Stories of women experiencing rape and sexual abuse cut to our souls. Being female, many of us personally know women who have been sexually abused. We may have been abused ourselves, and many have endured sexual abuse as children. This violation is often compounded with the silence that accompanies the experience because of the shame attached to the victim. In contrast, we have an Old Testament story where a brother’s love, honor, and cherishing of his violated sister capture God’s own heart for victims of abuse, challenging our own attitudes of pretending that the abuse does not exist or even of blaming the victims.
The poignant story of Tamar, daughter of King David, is recorded in 2 Samuel 13. Tamar, a beautiful virgin, had been sent to her half-brother Amnon’s house by their father, David, who is taken in by Amnon’s elaborate charade that he is ill and would be cheered up by a visit from his half-sister and a special meal. When Tamar arrives, Amnon dismisses his household, grabs Tamar, and asks her to sleep with him. Tamar refuses. She emphasizes that it would bring her disgrace and that his reputation, too, would be at stake. She pleads with him to speak to the king, so that if Amnon really desires her, the king might give his consent to their marriage. “But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her” (2 Sam 13: 14).
Rape is not the victim’s fault.
Why is Tamar raped? Because she is beautiful. Because Amnon is unwilling to give up his obsession with her. Because Amnon’s shrewd cousin connives to help his patron get what he wants. Because David is inattentive and can’t read his son or protect his daughter. The Biblical record never suggests that Tamar is to be blamed in any way. Rather, Amnon alone is culpable, inflamed by his feelings for her.
“Since he was stronger than she, he raped her” — a physically, emotionally, and psychologically traumatic experience is recorded in half a sentence. Once Amnon rapes Tamar, he feels a great loathing for her , in fact “he hated her more than he had loved her.” He has her thrown out of his house. Tamar tries to tell him that sending her away is worse than the rape. She may have preferred a wedding and social acceptance rather than the humiliation of a public scandal and enforced singleness and shunning. Having satiated himself, Amnon does not care that Tamar will pay the consequences of his actions. The “in-love”-ness he professed proves to be a fleeting physical passion. Tamar is now no longer marriageable. Her lack of culpability is irrelevant. While most young girls of her time would expect to be married and have families of their own, Tamar’s rape guaranteed that she would permanently remain “a desolate woman.”
People’s reactions (including the attitudes of those who matter to us) can hurt and disappoint us.
In this situation, David does not shine as a wise and fair father. Although furious with Amnon for raping Tamar, we have no record of David punishing or even reprimanding him. Did Tamar feel betrayed, abandoned by a powerful parent who was supposed to protect her? Did she realize the bitter truth that protecting Amnon meant more to her dad than ensuring justice for her — that the perpetrator was loved more and so a blind eye would be turned? She hears the deafening sound of silence from the person whom we would naturally expect to defend her.
Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, nurses his anger at Amnon’s crime, biding his time until an opportune moment comes along to get rid of Amnon. David’s inaction and seeming tolerance of the rape contribute to Amnon’s violent death.
God’s intervention can occur through unexpected people
We might empathize with Absalom’s fury at Amnon for disgracing his sister. We may be uncomfortable that he takes matters into his own hands and has Amnon killed. If we know of him at all, we remember him as the hotshot who tries to usurp the throne of his father David. But immediately after the rape, when Tamar is heartsick and bruised, the person who mirrors God’s heart is Absalom. Absalom takes Tamar into his house and cares for her. He does this even before David gets to hear what had happened. He feels responsible for her and makes provision for her. Absalom does not abandon Tamar to fend for herself. Through the pain of Tamar’s story, we get a cameo of the complexity of human life.
David is “a man after God’s heart,” and yet makes grave errors of judgment.
An arrogant youth — the anti-hero in the broader story — still makes honorable choices that few would think to make.
A hedonist remains unrepentant and unpunished.
And a privileged but powerless girl’s life is irrevocably changed.
Absalom takes Tamar under his wing, not caring a whit about what other people might think. He is compassionate and provides what she needs in this unspeakable time.
The sexually violated are not persons of diminished value.
In contrast to our own reticence to flaunt socially shameful associations, this three-thousand-year-old story celebrates Tamar and refuses to hide her away. Tamar didn’t live in seclusion in the remote countryside getting occasional visits compelled by duty. Although she would not be able to marry and have children, she was affirmed, loved, and honored in her brother’s house. Not only was Tamar kept in the bosom of her family, but she was also honored when Absalom had a baby daughter and named her after his sister. Little Tamar, it is recorded, grew up to be a beautiful young woman, too. Even though Tamar’s hopes were dashed, she had love, security, and acceptance in her brother’s home. She could live without feeling that she was a social outcast.
Absalom’s naming gesture was quite astonishing at the time. Envision the folks at little Tamar’s name-giving ceremony being scandalized that she is to be called Tamar too. Can you imagine the tongues wagging? “Isn’t that the name of his sister…. you know the one who was…they say it was rape…”. Absalom permanently links his sister and his daughter. He doesn’t feel the need to shield his daughter from people’s curiosity and gossip.
Why is naming the child after the aunt a big deal? Primarily it is an affirmation of Tamar as a treasured sister. This person — the odd one out at family gatherings, the object of pity and curiosity — is shown in a real and tangible way that she is still important and of value. She is regarded so highly that out of all possible names that Absalom could have chosen, her name must be picked. It gives some dignity back to her. It is a reminder that her intrinsic worth has not diminished despite other painful and deep losses. Despite his many faults, Absalom treats his sister with compassion. And it signals to everyone else that although her life has been irrevocably changed, Tamar is still esteemed by her closest relative — someone who has chosen to have her in the heart of his family.
Little Tamar probably gave much-needed joy to Tamar. Her aunt likely helped take care of her and enjoyed playing with her. Perhaps the niece grew up to have a close relationship with her aunt. Maybe Tamar found a measure of surrogate motherhood because of little Tamar. Yet we do not forget that the last words describing Absalom’s beautiful sister are that Tamar remained “a desolate woman” even in her brother’s house.
We need to move from shaming to cherishing
Living in a sexually open culture, while empathizing with Tamar, we might feel that this story is quaint, unable to relate to the standards of her day. But for most of the following three thousand years — including parts of the world today — a girl’s loss of virginity before marriage (whatever the reason) has been a cause of shame and social stigma. Yet far too often we have not thought of the personal cost that victims of abuse have borne, living with the consequences of the decisions and actions of others. In the United States about 1 in 5 women have been raped in her lifetime. Sexual assault is a reality for women in other countries, too. Apart from sexual violence women experience in personal situations (including domestic abuse), there is the more organized aspect of using sexual violence against women. Sexual exploitation is a dimension of human trafficking both in the United States and around the globe. In the United States alone, each year 325, 000 children are at risk of being commercially exploited. In armed conflicts, mass rape has been deliberately used as a weapon of war to physically and psychologically humiliate the enemy and was internationally recognized as a war crime and a crime against humanity only in the mid 90’s. The victim bears both the private trauma and the public shame. We refuse to see, rendering victims invisible. If we do see, we are silent, unwilling to get involved.
How do we lift this veil of invisibility and stand with those who have been abused? Very recently, social media was awash with many women publicly acknowledging that “they too” have been victims of sexual abuse, drawing strength from one another, recognizing that they are not alone. We can be available for our friend to get her story off her chest. We can interact in a way that helps her feel understood rather than feel we are laying some of the blame on her. Sometimes all we need to offer might be silent empathy, not doing anything but just being there — “mourning with those who mourn.”
We can financially support projects that help women who have escaped sexual exploitation to earn their living, perhaps by buying their handmade jewelry or other handcrafts. We can even, Absalom-like, extend a symbolic gesture that helps the Tamar in our own circle to feel wonderfully affirmed and valued — godmother to your daughter? Bridesmaid at your wedding? The friend you invite to be your regular coffee partner or lunch companion? The one who gets to drop by your apartment without notice? Large or small gestures can signify that our friend matters to us, that we are not embarrassed to be associated with them, and that they are important in our lives.
Whether we have never been abused or survived abuse ourselves, let’s offer words of healing to those bruised by sexual assault:
“This should not have happened to you. It is not your fault. I am here for you.”