When Rape Is in the Bible


Let me tell you a familiar story: There is a beautiful girl, dressed in beautiful clothes. A man finds her attractive and schemes with a friend how he can have her. When she is alone with him, he grabs her and demands that she go to bed with him. When she cries out, No!, he doesn’t listen, and since he is stronger than she is, he rapes her. Afterward, his affection turns to hatred and he leaves her, body and spirit shattered. When the girl tells others in her life what happens, they tell her keep quiet and don’t worry about it. So the girl folds inward. So the girl carries the shattered glass of herself throughout the world.

It is not a new story, the way we ask people to bury the hurt and think it can be put away, without consequence. In fact, this story begins in 2 Samuel 13, a book in the Old Testament of the Bible. In that story, Tamar is the girl, and the rapist is her half-brother, Amnon. Her brother, Absalom, is the one who sees her first after the rape and says, “Is it true that Amnon has been with you? Well, my sister, keep quiet for now, since he’s your brother. Don’t worry about it.” The words make me shiver.

Do you know who Tamar’s father is? Do you know who is the father of all of these children? It’s King David. David, the man after God’s own heart.

“When King David heard what had happened, he was very angry. But he did not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. And though Absalom never spoke to Amnon about this, he hated Amnon deeply because of what he had done to his sister” (2 Samuel 13:21-22).

No one does anything right for Tamar in this story.

I have been thinking about the ways we say Shhh. Be quiet. Don’t talk about that. I have been thinking about the ways we shut down the ones who try to speak up and then somehow are surprised and appalled to find so many marriages broken, so many teenagers depressed, so many babies aborted, so many families suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, so many lives quietly bleeding out in self-destruction. Somehow we are surprised and appalled that people are angry at injustice, angry and shouting and violent because no one has heard, no one is listening.

I thought I could find God’s response to the atrocities of this world spelled out clearly in those gold-lined pages, that when I looked into those words I would see clearly the portrait of God.

But when the man after God’s own heart’s daughter, Tamar, is raped by her brother Amnon, God doesn’t make an appearance. Not once does God show up in a dream or a vision; he never sends the angel of the Lord or a pillar of fire or a whisper on the wind. No narrator says, and then the Lord came, and Tamar was comforted.

What happened instead? Shh. Keep quiet for now. He’s your brother. Don’t worry about it.

Surely that isn’t the end of the story, right? It isn’t. It isn’t. Silencing and neglect spin to hatred and broken relationships. Years pass as bitterness sinks its teeth deep into Absalom’s heart over his father’s neglect until finally he takes justice into his own hands and schemes to kill his half-brother, Amnon, which he does. Absalom flees his father’s kingdom to live with his uncle for three years, and after David has mourned his other son’s death, he longs to be reunited with Absalom, but does nothing.

We cannot do nothing. We cannot let pride and anger and hatred rule. We cannot turn our backs on the broken. We cannot write off responsibility and excuse the guilty for unspeakable actions, we cannot say Shh. He’s your brother. He’s an athlete. He has so much potential. This will ruin his career as a politician/pastor/athlete/businessman.

“So Tamar lived as a desolate woman in her brother Absalom’s house” (2 Samuel 13:20b). Desolate. A place deserted of people. A state of bleak and dismal emptiness. Ruined. Wasted. Depressed. Bare. Abandoned. Forsaken.

Lord have mercy.

What are we supposed to do with stories like this living in the Bible? Stories of incest and drunkenness and murder and lust and possession and slavery and adultery and so much brokenness, and Lord, Lord, Lord, where are you?

There are portions of the Bible that read like a reflection of who we are with—and without—God. This sacred text is a portrait of humanity, when it has gone right and when it has gone terribly, terribly wrong. It includes stories with no mention of God and stories of God interrupting the pattern of humanity to correct our steps, to set a new path of love and mercy and action and forgiveness.

We are given these stories as warnings of what happens when we do not act. When we do not love. We are given these stories to see the depths of our humanity in both directions: when we have turned away from God and when we turn toward him.

How does God redeem Tamar’s life? I can’t find it in the story line—Absalom names his daughter after his sister, and she is also called “beautiful.”

I find redemption in Tamar’s story only when I pull back from the character’s lives and see this text before me.

Her story is recorded.

Someone broke the silence. Someone spoke the truth so that we might see, so that we might turn, so that we might know the right from the wrong and be strong enough to speak on behalf of the voiceless and victimized.

For what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly. David’s family did not do this. Redeem Tamar’s story and thousands of other stories by speaking. Acting. Seeking justice. Loving mercy. Walking humbly.

No more silencing.

This article originally appeared in June 2015 as “Protecting the Rapist” on the now-defunct website, Off the Page.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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