Every year in my course “The Former Prophets” I require my students to read Phyllis Trible’s book, Text of Terror. This book presents stories of terror and injustices perpetrated on four innocent victims. The presentation of these stories is meant to shock the reader, forcing them to consider how these women were treated by the men in their lives. In addition, the book also shows how patriarchal laws and culture aggravated their situation and did not provide legal or moral support to the emotional plight of these four women.
In my post today I begin a series of studies that will discuss one of those stories. This text of terror which will be the focus of these studies is found in 2 Samuel 13:1–22 and it deals with the rape of Tamar, the daughter of King David, by her brother Amnon. In the process of considering this story, I will review Amnon’s plot to entice his sister to his room, Tamar’s response to her brother’s advance, and the failure of David to punish his son for raping his daughter.
Finally, at the end of this study, I will show how the rape of Tamar and David’s action (or lack of action) produced a series of tragic events that profoundly affected David’s family. In the end, Tamar’s life was seriously damaged as she lived as a victim of rape in a society where raped women were either abandoned or put aside as damaged goods.
Because most people are unfamiliar with the tragic story of Tamar’s rape, I will quote the introduction to the story and invite you to open your Bible and read the rest of the story. This is how it begins:
2 Samuel 13:1-15
Some time passed. David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her.
But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, “O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?” Amnon said to him, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”
Jonadab said to him, “Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.’”
So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.”
Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, “Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.” So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.” So everyone went out from him.
Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.” So Tamar took the cakes 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! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.”
But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her. Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, “Get out!”
Although many people reject the view that Israelite society was a patriarchal society, the fact is that many of the laws and customs in ancient Israel favored the male, and in many situations, placed the woman in a secondary position. The reform of Josiah and the laws in Deuteronomy, as I have shown in previous posts, made an attempt at improving the status of women in Israelite society in the seventh century B.C.
As one reads the Hebrew Bible, it becomes evident that in the social milieu that serves as the background for the stories narrated in the Old Testament, the lives of many Israelite women, their interests, and their achievements were not preserved in as much detail as the lives and actions of the men who molded and gave expression to Israelite society.
Most of the stories in the Old Testament were about men. Males dominated the religious, political, and judicial life of ancient Israel. Many women played important roles in the cultural and religious life of ancient Israel, but these were very few. Many prominent women remain unnamed and unrecognized for the contributions they made to Israelite society.
In general, the stories of most women that appear in the Bible are presented in the context of the men in their lives. This truth is seen in the four stories of terror that appear in Trible’s book. These four stories are the story of Hagar, the Egyptian maid that was given by Sarah to Abraham so that Hagar could conceive a son for Abraham. I have never written a post on Hagar. In future posts I will deal with the story of Hagar and how she fits within the story of Abraham.
The second story is the story of the Levite and his concubine. In this story, the woman is raped by the men of Benjamin and eventually dies because of the violence done to her body. I have studied the plight of the concubine and how she was treated by her husband in a previous post. You can read the story of the Levite and his concubine here.
The third story of terror in Trible’s book is the story of Jephthah’s daughter who was sacrificed by her father in order to fulfill a foolish vow. I have dealt with the story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in three posts. In these posts I discussed whether Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter or just sent her away to a solitary place. You can read the story of Jephthah’s daughter here, here, and here.
The fourth story, is the sad story of Tamar’s rape. This is the first time I will deal with the plight of Tamar and the events that occurred as a result of her rape. I hope that in this series of studies on Tamar, you will sympathize with this woman who was the victim of a brutal act by someone in whom she trusted. If in the end, we develop feelings for Tamar, then we have taken a giant step in understanding the plight of many women today who are victimized and oppressed by the men in their lives.
To be continued.
Studies on the Rape of Tamar
Phyllis Trible, Text of Terror. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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