It was an innocent request—”Megan, would you teach my Sunday school class for me next week?”—and an equally naïve acceptance. Little did I anticipate the biblical scholarship necessary for an hour on Sunday morning with the 5- and 6-year-olds.
When I opened the teacher’s manual on Saturday evening, I discovered the problem. I hadn’t agreed to a nice little Bible lesson on “Adam names the animals” or “Jesus welcomes the children.” Nope. Of all the stories in the curriculum, the lot fell to me to teach about David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11).
It was bound to happen. If we take seriously our obligation to declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), we’re going to come across some difficult passages. A family or church who talks with their children about the Scripture as they sit and walk and rise up and lie down (Deut. 6:6–8) will have to address David and Bathsheba—as well as Rahab, Tamar, Dinah, and Delilah—sometime.
Although they make parents and Sunday school teachers squirm, those passages are “breathed out by God” and are “profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). It’s good for our children to learn them because they are God’s good Word to us, teaching us about his holiness and our need for a Savior. Also, as Jen Wilkin recently pointed out, these uncomfortable texts help us learn to love the hurt and hurting in our midst.
Pretending to Be Married?
Right from the beginning, I knew I wasn’t going to parse some of this stories’ details. I wasn’t going to describe intercourse to children barely out of diapers, nor would I tackle the question of whether David’s act was rape or adultery. But I still couldn’t avoid the essential problem of explaining sexual sin to little kids.
It seemed to me I had two options. The first option was to use the script provided by the curriculum and say that David and Bathsheba were pretending to be married: “David acted like Bathsheba was his wife, but she wasn’t. This was wicked.”
My policy with my own three children is to always tell the truth. The Bible is complete truth, and I want to maintain that intrinsic truthfulness as I paraphrase and retell and explain it to my kids. This doesn’t mean I tell them every gory detail, but I also don’t say anything untrue. As they grow, I want them to build on the foundation of truth I’ve given them, not to question everything they’ve been told.
My policy with my own children is to always tell the truth. . . . As they grow, I want them to build on the foundation of truth I’ve given them, not to question everything they’ve been told.
And I wasn’t convinced that “David acted like Bathsheba was his wife” was true. In a godly marriage, a husband doesn’t force or manipulate his wife to have sex with him. David wasn’t simply acting like a husband does. Further, Nathan’s subsequent parable (2 Sam. 12:1–9) makes this point. The poor man had a sheep he loved and cared for and treated as a pet. The rich man stole this sheep. Does the rich man then make it his pet? No, he does not. He kills it and eats it. David wasn’t pretending Bathsheba was his wife while playing house with her. He was killing and eating her.
Tell that to a kindergartner.
Why Is Sexual Sin Bad?
My second option was to explain sexual sin in terms of another sin. VeggieTales takes this approach in the episode that characterizes Bathsheba as a stolen rubber-duckie toy. Every kid can understand stealing, so the screenwriters framed adultery in terms of theft. Don’t take people who don’t belong to you.
Yes, sexual sin does frequently involve other sins. It often begins with coveting and ends with lying and has plenty of self-hurting and neighbor-hurting in the middle. But if we teach children that adultery and fornication and rape are just forms of other sins, we aren’t telling the truth. In the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–17), a summary of God’s law for his people, sexual sin gets a prohibition of its own in the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 14).
So what makes sexual sin distinct from other sins?
In our day, even professing Christians justify sexual sin on the grounds that—under the right conditions—it doesn’t break any other commandments. Common defenses include: “It’s not hurting anyone” (sixth commandment) or “No one is taking anything from anyone; it’s consensual” (eighth commandment) or “It’s happening anyway; at least we’re finally being honest about it” (ninth commandment).
But even if it were possible to perfectly keep all the other commandments, we still aren’t excused in breaking the seventh. The primary problem with sexual sin isn’t that it breaks other laws. The primary problem with sexual sin is that it breaks God’s law—which is to say, God’s requirement for holiness—about sex. Telling kids anything else is untrue and won’t serve them well as they grow up in a sexually licentious world.
Breaking God’s Rules for Marriage
So, what did David do wrong? (Which brought me back to where I started: trying not to explain sex to someone else’s 5-year-old.) I think the original Sunday school script got at least one thing right; the seventh commandment is about the sanctity of marriage. And to explain David’s sin to our kids, we have to be clear that his sin was breaking God’s law for marriage.
When we encounter difficult passages about adultery, rape, incest, prostitution, and fornication, we should tread carefully, but we do not have to tread timidly. The same holy God who declared his law to “all the people” of Israel (Ex. 24:3) declares his law to both children and adults today. Speaking plainly about the seventh commandment—in a Sunday school classroom or around the family dinner table—is both true and helpful. God’s good word for marriage gives even little children a category for the sexual chaos around them and points them to Christ, the only Savior of sinners.
On that particular Sunday morning, I collected the crayons and gathered the little ones. I read the Bible passage, and then I said: David didn’t care about what God said about husbands and wives. And he didn’t care that Uriah and Bathsheba promised to be married to each other. David only cared about what he wanted. David made up his own rules about being married. This was disobeying God, and it wasn’t good for him or for Bathsheba. David needed to be forgiven by God, just like you and I do.
Now, I think I need some animal crackers and apple juice.
A version of this article first appeared on the Thin Places blog.