2 Samuel 13:1-22

I was looking up the daily readings appointed in the Oremus Lectionary for today, and the first is 2 Samuel 13:1-22. I haven’t had a daily reading discipline for some time, and it never seems to last long. Perhaps this time . . . .

Is it a bad omen that this is the passage commonly known as the Rape of Tamar? In brief, Amnon, David’s son, lusts after his half-sister Tamar, and he tricks (by playing ill and demanding he serve him food) and then rapes her. Immediately thereafter, he rejects her, and distrought, she returns to her full-brother Absalom’s house.

Tamar put up struggle and a protest:

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 one of the scoundrels in Israel (2 Sam 13:12-13a, NRSV)

The reader cannot help but feel horror with and for Tamar, and her story has become emblematic for women who have experienced and survived violent assault, especially sexual assault.

I am troubled that Tamar, who appears in this reading and speaks only once, is essentially flushed out of the picture once Absalom vindicates her by murdering Amnon (in tomorrow’s reading). But this is the Bible, and characters move through it faster than would-be stars in a casting director’s office.

But perhaps she does speak, figuratively, in this passage a second time. After she is put out of Amnon’s house, Tamar “put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe she was wearing [a sign of the virgin daughters of the king] and went away, crying aloud as she went.” (v. 19)

Today, we can understand her crying. But did the neighbors then?

I have to read Tamar’s act of mourning both as a psalm of lament to God, and a cry for justice to other people, in this case her family. And was she willing to be exposed to a double portion of shame — both private and public — so that she might overcome it? Of course, an answer would be speculation and probably projection. But knowing that women are and were raped, and that persons in general are attacked and violated every moment, I have to give the biblical compliers come credit for not burying this episode “for her sake,” or worse, for Amnon’s.

I am slightly — just slightly — disappointed that this passage is not included in the Revised Common Lectionary, the ecumenical “reading list” for Sunday worship used in a large number of Protestant churches worldwide. But from a pastoral perspective, I would not want to teach from this text in the pulpit, where the emotional distance to the pew might isolate and re-traumatize members of the congregation, and, rather than illiciting a healing response, stifle it. But Tamar’s story needs to be told.

And it needs to be told as far as the end of the next chapter of 2 Samuel, for “there were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman.” A halting, partial vindication of the elder Tamar, for the shame, as all in that household must have confessed, was not her’s.

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