Tamar

When There Is No Justice in Scripture: The Rape of Tamar

Francis Wong Chee Yen / Shutterstock.com
Photo via Francis Wong Chee Yen / Shutterstock.com

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.

Hearing Tamar: The Role of Guns in Domestic Violence

Keys, a Bible, and a gun. Image courtesy Jorge R. Gonzalez/shutterstock.com.
Keys, a Bible, and a gun. Image courtesy Jorge R. Gonzalez/shutterstock.com.

It is frightening to consider that within the context of violence against women, little has progressed since the time of the Old Testament. Currently, 1-in-3 U.S. women will experience intimate partner violence throughout her lifetime. Even more frightening is that every month, 46 women are killed by an intimate partner with a gun.

Americans across partisan, personal, and religious lines are divided on the role of the Second Amendment in the public square. Yet no matter ones’ stance on gun control procedures, one fact transcends opinion: women are at a higher risk for intimate partner gun violence than men.

From 2001 through 2012, 6,410 women were murdered in the United States by an intimate partner using a gun — more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. The rate at which domestic violence turns to murder is a harsh reality — and when a domestic abuser has a gun, a victim is 12 times more likely to die than when the abuser doesn’t.

Make Way for the Female Antihero: TV Takes a Page from the Bible

'Orange Is the New Black' cast, photo via Netflix
'Orange Is the New Black' cast, photo via Netflix

These days, female television characters can almost do it all. But we, the media consumers and producers, are still deciding if we should let them make mistakes, too.

And I don’t mean just the I-dated-the-wrong-handsome-doctor mistakes, or the I’m-an-overprotective-mother mistakes. I mean the type of mistakes that warrant the label of antihero. Merriam-Webster defines an antihero as “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.” Over the past several years, TV has become saturated with male antiheroes. Breaking Bad made a meth dealer Emmy gold, and Dexter garnered a cult following behind a sociopathic vigilante. But hey, boys will be boys.

Girls will be girls, too, if we let them. And girls aren’t always perfect. John Landgraf, president of FX, says it’s much harder to find acceptance for the female antihero: “It's fascinating to me that we just have really different, and I think, a more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society.”

The Biblical Imperative to Speak Out on Sexual Violence and Keep Our Churches Safe

Church doors,  thanunkorn / Shutterstock.com
Church doors, thanunkorn / Shutterstock.com

We have learned from the crisis at Penn State University and other incidents that have gained national attention that it is not only religious authorities that turn a blind eye to abuses of power. The educational, legal, social service, and policing systems are broken when it comes to protecting children, and others who are vulnerable, from abuse.

Lest we forget our history and think that this is a uniquely 20th and 21st century problem, we need only turn to the Bible. In II Samuel, we are reminded that abuses of power, lust, and rage have always been part of the human experience.

An incident described II Samuel happens not in a religious or educational institution but in a family. It is not an isolated incident; it does not develop out of thin air. It is a case of “like father, like son.” Amnon’s father is King David, who in II Samuel 11, sees Bathsheba bathing and uses his power to have her brought to him so that he may “lay” with her.

It is only two chapters later that we read that Amnon, David’s son, is tormented by the beauty of his half-sister, Tamar. Amnon does not have the authority that his father David has, so he must use trickery instead of sheer power to get what he wants. After Amnon violently “lays” with Tamar, he is filled with hatred for her and forces her to leave his sight. In doing this, he shames her even further.

The scandal is not just that Amnon violates Tamar and the law of Israel, but when Tamar cries and ritually mourns her pain and disgrace she is told to be quiet. Her brother Absalom tells her to stop brooding over the episode. And while Absalom and their father, King David, are angry with Amnon for what he has done to Tamar, neither David nor Absalom even talks to Amnon about it. David does not punish his beloved firstborn son.

Perhaps one positive thing we can say about this story is that Tamar has a name; she is not anonymous like so many other powerless women in biblical stories. Tamar is named and remembered.

To Protect and To Heal

OVER DINNER my friends and I reflected recently on the headlines that surprised us last year. A few were especially painful: former Rep. Todd Akin's comment that "legitimate" rapes do not lead to pregnancies; failed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comment that a pregnancy from rape is "something that God intended to happen"; and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), in effect since 1994, ending as the 112th Congress closed without reauthorizing it. All reminded me why the second edition of The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response, by Pamela Cooper-White, is still needed almost 20 years since its first edition.

The Cry of Tamar reads as a graduate textbook on providing pastoral support for the victims of violence against women. It weaves pastoral counseling methods and social and psychological theories in dialogue with biblical exegesis and constructive theology to give clergy, pastoral caregivers, and religious leaders tools to help victims of violence and the larger Christ-community.

The story of Tamar, a girl raped 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem, frames and guides the book's goal of providing healing to the girls and women who are victims of violence today.

Advocacy, prevention, and intervention to stop violence against women have advanced since the 1995 first edition. Religious communities and congregations have become more informed about how to care and respond to both victims and perpetrators. But the need for increased awareness and education is ongoing. This second edition is an effort to update the conversation and keep it on the table.

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Love in Action on Valentine's Day

TAMAR’S LIFE COULD have been different. A princess of David’s kingdom, she would have married into a wealthy family. But that all changed with the only recorded event of her life, described in 2 Samuel 13: A family member forced himself on her, then turned her out of his room. She cried aloud for all to hear, but the one person who did hear, her brother Absalom, counseled her to not take what happened “to heart.”

Rarely preached from the pulpit, this is a story that needs to be heard, because what happened to Tamar happens to one in three women and girls today. They are our mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, selves—women and girls harmed by violence and silence. Worldwide, violence against women and girls takes many forms: sexual violence, sexual harassment, trafficking, “honor killings,” and other forms of murder. Such violence distorts the image of God that is in all of humanity. Victimization is never God’s will—fullness of life is. The church needs to help create intentional safe spaces so that healing can begin.

On Feb. 14, 2013, a movement of grassroots, national, and international organizations in more than 170 countries will take part in One Billion Rising, a day of action to reveal the collective strength and solidarity of those who demand an end to violence against women. Initiated by V-Day, the advocacy group founded by Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, this event invites the world to rise up to stop violence toward women and girls.

The One Billion Rising day of action is an opportunity for the church and faith communities to begin or continue the healing process. And, along with groups and leaders from diverse faith traditions, some Christian groups from around the world have answered the call. For example, in the Philippines, about 50 bishops from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente have pledged to support and join the day of action, a spokesperson for One Billion Rising told Sojourners.

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Say It Ain't So, David

King David (left, by Paul Reubens) and Joe Paterno (coaching in 2010)
King David (left, by Paul Reubens) and Joe Paterno (coaching in 2010)

Abuse of physical strength and power hasn’t been limited to the locker rooms at Penn State. Nor is it limited to middle-aged men. It's in every culture, every city and state, and in every generation. And, I might add, it is both wicked and foolish.

I think we’ve been given enough examples of such abuse being handled incorrectly—to be swept under the rug instead of dealt with directly. The silence of witnesses only allows the abuse to continue. When I spoke with Daniel Walker, author of the new book God in a Brothel, about child slavery and prostitution, he noted that the men who oppress women and children don’t need to be ministered to as much as they need to be held accountable.

Joe Pa, 84, who had coached at Penn State for more than 45 years, has been fired, and the university’s president has resigned over the abuse scandal. Both actions were reactive responses to a problem that really needed proactive intervention.

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