There are some things in the Bible that really make you wonder how they got there, some things that if you or I were in charge would have been left out. That has always been, at least since I was old enough to have rational thoughts like this, the argument that resonates most for the truth and accuracy of scripture, because if, as some folks will maintain, Christianity is a lie, religion is the opiate of the masses, its just meant to make us feel better about ourselves or whatever, if all this was made up, the are some things that wouldn’t make the cut. The Bible is fascinating to me in the way it doesn’t hide contradictions or inconsistencies, and especially in the way it doesn’t white wash key figures.
My mom is from Virginia. She’s lived in South Carolina since she was 13 but if you ask her she’ll still say she’s from Virginia. Which is probably not surprising to you if you know any Virginians. They are very proud of being from Virginia, and they’re very proud and protective of historical figures form Virginia, particularly the various Founding Fathers who came from the state. In December my mom saw Hamilton, which if you don’t know is a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary, the guy on the ten-dollar bill. Hamilton had a lot of conflicts with Thomas Jefferson (Virginian), they were the main figures of the first two political parties in America, so, as you might guess since the musical is named after one and not the other, Hamilton is the hero of the show and Jefferson is not. And the musical references the less than great things about Jefferson – the fact that he said “all men are created equal” while also owning other people and the fact that he fathered children with at least one slave among other things. So when we were about to see my folks right after they had been to the show I told Meghan to be ready for my mom to complain about how they treated Jefferson. Sure enough, she wasn’t pleased. Specifically she said “we didn’t used to have to pick out and focus on every little flaw in people.” And she makes a good point, our tendency is to focus on the positives of past figures and ignore the messy parts of their histories, to put ourselves and our heroes in the best light possible. If you watched any of the coverage of Muhammed Ali’s death a few years ago you didn’t hear about his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War for example. Or think about when Presidents die, in those moments we choose not to deal with the complicated parts of their legacies. We like to remember the best of significant figures. Which begs the question, what is this story doing the Bible? Because no one is shown in a better light at the end of this chapter than at the beginning.
The simple answer to that question, why is this in the Bible, is that it explains the path of succession after David. 1 and 2 Samuel are first and foremost the story of the rise, reign, and death of David, and who takes the throne after him is an important piece of that. Amnon and Absalom are David’s two oldest sons: Amnon is the presumed heir, Absalom is his only real rival, when the series of events started here reach their conclusion both of them are going to be dead, people reading years later need to know what happened.
Which is an answer, but one that should give us pause, I think, because there’s a key part of the story missing. In the way I just described it this is a story about David and his heirs, about Amnon and Absalom and their rivalry and the event that set that rivalry off into open conflict. And missing from all that is Tamar. Bruce Birch, and Old Testament scholar and commentator put it this way:
“For the narrator of this story, the rape of Tamar is not of interest as a personal tragedy for Tamar but as a personal offense to the house of Absalom…Tamar’s rape sets in motion a course of events that eventually eliminates the leading contenders for the throne. Tamar is an event rather than a person in this story, when the event is over, she disappears, while Absalom and Amnon play out the effects of the event that of greatest interest to the narrator.”
And my guess is that if you’ve heard this story taught or preached before it was always as part of that backdrop, as part of the larger context of the disfunction and violence in David’s house. It was probably a story about David and his failings. Or Amnon and his lust. Or Absalom and his anger. Not about Tamar. Not about her life being destroyed. Not about the injustice done to her.
That makes sense though, after all, there’s nothing we can do about what happens to Tamar. We can take a lesson from those other folks about parenting and fighting sinful urges and taking matters into our own hands, why focus on Tamar? Why focus on what we can’t change or undo. Why not follow the writer’s lead and put this in background, recognize it as an event, a tragic one, but just one part of a bigger story?
We need to read and focus on Tamar’s story because it is an incredibly modern story. The world is full of Tamars. Tamar is assaulted by someone she knows in her own home. She was exploited through her kindness and an upbringing that taught her to worry about other people. Tamar said no and it was ignored. Tamar went for help and she was told to keep silent because her abuser was too powerful, too well connected, and had too important of a future ahead of him for it to be derailed over one incident. When all was said and done Tamar’s father mourned for her abuser, not her. The end of the story happens without her, Tamar’s life is over after that moment. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network one out of every 6 women in America and one out of every 33 men are the victim of a completed or attempted rape in their lifetime. 55% of those attacks happen at or near the victim’s home. Only about 1 out of every 4 incidents of rape or sexual assault are reported to police, only about 20% of those lead arrests, only 20% of those go to trial, and only about half of those that go to trial end in conviction. All told, out of every 1000 rapes 5 perpetrators face jail time. We need to read Tamar’s story because it is still the story of too many people. We need to read it because there is an empowerment that comes from recognizing that this story names present realities as well as those long past. If we hear Tamar’s story we open ourselves to hearing the stories of the Tamar’s in our lives. If we hear the stories of pain we can be voices of comfort and healing. If we hear stories of silence we can become voices of hope. If we hear stories of injustice we can become voices crying out for justice. If we hear the story or Tamar and recognize the patterns of violence still in our culture we can start to upend those patterns so that our world has fewer and fewer Tamar’s in it.
We need to read Tamar’s story because there are still Amnon’s in the world. There are still those, particularly young men, who are raised to believe that desire equals right. Last week a man was arrested in Colorado after writing on Facebook “I’ve never had a girlfriend before and I’m still a virgin…this is why I’m planning on shooting up a public place soon and being the next mass shooter cause I’m ready to die and all the girls the turned me down is going to make it right by killing as many girls as I see.” Grammar aside, we see in that statement the same attitude that drove Amnon to act. Rejection leading to violence is a pattern that still occurs all too often.
We read Tamar’s story because there are Absalom and David’s in the world, voices who council silence or fail to deliver justice. Just last week the interim President of Michigan State stepped down after saying that the hundreds of victims of Larry Nassar while he was head trainer for the US Gymnastics team and the university’s athletic department “were enjoying their moment in the spotlight.” If you paid attention when Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced she was running for President a few weeks ago you might have heard a conversation about whether she deserved votes after calling for Al Franken to resign last year. Now I’m sure if I asked some of you with a different political persuasion than hers you could find a lot of reasons not to vote for Senator Gillibrand, but calling on the resignation of someone with eight credible accusations of sexual misconduct against him doesn’t seem like a good one to me. David and Absalom are still out there, brushing aside the abused and mourning the perpetrators.
Tullian Tchividjian is one of Billy Graham’s grandchildren, he’s a pastor in Florida, and he maintains, I’ve heard him speak a few times, that everything in the Bible is about grace. That if you open up to any random page you can find grace in whatever is in front of you. I needed him this week, because I don’t know where the grace is in this passage. I don’t know where the justice is in this passage. But what I was able to find in this passage is hope. Hope that listening to Tamar’s story will challenge us to listen to others. Hope that recognizing injustice in the past will push us toward recognizing it in the present and the future. Hope for fewer Tamars, Amnons, Absaloms and Davids. And most of all hope in the God that looks at all of our failures and short comings, who looks at this broken world of ours, and still thinks its worth redeeming. Which I guess is a story about grace after all.