On 25th November, 2021, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, CSBV director Helen Paynter was keynote speaker at the launch event for Corrymeela Community’s “Seed of Sequoia” domestic abuse resource. She spoke on the overlap between the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, and modern-day Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG). With slight amendments, this is her script.

Mary Ascher, Bathsheba, 1963

I’m going to start with a familiar biblical story, which we’ve going to look at through the lens of VAWG. I’m also going to explore it using art, both contemporary and classical, and I’ll intersperse it with some modern stories. It begins with what some consider a love story. A story of illicit love, admittedly, but, well, we can move past that – can’t we?

Flemish tapestry, 15th century

It’s actually the story of coercion and violence from the very start. It begins with a powerful man looking out from his own property towards his neighbour’s. And what he sees there is a woman. I use the language ‘what’ rather than ‘who’ because that’s exactly how this man thinks. In a similar story later on in the scriptures, another powerful man called Ahab looks out from his property and sees a thing that he wants. In that instance it’s a vineyard, and Ahab acquires it through dirty dealings and judicial murder. But on this occasion the man in question isn’t Ahab, the dodgy ruler of the northern nation, but David the exemplary king of the united Israel. The one that everybody likes, admires, looks up to. The golden boy.

Let’s pause the story there. Because this isn’t a story that’s taking place out there among the pagans. It’s not the tale of an ancient Midianite act of exploitation, it’s not the story of a sordid Philistine affair. it’s not about the Moabites or the Amalekites or the Jebusites or the Hivites. It’s about Israel. God’s own people. And it’s not about a renegade Israelite, someone on the margins, someone who doesn’t know any better.

The Dance of King David before the Ark of the Covenant
Zanobi Strozzi, 1450

This 15th century painting represents a story from 2 Samuel 6. Look at the king dancing before the ark, hand in hand with a priest. These events are unfolding right at the very heart of the nation. In the city of Jerusalem. Just a stone’s throw from the Tabernacle, where the priests offer sacrifices and the ark of the Lord has its home. Here, at the very heart of the people of God there is something rotten.

It happened like that then. It still happens like that today.

“My husband is a lay preacher in [a mainstream] denomination. He emotionally, physically, sexually and spiritually abused me for thirty years.”

Each of the quotations that I’m using here from actual women who have experienced domestic abuse. Some of them are people that I have interviewed myself. This is the story of someone I’ll call Jenny. Her husband was a lay preacher in one of the mainstream denominations. He was popular, well-liked, and regarded within the church as a good man. And he abused Jenny for upwards of thirty years. It began as coercive control. He belittled her. He mocked her. He made her feel small, weak, ugly, stupid. Then it became physical. He slapped her. He pulled her hair. He punched her. Finally, he raped her. And all the way through, he spiritually abused her, using the words of the Bible to manipulate her, to disparage her, to trap her.

Abuse happens in churches. It happens at the heart of the church. It is as common within churches as it is in wider society.

Now, as then, even at the heart of God’s people, there is often something rotten.

So David looks out from his palace and sees something that he wants. It’s a woman.

“Bath-Shéba aux Pieds de David”
Mark Chagall, 1939

He sees, he desires, he gets. He sees what he wants and he sends servants to fetch her. There’s no gap between desire and possession. That’s how it is if you’re a king in ancient times. But here’s the thing. What do you do if you are a king’s subject in ancient times? What do you do if you want to keep your head? To avoid the dagger in the dark? You say “yes sire”. You come when you are sent for. You climb into bed if you’re told to. You do whatever you’re told to do, no matter now demeaning, how unpleasant, how wrong. Your opinion is irrelevant. Your conscience is irrelevant. Your likes and dislikes are irrelevant. Your pain or pleasure is irrelevant. Consent is a meaningless thing.

Look at how Chagall has represented Bathsheba sitting at David’s feet. She is trapped by two important consequences of David’s power: his sense of entitlement, and his objectification of her. The king has not had to delay his own gratification for many years. His sense of entitlement has grown all-consuming. His soul has been eaten up by his own desires. And he has been surrounded by “yes men” for so long that he has forgotten that not everything is his to use.

It happened like that then. It still happens like that today.

Domestic abuse is a power phenomenon. Sometimes that power is obvious. It’s a businessman, an MP, a professor, a church minister, an elder. Someone respected, wealthy, successful. Someone that others look up to, admire, flatter. Sometimes the power is only seen at home. Sometimes it’s physical power. Or financial. Or emotional. Sometimes spiritual power is employed.

The man who abused me used to say it was God’s will, and that I had to obey him, because he was God’s holy representative.

Quoted in Macdonald, Lesley Orr. Out of the Shadows: Christianity and violence against women in Scotland. CTPI (Edinburgh), 2001, p20.

This is a quotation from an interview with someone who was abused in the home, by a man who held a senior role in his church. He weaponised all his spiritual authority against her. He used the Bible to contain her, to subjugate her, to force her to comply. He claimed all the obedience of her discipleship, he blasphemously demanded from her what was due only to God.

Now, as then, those with excessive power often become abusers.

Uriah is killed in battle. The Crusader Bible, c1240

One thing that’s often overlooked in this well-known story is its setting in a time of conflict. In fact, the two chapters which contain it are framed by references to a war with the Ammonites, particularly a city called Rabbah, represented for us here in the thirteenth century Crusader Bible. This is not a nation which is content with its own lot, but one which is striving to expand, to assert its own dominance, to grow in power. This forms the setting for what happens to Bathsheba. Why is this relevant? Well, first, her husband is away from home. He is pursuing the war, leaving her at home unprotected. Conflicts create exceptional circumstances that put non-combatants at risk – at risk from their own side as well as at risk from the enemy. Conflicts brutalise people, too. They train people to desensitise their conscience. They force people to do dreadful things, to harden their hearts against compassion. David was a man shaped by his many wars. He was such a successful warrior that the popular songs of the day celebrated him as a slayer of tens of thousands. The writer of Chronicles tells us that God would not permit him to build the temple because he was a man of blood. He was a man used to the slash and hack of battle, to carving his passions into human flesh. Why would we expect him to be gentle, tender, polite in his courtships? And the third consequence of the war was that it marginalised domestic concerns. All national interest was focussed on the front line. Everyone would be expected to make sacrifices for the greater endeavour. That included those at home. Women like Bathsheba who experienced rape and abuse would be expected to put up and shut up. There were more important things to worry about. And war provided the perfect cover story for more dirty deeds, in this instance the murder of Bathsheba’s husband to leave her even more vulnerable to David’s manouevres.

It was like that then. It is still like that today.

“During the Troubles, domestic violence was just put to the background…Well you were living in a warzone, everyone’s needs were food, shelter, safety… I think that issues at home would have been shoved to the background.”

Quoted in Rachel Green, “The Impact of Conflict on Violence Against Women in Belfast” Working paper for Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.

Here’s a quotation from a woman who experienced domestic abuse during the Troubles. The hierarchy of violence pushed certain evils into the spotlight and thrust others into the shadows. It created a set of exceptional circumstances where men were removed from their homes – training, in prison – leaving families vulnerable. It created a narrative of existential conflict that subordinated all other threats. It brutalised combatants, who became hardened to the sight of blood, to broken bodies, whose consciences were scarred. Violence at home sometimes serves as a rehearsal ground for larger scale violent actions. The culture of the warrior breeds a violent hypermasculinity that does not feel the need for politeness, gentleness, or consideration.

“Things haven’t changed all that much, especially for women. Women are still victims of domestic abuse, victims of violence, women are still struggling to get equality in this society. ”

Quoted in Gilmartin, Niall. Female combatants after armed struggle: Lost in transition?. Routledge, 2018, 92.

But this has not settled with the Good Friday agreement. Here’s a quotation from someone who works in a domestic abuse aid organisation. In this post-conflict situation, reported domestic abuse levels continue to rise year by year.[1] What was tolerated in the exceptional situation has become structural in the post-conflict years. Gender-based discrimination and structures of power that subordinate women continue. Brutalised ex-combatants continue to brutalise others.[2]

Now, as then, the darkness of conflict has a wide and enduring penumbra.

We return to Bathsheba. Objectified by a powerful man, taken without consent, impregnated and sent home, and now widowed by the ever-expanding violence and desire of her abuser. Where is she to turn for help? To whom can she protest?

Artist unknown

The conventional way of obtaining justice in Bathsheba’s day was to raise what was termed an ‘outcry’. To protest loudly and visibly. The outcry of the victim was an established procedure to mobilise the systems of law-enforcement. It rallied the community to identify the crime, try, and punish the criminal, address the woes of the victim. There was a legal system. And at the top of it, sat the king. So where should Bathsheba voice her protest? Not to the king himself. That would be ridiculous. And most likely fatal. To his advisers? To his henchmen? Who will speak for her? Who would risk his own position, and his own safety, to voice a complaint to the king on behalf of this woman? And so she is voiceless, silenced, powerless to change her circumstances or even to protest them. The king is accountable to no-one.

It was like that then. It is still like that today.

“There was no framework or mechanism that would enable me to complain or raise concerns.”

Here is a quotation from a woman who experienced domestic abuse within a church setting.

This is no isolated incident. Again and again in my research I have come across stories like this. All too often, churches operate with structures of power which prevent women from voicing their experiences. Sometimes that is because of hierarchical systems within church, patriarchal structures bolstered by a particular theology and particular scriptural interpretations. In my research, more than one woman told me that the church had groomed her to experience domestic abuse. It had taught her that women should be silent in church, that men were to have authority in the church and the home, that a woman’s place was to be subservient and to obey.

“The church taught me a passive way of being a Christian woman.”

Here is another quotation. It is a small step from there for a would-be abuser to exploit that theology. And when he does so – when headship becomes domination, when obedience is enforced, when submission is to an abuser not a loving husband – when he starts to over-step his God-given authority – if indeed it is given by God – the entire system is stacked against the woman. How can she complain when she is supposed to be silent? How can she protest when she is supposed to be meek? How can she stand up for herself when she is told that it is a Christian woman’s privilege to suffer?

“Early in our marriage I went to a clergyman who told me that my husband meant no real harm, he was just confused and insecure. So I was encouraged to be more tolerant and understanding. Most important, I was told to forgive him the beatings just as Christ had forgiven from the cross.”

Quoted in Tong, Rosemarie. Women, sex, and the law. Rowman & Littlefield, 1984. 149

But there are more layers yet. More ways that those who are experiencing the harm of sexual abuse are silenced in the church. Because when a woman does sum up the courage to disclose what is happening, she may still be silenced. Sometimes she is not believed. The abuser may be powerful, influential, have a good reputation. It must be a mistake. She must have done something to deserve it – we’ll come back to that one in a minute. Sometimes the abuser is considered so important, so significant in the ministry of the church, such a great preacher, such a substantial donor, that his crimes need to go unaddressed, remain unreported, be covered over, for the sake of the “greater good”. Sometimes the woman is told to forgive. And forgiveness means allowing the abuse to continue – doesn’t it? It means returning to the home, or allowing he abuser to return. Allowing him to have unfettered access to his wife and children, to the family finances, to the marital bed. Doesn’t it?

Now, as then, systems of power conspire to silence the abused.

We’ll return to Bathsheba. Or rather, to the interpretations of the Bathsheba story.

“Bathsheba” by Jean-León Gérôme, 1889

This image is one of many. It is representative of the many times in art, in poetry, in literature, in sermons, when Bathsheba has been represented as the femme fatale; the woman whose wiles entrapped David. The woman whose guile led her to bathe seductively beneath his window. It wasn’t his fault at all, was it? He was powerless in the face of her beauty. Some commentators have gone even further and performed mental gymnastics to deny David’s guilt at all.[3] But this is to read into the story something that was never there. We are never told that Bathsheba was naked, that she bathed alluringly, that she planned to seduce the king. She may simply have been washing her feet, or cleaning herself beneath her clothes as many across the world still do today. And we notice that in the account of the divine judgement which follows – we’ll come to that in a few moments – Bathsheba is not the target of God’s condemnation. This is expressed entirely towards the king.

But for thousands of artists poets and commentators it has suited their purpose to represent Bathsheba as deliberately seducing David, or at least half complicit in the crime which follows. This is victim blaming, pure and simple.

It was like that then. It is still like that today.

“Every time we would have a fight he would then start crying…I would feel like maybe I contributed somehow to this.”

There are hundreds of ways in which women are blamed for the abuse that they receive. It suits the purpose of the abuser to give that narrative and abuses across the world use this as their standard modus operandum. Look what you made me do. It’s your fault. If only you would be more compliant. And these narratives become internalised by many who experience abuse. If only I were a better wife. It must be my fault.

“After pouring out my heart (it took a long time to summon the courage), the vicar blamed me for the abuse.”

But there’s more. When a woman does find the courage to speak out about her abuse, she will often find herself blamed for it, or at least the target of speculation. Ruth Tucker quotes a colleague who was commenting on a man who had murdered his wife. I wonder if she was contentious. Well you have to wonder what she might have done. It takes two to tango, you know.[4] Other women are asked directly. What did you do to provoke him? You need to examine your own conduct. Up and down the country and across the world abused wives received such counselling in churches. This is victim blaming.

“I became the problem in the church’s eyes.”

But there are still more layers. Even when a woman’s complaint of abuse is understood to be accurate, she is still often cast as a troublemaker. Why can’t she just keep quiet and put up with it? She’s causing disunity in the church. She’s interfering with the important work of ministry. She’s making a mountain out of a molehill.

Now, as then, victims are blamed for the abuse they experience.

We’ll return to the story of Bathsheba. Or rather, of David’s wider family. Because this incident is not isolated from the remainder of his life. It is not quarantined from his family. With his actions here David sets a ball rolling which will continue to spin out of control in the generations that follow him.

“Bathsheba”, unknown artist, C17. Detail from a larger piece.

Here in this 17th century print, the story of Bathsheba is contained in the oval. In the whole art piece, the artist has portrayed the story of Bathsheba surrounded by a number of other stories from the life of David. But let’s focus on this one in the top right. Here, if you look carefully at the back, you can see Amnon reclining on his bed. Amnon was David’s son. And leaving his presence in the foreground you can see a weeping woman. This is Tamar, Amnon’s half-sister and David’s daughter. Amnon conceived such lust for his own sister that he conspired to trap her and rape her. And when he had finished possessing her he thrust her from his presence like a soiled rag.

Where did Amnon learn such behaviour? Where did he gain that sense of entitlement? Where did he learn to objectify people? How did he learn that the gap between desire and possession could be collapsed completely? What made him think that he could act with impunity, as a powerful man, the son of a king? David’s actions had consequences well beyond the moment.

We could continue the story of David and think about another son, Absalom. kills Amnon for his crime, and later rebels against David. During that civil war, for a short time, Absalom takes possession of David’s palace in Jerusalem. And what does he do to consolidate his power? He takes his father’s concubines onto the roof of the palace and rapes them there in front of the nation. Where did Absalom learn such behaviour? Where did he gain that sense of entitlement? Where did he learn to objectify people? What made him imagine that he could act with impunity as a powerful man, the son of a king?

Or we might think of another of David’s sons, Solomon himself. Solomon who possessed 1000 wives and concubines. Where did he gain that sense of entitlement? Where did he learn to objectify people? How did he learn that the gap between desire and possession could be collapsed completely? What made him imagine that his power permitted him to act in such a way? You see the harm caused by David’s abuse extended far beyond his primary victim.

It was like that then. It is still like that today.

“He has done so much damage to our kids, mentally and emotionally. They have seen so much that our children are starting to act like him.”

Victim impact Statement

Children who experience abuse, or who witness it, become traumatised. Some will go on to become abusers themselves. Others will grow up with post-traumatic stress disorder, with a distrust of men, with a sense of fear. Others will grow up with an expectation that they too will become victims of domestic abuse, with a distorted pattern of what a healthy marriage looks like.

Now, as then, the damage that an abuser causes extends far beyond the harm he inflicts upon his primary victim.

We will return to the story of Bathsheba once more. Because something wonderful and unexpected happens in this story. We’ve spoken about systems which conspire to trap a victim of abuse, which prevent them from speaking out, which deny them justice. We’ve spoken about the fear wielded by an absolute king.

Nathan confronts David.
Emanuel Granberg, 1778

But within David’s court there was one man of courage. One man, Nathan, who saw what was evil and could not be silent. One man who subordinated his own safety and his own convenience to the needs of an abused woman. One man who dared to speak truth to power. I wonder what sort of push-back he experienced from others within the system. You can’t speak like that to him – it’s just the way of kings. What has he done wrong? – Bathsheba was his subject. Pipe down for your own safety. We’re in time of war – exceptional things happen in times of conflict. It’s not David’s fault – it was that temptress. Maybe some of those voices were in Nathan’s own head too. How much easier would it have been to look the other way. To silence the nagging conviction in his own heart. How much safer, how much more convenient.

But, stirred by God, Nathan was indeed a man of conviction and courage and honesty. He dared to speak to power. He dared to disrupt systems of power. He dared to utter what was unthinkable, to bring what was done in the dark into the light.

There was one man like that then. And we can be like that today.

We can be allies rather than indifferent bystanders. We can disrupt abusive systems. We can pull things from the darkness into the light. We can give voice to those who are silenced. We can choose to believe those who raise the outcry. We can defy the systems that give powerful people a sense of entitlement. We can call out their objectification of others. We can stand with the weak and the downtrodden. We can exercise solidarity and we can act transformatively. Systems of abuse and power which have continued for generations can stop here.

And just like Nathan, we do not operate in our own strength. The living God who sees what is done in the dark, the living God who leans out of heaven to attend to the poor and the weak, the living God who stands in solidarity with the victim, this living God the one who is sends his Spirit to stir and empower us as he stirred and empowered Nathan.

Now, as then, God is calling his people to speak out.

“David the Shepherd”
Elizabeth Jane Gardner, 1878

Let us return once more to the story of David. Let us remember that this is how he began his life, as a simple shepherd boy. David never wholly forgot where he had come from, and the biblical tradition of kingship which established itself around him never wholly forgot that David had been a shepherd. The model of the shepherd who protects his sheep, perhaps at great personal cost, was held up as a pattern for kingship in the Old Testament. The wicked kings were compared to shepherds who neglected their sheep or worse, who exploited them.

Of course, there has only ever been one truly Good Shepherd. One who did indeed lay down his life for the sheep. This gives us hope. It gives hope to those who have experienced abuse because this is a shepherd who tenderly bears those who are struggling, who notices those who are failing to keep up, he binds up wounds and heals broken hearts. But there is hope in this image to for abusers. Because this Good Shepherd goes after the one who has wandered off. The one who has chosen to leave the way of godliness. The Good Shepherd will chase you down will seek to bring you back. The message of scripture is a message of forgiveness to those who repent.

And finally, this pattern of a good shepherd is the pattern for Christian leadership today. Those of us who have any sort of leadership responsibility in the church must take this seriously. We too must bind up wounds and heal broken hearts. We too must deal tenderly with the weak and the struggling. We too must chase down those who have left the path of godliness columnist and call them back to repentance and forgiveness.

The God who leans out of heaven to pay attention to the weak the vulnerable and exploited is watching. Let us not fail him in our generation.

[1] https://www.psni.police.uk/inside-psni/Statistics/domestic-abuse-statistics/

[2] Gilmartin, Niall. Female combatants after armed struggle: Lost in transition?. Routledge, 2018.

[3] Sandra Koenig, Bathsheba Survives, pp. 33-5.

[4] Quoted in Ruth Tucker, Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife.

Abuse and its angles of power
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