Some time passed. David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, ‘O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?’ Amnon said to him, ‘I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.’ Jonadab said to him, ‘Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, “Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.”’ So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.’ Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, ‘Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.’ So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, ‘Send out everyone from me.’ So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, ‘Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.’ So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, ‘Come, lie with me, my sister.’ She answered him, ‘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.’ But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she was, he forced her and lay with her. Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get out!’ But she said to him, ‘No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.’ But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, ‘Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her.’ …So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went. Her brother Absalom said to her, ‘Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.’ So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house. When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar.
We are meant to notice the awful behaviour of the boys. Amnon’s rape of Tamar inspires Absalom’s deceitful behaviour in 2 Samuel 13:23-38. Both die deaths worthy of their behaviour. Sin leads to death. That’s what we are meant to notice. ‘Boys will be boys.’ Male leaders might grab women ‘by the whatever’, but ultimately, one day, they will suffer because of it. In the days of #metoo and increased awareness of the importance of safe sacred spaces for children and vulnerable adults, the traditional way of looking at this passage grates. The traditional view no longer holds life-giving water.
Notice how King David does nothing. He’s like a minister not reporting a matter to the church’s safeguarding officer. Worse, his palace is like the church without a safeguarding officer. Or an Eldership which never reviews its policy (if it has one). Tamar is groomed for sex against her will, and King David does nothing to protect her or give her justice. The only one who does act – her brother Absalom – tells Tamar to be quiet.
Now – forget the privileged men and notice Tamar. In this story, we see her cooking and helping her brother who she thought was ill. In the whole Bible, we only have record of Tamar speaking twice – refusing sex and again after the rape. She shows concern for him, for Israel, and for herself. But Tamar’s words are not heeded, and she is raped. Her body is violated. Her future is wrecked. In her culture, shame is heaped upon her. She rips up her robe and puts ashes on her head. She was in full blown lament over being raped when she runs to her brother Absalom for help. He tells her to be quiet. Having been silenced by rape and a command, she “remained a desolate woman”, presumably forced to lament in secrecy.
Tamar’s question echoes unanswered even now. Where could she carry her shame?
Holy God, Help us to make our church communities safer places for everyone. Help us to be vigilant regarding our Safeguarding practices. Help us to not ignore the Tamars of the world when they seek support or justice. And God, for those who understand Tamar’s pain all too well, give courage, justice, and restoration. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen
The Rev’d Angela Rigby is minister at Christ Church URC Tonbridge and St Johns Hill URC Sevenoaks.