Last night, something unexpected happened. I gave some folks advice, then I followed it, then things worked out like I said they would. Maybe this shouldn’t have been “unexpected” but it was.
I’ve been teaching a weekly study lately about how the Bible is written for grownups. The stories we tell to kids always have more to teach us when we go back to them as adults. And the scriptures we don’t mention around children because of violence or sex? Those have something to teach us too. A widowed woman tricks her father-in-law into sleeping with her, and we learn something about what it means to be “right” (Gen. 38). A prophet marries a woman “with a reputation” and we learn something about being faithful [or rather unfaithful] to our God (Hosea, all of it).
I always encourage people to ask “Why did this story make the list when so many others must have been left out?” Sometimes that question is very hard to answer.
Last night’s story is a hard one to read. II Samuel 13 is usually labeled “The Rape of Tamar.” One of David’s sons named Amnon cannot control his lust. He deceives, attacks and rapes Tamar, one of David’s daughters and his own half sister. Then David’s oldest son [and Tamar’s full brother] Absalom plots and kills Amnon, getting himself banned from the Kingdom. Things like this happen in scripture from time to time, but the biblical authors usually cover them quickly, clinically. By comparison, the intimate and fearful conversation between Amnon and Tamar feel like the scenes where Game of Thrones didn’t need to show you the blade going all the way through, or Stephen King didn’t need to describe what losing an arm sounds like.
11 But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” 12 She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! 13 As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” 14 But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.
15 Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, “Get out!” 16 But she said to him, “No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. (NRSV)
Why is this in the book?
I know the story has a lot to teach. For instance, David mishandles the whole thing, refusing to punish Amnon then allowing Absalom to lure him into a trap. But beyond bad political and familial leadership, David is the one who brought this kind of sex-and-violence behavior into his family by sleeping with Bathsheba a few chapters earlier then having her husband killed. This is the kind of stuff I was planning to talk about – leadership, generational curses and how Jesus can redeem them.
But that didn’t fit last night. Sure, we covered it a little bit, but there was something in the room. We hurt for Tamar and talking about David felt like avoiding the issue.
Not knowing what else to do, I closed by encouraging the group to stick with the stories that make us uncomfortable. I said something like “the Bible’s first job is not to give us information, but to draw us closer to our Creator. Information is often necessary, but only as a way to draw us deeper. So when you find something you don’t understand [or flat out don’t agree with] stick with it. Pray about it. Carry all those questions and doubts into your relationship with God. Go deeper. Allow the Bible to do its job.”
Then I closed with prayer. And God showed up.
In the middle of praying that God would meet us in our questions, I felt pushed in a new direction. I prayed, “Help us remember that Tamar is not the only one who has suffered like this.” My eyes welled up and I tried to keep it together long enough to say amen. But that was it. That’s where God was trying to get us.
One in four women in this country will be the victim of sexual violence. Most of the aggressors are men they know, and previously trusted. Simple math tells us that there could be as many as 38 million women in the US who know exactly how Tamar felt. They understand this story at a level of intimacy and fear the rest of us can only imagine. These women attend our churches, work in the cubicle next to us, raise us. And we don’t want to talk about it. Their stories are a source of shame that we’d rather they keep to themselves. We want them to “just get over it” not for their sake, but for our own. Thinking about their pain makes us uncomfortable.
The Bible won’t let us do that. The Bible makes us look Tamar in the eyes.
So, please God, help us remember that Tamar is not the only one who has suffered like this. Remind us to create safe places in the church – uncomfortable or not – for women to tell their stories if they want, seek redemption and heal on their own schedule.**
And the next time we find a story in the Bible [or on the lips of our neighbors] that makes us hurt, I hope we remember to take it to God. I hope we pray. Because God listens and that matters. God meets us when we pray and uses all that information we’ve gathered do something bigger. God draws us closer – to our Creator and to our fellow creations.
Try it. Try leaning into the discomfort. I hope you’re as surprised by God’s life-changing presence as I was.
**If you have suggestions on how churches can do this in an intentional, safe way, I would love to hear them. Comment below or send me a note – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi James. If you haven’t already, you should get in contact with Caylee Dodson, my daughter. She’s in very deeply with restoreokc.org
She can help your class wrestle with the “tough stuff” better than anyone.
She is Hilary’s cousin. Good luck to you! Love your article!!!
Thanks, Judy! We’re pretty excited that Josh and Caylee are close by again. We’ll finally make good on that “we should get together” promise and you can take full credit.