her identity to either predator or prey?
What happens to those in our lives when we do this? What happens within us,
when we apply these fixed identities to ourselves? What happens when we find
ourselves or someone we love in a category we did not expect? How do we make
sense of that?

Though I notice inner discomfort with confronting my well-worn categorizations
of perpetrator or victim, I also notice that something more-than-this seems to be
needed. To attend to the complexity of being human, and to attend to the
complexity of the human stories found in the Bible, Graybill posits that we need a
more flexible framework than predation. Engaging the work of Joseph J. Fischel,
author of Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent , Graybill suggests a framework of 3
peremption as more useful for our reading of Bathsheba. Understood in the context
of modern adolescent sexuality, Fischel’s peremption suggests a view of sexual
harm that is more expansive than the moment of an actual or attempted sex act;
peremption is that which eliminates possibility, particularly the possibility of future

Women and femmes are perempted when we are told we must be hyper-vigilant to
“protect” our bodies from assault. This particular assertion of “responsibility”
means that women and femmes are tasked with using an exhausting amount of
energy, while the perpetuation of patriarchy and rape culture go unaddressed. I use
the term “women and femmes” to include a more expansive understanding of
women and femininity, beyond society’s contrived structure of a cisgender,
heteronormative female.
While sexual assault does not restrict itself to women and
femmes, it is important to name the societal response toward women and femmes.
We are told that we are responsible for protecting our bodies from violence, and
when we disclose that our bodies have experienced harm, we are faulted and
become the object of society’s analysis, in a story that is no longer our own, but is
told through others. What flourishing is perempted through this exhausting hyper
vigilance and lack of societal concern? In what ways have we ignored our
communal responsibility to one another when we place the ownness on women and
femmes, rather than on our collective selves for perpetuating a society in which
sexual violence is prevalent? In what ways are similar realities present within the
life and time of Bathsheba? Considering peremption, rather than the “either/or” of
predation, allows for a more complex reading of Bathsheba’s story, and allows us
to go beyond our habitual stuckness in, “Did she or didn’t she lie to David to save
herself and Solomon? Did she or didn’t she consent to sex with David?”

Through a framework of peremption, we no longer need to determine absolutely
whether David rapes Bathsheba, or whether she consents. We no longer need to
solidify an absolute perpetrator and an absolute victim. We can instead be present
with the complexity of Bathsheba’s story, and can recognize that she need not have
been raped or preyed upon to have been harmed, to have been perempted. Because
peremption expands our understanding of harm as Bathsheba experiences it,
peremption also restores Bathsheba’s agency and personhood. She is no longer
limited to a static identity determined by the story’s narrator or the readers’

In Graybill’s view, Bathsheba is perempted by narrative and perempted by
These ongoing experiences of peremption harm Bathsheba because
they eliminate possibilities for present or future flourishing. Perceiving harm in
this way means that we no longer need to clearly determine whether sex with
David is rape—though I agree with scholars and theologians who read her story in
this way—in order to compassionately relate with the complex person of
Bathsheba, who was harmed in a myriad of ways.

Bathsheba is perempted by narrative, both by her story’s narrator(s) and by those
of us who read, interpret and retell her story. Often read as a sex scandal,
Bathsheba’s narrative easily falls into a predator/prey structure in which the
observer is tasked with determining who is predator and who is prey. This reading
perempts Bathsheba in that it precludes her from possibilities outside of this
limiting perception of self and story; she becomes confined to a narrow narrative
trope, without possibility beyond the pages. Additionally, the text itself limits
possibility—or perempts—Bathsheba. We receive very little detail about
Bathsheba’s actions and motives, and when we do encounter her, she is often
portrayed as a utilitarian pawn, fast-tracking the stories of the males surrounding
her. Even in the death of her firstborn, her perspective is conspicuously absent: we
glimpse David’s actions, rather than those of a grieving mother. We, as readers,
perpetuate this harm when we take it upon ourselves to determine her character and
her consent—or lack thereof. This sort of binary theorizing creates distance
between us, as Bathsheba becomes an object for our analysis, rather than a subject,
fully human in her own right.

David’s life is often considered an exploration in masculinity, as the narrator
details the complex negotiations of David’s actions and character throughout his
years. If this narrative is indeed an exploration in masculinity, Graybill reminds us
that this exploration is enacted at the expense of the women in the story, Bathsheba
in particular. Bathsheba and others are perempted as they are robbed of their
potential to flourish in a culture of “masculine exceptionalism” and male-centered
story telling. Though we may question the lack of clarity surrounding Bathsheba’s
actions and motives, the actions and motives of the male characters—David,
Nathan, a male-presenting Yaweh and even Uriah to some extent—are clearly
articulated by the story’s narrator. In this masculine-focused telling of this story,
Bathsheba ceases to exist as subject and is instead made an object. Even when she
speaks, she nearly always communicates the message of a male counterpart: first
Nathan and Solomon and later Adonijah. As Biblical scholar and Hebraist Adele
Berlin suggests, through this peremption by masculinity, Bathsheba becomes “‘a
complete non-person…not even a minor character, but simply a part of the plot.’”4

A framework of peremption helps us when we later encounter another layer of
Bathsheba’s story. In 1 Kings, chapter 2, Bathsheba is enthroned beside her son,
King Solomon, and uses her position of power to pass Abishag—a former female
companion to King David—to her stepson Adonijah. It is through a lens of
peremption that we recognize our human behavior and identities as too fluid and
complicated for predator/prey binaries. Though Bathsheba has been perempted in
numerous ways, she also is found perempting Abishag, a fellow woman. What are
we to make of this? The narrative once again leaves many gaps, and we are left
wondering if Bathsheba has enacted this transaction for good, for evil or for some
more nuanced reasoning to which we are not privy.

How does this matter today? Is it actually important to consider harm through the
framework of peremption, rather than predation? I believe that Bathsheba’s story
matters greatly today, and that engaging a framework of peremption offers
profound possibility. Bathsheba’s story matters today because she was inescapably,
complexly human. If we allow her to be a full and complicated human, I believe
that makes space for us to be full and complicated humans as well. When we insist
upon putting others into limiting, binary categorizations of predator/prey—even
within biblical narratives—it is nearly impossible to avoid projecting these
characterizations onto ourselves as well. If predator and prey are our only options,
a whole host of possibilities are erased, enacting relationships and systems of
peremption. If we can allow Bathsheba the full complexity of her personhood, we
can notice with wonder that she—in all her nuance and ambiguity—is listed as part
of the lineage of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Sure, she is listed as “wife of Uriah,”
but she is there. She is named when few women are, and that matters.

If we cease attempting to determine her character, we can instead engage a more
expansive understanding of the harm Bathsheba undergoes. Harm does not merely
occur within an act, or an attempted act. Rather, harm also exists in what ceases to
be, in the flourishing that can no longer occur, in the possibility that becomes
impossible. Peremption frees Bathsheba from her role as object for our analysis,
and instead instates her to subject in her own right, full of longing and passion and
heartache and grief. A full and complex person.

A peremption framework offers individual and communal relational potential
today. If we expand our perceptions of harm beyond the act or attempted act, and
instead perceive harm more holistically, we may find ourselves propelled toward
different ways of being. I want to be clear: I am not advocating that we stop
addressing specific acts of harm or specific attempts to harm. I am not advocating
that we stop holding those who enact harm accountable in ways that intend to
restore. Rather, I am suggesting that peremption frees us from polarized arguments
of right and wrong, and invites us to reflect upon the ways we are personally
complicit in the peremption of those in our midst. Peremption invites me to
consider the ways I might be prohibiting the flourishing of others. Peremption asks
me to reflect upon my spheres of power, as I preach, as I parent, as I partner…if
harm is more than an act or attempted act of violence, I must then consider my own
prohibition of the flourishing of myself, others and community.

I believe peremption invites us to consider not only how we might be preventing
flourishing, but how we might nourish flourishing as well. Graybill proposes that
in asking, what does Bathsheba want? some of her agency is restored. Individual
and communal flourishing require us to consider not just the harm we want to
avoid, but the vibrant thriving we want to nourish. What is it we want? What is it
we imagine? How do we collaboratively co-create such an imagination?

Allowing Bathsheba to have been perempted, rather than preyed upon, frees her
and frees us. Allowing Bathsheba to have been a full and complex person full of
nuance and ambiguity, frees her and frees us. Perhaps her peremption, and the
restoration of her self-hood therein, can more deeply connect us to the personhood
of Jesus, God with us, incarnate, imminent.

In this season, we await the personhood of Jesus. As we connect with the
personhood of Jesus, perhaps this frees us to connect more deeply with what it is to
be fully, frustratingly, beautifully human. Perhaps in this way, I can connect more
deeply with my personhood…and with yours.

Perhaps the personhood of Bathsheba is just the spot to begin.


1. Joanna Harader, Expecting Emmanuel: Eight Women Who Prepared the Way (Harrisonburg, 
VA: Herald Press, 2022), 82-83.

2. Rhiannon Graybill, Texts After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence and the Hebrew Bible (New York, 
New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

3. Joseph J. Fischel, Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Press, 

4. Graybill, Texts After Terror, 2021.