Her Face in Her Hands:
Tamar’s Story as a Blessing during #MeToo/#ChurchToo
2 Samuel 13
Written by Amy Lineburg Knöttner
The Patriarchal Backdrop
As the first-born son, he held the the position of highest value in the family, and yet Amnon wanted more. His half-sister Tamar, by contrast, had no power. At most, she was a bargaining chip. As a virgin, she could be sold through marriage to benefit her family. Her only value came from her marriageability: her virginity. Nursing his lust for her, Amnon made himself sick. His unhealthy desire was to take the one thing of value from the most vulnerable person in his family.
Only one man in the story notices Amnon’s sickness and, probably seeking his favor, tries to find the cause. Jonadab is another member of Tamar’s family. He does more than enable Amnon; he methodically designs the rape of Tamar. For Jonadab, his desire to get brownie points with the prince rates far more important than a vulnerable person. His culture taught Jonadab that Tamar was of less value than his own needs.
King David acts blind to his son Amnon’s psychological state and is not too hard to manipulate. He approves a special request that should have raised red flags. Tamar is “asked” to wait on her brother, to prepare the food in front of him, and to feed him “with her own hands.” David doesn’t seem to think twice about making this happen for Amnon. Tamar, herself, must have known something was wrong with Amnon’s relationship with her. But, in her position, she would have had no choice but to do what her father asked.
Amnon takes advantage of his power over everyone in his house. Once Tamar prepares food for him, he manipulates the situation again. He refuses the food and orders the servants to leave. Amnon is now alone in his house with his sister, but that’s not enough. He calls her to his bedroom. There, Tamar is finally able to resist verbally and gives an impassioned plea for him to stop. She uses all the cultural arguments that could protect her, including even begging him to marry her.
This moment seems to be the pinnacle of sickness in the patriarchal culture in which Tamar is mired: she finds marriage to her sexually sick brother more desirable (and appropriate) than being a survivor of rape. The latter would mean that her culture would see her as “damaged goods.” She would no longer be able to marry. She would no longer be considered a valuable commodity in her father’s home.
Amnon wants instant gratification and is not interested in protecting her in any way. He not only rapes her, but throws her out of the house. This removes the one protection his powerful position could have afforded his victim.
King David’s reaction provides a foil for how Tamar herself responded to the abuse. David is angry, but does nothing, showing that his firstborn son is more important than his daughter (as some manuscripts explicitly state). Amnon must be protected at all cost. Most likely this was not just to preserve the reputation of the family, but for security and financial reasons as well. A break with Amnon could have even more repercussions than it did with another son, Absalom.
David chooses to protect the abuser and looks away. In stark contrast, Tamar looks directly at Amnon, calls him for who he is—a “wicked fool”—and, after his abuse of her, does nothing to hide it. In an act of courage that surely meant her reputation was even more quickly ruined, she tears her robes, puts ashes on her head, and walks away “with her face in her hands.”
At this moment in the text, we see the narrator’s perspective as clearly as a spotlight. The heart of the story is in focus. We linger respectfully with the abuse survivor. We are drawn into the details of this moment as if we are lamenting with Tamar. Instead of our gaze returning to the most powerful, the lens of the story focuses solely on the wronged.
The Genesis 1-2 Backdrop
Re-reading the story while searching for the design God lays out in Genesis 1-2 for male-female relationships is an exercise in heartbreak. We see each of the men denying their true natures as reflections of God. Instead they choose to enable and design evil, and follow their basest desires (even when it hurts other image-bearers). They turn a blind eye to sin, protect abuse instead of defending the victim, and commit murder in retribution. Amnon, Jonadab, David, and Absalom each deny their imago dei for a short-term benefit to themselves.
While the men turn from their God-given design, Tamar’s behavior stands out. She strives to support and empower healthy decisions by those in her family who have complete power over her. It’s astonishing to watch her interact with these men in a way designed to protect them from their worst selves. She tries to preserve as much of God’s goodness in their family as she can. What a great definition of an ezer-warrior! Tamar holds up her end of the bargain, but, through no fault of her own, she misses out on the joy of a Blessed Alliance with men living out their calling as well.
Tamar would have joined her voice with ours. She was abused by several men with power over her. She was denied the minimum protection from the repercussions of the abuse. A family member dreamed up the scheme to bring her to the most vulnerable place she could be: alone in a bedroom with a man who was sick with a twisted desire for her. Her brother, the first-born prince, raped her. Her father, the king, protected the abuser.
I remember when I saw the #MeToo hashtag for the first time. It took about thirty seconds for me to sign on to Twitter, which I hadn’t used for months, and post my own #MeToo tweet. I didn’t think, I just reacted. It’s so rare to be asked about violation, to be asked if it’s happened to you, too. And even if it was anonymous, I wanted to speak up. Because, sometimes, all of our voices come together to make a sound that might be heard.
If it had happened today, Tamar’s story wouldn’t be just one more #MeToo tweet. The attack on the daughter of the king would be profiled by Ronan Farrow for the New Yorker. Retelling her story as if she were the daughter of the highest ruler in the USA hits almost too close to home. We all know the former “king” of our nation is himself credibly accused of rape and many other atrocities against the most vulnerable.
Tamar’s story often gets blended into the story of Absalom and the story of his feud with King David. Raised a white, evangelical, Protestant, fundamentalist Christian, my exposure to Tamar’s story was so limited, that I had her confused with another Tamar, who was also abused by multiple family members within a patriarchal system. I wish our ignorance of her story were just because the story of Absalom hanging from a tree by his hair is more memorable (and somehow less gruesome) to tell in Sunday School.
But it’s more than that. Crimes against women have not been given their appropriate place in our teaching of the Bible. We brush aside stories like Tamar’s, telling ourselves that we couldn’t have much in common with Amnon, who lusted after a family member. We want to avoid noticing that we often reflect the imago of Amnon. We let ourselves be consumed and led by a desire for something other than what God had provided for us.
Stories like Tamar’s need to be told in our churches and ministries. They help us develop a godly perspective on power and sexuality. They remind us of what our true calling looks like. We can learn to live out the Blessed Alliance, instead of going along with the patriarchal system which should be a foil against which our behavior stands out.
Abuse of Power Resulting in the Abuse of Tamar
Sometimes knowing a story too well numbs us. It’s easy to show up with pre-formed opinions about characters like David and Absalom. Separating the actions from the actors shows us clearly what abuses of power happened in the story of Tamar:
- Manipulating situations and people for a personal (and destructive) purposes
- Not questioning or paying attention to inappropriate behavior or requests that are unusual
- After abuse, not using power to protect and restore the survivor
- After abuse, not apologizing, being transparent, or getting help
- Protecting the abuser (this could’ve been both David and Absalom’s sin, depending on how you read Absalom’s behavior and comment: “Keep quiet for now, since he’s your brother. Don’t you worry about it.”)
Blessing through Tamar’s Story
Tamar’s story echoes the ongoing tragic sound of God’s image being abandoned to fulfill desires in our own strength—desires including power, sexual fulfillment, protection, favor, honor, respect, and vengeance. It gives us a foil of destructive behavior, against which we can check ourselves and learn what not to do.
The act of retelling the story in the #MeToo/#ChurchToo context gives us a chance to get uncomfortable with the truth that we are prone to abuse while we are called to be protectors. Tamar’s story calls imago dei-reflecting women and men to notice, preach, teach, and lead ourselves to protect and honor all, including the vulnerable. We can not promulgate the patriarchal paradigm that caused her story to be possible in the first place.
Tamar’s story trains us to listen for the cry of the vulnerable. Her words and actions model what survivors may look like in our midst. She shows us a way forward: to look for those crying out like she did, with their heads in their hands. We can watch for those who remain desolate, hiding in their family’s home, kept silent by an ongoing abuse of power. Let’s follow her example and counter with actions that provide hope and healing for the survivor, hope and healing for the abuser, hope and healing for families who have protected abusers, and hope and healing for power structures that don’t reflect God.
In my own ministry context, this looks like sharing more resources with our ministry partners. I hope to add to our training a component on how to identify potential survivors among the pre-teen kids in our mentoring programs. I’m personally inspired by the way the biblical text focuses on Tamar and her lament. I intend to spend more time sitting with those, including myself, who have suffered abuse.
Tamar’s story, like every survivor’s story, is honored by God through the tears that He collects, through the death and resurrection of His Son, and through His justice that will one day roll down like a river (Amos 5:24). In the meantime, we can use what didn’t happen in Tamar’s story to inspire us to provide justice to other survivors and to fight against the very thing that causes abuse to happen in the first place: trying to fulfill for ourselves what should only come from God.
Published here with permission.
Amy’s article is the third of three student papers exploring a #MeToo biblical narrative. See my introduction to these papers, “Confronting the Bible’s #MeToo Stories” –CJ
Thank you… The question of What happened to Tamar came to me this morning… as I continue to deal with the remnants of my sexual abuse. I was sexually abused several times during my childhood. I can see how those experiences have helped me to be a better mother and therapist. I still personally struggle with why this happened to me and continues to happen in this world. I loved what you said, “Tamar’s story trains us to listen for the cry of the vulnerable.”
I was vulnerable as a child and no one listened or paid attention to me. I was able to pay attention to my children and to also pay attention to my clients (I’m a therapist) and help others pay attention for those cries – even if they might be silent.