King David may have been a man “after God’s own heart,” but his family life was dysfunctional at best. I’ve heard the story of his affair with Bathsheba mentioned in sermons fairly often. However, the story of his daughter’s rape by one of his sons, and his own complicity in it, rarely gets mentioned.
Princess Tamar appears briefly in the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 13. The text only tells us that she was beautiful and that her half-brother Amnon was obsessed with her (he claims to “love” her). Amnon was heir to David’s throne. Even though Tamar was a princess, her status couldn’t compare with Amnon’s within David’s court. So Amnon has an easy time engineering a situation in which he can get Tamar alone. Amnon enlists the help of Jonadab, a courtier, who concocts a scheme in which Tamar must go to Amnon’s room to “care” for him.
No sooner does Amnon get Tamar alone than he “seizes” her. The Hebrew verb here is hazaq, which is the root that the noun “strength” comes from as well. He literally overpowers her–both physically and socially through his position as heir to the throne.
Tamar’s protest is one of the most plaintive and evocative passages in the Old Testament. Tamar knows that what is happening to her is wrong, but she has no power to freeze the action. Courageously, she protests to Amnon anyway. She cleverly refers to Amnon as “my brother,” appealing to the taboo against incest, and claims that “such a thing is not done in Israel.” She calls his action a nebalah, which literally means a “senseless thing.” She accurately describes the rape as a senseless act of violence.
But the most moving point of her appeal is this question:
And I, where will I carry my shame?
Tamar know that the rape, even though it is not her fault, will be a burden that she alone will bear. She, not Amnon, will pay the price of the violation of her physical and emotional space.
What she says doesn’t matter to Amnon. He rapes her anyway.
Immediately after the rape, Amnon feels only hate for Tamar, whereas before the rape, he claimed that he “loved” her. Here, the biblical writers perceptively anticipate what modern psychology tells us about rape: Sexual assault is not about sexual desire or love. It’s about power. And when the rapist has exhausted their thirst for power over the victim, the victim can be discarded. Accordingly Amnon sends Tamar away screaming.
Tamar takes her lament to the halls of David’s palace. She lets her grief, fear, and maybe even rage be heard. Absalom, another of her brothers and supposedly her ally, intercepts her and immediately knows what has happened. (We ask ourselves, how did he know? And if Absalom knew that Amnon was a threat, why didn’t he act sooner?) But instead of helping her, Absalom responds first with these words:
King David is no better. David is angry when he hears that his son has raped his daughter, but he does not punish Amnon because Amnon is his firstborn and his heir.
The rape sets the course of Tamar’s life. She remains a shomemah, literally a “desolated woman,” all the days of her life. The social stigma of rape buries Tamar in a shame from which, at least according to what the biblical text tells of her, she never escapes.
Tamar’s story is terribly difficult to read, but I’m grateful it’s in the Old Testament. The story bears witness to the story of a woman whose experience is similar to that of many women even today. Just as Amnon, Absalom, and David ultimately collude to silence Tamar–even though at least Absalom is ostensibly well-meaning–so many women today find themselves silenced if they dare to speak up about the sexual violence they’ve experienced.
Tamar doesn’t get “justice.” Even the death of Amnon (which, by the way, happens at Absalom’s hands just a bit later in the story) can’t restore her wholeness. But in telling the story of Tamar today, we can literally begin to re-member her…to return her body to her again.
And if we can re-member Tamar, maybe we can re-member ourselves, too.