This essay, a reflective look back on my experience writing a research paper on Tamar for a graduate level Old Testament course, was originally published on The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology’s Blog, “Intersections”, it can be found at theseattleschool.edu. The original research paper can be found elsewhere on this site, Tamar: A Trauma-Informed Feminist Reading
The words “wrestle with the text until it blesses you” are carefully lettered in a corner of my notes from the first lecture of the Old Testament Genre course at The Seattle School. Those words, spoken by the professor, Dr. J.P. Kang, landed deep, despite my insistence that my goal in the class was just checking off a required course for my degree. I did not expect to learn in that course a new way to wrestle with text, a different way than my faith community and my undergraduate religion studies had prepared me: to be invited to not simply search the text for meaning, but to fight with my whole self—and in that fighting, to find my blessing.
My final paper was on Tamar’s story in 2 Samuel 13. The story opens on Amnon, a son of King David, who is consumed with lust for his sister Tamar. With the help of a wicked friend, Amnon executes a plan to manipulate Tamar into his bedroom. Once there, despite Tamar’s wise and articulate appeals to his honor, pride, and reason, Amnon rapes her. Amnon’s lust immediately subsides and exposes his contempt, and in contempt Amnon abandons her outside his home. Both David and Tamar’s brother Absalom find out about this incestuous violence, but they neither care for nor redeem her, and instead urge her to silence as the narrative proceeds to outline how Absalom, through violence, ascends to power upon the stepping stone of his sister’s rape.
Tamar’s story is not a story we write devotionals about or discuss over coffee at bible studies. Hers is the story of a victim who is avenged but not redeemed, given refuge but not restored. A woman who, the text says, was left desolate. Her story is a story with themes many of us know well, we who have felt the powerlessness of victimhood, the hollow taste of revenge without redemption, or the soul-wasting weight of silence imposed on our most meaningful stories. In these shoes Tamar walked, and as I entered her story I longed to hear her voice—my ears open to what her story might speak into my story.
As I began to read through scholars’ interpretations and investigate key words, I found the first clue. As the passage closes, Tamar is said to be “desolate.” This word in Hebrew, שָׁמֵם shamem, blends a meaning of destruction and brokenness with a secondary meaning of shocked or stunned. I stared at the screen that day, shocked as I discovered that ancient Hebrew appeared to have a word for the condition of the body and soul it took physicians till 1980 to name in English as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In my research I met the words of scholar Alice Bellis, who writes in Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, “Tamar is not an ancient anomaly. She is all around us. If awareness can lead to change, let us remember Tamar’s story and resolve that sexual abuse can and will stop.” This response, written lifetimes after Tamar’s death, rang true but hollow to me. If the purpose of this story is awareness that leads to change, then Tamar’s abuse has continued indirectly via being set aside by our religious communities through generations of worshippers.
In our culture, a culture where awareness of the violence and oppression around us is guaranteed by a 24 hours news cycle, I believe that it is not, in fact, awareness of a need for change that we need to take away from this passage, but instead it is the voice of Tamar that we desperately need in order to be motivated toward change. Tamar is rare in biblical literature in that she is a victim given narrative space to speak in her own defense, in her own voice, and to express the anguish of her broken heart and violated body. Tamar’s gift to us is her voice. Because of her voice, her story, though horrific, remains not secret. Her anguish becomes a signpost that resonates with the reader who will listen and hear the voice of the oppressed. We as individuals and communities need to hear Tamar’s voice and allow it to break through the hardness of our hearts in order to open our ears to the survivors living in desolation in our own communities.
In the final hours before my study on Tamar was due, I struggled to finish—my heart laid open before me, broken for my sister’s desolation, for my desolation. And in that place I felt God’s invitation to reject desolation and consider an alternate narrative. What if, the Spirit prodded, the end of Tamar’s scene is not the end of her story? What if Tamar’s story is a fragment—a plot twist in a narrative that is about sons and kingship? The Bible parts from Tamar’s story as she retreats into a place of desolation, but she is wise and she is royal and I refuse to believe that that is where her narrative ended.
Commentators helped me locate hope in this story—hope for Tamar’s wisdom being a sustaining source that would provide for her in darkness, and hope that her gifts and birthright ushered her into a life as a kind and wise presence in the lives of the poor and oppressed in her community that her prior status had barred her from knowing. I discovered, as I wrestled, the depth of this story and the uniqueness of the opportunity to hear Tamar’s voice of wisdom and voice of mourning. Tamar invited me to mourn for and with her, and in the difficult work of mourning, she gave me the vision to see beyond the desolation left in the wake of trauma. I thought I would find redemption in Tamar’s story if I fought hard enough. Instead, I was broken by her story, and in that brokenness at the end of wrestling, I found my blessing.