Tamar Too

Read: 2 Samuel 13:1-22

So Tamar took the cakes that 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…” But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her (2 Samuel 13:10b-12, 14 NRSV).

If you’re a fan of scary movies, you’ll recognize that moment when the danger seems to be past—but isn’t. Just as the audience breathes a sigh of relief, the monster jumps out and things are even worse than before.

That’s a bit like what happens at the beginning of 2 Samuel 13. We think the worst is over, but it isn’t. In fact, this scary story is just getting started. And if you are triggered by sexual violence, you may want to give this story a pass.

It’s important to keep the characters straight. First, we meet David’s son, Absalom, and his beautiful sister, Tamar. Next, we meet their half-brother, Amnon, who is first in line for the throne and thoroughly smitten with his half-sister, Tamar. To modern ears, this sounds creepy, and even in an ancient context it is one of the story’s first hints that there is something “off” about Amnon’s love-sick state. If we have any sympathy for his torment, however, it evaporates when Amnon cooks up a plot to get his sister alone.

Pretending to be ill, Amnon tricks their father into sending Tamar to his home to “make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.”

So far, so ominous. But bear in mind that Tamar knows nothing about Amnon’s scheme. At her father’s order, she goes to bake the requested cakes—probably in the courtyard where Amnon could see her from his fake sickbed. He then sends everyone else away and orders her to bring the cakes into his private chamber.

All ambiguity goes out the window when he takes hold of her and says, “Come lie with me, my sister.” With amazing presence of mind, she both refuses him and manages to spare his fragile ego. Her suggestion that he “speak to the king…for he will not withhold me from you,” says nothing about how she feels about this alternative, but it does attempt to buy time. Tragically, he refuses to listen, and rapes her.

Amnon’s lust suddenly turns to loathing, and he orders her to “get out.” What Tamar says in response may be surprising to those of us reading this story “ages and ages hence.” Bear in mind, however, that even as a king’s daughter, she would have had very few options in such a situation. Her society had no respectable place for women who were neither virgins nor wives. So, she confronts him and says, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” Her plea falls on deaf ears, however, and with brusque brutality he orders his servant to “Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.”

This woman—as if she is nothing more to him than some random stranger. As if she is no better than a bag of garbage.

Tamar doesn’t have many options at this point, but one has to admire her decision to go public with what has happened. Anyone watching her making her way back home would have understood that something was very, very wrong.

Her full brother, Absalom, sees this immediately. But notice how quickly he asks, “Has Amnon your brother been with you?” What makes him jump to this conclusion so quickly? Had his instincts warned him of Amnon’s evil intentions? If so, what does that say about David’s instincts? One has to wonder if David’s devotion to this first-born son—and the heir apparent—may have blunted his ability to see the danger in his own household. Within the space of one chapter the prophet Nathan’s words about “trouble from within your own house” have already come true (12:11). But let’s return to Tamar….

Tamar has already been betrayed by one brother; now she is betrayed by another. Instead of jumping to her defense, her full brother Absalom simply says, “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.”

Do not take this to heart?!  These words must have been almost as brutal for Tamar as Amnon’s attack. Even if we as readers are let in on the fact that Absalom is plotting revenge, Tamar knows nothing of this. All she hears is: Be quiet. Don’t take it to heart. And this from someone whom she trusted to be her defender. Is it any wonder she “remained a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house”?

This is one of the most brutal stories in the Bible. It’s so brutal that we hardly ever hear about it. And yet, if we look beyond the brutality, we see a woman of courage, intelligence, and incredibly dignity. We also hear a voice reaching out across the centuries saying, “Me too.”

Ponder: Why are so many victims of sexual violence betrayed by people to whom they go for help?

Pray: Trail wide the hem of your garment, O God. Bring healing. Bring peace.