We Can't Turn Away From Tamar's Story

Jennifer Davis Sensenig

By Jennifer Davis Sensenig

Why is this even in the Bible? It’s terrible. Amnon’s rape of his half sister Tamar (II Samuel 13:1–22) is part of King David’s family story. I don’t like this episode. Yet I’m grateful to God that we have this account of a rape and family violence.

Although originating in an ancient patriarchal context and compromised by ruthless competition within a royal dynasty, this story exposes dynamics of sexualized violence and abuse that affect lives in our families and our church today.

I’m also grateful that this experience became part of our Bible, because as a pastor I hear the cries of persons who have been violated in these ways, whose survival, recovery, and healing progresses in fits and starts, whose view of themselves and of God has been distorted by sins against them that were no fault of their own. I need the ashes on Tamar’s head, her torn garment, and her public cry to begin my own lament and shape my ministry with Tamar’s surviving spiritual descendants. 

But it’s still a tough story. Consider King David and his wives. Ahinoam was King David’s first-place wife and mother of Amnon—David’s firstborn son—the crown prince of Israel. Maacah, another wife, was mother of Absalom (David’s favorite son) and Tamar. There was also Michal, daughter of King Saul; Abigail, widow of Nabal; three more wives from Jerusalem; a crowd of concubines; and the wife David took through lust, deception, and lethal force:  Bathsheba.  The story of King David and Bathsheba immediately precedes the story of Amnon raping his half sister, Tamar. In broad strokes, the Biblical message here is: like father, like son. 

In the episode with Amnon and Tamar, the request for a meal becomes a pretext for taking sexual advantage. Tamar’s dutiful care for her sick brother is manipulated and used against her. The ethics of serving a meal and caring for the sick are eroded. The pleasures of eating and touching are distorted.  Spurred on by Jonadab, Amnon’s consuming, frustrating lust and entitlement becomes a toxic, violent weapon. He uses his own body against his sister, and then his lust turns to loathing and he drives Tamar out. 

Do we turn away from this episode? Can we walk away from topics like sexualized violence and child abuse? Shall we run away from families or institutions that have failed to redress this kind of injustice?  Sometimes turning away, walking away, or running away is how we survive. Still, I believe God gives us this story so that when we’re ready, when it’s safe to do so, we can read it in light of Jesus and have our eyes opened. 

What I’ve seen in this story can be summarized in a few points:

First, friendships between men that objectify women create a culture in which rape becomes thinkable, actionable. Jonadab, a first cousin to Amnon and Tamar, is no innocent bystander. Jonadab doesn’t suggest rape, but he advises deceiving the king to get permission for time alone with Tamar and manipulating Tamar into a situation in which she has little power and no protection.

Men Can Stop Rape, whose mission is to create cultures free from sexual assault, has a campaign called “Where do you stand?” They offer practical ways for men to interrupt risky situations and help women who may be targets for sexual assault.

Here are a few of their poster slogans:

When Nicole couldn’t lose that drunk guy, I called her cell to give her an out. When Karl kept harassing girls on the street, I said:  Stop being a jerk. 

When Jason wouldn’t leave Mary alone, I said:  She’s not into you anymore.  Let it go. 

When Kate seemed too drunk to leave with Chris, I checked in with her. 

Where do you stand? Are you the kind of guy who takes a stand to prevent sexual assault?

According to the Bible, Amnon is responsible for this crime, but Jonadab is implicated too. Men cannot be bystanders when their male friends are consumed with lust or acting as if they are entitled to sexual dominance over women or girls. 

Second, women are safer when they know their rights and use their voices. Amnon got Tamar alone and forced himself on her.  She insists that Amnon simply ask their father the king for permission to marry her. Tamar’s protest is hard for us to understand, since today we have a much stronger prohibition against half siblings marrying. Israel had laws against marrying someone so closely related, but either Israel wasn’t paying attention to the law, or the royal family believed they were above the law.  

Tamar calls Amnon to account using cultural taboo, the authority of their father the king, her potential suffering, and his reputation. Listen to Tamar: “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile!  As for me, where could I carry my shame?  And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” While using her voice did not prevent the rape, Tamar’s testimony emboldens subsequent generations to raise our collective voices to prevent sexual violence and abuse. Church sexual abuse prevention programs and child protection policies have their roots in Tamar’s testimony. 

Eighty percent of U.S. women who report sexual assaults know the perpetrator. Also, more than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. Though Tamar was beautiful, knew Amnon, prepared food for him, and went to his bedside, this was not Tamar’s fault. No means no. Today, women always have the right to consent.  Consent cannot be given by girls who are underage or by women who are drugged, intoxicated, or fearing for their safety. 

Third, this incident exposes a larger pattern of violence. The Bible says there were 14 generations from King David to the Babylonian exile and 14 generations from the exile to Jesus. It took 28 generations until a son of David, that is Jesus the Messiah, categorically renounced violence! Today, many generations since Christ have been refusing violence. Peace churches expose violence, lament it, protest it, prevent it, and heal the resulting trauma. We are willing to speak the truth and seek peace, even if it is costly. Still, regarding sexualized violence our churches have a long way to go. 

Though Absalom minimized Tamar’s trauma, King David did nothing to address the spiral of violence in his family and nation. When families of origin or church families inflict this kind of abuse on one another, when families and church families look the other way, cover it up, or do nothing—like King David—we perpetuate these sins. Victims, perpetrators, and bystanders are wounded all over again.  

Jesus Christ sees each of us as a beloved child of God, whether we have been abused or abused others, whether we are implicated bystanders or leaders who failed to act. Jesus knows our broken bodies and bleeding wounds as his own, for we are God’s children and the body of Christ. 

Through Christ, Tamar’s story offers hope for healing, justice, and love. With her face smeared with ashes, her clothing ceremoniously torn, and her wail in the streets, Tamar publicly denounces the violent touch by her brother, so that healing can begin, justice can be pursued, and love restored. Two years after the rape, Absalom has Amnon killed. Tamar’s story appears to end as a “desolate woman” in Absalom’s house. Does one find safety in the house of an avenging brother? The Bible does not cover up or forget this spiral of sexual predation and family violence. Tamar’s name and testimony lives on. Listen to the narrator’s comment about Tamar’s brother Absalom’s family: There were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman (II Sam 14:27).

Tamar means palm tree, a symbol of justice in the Jewish tradition, particularly the justice that women require and create. Biblically we know a Tamar who swindled her father-in-law into keeping his promises and giving her the marital and economic justice she needed (Genesis 38). There is tamar, the palm tree, associated with Deborah, who sitting beneath the palm to establish community justice judged Israel before there were kings (Judges 4–5). 

We know Tamar, daughter of David, for whom justice was denied. And finally, there is a next generation Tamar, niece of the survivor. In our Biblical family tree, the beautiful Tamar refuses to be silent. She is hope for a generation free from sexual violence.

This is adapted from a sermon Jennifer Davis Sensenig delivered at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.