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The Story of Tamar

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The Anguish and Terror of Rape and Incest (extracts): a Bible story

A Bible study by Rev. Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth

Text: 2 Samuel 13: 1-22

Introduction

The story of Tamar has not been a popular one for churches. One rarely hears a sermon preached on Tamar, Dinah (Gen 34:1-12) or the Levite’s concubines (Judg. 19:1, 20:48). These are the three of the stories of rape and violence against women told in the Bible. These stories are disturbing because they deal with the sin of sexual violence, which has been difficult for the church. The story of rape and incest in 2 Sam. 13 occurs in the family of David, one of the most famous persons in the Bible. David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister, Tamar. David’s other son, Tamar’s full brother, is outraged and kills Amnon.

What does the text tell us?

The rape involved three of David’s children: Absalom, Amnon and Tamar. It was a horrific tragedy which cannot be disconnected from what was happening in the family, especially the sexual irresponsibility of David, and the power struggle between Amnon and Absalom. Amnon’s political ambitions as the heir to King David were challenged by Absalom. David was by far the most powerful of Israel’s kings, militaristically and charismatically. He was to become the prototype of the Messiah. Jesus, on the other hand, would play down that aspect of his status that described himself as the scion of the House of David, and emphasizes his role as the “powerless” Suffering Servant.

David, the irresponsible father

King David is the most pathetic person in this story. Great and powerful as he was, the most that could be said of him in his relationship to women and to his children is that he is irresponsible. He hears of the incest/rape; he is very angry; he does nothing! Verse 21 tells us why: “But he had no wish to harm his son Amnon, since he loved him; he was his firstborn (son)”. How typically patriarchal! For all his power, he would not take disciplinary action against his son. But the daughter is forced to live a sad, disconsolate, lonely existence for the time being in Absalom’s house, and then… His inaction would lead to the loss of both Amnon and Absalom; Tamar had already been lost. Did he care?

Amnon, obsessed with power and lust

It is abhorrent to think that Amnon’s rape of Tamar was an act of contempt – contempt for Absalom whose sister she was, and whose ambition for political power at his (Amnon’s) expense was an open secret. He was certainly contemptuous of her once the physical violation was over. His order to his servant was explicit: “Get rid of this woman for me, throw her out and bolt the door after her” (v.17). Get rid of the whore! According to 2 Sam. 13:2 ff, it was Amnon’s desire for Tamar that made him ill. Or was it the frustration of his power to obtain her? A definition of power is that “power is meant every opportunity/possibility existing within a social relationship, which permits one to carry out one’s own will, even against resistance, and regardless of the basis on which this opportunity rests.”

Tamar, confronting power

Against the power of naked, violent force, Tamar would use another kind of power: that of moral persuasion and rational common sense, with an appeal to personal self-interest. “No, my brother! Do not violate me. This is not a thing men do in Israel. Do not commit such an outrage. Wherever would I go, bearing my shame? While you would become an outcast in Israel. Go now and speak to the king; he will not refuse to give me to you”. (Vv.12-13)

But he brushed aside that appeal, overpowered her and raped her. Had he loved Tamar, he would have listened to her and achieved the desired outcome of a sound, permanent relationship with her. In 2 Sam. 13.1, it is written that Amnon “Fell in love” with Tamar. But was it really love, or was it rather lust, insecurity, wantonness and vileness? His “falling out” came quicker than most.

Tamar’s pain and anguish ripped her life apart. She ripped her clothes, threw ashes on her head, and wailed as she mourned publicly. She declared that she was violated and was clearly calling for justice and mercy from her father, King David. Tamar lived in a context which judged harshly the victim of such a crime. She had been shamed and “finished” in her community.

Breaking the silence of rape, incest and all forms of gender based violence

The many “Davids” in our churches and community remain silent and suppress victims of rape, incest and domestic violence when they should be outraged and compelled to seek justice for the victims. The church community needs to take a public stance – in giving voice, presence and action on overcoming all forms of gender-based violence. This can no longer be treated as a marginal issue. It is a frightening epidemic affecting the Caribbean.

Taken from the Book “Righting Her-Story: Caribbean Women Encounter the Bible Story 2011, Bisnauth (Ed) WCRC Geneva.

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