Let Tamar be silenced no longer
The rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13 is horrific, and it is made even more so by the multiple points in the story where the disaster could have been averted. Far from being one act by one guy, the story is filled with other characters, all of whom support or provide the conditions for the rape. Anna Carter Florence’s work on the verbs in 2 Samuel 13 brings this out, and I draw heavily on that in this article. [link]
The story comes comes right on the back of the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and its consequences (1 Sam 11-12). David’s children from other wives have been watching, and they’ve seen him want a woman, take her, and seemingly get away with it. That’s a powerful lesson to a young man or a young woman.
One such young man is Amnon, who falls for his sister (13:1). Young people have misguided feelings all the time, but Amnon lacks self-control. He feeds his obsession, even making himself ill (13:2). We know that this is self-indulgent because he shows no concern for her: we are told that he can’t do anything to her rather than with her (13:2). She is objectified, with no mutuality on view.
On top of the poor example of David and Amnon’s own indiscipline, we also have an indulgent friend. Jonadab is concerned by his friend’s haggard appearance. It seems the way to fix this is to give him what he wants. He hatches a plan with Amnon where he’ll lay down and be ill and ask for Tamar to be brought to him to feed him. He gives Amnon the opportunity to get Tamar alone in his bedroom, and presumably Amnon can figure out the rest.
It happens just as Jonadab predicted. David doesn’t twig that something weird is going on here. Maybe he’s just naive. More likely he doesn’t want to admit that his son is just like him, the kind of man who rapes women. But he delivers his daughter into the hands of her rapist, his son (13:7).
Like Bathsheba, Tamar has no choice but to follow the royal directive. She’s been watching too. Then there’s this weird bit where we’re given all this detail about Tamar’s culinary tasks, which she performs in Amnon’s sight: kneading, making bread, baking (13:8). The suspense builds, along with Amnon’s arousal and Tamar’s dread.
Up to this point we may not have registered that there were bystanders, but then Amnon orders them out of the room, and they leave (13:9). They, like Tamar, like Bathsheba, have no choice. There is a system of royal directives and obedience that keeps them silent.
And so Tamar is left alone with Amnon, just as he and Jonadab schemed. He orders her to feed him, and then he grabs her and makes an invitation: “Come to bed with me, my sister.” Of course, it’s not a real invitation. She clearly tells him no (13:12-13), and his immediate actions show that he had no intention of being refused. He stops and uses his superior strength to force her (13:14).
Amnon’s supposed love for her turns to hatred as soon as he is done with her (13:15). Because this was never about love but about power and control. And so he continues as he began, ordering her out, adding further shame and insecurity to a woman already so gravely wronged (13:15-17).
As this woman’s life lies in ruins, it is clear that this rape was a group effort. Only one man was there at the critical moment, but he got there because of his father’s poor example, his indulgent friend, the passive bystanders, a culture of control and obedience, as well as his own indiscipline and hunger for power. Tamar’s vehement refusal, desperate plea and well-reasoned alternative (13:12-13) stand no chance. Her desecration is almost a foregone conclusion.
Tamar has one last act of courage. She tells her story, wailing it in the corridors (13:19). But even Absalom, the man who later avenges her (13:27-33), wants to hush her up (13:20), putting the onus on her for forbearance (“he is your brother”), and minimising the wrong done to her (“Don’t take this thing to heart”).
A generous reading of Absalom suggests he have been hushing Tamar up in order to wait for the opportune moment to avenge her. However, in the process, he wrests any power that she had from her hands, and makes sure that no other player in this tragedy will have to examine their part in it. After all, if the focus is solely on Amnon, and not on the people and the society that enabled and encouraged him, the problem is easily dealt with.
God is not having that. The way this story has been recorded leaves no doubt that there’s more that contributed to the rape of Tamar than just the sinfulness of Amnon. We can be like David, furious but doing nothing (13:21), or like Absalom, shutting down women’s pain and simplifying the problem. Or we can take heed of how this story is told to us, and examine how we each contribute to it.
Few of us will recognise ourselves as being like control-hungry Amnon, though many of us may recognise the same indiscipline or self-indulgence that needs to be brought into line with the Spirit.
More of us will be aware of how we, like David, set a poor example for our children. The more willing we are to face that, the greater our chances of counteracting it as we repent before them.
We may not consider ourselves like Jonadab, with his crafty and indulgent ways, but we can all cultivate a willingness to say the hard things to call our friends back from sin.
A few of us may have been silent or walked away in a rape situation, fearful for our livelihoods, but many of us will have opportunities to say we don’t find a rape joke funny, though it may cost us social standing.
And all of us can listen to and amplify the voices of women who tell us what has happened to them, recognising this as a prophetic act of bringing sin into the light, where God’s people can work at putting it to death and bringing life instead.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES).