Women in the Bible: TAMAR, Easter 6A 05/21/17

The Story of Tamar
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
Text: 2 Samuel 13
May 21, 2017 ~ Sixth Sunday of Easter
Third in the Series Women in the Bible


In 1984, feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible wrote a book called Texts of Terror. Using the discipline of literary criticism with the hermeneutics of feminism, she reinterprets the tragic Biblical stories of four women in ancient Israel: Hagar (who we heard from last week), an unnamed concubine, the daughter of Jephthah, and the woman we meet today: Tamar. In highlighting the silence, absence, and opposition of God, as well as human cruelty, Trible shows how these neglected texts of terror—interpreted in memoriam—challenge both the misogyny of Scripture and its use in church, synagogue, and academy. [1] It is through that lens that I offer to you some thoughts about Tamar and her story, and what it means for us, for our theology, and for the way we practice our religion.

Tamar was the daughter of King David – the only daughter of his who is named, although given the number of wives and concubines he had, surely she was not his only daughter. But she’s the only daughter of David who was important enough to the tradition to ensure that her name was preserved. Tamar’s brother was Absalom, and their half-brother was Amnon, the firstborn son of David and the heir apparent to David’s kingdom.

Tamar was beautiful, young, obedient, trusting, and kind – in other words, she was appealing in every way. She was also a virgin, which made her even more desirable, particularly to her half-brother Amnon, but she was of course off-limits to him. Amnon’s crafty friend Jonadab came up with a plan: they tricked King David into thinking Amnon was sick and needed Tamar’s help. David ordered her to go to him, and kind and devoted daughter and sister that she was, she did as David bid her.

Of course, it was all a ruse. When Amnon advanced on her, Tamar responded with an emphatic triple “no” [2]:

No, my brother, do not force me;
for such a thing is not done in Israel;
do not do anything so vile!

“But,” the text tells us, “he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she was, he forced her and lay with her.” (2 Sam 13:14) Tamar went to tend her brother and was raped by him instead.

Having satisfied his lust, suddenly Amnon looked on Tamar with disgust. She was now a ruined woman, a used woman, a defiled woman, and he “was seized with very great loathing for her; indeed his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her.” (v. 15) He threw her out, and she cried out in fear: “No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other you did to me.” (v. 16)

Devastated though she was, Tamar wasn’t completely defeated. She refused to keep her rape secret; she tore her robe with sleeves, put ashes on her head, and wailed the pain of her soul. She went to her brother Absalom and told him what had happened. His response? “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.” (v. 20a)

And her father? The text says, “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” (v .21) David’s love for his son outweighed any sorrow he may have felt for his daughter.

Now, I do need to note that the story continues from here, although I didn’t read the next part. After two long years, Absalom devised a way to kill his brother Amnon for what he did to Tamar. The text doesn’t tell us whether that violent retribution did anything to heal Tamar’s broken soul. Perhaps it did. Maybe there was some kind of relief for her in the capital punishment her brother enacted upon her rapist, although the testimonies of many of today’s rape survivors suggests otherwise. In many – maybe even most – cases, more violence and death does not appear to offer any healing for the victim’s soul. [3]

At any rate, what we do know is that, in her moment of greatest need, in the immediate aftermath of incestuous rape, Tamar was left utterly alone, with no one to offer her healing or hope. In that moment, when Tamar used the last of her strength to break the silence about what had happened to her, the men in her life – upon whom she was utterly dependent – did nothing. And so she remained “a desolate woman” (v. 20b), apparently for the rest of her life.

Desolate: abandoned, barren, disconsolate, lifeless.

I wonder: how many of you have heard of Tamar? I never heard of her in church or even in my “regular” religion classes in college or divinity school. Tamar was only ever spoken of in my feminist theology classes. Perhaps the story of a woman’s rape is too hard for others, particularly male clergy and scholars, to hear? Feminists have been speaking out on behalf of women and against the violence done to them for ages. Maybe that’s why they have been able to bear to wrestle with this story and feel outrage on Tamar’s behalf. Phyllis Trible was indeed right to call it a text of terror.

But it’s in the Bible. And so we must wrestle with it. More than that: we need this story.

In the U.S., about one in four women is the victim of serious physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. [4]

And here, in our sacred text, we hear of violence against a woman. (Indeed, we hear of all manner of violence in the Bible; it is a bloody book.) We need this story. Those one in four women need this story, but not just them: we all do. And on some level, the men who wrote and compiled the Bible knew that we need her story, and so they preserved her name. This voice of the victim of incestuous rape is one of only 93 women’s voices we hear in the Bible, and Tamar is one of the mere 49 women who are named! We need her. And she needs us.

But where in the story does anyone stand up for Tamar? She is silenced by her brother. Her father’s anger doesn’t lead to justice for her; in fact, he protects her abuser. And God? God is silent. God isn’t even mentioned in the story. Where is God?

And what are we to make of that divine silence which threatens to shatter the souls of all victims of violence, even today?

This question becomes even more troubling to me when I consider it in the context of traditional Christian teachings about the crucifixion of Christ.

Now I have to ask you to bear with me, because it has taken me many years to untangle my thoughts about this, and I’m not sure I can quite articulate them yet. And even if I can, it’s really more than I can put in one sermon. But I’m going to do my best, and I hope we can return to these ideas again and again in our time together over the coming years, because I believe they are critical to our faith. Whether you end up coming to the same conclusions I do or not, I am convinced that the questions must be asked.

Let’s begin with the idea of scapegoating, which was practiced in many ancient societies, including Judaism.

In ancient Judaism, there were many rituals associated with the High Holy Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur. To atone is to make reparations for a wrong, and in the context of religion, one atones specifically in order to be reconciled to God. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest confessed the intentional sins of the people of the community and placed them figuratively on the head of the goat. The goat was then driven out into the desert to die, taking the sins of the people with it. The goat was the substitute for the people; with the goat’s death, the people were reconciled to God. This is called substitutionary atonement.

Today we scoff at such practices. What good does it do to slaughter an animal? Why would we think that killing an animal or sending a goat away into the wilderness to die, would make God forgive us? Would make God love us? Would make God welcome us back into God’s presence? Animal sacrifice, most of us would say, is ridiculous. More than that: it’s horrifying. Probably everyone here would be appalled if I slaughtered a pig on the chancel and dashed its blood against the altar.

But I would argue that we are fooling ourselves if we think that our theology today has moved beyond the idea of the necessity of blood sacrifices.

Here’s what I mean. The earliest Jesus followers had to make sense of the fact that Jesus was crucified. If he was in fact the messiah, his crucifixion made absolutely no sense at all; it was unfathomable and inexplicable.


Unless the cross was somehow necessary in God’s big plan for humanity.

And that’s exactly what we have come to believe in this religion which places the cross – the execution of an innocent man – at the center of everything.

After all, we sing that Jesus is the Lamb of God – the scapegoat – who takes away the sins of the world. We proclaim that Jesus “died for us.” We cling to the belief that it is Jesus Christ’s death that makes God able to forgive us. Jesus: the ultimate sacrifice.

And who demands that sacrifice? Well, who demanded the blood offering and the sin offering at the Temple? God. And so who demands the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God? God.

Think about that.

A parent demands the literal, actual death of one child in order that the parent’s other children can live a new spiritual life.

Does that make sense if God is truly a God of love? If God is Love?

Peter Abelard, a theologian and philosopher who lived in the Middle Ages, wrote:

Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child? How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world! [5]

Atonement theology “takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says this intimate violence saves life.” It is a “theological claim which sanctions violence.” [6]

And the church which, for thousands of years, has taught this very doctrine of substitutionary atonement is, by extension, complicit in all kinds of violence.

Crusades. Genocides. Witch hunts. Death penalties. Rejection and physical harm of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people. People traumatized by war as soldiers, those who love them, or civilians who become collateral damage. All manner of ostracism and pain showered upon those who are different, who don’t live up to religious expectations.

And the sentencing of thousands upon thousands of women and children to suffer in silence at the hands of domestic abusers, as Tamar did.

The church has rarely – very, very rarely – spoken about domestic violence, incest, rape, battering, especially not in worship. The church’s silence in the face of violence, particularly intimate violence, is as deafening as the silence of David, Absalom, and God in the face of the violence done to Tamar.

If the church speaks at all, it is almost always one-to-one, when a woman comes to the representative of the church – that is, the clergy – with her pain and fear. And what does the church still overwhelmingly say to this woman, this modern-day Tamar?

That she needs to bear the burdens of an abusive husband. That her marriage vows are paramount, and to stay in a marriage, no matter how bad it is, is her sacred duty. That an intact family is God’s will, and that to break up the family would make her a bad person, a bad Christian. That to suffer in Christ-like obedience is the highest virtue. That a man with a bad temper who sometimes hits her or kicks her or throws things at her or threatens her with a knife or gun is just “her cross to bear.” That, if it comes down to it, laying down her life for the one she loves is the best love there is.

Now, I’m sure none of you in this room would think, let alone say, those things. But even if we don’t explicitly tell a woman to stay in an abusive relationship, even if we don’t deny the horror of rape itself, the church’s teachings about suffering as redemptive do more violence to victims. We say, in effect, “Your pain must have a purpose. It must somehow be part of God’s plan. Be quiet, my sister. Do not take it to heart.”

Yes, the cross has come to stand at the center, and everything we teach about God, humanity, violence, and suffering revolves around it. And so even if it’s unintentional, our theology of atonement silences victims of violence, just as Tamar was silenced.

After all, that’s what Jesus did. And aren’t we supposed to follow in his footsteps?

And even if we don’t tell women those things, our refusal to hear their stories, our refusal to tell their stories in church, still sends the message: this is your cross to bear, and I can’t bear to look at it.

But what if the cross was never meant to be the center of our faith?

What if it isn’t Jesus’ death that brings us salvation? What if it is his life that saves us?

Jesus’ life was about just that: life. He healed. He taught. He fed. He prayed. He blessed. He restored to wholeness: physical, spiritual, interpersonal, emotional wholeness was his gift to those he met, and it’s the gift he offers us.

Hope, not desolation. Healing, not violence. Life. Not death.

I submit that God never meant for Jesus to be our scapegoat. God never meant for Jesus to die. That was the empire’s plan, not God’s.

Jesus was the light of the world, and his light shone into the darkest corners of the human heart, exposing it for all to see. And there was no darkness deeper than that of injustice and inequality; in the synagogue he quoted Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus’ expansive love, justice, and mercy threatened the social, political, religious, and economic order. His teachings threatened to begin a revolution. And there is nothing empire is more afraid of than revolution. And so he had to die. Not because God needed him to die, but because we – humanity – needed him to die. He died not for our sins, but because of them.

To blame Jesus’ death on God – to say he was the scapegoat, the sacrifice demanded by God in order that we might be reconciled to God – is paradoxically to make God the scapegoat. It is to wrongly blame God for a crime God did not commit. It is to try to pin our sins on God and send God out into the wilderness to die.

Empire killed Jesus. But Jesus lived for love and life, and therefore for us.

I submit that the cross of Christ was never meant to be the center of our faith. His life was.

Where was God when Tamar was raped? Just because the text is silent doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there; after all, we miss God’s presence all the time. God was there, with her. God gave her strength to look for help. But God also gave us free will, so God could not force David and Absalom to respond to her please. God is not in the business of forcing anyone – including forcing God’s own Son to die a horrific death.

And so what does the church need to do for those women, those one in four, for those sitting here today, for those in our families and circles of friends, for the stranger on the bus with a black eye, for the child who can’t lean back in his chair at school because of the bruises, for the teenager who can’t tell anyone what happened on her date?

The church needs to say: Speak. I am listening.

We must be witnesses. We must allow victims – survivors – to break their silence, as Tamar did. And we must respond much better than David and Absalom did. We must hear and hold the pain. We must find a new way to think about Jesus’ death, a way that doesn’t sanctify violence but names it for what it is: a sin against God. That is how the healing begins. If we are to follow Jesus, we are to be healers.

In their book, Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock write:

Salvation begins with the courage of witnesses whose gaze is steady. Steady witnesses neither flee in horror nor hide their eyes, nor console with sweet words, “It isn’t all that bad. Something good is intended by this.” Violence is illuminated by insistent exposure. Steady witnesses end the hidden life of violence by bringing it to public attention. They help restore souls fragmented by violence. They accompany the journey to healing.

Parker and Nakashima Brock continue:

Salvation requires love. Fainthearted love, idealized love, impatient love cannot walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Healing love touches the hidden wounds of violation, lances the places of stored trauma, restores glimpses of the soul. The world offers too few such love and care.

Church, it’s our job to offer that witness. That love. That care. Tamar deserves it, wherever we find her.

I feel I have to end in prayer, for in the face of all of this, it seems that prayer might be all there is left to say.

Let us pray.

Gracious and Loving God,
Open our eyes to each other
and to all our sisters and brothers,
especially the poor, the oppressed, the alienated,
the abused, the ill, the grieving, the isolated.
Make us humble enough to help and comfort them,
so that your love and justice and peace may come to them.
We pray for ourselves and for one another:
that our wounded places may be made whole;
that we will feel your presence with us in our pain and sorrow;
that we will know that no suffering, no hurt, no harm
that comes to us
ever comes from you.
Help us to see in the cross of Jesus Christ
not a sacrificial offering demanded by you,
but a testimony to the evil of which humankind is capable.
And let us see in the risen Christ
a sign of hope that such evil never has the last word,
that in you new life even in the midst of horror
is always possible.


[1] https://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/1663/Texts-of-Terror

[2] Allyson McKinney, “When There Is No Justice In Scripture: The Rape of Tamar.” https://sojo.net/articles/troubling-texts-domestic-violence-bible/when-there-no-justice-scripture-rape-tamar

[3] For more exploration about a system of justice that focuses on healing for victims rather than punishment for offenders, resources on Restorative Justice are useful.

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

[5] Peter Abelard, Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans, as cited in Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us,

[6] Parker and Nakashima Brock, p. 49, 8.


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