I can think of no way to begin this sermon other than by apologizing: to any who have survived a sexual assault, for whom discussion of sexual assault escalates the remaining pain, I am sorry. Also, for those who have been yearning for a clergy person to acknowledge the harm done by sexual violence who have been harmed by the conversation not happening, I am sorry.
In the United States, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. (Most attempts are completed.) To save you the math, 90% of rapes happen to women and 10% happen to men.1 In terms of gender that means we need to remember that women are more likely to be living with the internal scars of sexual assault than men are AND that a substantial number of men are also living with internal scars of sexual assault. We also want to remember that members of the transgender community experience sexual assault at MUCH higher rates than cisgender people. More important than the statistics however, is to remember that one rape is one rape too many.
This should never happen.
And it happens a lot. Many people sexually assault others.
The story of King David’s daughter, the Princess Tamar, is a story of sexual assault. Unlike most such stories, Tamar’s story is told. Her story reflects and shines light on many stories that never got told, as well as on the experiences of those who told their stories but were not believed. Instead of having been insulated and protected by her royalty, the story of the princess reflects the experiences of many unnamed men and women throughout history.
Phyllis Trible, a matriarch of feminist biblical criticism, has a chapter on Tamar in her book Texts of Terror. She opens the chapter with these words, “From the book of Samuel comes the story of a family enmeshed in royal rape. Brother violates sister. He is a prince to whom belong power, prestige, and unrestrained lust. She is a princess to whom belong wisdom, courage, and unrelieved suffering. Children of one father, they have not the same care of each other. Indeed, the brother cares not at all.”2
This story comes soon after the one about King David’s adultery, his use of Bathsheba without her consent, and the prophet Nathan calling him on it. David’s shame is very present in the story, including in how he responds to it. Amnon, the lust-filled rapist, is his oldest son and heir. Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, is David’s third son.
The story SAYS that Amnon “fell in love with” Tamar but I think we can easily conclude that Amnon fell in lust with Tamar. This is not what love looks like. As a virgin daughter of the king, Tamar was highly valuable property, useful to be given away to other countries and brokering deals. That meant that she was “protected property, inaccessible to males, including her brother.”3 Amnon, the princely heir, doesn’t seem to like having anything stand in his way. He finds the person who gives him the advice he wants – that he should manipulate his father into giving him access to Tamar to fulfill his lust.
I must say, Trible points out that when Amnon feigns illness and worries his father, in his request that she be sent to him, Amnon refers to Tamar as his sister. She says, “To claim kinship with Tamar at this time averts suspicion.”4 I say, UGH.
Tamar does as she’s told. She doesn’t have many degrees of freedom, and the king had ordered her to go. The servants leave, she prepares the food, she brings it to Amnon, and then he grabs her. He demands that she sleep with him, again calling her his sister. Trible goes on, “Through a series of orders, all of them obeyed, Amnon has manipulated the occasion to feed his lust. This time, however, the royal command meets objection. In the presence of a rapist, Tamar panics not. In fact, she claims her voice. Unlike Amnon’s brisk commands, her deliberations slow the movement of the plot, though they are unable to divert it. If Amnon uses the vocative to seduce her, she returns it to summon him to sense.”5
Tamar has an unusually cool head. She didn’t panic nor beg. She spoke in reasonable terms and tried to talk him out of it. She pointed out that their country is above such things, which is a great argument to make in a royal family where the country would be valued especially highly. She points out that it would shame her, seemingly thinking he was capable of empathy. He does not seem to be. She names that it would ruin him, making him appear as a fool and a scoundrel. Finally, seeming to become clear that he wanted what he wanted and wouldn’t stop until he got it, she suggests an alternative. She points out that if he asked to marry her, he’d be allowed to, thus avoiding all the other disastrous consequences. Trible says, “Her words are honest and poignant; they acknowledge female servitude. Tamar knows Amnon can have her but pleads that he do it properly.”6
That she needs to make such an offer is heart-breaking. However, even the offer to wed the man bent on raping her is ignored. He doesn’t want to hear her speak– he wants to have her subservient and as he fantasized. The text simply says, “but he would not listen to her” and then goes on to say, “and being stronger than she was, he forced her and lay with her.”(13:14) Trible says the text is worse than it first appears in English, “the Hebrew omits the preposition to stress his brutality. ‘He laid her.’”7
And then it got worse.
The violence of the rape transformed the lust into hatred, and he ordered her to “Get out.” However, even in this moment of utter vulnerability and violation, Tamar held her own. Trible says, “This abused woman will no more heed Amnon’s order of dismissal than she consented to his demand for rape.”8 She responds with “NO.” And she stops calling him her brother. Trible continues, “’No,’ she said to him, ‘because sending me away is a greater evil than the other which you have done to me.’ (13:16a) If the narrator interprets that the hatred is greater than the desire, Tamar understands that the expulsion is greater than the rape. In sending her away, Amnon increases the violence he has inflicted on her. He condemns her to a lifelong sentence of desolation. Tamar knows that rape dismissed is crime exacerbated.”9 Again he doesn’t listen. She stops speaking.
Now, this seems to be worth taking a moment to acknowledge that Tamar’s story is not entirely universal and timeless. In her day, if an unmarried woman was raped, it was expected that the man would marry her. That was the least bad option for the woman, since otherwise she was seen as damaged goods which would prevent the possibility of a future marriage and thus the possibility of a financially stable future. Tamar, like other biblical women, was taught that her value was in her capacity to wed and bear male children. This rape AND expulsion violated her body and any hope she had of a future. It was a different time. Today we hope women don’t get stuck marrying their rapists. In any case, she kept her head, her reason, and her voice. But he doesn’t listen.
After she is kicked out and the door is barred to keep her from re-entering, she tears her robe. The robe proclaims her a virgin daughter of the King, and she isn’t anymore. Trible says, “tearing her robe symbolizes the violence done to a virgin princess. Rape has torn her.”10 She also puts ashes on her head and weeps publicly. She VISIBLY proclaims that wrong has been done to her. She doesn’t hide it. She doesn’t protect her “brother.” She lets her entire body scream for her, and she makes sure it gets listened to this time.
Her brother, her full brother Absalom, speaks to her. When the words are examined deeply, they are quite powerful. He is his sister’s advocate and he offers her a safe place. In this story Absalom is the one we can look to as a moral compass and seek to emulate. (I actually think Tamar is too high of a standard, being that strong, clear-minded and articulate in the face of that violence is not something to compare ourselves to.) Trible explains, “Absalom explicitly introduces this speech with the adverb ‘attāh, ‘now’ or ‘for the time being.’ As Amnon’s pretense deceived David, so Tamar’s pretense will deceive Amnon. Further, rather than minimizing the crime, euphemisms such as ‘with you’ or ‘this deed’ underscore its horror.”11
Absalom starts by asking her if Amnon had raped her. He knows it is possible, and he acknowledges it. He also speaks the words, which means she doesn’t have to, in this case another means of grace. He is tender to her, he reminds her that they are still connected, and he comes up with a plan. He takes the harm done to his sister as real, significant, and relevant to him. She is his sister, that hasn’t changed. The text tells us he brought her into his house, since she was no longer a virgin princess living in the palace. He listened, he cared, and he made a space for her.
From the moments after the rape on Absalom takes charge. Trible suggests that it is in this moment that he supplants King David himself in the story.12 David is said to be angry – but it is not clear if he is mad at Amnon or at “what happened to Amnon”? Trible says, “David’s anger signifies complete sympathy for Amnon and total disregard for Tamar. How appropriate that the story never refers to David and Tamar as father and daughter.”13 David does nothing, which leaves Absalom alone to respond to the harm done to his sister.
In the end of the story, Tamar is “desolate.” Trible explains, “When used of people elsewhere in scripture, the verb be desolate (šmm) connotes being destroyed by an animal (Lam. 3:11) Raped, despised, and rejected by a man, Tamar is a woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”14 And, in response to Amnon not listening to Tamar, Absalom stops speaking to Amnon as well. (Also, eventually, Absalom kills Amnon and then after that he leads a revolt against his father. David’s failure to respond destabilizes his throne. But this is Tamar’s story and we are going to stick with her.)
Her story, such as it is, is concluded in the following chapter. Trible explains again, starting with the Biblical quote, “’There were born to Absalom three sons and one daughter; her name was Tamar.’ (14:27. RSV). Strikingly the anonymity of the sons highlights the name of the lone female child. In her Absalom has created a living memorial for his sister. A further note enhances the poignancy of his act. Tamar, the daughter of Absalom, ‘became a beautiful woman to behold.’ From aunt to niece have passed name and beauty so that rape and desolation have not the final word in the story of Tamar.”15 Tamar, who would never have a child of her own did have a namesake so that her memory lived on.
One final thought from Trible about Tamar before we end, “she was never his temptation. His evil was his own lust, and from it others needed protection.”16
Dear ones, this story tells a truth we rarely hear, and it forces us to acknowledge the all too common reality of sexual assault. The Bible holds firmly that God abhors sexual violence, and this story adds that silence from leaders in the face of sexual violence only makes it worse. Yet, in the midst of the honest portrayal of horrific violence, the story also leaves us with hope. Absalom was an advocate for his sister and he gave her a safe-place to be. Because of those like Absalom, healing and life are possible, and violence need not have the last word. Absalom is the brother we hope to emulate when we seek to be brothers and sisters in Christ to one another. So, as we are able, may God help us to be safe places for survivors as Absalom was for Tamar. Amen
1RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) website, https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem, quote statistics from National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998). Accessed January 26, 2017.
2Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), page 37.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
January 29, 2017