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The Bible’s #MeToo claims

By Rev. Dr. Paul C. Hayes

October 9, 2018

The #MeToo movement has been a startling grace. Public accountability for sexual harassment and misconduct by prominent people has shaken societal and cultural institutions, from religious circles to college campuses, from corporate offices to network television, from Hollywood to the White House. 

Breaking the silence about conduct that is often hard to talk about is a hopeful change. No longer is “a wink and a nod” tolerated when the safety and dignity of a nonconsenting victim beckons for justice. Sexual harassment and abuse are rightly being viewed as crimes against another human being and in some cases as an unforgiveable sin—especially if the exploitation is of an innocent child. Calling out sexual harassment and abuse when it occurs is the only response we should accept at this point, in order that offenders lose their power to manipulate and victims no longer blame themselves for the harm done.

As people of faith, we should have already been addressing this as a matter of practice. The provocative story from 2 Samuel 11 about King David is but one instance of a biblical #MeToo claim. Why? Because it unmasks corruption and the way power was abused by one of the preeminent figures of Scripture. The text also breaks the silence for the victim, Bathsheba, and her family, who are not left as anonymous victims while their lives are upended (and in Uriah’s case, ended!) through no fault of their own. They are casualties of David’s corrupt use of power, as is Joab, the army commander who is set up to be the king’s “fixer” and then is blamed for poor leadership on the battlefield. In this instance, there were no non-disclosure agreements or hush money arrangements to scrub the truth. We see the indictable offenses of David for what they are and the regrettable consequences of his acts.

For people of faith, this story must be appreciated and valued for the unvarnished honesty it brings to a deeply troublesome human reality.

As Walter Brueggemann characterizes it: “The writer has cut very, very deep into the strange web of foolishness, fear, and fidelity that comprises the human map. This narrative is more than we want to know about David and more than we can bear to understand about ourselves. We might wish the story about David could be ‘untold.’ David’s memory cannot be unwritten…any more than our shared life with David can be undone.” [i]

The fact that this deplorable behavior was committed by a revered figure in biblical tradition is sobering but also crucial for us to reckon with, as it has been for thousands of years by Jewish scholars and sages. David represents the zenith of Israel’s greatness as a people and kingdom; the Davidic monarchy lies at the heart of biblical history.

With so much riding on the legacy of King David, it is astounding that such a lurid story as this would make it into the canon of Scripture. Assailing the character of one close to the heart of God underscores a healthy Jewish skepticism of human authority, recognizing the dangers of power and corruption—something we should always be mindful of as well. Checks and balances, public scrutiny and accountability, all have important roles to play in every society whenever a leader is entrusted with authority and power. Without them, the license to rule invites the power to deceive and to destroy—the consequences of which are usually detrimental to victims as well as to the very institutions leaders are called to lead. 

If a tally was made of all the moral sins and crimes David committed in the course of this story, one could easily prosecute on the basis of the Ten Commandments alone: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”; “You shall not commit adultery”; “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”; “You shall not murder”; “You shall not steal”—the very sins that breach the trust in relationships and undermine community (Exodus 20). But as these matters go, it’s unlikely that in the moment David would have felt subject to any law, because he was using his power to control the consequences.

This disturbing truth could have been lost to history had it not, to David’s utter shame and conviction, been exposed by Nathan. The ultimate consequences of David’s actions were his becoming a shamed ruler and a lineage scandalized to its eventual ruin with a divided kingdom. Then within generations, came Israel’s fall and exile. As great as King David is perceived to be by people of faith, as certain as David was of God’s promise for a secure dynasty, his legacy was severely tarnished by what he brought upon himself; this revered leader lacked the checks, balances and wisdom to realize and respect his boundaries, even as the most powerful man in Israel. 

As great as King David is perceived to be by people of faith, as certain as David was of God’s promise for a secure dynasty, his legacy was severely tarnished by what he brought upon himself; this revered leader lacked the checks, balances and wisdom to realize and respect his boundaries, even as the most powerful man in Israel.

This is the testimony of Scripture we inherit.

This is the testimony of Scripture we inherit. However, it doesn’t rest with David’s consequential acts alone. There are other similar stories of trauma. “The texts of terror,” as Phyllis Trible[ii] so correctly named them, where women were abused and victimized within their own households or by powerful men, are found throughout Scripture—they are testimonies told as other #MeToo episodes that brought shame to the offenders and to Israel. These were not to be hidden problems ignored or avoided, but ones yearning to be addressed. They are within the annals of our faith to teach us that even in a world overwhelmingly patriarchal, such injustice was not to be accepted, silenced or tolerated. No one was above the law or above moral scrutiny, particularly, as we see from this story of David, those who wield power and authority—political, religious, cultural or institutional—precisely the places where such abuse is often hidden or denied. 

Frankly, this has led me to rethink what some of Jesus’ teachings might have meant in their original context, as I believe he would have been aware of such abuse in his day, perhaps even among those he knew. Hence, I’ve revisited some passages that now ring with great passion and conviction, perhaps revealing a deep anger within Jesus’ heart when speaking out on behalf of victims and for justice. For what else would it mean when he said:

Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But those who would cause any of these little ones who believe in me to stumble would be better off thrown into the sea with millstones around their necks. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! Stumbling blocks are inevitable, but woe to those through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to enter Life without your limbs than to have two hands or two feet and be hurled into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better to enter Life without sight, than to have two eyes and be hurled into the eternal fire. See to it that you never despise one of these little ones, for I swear that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Abba God. (Matthew 18:5-10, The Inclusive Bible)

Harsh words, but shouldn’t they be, as a preventative measure to check behavior before it has terrible consequential effects? 

Likewise, shouldn’t an empathetic bias exist in favor of those who have been victims? Could these not have been the ones to whom Jesus lovingly referred when he offered the blessings of the Beatitudes? Was it not they who have silently suffered as the poor in spirit, or those who mourn or who are meek or pure in heart? Are they not the ones who should receive God’s comfort and mercy—the last who shall now be made first among us? 

In the times in which we live, those who have been silenced are now standing before the world with startling candor and courage to hold offenders to account, no matter how great and powerful they are. Public shame and accountability are in turn silencing the ones who have stolen innocence and dignity and left stumbling blocks in the lives of victims who must overcome trauma not of their own making. This is the moment for truth. 

May we privilege, not the powerful, but those who now are being delivered from the monstrous evil that has enslaved them, so that they will finally, with God’s mercy, be set free.

Rev. Paul C. Hayes is pastor of Noank Baptist Church, Noank. Conn.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 272.

[ii] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Fortress, 1984. Professor Trible examined the stories of Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed concubine, and Jephthah’s daughter. 

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