When I first read about the rape of Tamar, I was astonished. This tragic story of a beautiful princess — sexually violated by her half-brother and then betrayed by her powerful father — left me aghast. What could I do with this troubling tale, tucked among pages of scripture where I sought spiritual guidance?
Throughout my life in the church, I had never heard the name “Tamar.” No reference to this daughter of King David. No remembrance of her profound suffering and grief.
It’s not an easy story to hear, especially within the biblical narrative of God’s love and providential care for God’s people. It’s like a well-guarded family secret no one dares mention, as if it might swell into a crushing typhoon, leaving devastation in its wake. Following tradition, I hoped not to encounter Tamar’s story again.
If shunning the ancient biblical story of Tamar is all too easy, avoiding news of unrelenting violence against women is becoming harder. In the U.S., about one in four women has been the victim of serious physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Worldwide, the figure is nearly one in three.
The statistics reflect devastating personal stories like those of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Jessica Gonzales), whose estranged, abusive husband abducted their three young daughters in violation of a restraining order. Despite her repeated pleas, police failed to intervene—until the man opened fire on the police department, police shot back and killed him, and the girls’ slain bodies were found in his truck. Jessica’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that she had no constitutional right to enforcement of the restraining order.
As a human rights professional, I have long considered domestic violence the most ubiquitous human rights violation. Studies show that it occurs across lines of nationality, culture, race, and class. American Christian communities feel the impact, as indicated by the testimony of survivors and ministers.
As people of faith, we should not shrink from the difficult truth of this pervasive injustice that affects our communities. We should seek to confront the reality of the broken world in which we participate and pray for opportunities to be part of Christ’s redemptive work of healing and justice.
Why, then, when one-fourth of U.S. women suffers violent abuse at home, do we not see more Christian leaders joining the movement to end violence against women? Why do we rarely (if ever) hear sermons about domestic violence?
One humble beginning may simply be greater honesty about what we are witnessing — in our communities, the news, and in our sacred text. Confrontation with evil does not come easily, but it is a choice available to us — one made less daunting when we can trust in the immeasurable love of God, who is Mother and Father to us all.
Return with me, if you will, to Tamar’s story. Tamar, the young royal princess, wears a distinctive robe, “a sign of favor and special affection.” She lives in a world where her powerful father and brothers hold sway over her, but have responsibility to protect her. Tamar has abundant privilege, yet little power.
Tamar is obedient, trusting, and kind. When her father instructs her to help her ailing half-brother, Amnon, she goes and cooks for him. When Amnon bids her to bring food to his room, dutifully she goes, unaware that he has schemed and lied in order to get her alone, because he is obsessed with desire for her (2 Samuel 13:7-11).
When Amnon seizes and crudely propositions Tamar, she responds with an emphatic triple “No”:
No, my brother, do not force me;
for such a thing is not done in Israel;
do not do anything so vile!
– 2 Samuel 13:11-12
She wisely anticipates the harm his crime would cause: “As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel” (2 Samuel 13:13a).
But Amnon, the crown prince, ignores Tamar’s pleas and overpowers her, hurting and humiliating the one he was charged to protect. After raping Tamar, he has her thrown into the street (2 Samuel 13:14-18).
Beware the suspicious claim that Amnon loves Tamar. His selfish and cruel behavior is the very antithesis of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Violent abuse can never trace its origins to love. Instead, violence expresses lust for power and control — an unjustifiable desire to dominate another person made in the image of God.
When I witness what happened to the biblical Tamar and to Jessica Lenahan, my body aches with pity and grief. I moan prayers of lament that have no words. I struggle to wrap my heart around these stories.
There is no forgetting the alarming reality of domestic violence, which has besieged so many women in the ancient world and in ours. The bell of consciousness cannot be unrung. One must move forward to confront this deeply uncomfortable truth.
Unlike harmful foreign cultural practices we readily (and perhaps rightly) condemn, domestic violence is undeniably an American problem, too. If one out of four women in the U.S. is affected, how many in our local communities?
Tamar expresses her profound grief by tearing her robe, putting ashes on her head, and wailing aloud. Her brother Absalom realizes what’s happened. She feels the momentary relief of sharing the burdensome truth — before he tells her to “be quiet for now” (2 Samuel 13:19-20).
Tamar’s father becomes “very angry” (2 Samuel 13:21) but refuses to punish his beloved son Amnon. One scholar reflects on King David’s incomprehensible passivity:
Certainly, the David who dispatched Goliath, slew his tens of thousands, took the foreskins of two hundred Philistines, conquered the Ammonites,… would muster some pointed response to an act of brutality within his own household. But it was not to be…
From David we hear no word of compassion for his devastated daughter. Tamar remains desolate. She does not see truth brought to light or her abuser called to account.
Jessica Lenahan also found justice elusive after the highest court in our land denied her a remedy. Then she pursued her case before an international human rights body, which found that the U.S. had failed to act with due diligence to protect Jessica and her daughters, thereby violating their human rights. At last, authorities acknowledged the injustice she’d suffered and implored our government to do more about domestic violence.
Mournfully, there was no justice in this life for Tamar. The unresolved pathos of her story transcends millennia to startle us awake. If we long for a cathartic ending, we have abundant opportunities to begin writing one in our own churches and communities. The work of justice and healing begs to be embraced.
Pastor J. Alfred Smith, Sr., frames the call to action poignantly:
Who will pray with Tamar and stand by her side as she screams for justice? Do you remember that Tamar is your daughter, your granddaughter, your sister, your niece, blood of your blood and bone of your bone?
Tamar’s story is rightly sacred. It speaks a truth we are reluctant to hear. May our response to it, and to every Tamar we meet, be holy and just.