Tamar’s story, recorded in 2 Samuel 13:1-22, is the story of a victim who is avenged but not redeemed, housed in safety but not restored from her desolate state. I chose to engage the story of Tamar because previous exposure to this story left me unsatisfied. I’m convinced Tamar has something valuable to speak to me and to the current age. This paper will explore Tamar’s story in 2 Samuel 13 in its context, investigate several translation issues, examine some psychological factors in Tamar’s story relevant to the population I hope to work with as a therapist, and finally, having well acquainted myself with Tamar’s story, I will close with a creative writing piece, intended to be performed as a spoken word poetry for a variety of audiences, imagined from the first-person perspective of Tamar.
I chose this for two reasons: firstly, my heart held questions for this text that have felt like an irritant requesting attention; secondly, because I am a student engaged in vocational training to work in therapeutic contexts with trauma survivors from a Christian worldview. I’m confident I will someday find myself sitting with a desolate client who is crying out, echoing Tamar’s voice, for justice that doesn’t seem to be coming. I want to better understand Tamar so that I can better hear the voice of those who also have been left desolate by trauma. As Alice Keefe writes, “there is perhaps no more serious breach in the order of human relationships than violence within a family.”1 It is for this reason: the deep and central brokenness that this passage records, that this difficult text deserves careful study.
2 Samuel 13:1-22 is a historical narrative placed within the larger narrative of the rise and fall of King David’s rule over Israel. 2 Samuel is in the genre of narrative, so the reader can read the progression of events recorded in the text as a connected unit, ordered by time.2 The structure of 2 Samuel 13 includes a plot rising to a central focus in verse 14, with the drama of the story declining after the climax of verse 14. The structure of 2 Samuel 13 has an interesting structure which Phyllis Trible defines as a “Flawed Chiasmus.”3 A balanced chiasmus would feature a matched structure of rise and fall around the central moment of the narrative, however in this flawed version a “Collapse of form and shrinkage of content show irreparable damage to the characters.”4 This collapse is evident in the abbreviated nature of the latter half of the passage. This structure actually reflects well the content and movement of the story. Following the rape, Tamar’s character is diminished in honor and left desolate- it is appropriate that even the structure of the text reflects this reality.
A short summary of 2 Samuel 13:1-22 may be helpful: The story depicts interaction between David’s children- full siblings Absalom and Tamar and their half-brother Amnon, who is heir to David’s throne. Amnon becomes tormented by what he believes is love for his sister Tamar, and his friend Jonadab, upon noticing the prince’s dejected state, hatches a plan to trick Tamar into entering Amnon’s bedroom alone. Although it is unclear from the text whether Jonadab’s plan includes the rape that takes place, scholars seem to agree that his part in planning how to lure Tamar into the bedchamber makes him implicit in the crime that occurs.5 Jonadab’s plan, immediately acted out by Amnon, is to feign illness and when King David comes to visit Amnon on his sickbed, to ask for Tamar to be sent to care for him, to prepare food in his sight, and to feed it to him. This request, if granted by the king, ensures Tamar will be alone and intimately close in Amnon’s bedroom. David agrees and orders Tamar to do as Amnon has requested. Once at Amnon’s house, Amnon sends the servants out and, as Tamar is feeding him, grabs her and demands that she have sex with him. Tamar refuses, with wise words and appeals to his honor (“such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile”6), his compassion for her (“where could I carry my shame7”), his pride (“you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel”8) and his reason (“speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you”9). None of these appeals work, however, and a single verse, verse 14, records the act of rape that forever changes Tamar’s life. Alice Keefe reflects “unlike the rapes in Genesis or Judges, this scene is powerful with the fullness of character and human emotion. Amnon’s violence against Tamar is multidimensional—physical, emotional and social.”10 Following the rape “violence in turn disclose hatred, the underside of lust.”11 Amnon instructs her to leave and has a servant lock the door behind her. Verse 18 calls attention to the robe she is wearing and indicates that, at this point, she tears the garment and puts ashes on her head and cries aloud as she leaves. The story continues (nonspecific in time placement thus leaving the reader to wonder whether minutes, hours, or days have passed) and records Absalom’s realization that Amnon raped Tamar, and Absalom’s silencing words (“Be quiet for now”12). The passage ends with two powerful statements; 1. That Tamar “remained” in her brother Absalom’s house as a “desolate woman”.13 and 2. King David found out about “these things” and became very angry but refused to punish Amnon.14 The final verse of the passage records the dysfunctional dynamics of King David’s blended family: Step brother refuses to speak to step brother, but step brother haters step brother because of forced incest with Tamar. David’s failure to act has disastrous consequences for his family, as Keefe states “father-king does not punish the rapist, and so the aggrieved brother enacts his own vengeance, perpetuating the cycle of violence”.15
It is important to note that this passage is contained within the context of other important stories. Speaking to context of this passage, Trible writes “Behind lie sordid deeds of David to seduce Bathsheba, the redeeming birth of his son Solomon, and a decisive victory over the Ammonites. The King has enjoyed success in all things public and private.”16 The passage following this account of Tamar’s rape records Absalom’s complex plot to murder Amnon. Absalom’s motive is left unclear, leaving the reader to wonder if Absalom’s murder plot is to avenge Tamar’s rape or simply to secure Absalom’s inheritance of King David’s throne.
This passage is narrative in structure and thus narrative criticism is a helpful lens through which to understand this passage.17 David Gunn defines narrative criticism as locating meaning via “close reading that identifies formal and conventional structures of the narrative, determines plot, develops characterization, distinguishes point of view, exposes language play, and relates all to some overarching, encapsulating theme.”18 While valuing historical context, narrative criticism is “unlike historical criticism, which in practice has segmented the text.”19 In other words, this passage is not a collection of facts to be broken down and understood as historical facts (though truths could be found that way) but instead this passage is a story with character, plot, and, like many stories, possibly a deeper meaning when viewed as a holistic unit. While history informs the reading of this passage heavily, the structure and inclusion of narrative features (plot, characters, narrative rise and fall) clue the reader in to read for more.
To better understand this passage, it may be helpful to identify some key terms which are either under dispute by translators or contain a deeper meaning than the English translations convey well. Words that are particularly worth a second look include the ambiguity of Amnon’s gaze in verse 5 and 6, the noun describing the robe worn by Tamar in verse 18 and 19, the verb used to indicate rape in verse 14, and the fuller meaning of Tamar as a “desolate” woman in verse 20.
Verses 18 and 19 contain references to Tamar’s robe, the כֻּתֹּנֶת or kĕthoneth- a topic discussed at length by Adrien Bledstein: “One other person [other than Joeseph] in the Bible, Tamar the daughter of King David, also wore the ketonet passim, mostly translated ‘a garment of divers colors”20 Bledstein outlines an impressive argument that the robe, as well as the “history of virgin daughters of the King installed as high priestess,” is sufficient evidence to believe that Tamar “was a priestess sent by the king to perform a purification rite for her brother who was believed to be ill.”21
Verse 14 uses specific language to indicate the brutality of the rape, which may not be accurately reflected in English translations.22 The Hebrew words for “violated” ( עָנָה `anah) and “lay with” (שָׁכַב shakab) are translated various ways. KJV reads “forced her and lay with her”23 while both the ESV and the NASB read “violated her and lay with her”24 and the NLT translates the passage more simply as “he raped her”.25 Scholar Bill Arnold argues a better translation is that Amnon “abused her and bedded her,” on the basis of “the transitive verb treating Tamar as mere object.”26
In verse 5 and 6, the object of the verb “look” is left unspecified, leading to ambiguity and a potential layer of complexity to the plot of this narrative. Here the KJV specifies in italics the addition of an object that most other translations assume without annotation, when Amnon requests that David have Tamar “dress the meat in my sight, that I may see it”.27 The translators’ addition of the seemingly insignificant “it” may have greater significance. By adding the “it,” the translators assert that it was the food that Amnon wanted to see. This may be inaccurate, however; in this story of a young man made sick with lust it would be a reasonable conclusion that the food was not at all what he wished to be brought before his eyes, but rather, the object of his lust, Tamar.
As the passage closes, in verse 20, Tamar is said to be a desolate (שָׁמֵם shamem) woman in Absalom’s house. Strong’s definition explains that this word can mean “to stun (or intransitively, grow numb), i.e. devastate or (figuratively) stupefy (both usually in a passive sense):—make amazed, be astonied, (be an) astonish(-ment), (be, bring into, unto, lay, lie, make) desolate(-ion, places), be destitute, destroy (self), (lay, lie, make) waste, wonder.”28 Interestingly, of the 102 times this word appears in the Hebrew text, the KJV translates it 56 times as “desolate/desolation” but, not insignificantly, translates it 21 times as “astonished/astonishment”29 This word, Shamem, which seemingly blends a meaning of destruction and brokenness with a secondary meaning of shocked or stunned, may be particularly appropriate to describe the state of this woman who, following a brutal rape and denial of justice, would almost certainly have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress, a disorder which could be accurately described with similar dual definitions of a depressive wasting away combined with persistent shock or numbness.
In conclusion, Alice Bellis writes, “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.”30 This response, written thousands of years after Tamar’s death, rings hollow. Tamar’s story must be calling us to something more: if the purpose of this story is awareness that leads to change, then Tamar’s abuse has continued indirectly, via being ignored by the religious traditions her story was meant for, for thousands of years. I dispute Bellis and argue that it is not awareness of a need for change that we need to take away from this passage, a 24 hour news cycle now nearly-guarantees awareness of the suffering of others, but instead it is the compassion brought about by hearing the voice of Tamar that we need in order to be motivated towards change. We need to hear Tamar’s voice and allow it to break through the hardness of our hearts for the survivors living in desolation in our communities.
I did not discover redemption in Tamar’s story. Feminist commentators helped me see hope- hope for Tamar’s wisdom being a sustaining source that would provide for her in darkness,31 and hope for her status as a priestess ushering her, possibly, into a life of a wounded healer,32 but perhaps the closest I have come to meaning is to discover the depth of this story and the uniqueness of the opportunity to hear Tamar’s voice of wisdom and voice of mourning. Tamar alone, in biblical literature, is given narrative space to speak in her own defense and to express her anguish.33 Tamar’s gift to us is her voice. Her story, though horrific, remains not a secret. Her anguish becomes a signpost that resonates with the reader, giving a powerful voice to the oppressed.
After spending time with Tamar’s story and experiencing a difficult week personally and in community, my I deviated slightly from the original intent for the creative portion of this paper. I initially intended to address more directly the trauma and loss in Tamar’s story, but realized that creatively embodying the harm in her story, given the state of my own heart this week, would be little more than using my own creativity in a way that would be violent towards myself. Instead, I decided to pursue hope. Below I have included a prose/spoken word/poetry piece that, with intentionally much artistic liberty taken, imagines one possible alternate ending for Tamar’s story.
Arnold, Bill T. 2003. 1 and 2 Samuel: the NIV application Commentary from Biblical Text– to Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.
Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Bledstein, Adrien J. “Tamar and the Coat of Many Colors.” In Samuel and Kings, edited by Athalya Brenner, 65-83. Sheffield, Eng: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
The English Standard Version Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Gunn, David M. “Narrative Criticism.” In To each its own Meaning: an Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, edited by Stephen R. Haynes and Steven L. McKenzie, 201-229. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
“H8074 – shamem – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Accessed 15 June, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org//lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H8074&t=KJV.
Keefe, Alice A. “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men.” Semeia 61, 79-97 (1993). ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 15, 2016).
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.
The Holy Bible King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1999.
New American Standard Bible. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation. 1995.
Trible, Phyllis. “The Royal Rape of Wisdom.” in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, 37-63. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1984.
CHICAGO STYLE FOOTNOTES
1 Keefe, Alice A., 1993. “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” Semeia 61, 79-97. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 15, 2016). 92.
2 Bill T. Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel: the NIV application commentary from biblical text– to contemporary life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 560.
3 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 43.
4 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” 47.
5 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” 43.
6 2 Samuel 13:12 (NRSV)
7 2 Samuel 13:13 (ESV)
8 2 Samuel 13:13 (NIV)
9 2 Samuel 13:13 (ESV)
10 Keefe “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” 91.
11 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” 46.
12 2 Samuel 13:20 (NIV)
13 2 Samuel 13:20 (NIV)
14 2 Samuel 13:21(ESV)
15 Alice A. Keefe, “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men.” 94.
16 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” 37.
17 Bill T. Arnold. 1 and 2 Samuel: the NIV application commentary from biblical text– to contemporary life, 560.
18 David M. Gunn, “Narrative Criticism,” 201.
20 Adrien J. Bledstein, “Tamar and the Coat of Many Colors,” in Samuel and Kings, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, Eng: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 65.
21 Adrien J. Bledstein, “Tamar and the Coat of Many Colors,” 78.
22 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” 46.
23 2 Samuel 13:14 (KJV)
24 2 Samuel 13:14 (ESV & NASB)
25 2 Samuel 13:14 (NLT)
26 Bill T. Arnold. 1 and 2 Samuel: the NIV Application Commentary from Biblical text– to Contemporary Life, 560.
27 2 Samuel 13:5 (KJV)
28“H8074 – shamem – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV),” Blue Letter Bible, Accessed 15 June, 2016, https://www.blueletterbible.org//lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H8074&t=KJV.
30 Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville, Ky. Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 134.
31 Phyllis Trible, “Tamar; The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” 56
32 Adrien J. Bledstein, “Tamar and the Coat of Many Colors,” 78.
33 Alive A. Keefe, “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” 91.