The Desolate Woman: A Biblical Perspective on Rape

8 Jan

“Desolaton of Tamar” by James Tissot

A huge kingdom in a faraway land, a beloved king with a beautiful daughter, and a handsome prince who is heir to the throne—the story has all the makings of a lovely fairy tale, yet it is a horror story. The kingdom was Israel under the rule of King David and the handsome prince was David’s oldest son, Amnon, who just so happened to be in love with his half-sister, Tamar. Found in 2 Samuel 13, smack dab between David’s affair with Bathsheba and the revolt of David’s sons against their father is the passage about the rape of Princess Tamar.Nathan the prophet told David that “the sword will never leave your household” only a few chapters earlier and spoke of the turmoil that would erupt in the king’s family as a consequence of his sin. The unraveling of the kingdom began with this rape.

It all started when Amnon became lovesick over his sister, Tamar. He lamented to his cousin, Jonadab, that he couldn’t do anything to her because she was a virgin. Jonadab concocted a terrible plan, which Amnon carried out. Jonadab advised Amnon to feign illness and request Tamar’s presence from the king. King David did not deny his firstborn anything, so naturally Amnon’s request was granted.

Tamar, being the dutiful daughter, came to her brother’s house to prepare him a meal, which he refused to eat. Instead he told all his servants to leave and then said, “Tamar, why don’t you bring the food here to me in my bedroom? I’m too weak to eat on my own so I need your help.” Tamar brought the food into his bedroom. All of a sudden, Amnon grabbed Tamar and demanded that she join him in bed.

Aghast, Tamar refused his offer begging, “Don’t force me, my brother! Such a thing is not done in Israel. Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you, you would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king: he will not keep me from being married to you” (13:12-13, NIV.) Tamar’s plea fell on deaf ears. And because Amnon was “stronger than she”, he raped her (18:14.)

There are a few interesting things that can be pulled from Tamar’s emotional statement. When Tamar said that things like this are not done in Israel, she was speaking of the law which forbade a man to have sexual relations with his sister. (Lev. 18: 9, 11) Disgraced, she could have been either put to death for having such a relationship or considered “unmarriageable” because she was no longer a virgin. However, Tamar then said that the king would allow Amnon to marry her, which was also forbidden by law (Lev. 20:17; Deut. 27:22.) Perhaps Tamar hoped this would dissuade Amnon for the moment so she could escape or she thought David would bend the law for his children. Whatever the reason, Tamar’s statement was ignored.

Tamar’s plea cuts to the heart of any girl or woman who has been sexually assaulted. Please don’t do this to me; do not take this from me. Yet often because a man is stronger than a woman, he takes violently what is not his to take. The woman is often left alone and confused, picking up the pieces of what she thought would be a good life.

After Amnon raped his sister, he sent her out of his house and said, “Get this out of here!” Again, Tamar pled for justice on her behalf and begged, “No! Sending me away would be a greater wrong that what you have already done to me” (13:16.) Modern women recoil at this passage wondering why Tamar would want to keep the company of her rapist. However, in the Jewish culture at that time, a woman who had been raped was deemed unmarriageable. Young girls and teenagers who were victims of rape were not only robbed of their innocence but their hope of marriage as well. The Jewish law made a provision for these women—if a man raped a virgin, he was required to take the girl as his wife (Deut. 22:28-29.)

The love that Amnon felt for Tamar before the rape turned to rage after the rape so Tamar was sent away disgraced and ashamed. The Bible says that she then put ashes on her head, tore the ornamental robe that the king’s virgin daughters wore, and wailed loudly—all signs of extreme mourning. As soon as Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, came upon her, he surmised what had happened. He told her to keep quiet about the incident, which she did. She was then taken into Absalom’s house and lived “a desolate woman” (13:20.) This is the last mention of Tamar in the Bible—that she lived the rest of her days as a desolate woman.

I imagine that Tamar, being beautiful and young and the daughter of King David, had a lot of promising prospects when it came to marriage. Like many teenage girls, she may have dreamed about her Prince Charming, her marriage, her children, and her future. Yet in an instant, her dreams came crashing down around her. It is not mentioned how old Tamar was in this passage, but she was probably in her early-to-mid teens–only a teenager. Full of hope, full of promise, full of life, and then desolate.

Unfortunately, in the time Tamar lived, rape against women was not a serious offense. Sure, God had laws against it, but since women were demeaned and treated as property, rape wasn’t seen as brutal and damaging in that culture. Yet the women who endured it felt the hot shame on their cheeks. They never felt safe again, some were even scorned publicly. Since Tamar’s rape was kept a secret, many may have assumed that Tamar willingly slept with Amnon or someone else. Her ornamental robe of virginity was gone—I’m sure the rumors ran rampant.

King David somehow received word of Tamar’s rape and was enraged just like any father should be when his daughter is violated. Instead of demanding justice for Tamar, David did nothing. It was Absalom who waited patiently for two years before he killed Amnon for raping his sister. It was Absalom who eventually turned against his father and slept with David’s concubines on palace porch for all Israel to see. Not only was Tamar affected by David’s inaction, Absalom, the next in line for the throne, was as well.

The story of Tamar is horrible and hard to read; especially when one considers the real and raw emotion Tamar must have felt. Yet this story is in the Bible, not only to show the downfall of David’s household, but to teach readers something about rape, to show women who have been sexually assaulted that they are not alone in feeling shamed, unloved, and desolate. Sadly, women you know have been or will be victims of rape or sexual assault. While you may not want to take a friend or who has been a victim of sexual assault to this passage right away, it is a helpful reminder that rape did exist and was mentioned in the Bible. Here are a few things you can pull out of the story of Tamar that is universal in a women’s experience of rape.

*Tamar’s virginity and purity are compromised. Anyone who is a virgin when she is raped is still a true virgin, though she may not be one physically. True virginity is a spiritual matter. No one can take that away.

*Tamar’s pain was emotional. She showed her deep distress by putting ashes on her head and wailing loudly—both signs of deep grief. She is called “a desolate and bitter woman” in the Message Bible. Desolate may mean she never had sex again or it may mean that she simply never recovered after being raped.

While there is no time limit on grief, and a rape survivor should be allowed to express her rage, sadness, fear, and other emotions freely, God wants to heal His Child. He does not desire His daughters to be desolate physically, emotionally, or spiritually. He wants to fill the empty void, cover His daughter’s shame, and fully restore her as only He can. What man has taken away, God can restore and He so desperately longs to comfort His children. Point your friend or teen to the God who weeps with His daughters.

*Tamar’s pain was also physical. Tamar’s tearing of ornamental robes is significant, because this speaks to how her life was torn apart, but also because her vagina may have been torn and bleeding from a potentially violent rape. When a female virgin has sex for the first time often her hymen (a thin layer of tissue around the opening of a woman’s vagina) is ripped. While the hymen can be ripped for other reasons, including molestation, throughout history a woman’s virginity was determined by whether or not her hymen remained intact.

Women, especially virgins, may bleed or become sore from sex, especially violent sex. A woman who is raped may also need to make regular trips to the gynecologist, which can be terrifying. Her health may be forever affected if she received a STD, severe vaginal trauma, or other brutal treatment.

*Tamar was unmarriageable and may even have been suspected of being promiscuous. How often do we hear men say that a woman was “asking to be raped”? No means no—every time, all the time, no exceptions. After one girl in my former youth ministry was raped, she was called a “slut” by other students at school. While she may have been a bit of a flirt, she said no and was violated anyway.

Today girls who are raped do get married and lead fulfilling lives; they do not necessarily live as “desolate women.” Girls and women who are raped often feel “damaged and violated”. They feel unfit for relationships and even marriage. This is simply untrue, but girls need to work through these feelings, which can take years. Counseling is essential to achieving a semblance of emotional wholeness in a rape survivor’s life.

*Tamar wasn’t allowed to talk about the rape. Tamar was told by her brother, Absalom, “Be quiet…Don’t take this thing to heart” (18:20.) Perhaps he just didn’t want her to worry about the situation because he avenged her honor by killing Amnon, or maybe he just didn’t know how to react. While it is unknown if Tamar was ever allowed to talk about her rape to close confidants, it seems in this passage she was denied the opportunity to tell her story. She needed to tell her story and even receive support from others who may have been raped.

*Tamar was denied earthly justice. David, the king of Israel, could have punished Amnon for violating his daughter, but in refusing to do so he failed as a king and as a father. Even though Absalom killed Amnon, he may have seen Tamar’s rape as a slight against him and defended his honor, too. Survivors of rape should never be denied justice. Again and again, God refers to Himself as a God of justice, who hates injustice (Ps. 9:16, 11:17, 33:5; Is. 30:18, 61:8.)

Even though Tamar is never again mentioned in the Bible, a potential bright spark in her life can be found later in 2 Samuel. Verse 14:27 says that Absalom was the father of three sons and one daughter, who he named Tamar. Ironically, the names of Absalom’s sons are not mentioned, only his daughter, Tamar. While the passage does not say that Tamar was her niece’s namesake, I’d like to believe that. Despite all her hurt and heartache, I still want a happy ending for Tamar and perhaps it comes in the form of her beautiful little niece. While Tamar may not have lived happily ever after, she still lived, was taken care of by her brother (until his death anyway), and spent time with her nephews and niece.

Sometimes I wish every story was a fairy tale, yet far too often girlish dreams are shattered by harsh realities. Rape is like that–reaching across time, space, and culture to affect millions of women throughout history. It can happen to anyone—even to the daughter of a Powerful King who lives in a Kingdom that is not of this world. Yet that Father always wants justice for His Child and will never leave her to be a desolate woman.

***

If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, please check out RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.)  They have great resources. Call them at National Sexual Assault Hotline | 1.800.656.HOPE | Free. Confidential. 24/7.

Feel free to leave a comment, if you like.  However, I have found when I post about sensitive topics, sometimes readers want to share their reaction with me privately, so feel free to email me. (You can always email me.)


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2 Responses to “The Desolate Woman: A Biblical Perspective on Rape”

  1. MAMHW September 10, 2008 at 12:15 PM #

    I appreciate this study. I was molested by my father as a young teenager and because my mother did not believe me, I did not tell anyone about my four cousins who molested me. Reading about Tamar made me revisit an old wounds, but I know that the God I serve is continuing to heal me of the hurt that I have suffered.

  2. sugarpeach July 7, 2011 at 7:56 AM #

    Good post, Amy. I’ve not really thought of this in-depth before… but yes, Tamar’s life was destroyed and taken away, so to speak, by Amnon. As a father, it was David’s duty to protect his daughter, but he erroneously failed in not doing so. I think that one of the reasons why it was so was because women were treated as second-class citizens. They were supposed to stay at home and had no “voice”.

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