The story of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13) is one of the most horrifying episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures, arguably second only to the story of the rape, murder and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. These “texts of terror,” a term coined by theologian Phyllis Trible, leave the reader stunned at the least, and potentially triggered at the worst. How can we possibly read such horrific passages spiritually? How can such despicable behavior be part of our sacred Story?
The first thing to remember is that our sacred Story is a checkered one. It reflects the stark and often cruel reality of the human condition. The key is to read each episode as being in the context of the broad arc of God’s relationship with Creation—a relationship that progresses toward reconciliation in fits and starts from the very beginning; one step forward, sometimes five steps back. And in this passage we are currently in a dizzying backward swing.
So how to read this story? One possible option is to avert our eyes and pretend it isn’t there. That isn’t too difficult to do, since this is not part of the regular lectionary; there is little chance that you will hear it read or preached on in a Sunday service. But averting our eyes doesn’t make it go away any more than closing our eyes to human suffering makes it cease to exist. No; we need to look more closely, not away, and interrogate the text. What is the writer trying to tell us? And where is God in this story?
Up to this point in the account of David’s life and kingship, if we look closely, we can see that David’s biographers aren’t exactly enamored of their subject. David is light and shadow—a lot of shadow. There are times when David shows humility and love for the God who called him to lead God’s people. But by this point in the reading of Samuel you may have also noticed that a lot of people around David have died violently, and somehow David has avoided responsibility almost every time. Nothing sticks. And in the case of his daughter Tamar, the writer makes quite clear that David is indifferent to what is going on, effectively under his nose. This entire episode precipitates a family tragedy of epic scale, ultimately alienating David’s son Absalom from his father and dividing Israel.
Remember how the Deuteronomist writers made clear that God wanted one thing and one thing only of God’s people—to put God first? Remember how Samuel warned the people that if they got a king they would forget God and regret their decision? This rather sideways portrait of King David and his sons invites us to hear the writer say, “I told you so.”
But what of Tamar? She speaks 82 words as she begs her half-brother to see sense and not do this horrible irrevocable thing. And once it is done, and he recoils from her, she begs him again not to cast her out in disgrace. Just 82 words. But it is her actions that are most eloquent. This young woman, whose life has been effectively ruined by the combined actions of Amnon (rapist), Jonadab (conspirator), Absalom (who tells her to remain silent and waits two years for revenge) and David (willfully ignorant) refuses to accept her fate silently. She tears her garments, puts ashes on her head and wails with grief as she makes her way home from Amon’s chamber. In effect, she demands that the entire community witness to what has happened to her.
Where was God? God was in the ashes Tamar put on her head. God was in her tears. God remains in her testimony read through millennia, and in the testimony of abused and abandoned women everywhere and in every time. This text of terror invites us to hear Tamar’s call for justice and comfort for people like her, and to respond on their behalf.
The inspiration of Scripture isn’t just in the writer. It is also in the reader, if we have ears to hear.