Rape, A Meditation on 2 Samuel 13

[1] It began with a phone call. It was Karen, a friend whom I’d known since my childhood.[1] Although we didn’t see or talk to one another as much now as when we were kids, we were still close. But, on the phone this day she sounded different: she was tentative, unsure of herself, fumbling for words. She had something very important to tell me, but she didn’t quite know how to say it; plus, she was afraid of my possible reaction. I tried to reassure her the best I could, but since I didn’t know what was coming, I don’t think I did a very good job of it.

[2] This is what Karen told me. She had been having a lot of pain recently while having sexual intercourse. It had finally become so severe that she had gone to a gynecologist. The gynecologist, after carefully examining her, spoke of exposed nerve ends in her vagina, of tissues that had been ripped apart and damaged. And such damage, according to the gynecologist, could only be the result of violent sexual abuse during her childhood. It was a statement…and a question. Had Karen been sexually abused as a child?

[3] With that, according to Karen, a flood of images came rushing in-images of blood, and tears, and pain, and darkness. Images that had been long repressed, poking their way into her awareness only in her worst nightmares, and even then only on rare occasions. But there was more: it was only with this visit to the gynecologist that she began to realize that those images were not just the stuff of nightmares-they had an anchoring in reality. And the reality that the images pointed to was that Karen had been raped, off and on, between the ages of 7 and 9 by her best friend’s older brother.

[4] With the phone still at my ear, I sank slowly to the kitchen floor. And as Karen continued to speak, a parallel track of thoughts and feelings began running through my mind. Initially it was denial-this could not be true; this could not have happened. But, alongside my attempted denial was a sort of rueful irony. You see, I had been taking some Women’s Studies classes as part of my graduate school training; and in them I had confronted the statistics that reveal that sexual abuse is frighteningly common: namely, 1) every six minutes, a woman is forcibly raped; 2) one in three American women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime; and 3) one-fifth to one-half of American women were sexually abused as children, most of them by an older male relative.[2]

[5] But all of that had been only statistics. Besides, I had always arrogated to myself, my friends, and my family a certain privileging that placed us outside of such statistics. Who could blame me? We had grown up in a setting that had all the markers, according to the dominating norms of our society, that supposedly signaled safety and security. Karen’s and my home community-white, small town, Midwestern, religious, educated, middle class or aspiring to middle class, comfortable-was supposed to be a place of protection. But it was not. Sexual violence is no respecter of class, or race, or geography, or family make-up, or educational attainment, or religion. Statistics don’t lie.

[6] So look around you. One out of every three women sitting here has been, or will be, raped. It’s a very safe bet that even if no one has actually revealed it to you, you know someone-likely lots of someones-who have been raped. Perhaps you yourself have been raped. Rape is all around us. If it was a physical disease, we’d call it an epidemic. And it’s not just that it’s so pervasive in our present; rape is something that has always been with us. In fact, it’s as old as the Bible.

[7] In fact, it’s not only in the Bible, it’s also all over the Bible, although the church has done a very good job of repressing the Bible’s rape texts. But consider the following incident, reported by a religion professor at a southern university:

[8] She was asked to preach in chapel during Rape Crisis Week. She had never heard a sermon about rape and she had no idea how to preach one. So she simply stood in the pulpit and read stories from the Bible, stories about sexual violence. There were too many to read them all.

[9] When the service was over one of her colleagues said, “I don’t like getting hit over the head with this kind of stuff. You’re preaching to the wrong crowd. That kind of thing doesn’t happen here.”

[10] All week long students, women and men, came by her office to tell their stories of violation…

[11] “My father’s business partner raped me when I was twelve,” one woman said, “several times. I think my father knew, but he never did anything about it.”[3]

[12] The church, and the women and men in it, can be all too ready to deny and avoid messy and painful topics such as rape. Some of you today may think that this is a very unusual sermon for me to be preaching. You may be offended-just as the professorial colleague was in the incident I just recounted. And yet, if messy, unpleasant, hurtful issues do not belong in the church, then, in God’s Name, where do they belong? Jesus came precisely to be with, and share the pains and sorrows of, the poor, the oppressed, the hurting, the sorrowful. He did so because, if their pain could be truly acknowledged, then real healing-and a new life-could begin.

[13] Here, then, is one of the Bible’s stories about rape. In reflecting on it, hopefully we will be challenged and encouraged to move towards a real healing of those who have been raped, and also an undoing of the cultural conditions that make rape both so easy in our society, and so hidden.

[14] If anyone had reason to feel safe and secure, it was Tamar. A daughter of David, the greatest Israelite king ever, her entire life had been one of comfort and privilege. Growing up in the royal palace in Jerusalem, she had always had the best of everything: food, clothing, jewelry, perfumes. Unlike the hard, physical outdoor labor which was part of the sun-up, sun-down routine of most Israelites who worked as farmers and herders, Tamar lived a life of relative leisure. Her clothing bespoke that fact: a long robe with sleeves, it was an expensive garment, and not one conducive to lots of physically laborious work; indeed, it seems to have been a special garment for the virgin daughters of the king (v. 18). It’s hard to imagine, given this life of wealth and leisure, that she would have needed or wanted anything: and yet, if she had, she had only to ask David; as both her father and the king, one imagines that he would have had both the will and the resources to grant any request she made, even-as the old fairy tales say-up to half the kingdom. Then, too, Tamar seems to have been especially set apart because she was the only daughter-that we know of-among all of David’s many children. And have you ever noticed, in families with a number of children-but only one daughter-how cherished that girl is? One other thing about Tamar: she was, so the text tells us, beautiful.[4]

[15] All these markers of privilege-wealth, leisure, social status, political power, beauty-and yet none of them made a whit of difference in terms of guaranteeing her the fundamental rights to her own personhood.

[16] The undoing of Tamar’s life began because of a seemingly innocuous fact: Amnon, her half-brother, was in love with her. But in his version of love, it meant possessing her sexually. He mistook sex-or lust-for love, just as, I’m afraid, so many people do today. When Jonadab, Amnon’s good friend, finds out about Amnon’s feelings, he does nothing to correct his confused and mistaken notions; instead, he further aids and abets them by cooking up a strategy that will make it all too easy for Amnon to get what he thinks he wants: the sexual use of Tamar’s body.

[17] The strategy achieves so much of its success partly because it plays on so many of the stereotypical expectations of male and female behavior-particularly in their familial manifestations. Consider David. He makes no follow-up inquiries to Amnon’s request to have Tamar sent to him in his bedroom; the father is thus easily duped by his own son into becoming a tool facilitating the rape of the daughter. David is a distant and uninvolved father, one who is not really clued into the lives of his own children; a man so absorbed in the public demands concomitant to ruling a kingdom that he simply does not take the time to find out what is really going on in his own household. Then there’s Tamar. Because daughters are expected to obey their fathers, and to assume that their fathers always have their best good in mind, she of course follows through on her father’s command. And the ruse itself-Amnon pretending to be sick and requesting that Tamar cook for him-plays off of the normed expectations that women are healers and nurturers. Women are supposed to care for men-especially the male members of their own family; when they do so they are validated. And, of course, let’s not forget Amnon (and Jonadab). They express and enact the oft-held assumption that women exist for the purposes and pleasures of men. Women are not seen as persons in their own right, but rather as the tools, accessories, or assistants of men-furthering or enabling male desires, goals, ends.

[18] David, Tamar, Amnon-they all, in some sense, do what they’re supposed to do; they all follow the social scripts provided for them. And yet following this particular set of societal rules brings nothing but tragedy to all of them. The rape itself is narrated briefly and with circumspection-it does not feed any of our prurient desires to take in a spectacle of pain, violence, and bloodshed. (In that way Tamar is shown some consideration.) What the text does focus on is Tamar’s words when Amnon first initiates sexual contact with her. They are her first spoken words in the entire narrative: “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this wanton folly” (v. 12). Four different times, in four different ways, she speaks words of rejection to Amnon. (Count them-“NO, my brother, do NOT force me; for such a thing is NOT done in Israel; do NOT do this wanton folly.”) It is quite clear that she does not want to have sexual intercourse with Amnon. One cannot fool oneself into thinking otherwise, that Tamar is, for instance, just playing coy or being flirtatious, putting up only a pretend or token resistance to something she secretly wants. Amnon cannot construct such an interpretation of the events; neither can we. Tamar’s words make clear that what is done is done against her will; it is rape. Indeed, the extremes of her refusal are perhaps best caught in her attempts at negotiation with Amnon-she suggests that, instead of committing this violation, Amnon speak to their father about marrying her. That way Amnon could still have her sexually, but it would be done within the bounds of societal propriety. In biblical society, in which such an emphasis is placed on women marrying-and being virgins when they marry-for Tamar to marry Amnon, even if she knows he only wants her sexually, is infinitely preferable to rape since marriage would, at least in the eyes of society, maintain her dignity and social status.

[19] But it does not happen. Amnon rapes her. And…the rape changes everything. For Amnon, the supposed love he held for Tamar is now shown to be a lie. As the text says, he now “hated her with a very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.” Presumably such a great hatred spills over onto others-and perhaps even onto himself, so that, on some level at least, he might be loathing himself for what he has done. But whether or not this presumed self-hatred and self-loathing might eventually have led to a heartfelt repentance will never be known. For two years later Amnon is murdered. This prince of the land, first-born son of King David destined to be the next king of Israel-and so to have a life of riches and power and glory-instead dies an ignoble death, with a life far less and far shorter than expectation. And it’s all precipitated by his rape of Tamar.

[20] And then there’s Amnon’s murderer, Absalom, full-brother of Tamar. The text says that Absalom’s motivation for killing Amnon is vengeance for the rape. And yet, with Amnon dead, Absalom is now first in line for the throne. So Absalom probably uses the rape as an excuse-or justification-for killing someone who not only raped his sister, but also exists as his chief impediment to the throne. Then, too, Absalom may also be resentful towards his father. For David, when he finds out about the rape, is “very angry”-so the text says-and yet he does absolutely nothing about it. David’s abdication of his responsibility-as both father and king-to see justice done for Tamar makes him also culpable-and sucks him also into the vortex of disaster. For whatever may be the truth behind Absalom’s twisted skein of motivations, it eventuates in Absalom mounting a military coup against his father, as he seeks to take the throne from his father by force. But the coup ends disastrously, with the kingdom in upheaval, Absalom slain, and David shown up as a rather ineffectual king-as well as father.

[21] And what of Tamar? Does she resent, or applaud, the fact that her rapist is murdered, even if the murder is subsumed into political and military conflicts among the men of her family? The answer is unknown, for the text is silent about her thoughts and feelings. Instead, we are told only that she comes to dwell in her brother Absalom’s house, “a desolate woman” (vs. 20). And that is the end of her story.

[22] Except that, a few chapters later we are informed that Absalom had a daughter whose name was Tamar. And she, too, like her aunt, was beautiful. And perhaps this aunt and niece shared more than just a common name and beauty: Did Tamar, who had lost so much-honor, social status, the opportunity (in that society) to marry and have a family-find another sort of meaningful and worthwhile life through her relationship with her niece? I hope so. Regardless, though, Tamar is remembered, and honored, in the niece who is named after her.

[23] And, she’s remembered, too, in the preservation of her story in the Bible. And so she has become, down through the centuries, a character with whom those who have been raped may potentially identify. So, at least, did her story affect my friend Karen. For as Karen began the long process of healing from her sexual assault, Tamar’s story became a significant touchstone for her. It validated her pain and shame. It permitted her to critique our sex-saturated culture. It allowed her to see the depths of the sin committed by Amnon, Jonadab, Absalom, and David. It encouraged her to stand up to the denial so often practiced in the church towards those who have been raped.

[24] One of the things which Karen rejects is the word “survivor” as applied to herself. For to her, survivor implies that she was somehow unaffected by the rape-that she was simply able to skip over it and resume her life as if it had never happened. And that’s simply not true-for Karen’s life was profoundly impacted by the rape. And yet, in and through the long years of healing she has gained a new life-one that in its sensitivity, its openness, and caring towards others-may well be a positive good that she would not have otherwise had.