It began with a phone call. It was Karen, a friend
whom I'd known since my childhood.
Although we didn't see or talk to one another as much now as when
we were kids, we were still close. But, on the phone this day
she sounded different: she was tentative, unsure of herself,
fumbling for words. She had something very important to tell
me, but she didn't quite know how to say it; plus, she was afraid
of my possible reaction. I tried to reassure her the best I
could, but since I didn't know what was coming, I don't think I did
a very good job of it.
 This is what Karen told me. She had been having a lot
of pain recently while having sexual intercourse. It had
finally become so severe that she had gone to a gynecologist.
The gynecologist, after carefully examining her, spoke of exposed
nerve ends in her vagina, of tissues that had been ripped apart and
damaged. And such damage, according to the gynecologist,
could only be the result of violent sexual abuse during her
childhood. It was a statement…and a question. Had Karen
been sexually abused as a child?
 With that, according to Karen, a flood of images came
rushing in-images of blood, and tears, and pain, and
darkness. Images that had been long repressed, poking their
way into her awareness only in her worst nightmares, and even then
only on rare occasions. But there was more: it was only with
this visit to the gynecologist that she began to realize that those
images were not just the stuff of nightmares-they had
an anchoring in reality. And the reality that the images
pointed to was that Karen had been raped, off and on, between the
ages of 7 and 9 by her best friend's older
 With the phone still at my ear, I sank slowly to the kitchen
floor. And as Karen continued to speak, a parallel track of
thoughts and feelings began running through my mind.
Initially it was denial-this could not be true; this could not have
happened. But, alongside my attempted denial was a sort of
rueful irony. You see, I had been taking some Women's Studies
classes as part of my graduate school training; and in them I had
confronted the statistics that reveal that sexual abuse is
frighteningly common: namely, 1) every six minutes, a woman is
forcibly raped; 2) one in three American women is sexually
assaulted during her lifetime; and 3) one-fifth to one-half of
American women were sexually abused as children, most of them by an
older male relative.
 But all of that had been only statistics. Besides, I
had always arrogated to myself, my friends, and my family a certain
privileging that placed us outside of such statistics. Who
could blame me? We had grown up in a setting that had all the
markers, according to the dominating norms of our society, that
supposedly signaled safety and security. Karen's and my home
community-white, small town, Midwestern, religious, educated,
middle class or aspiring to middle class, comfortable-was supposed
to be a place of protection. But it was not. Sexual
violence is no respecter of class, or race, or geography, or family
make-up, or educational attainment, or religion. Statistics
 So look around you. One out of every three women
sitting here has been, or will be, raped. It's a very safe
bet that even if no one has actually revealed it to you, you know
someone-likely lots of someones-who have been
raped. Perhaps you yourself have been raped. Rape is
all around us. If it was a physical disease, we'd call it an
epidemic. And it's not just that it's so pervasive in our
present; rape is something that has always been with us. In
fact, it's as old as the Bible.
 In fact, it's not only in the Bible, it's also all over the
Bible, although the church has done a very good job of repressing
the Bible's rape texts. But consider the following incident,
reported by a religion professor at a southern
 She was asked to preach in chapel during Rape Crisis
Week. She had never heard a sermon about rape and she had no
idea how to preach one. So she simply stood in the pulpit and
read stories from the Bible, stories about sexual
violence. There were too many to read them all.
 When the service was over one of her colleagues said, "I
don't like getting hit over the head with this kind of stuff.
You're preaching to the wrong crowd. That kind of thing
doesn't happen here."
 All week long students, women and men, came by her office
to tell their stories of violation…
 "My father's business partner raped me when I was twelve,"
one woman said, "several times. I think my father knew,
but he never did anything about it."
 The church, and the women and men in it, can be all too
ready to deny and avoid messy and painful topics such as
rape. Some of you today may think that this is a very unusual
sermon for me to be preaching. You may be offended-just as
the professorial colleague was in the incident I just
recounted. And yet, if messy, unpleasant, hurtful issues do
not belong in the church, then, in God's Name, where do they
belong? Jesus came precisely to be with, and share the pains
and sorrows of, the poor, the oppressed, the hurting, the
sorrowful. He did so because, if their pain could be truly
acknowledged, then real healing-and a new life-could begin.
 Here, then, is one of the Bible's stories about rape.
In reflecting on it, hopefully we will be challenged and encouraged
to move towards a real healing of those who have been raped, and
also an undoing of the cultural conditions that make rape both so
easy in our society, and so hidden.
 If anyone had reason to feel safe and secure, it was
Tamar. A daughter of David, the greatest Israelite king ever,
her entire life had been one of comfort and privilege.
Growing up in the royal palace in Jerusalem, she had always had the
best of everything: food, clothing, jewelry, perfumes.
Unlike the hard, physical outdoor labor which was part of the
sun-up, sun-down routine of most Israelites who worked as farmers
and herders, Tamar lived a life of relative leisure. Her
clothing bespoke that fact: a long robe with sleeves, it was an
expensive garment, and not one conducive to lots of physically
laborious work; indeed, it seems to have been a special garment for
the virgin daughters of the king (v. 18). It's hard to
imagine, given this life of wealth and leisure, that she would have
needed or wanted anything: and yet, if she had, she had only
to ask David; as both her father and the king, one imagines that he
would have had both the will and the resources to grant any request
she made, even-as the old fairy tales say-up to half the
kingdom. Then, too, Tamar seems to have been especially set
apart because she was the only daughter-that we know of-among all
of David's many children. And have you ever noticed, in
families with a number of children-but only one daughter-how
cherished that girl is? One other thing about Tamar: she
was, so the text tells us, beautiful.
 All these markers of privilege-wealth, leisure, social
status, political power, beauty-and yet none of them made a whit of
difference in terms of guaranteeing her the fundamental rights to
her own personhood.
 The undoing of Tamar's life began because of a seemingly
innocuous fact: Amnon, her half-brother, was in love with
her. But in his version of love, it meant possessing her
sexually. He mistook sex-or lust-for love, just as, I'm
afraid, so many people do today. When Jonadab, Amnon's good
friend, finds out about Amnon's feelings, he does nothing to
correct his confused and mistaken notions; instead, he further aids
and abets them by cooking up a strategy that will make it all too
easy for Amnon to get what he thinks he wants: the sexual use of
 The strategy achieves so much of its success partly because
it plays on so many of the stereotypical expectations of male and
female behavior-particularly in their familial
manifestations. Consider David. He makes no follow-up
inquiries to Amnon's request to have Tamar sent to him in his
bedroom; the father is thus easily duped by his own son into
becoming a tool facilitating the rape of the daughter. David
is a distant and uninvolved father, one who is not really clued
into the lives of his own children; a man so absorbed in the public
demands concomitant to ruling a kingdom that he simply does not
take the time to find out what is really going on in his own
household. Then there's Tamar. Because daughters are
expected to obey their fathers, and to assume that their fathers
always have their best good in mind, she of course follows through
on her father's command. And the ruse itself-Amnon pretending
to be sick and requesting that Tamar cook for him-plays off of the
normed expectations that women are healers and nurturers.
Women are supposed to care for men-especially the male members of
their own family; when they do so they are validated. And, of
course, let's not forget Amnon (and Jonadab). They express
and enact the oft-held assumption that women exist for the purposes
and pleasures of men. Women are not seen as persons in their
own right, but rather as the tools, accessories, or assistants of
men-furthering or enabling male desires, goals, ends.
 David, Tamar, Amnon-they all, in some sense, do what
they're supposed to do; they all follow the social scripts provided
for them. And yet following this particular set of societal
rules brings nothing but tragedy to all of them. The rape
itself is narrated briefly and with circumspection-it does not feed
any of our prurient desires to take in a spectacle of pain,
violence, and bloodshed. (In that way Tamar is shown some
consideration.) What the text does focus on is Tamar's words
when Amnon first initiates sexual contact with her. They are
her first spoken words in the entire narrative: "No, my
brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel;
do not do this wanton folly" (v. 12). Four different times,
in four different ways, she speaks words of rejection to
Amnon. (Count them-"NO, my brother, do NOT force me; for such
a thing is NOT done in Israel; do NOT do this wanton folly.")
It is quite clear that she does not want to have sexual intercourse
with Amnon. One cannot fool oneself into thinking otherwise,
that Tamar is, for instance, just playing coy or being flirtatious,
putting up only a pretend or token resistance to something she
secretly wants. Amnon cannot construct such an interpretation
of the events; neither can we. Tamar's words make clear that
what is done is done against her will; it is rape. Indeed,
the extremes of her refusal are perhaps best caught in her attempts
at negotiation with Amnon-she suggests that, instead of committing
this violation, Amnon speak to their father about marrying
her. That way Amnon could still have her sexually, but it
would be done within the bounds of societal propriety. In
biblical society, in which such an emphasis is placed on women
marrying-and being virgins when they marry-for Tamar to marry
Amnon, even if she knows he only wants her sexually, is infinitely
preferable to rape since marriage would, at least in the eyes of
society, maintain her dignity and social status.
 But it does not happen. Amnon rapes her.
And…the rape changes everything. For
Amnon, the supposed love he held for Tamar is now shown to be a
lie. As the text says, he now "hated her with a very great
hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than
the love with which he had loved her." Presumably such a
great hatred spills over onto others-and perhaps even onto himself,
so that, on some level at least, he might be loathing himself for
what he has done. But whether or not this presumed
self-hatred and self-loathing might eventually have led to a
heartfelt repentance will never be known. For two years later
Amnon is murdered. This prince of the land, first-born son of
King David destined to be the next king of Israel-and so to have a
life of riches and power and glory-instead dies an ignoble death,
with a life far less and far shorter than expectation. And
it's all precipitated by his rape of Tamar.
 And then there's Amnon's murderer, Absalom, full-brother of
Tamar. The text says that Absalom's motivation for killing
Amnon is vengeance for the rape. And yet, with Amnon dead,
Absalom is now first in line for the throne. So Absalom
probably uses the rape as an excuse-or justification-for killing
someone who not only raped his sister, but also exists as his chief
impediment to the throne. Then, too, Absalom may also be
resentful towards his father. For David, when he finds out
about the rape, is "very angry"-so the text says-and yet he does
absolutely nothing about it. David's abdication of his
responsibility-as both father and king-to see justice done for
Tamar makes him also culpable-and sucks him also into the vortex of
disaster. For whatever may be the truth behind Absalom's
twisted skein of motivations, it eventuates in Absalom mounting a
military coup against his father, as he seeks to take the throne
from his father by force. But the coup ends disastrously,
with the kingdom in upheaval, Absalom slain, and David shown up as
a rather ineffectual king-as well as father.
 And what of Tamar? Does she resent, or applaud, the
fact that her rapist is murdered, even if the murder is subsumed
into political and military conflicts among the men of her
family? The answer is unknown, for the text is silent about
her thoughts and feelings. Instead, we are told only that she
comes to dwell in her brother Absalom's house, "a desolate woman"
(vs. 20). And that is the end of her story.
 Except that, a few chapters later we are informed that
Absalom had a daughter whose name was Tamar. And she, too,
like her aunt, was beautiful. And perhaps this aunt and niece
shared more than just a common name and beauty: Did Tamar, who
had lost so much-honor, social status, the opportunity (in that
society) to marry and have a family-find another sort of meaningful
and worthwhile life through her relationship with her niece?
I hope so. Regardless, though, Tamar is remembered, and
honored, in the niece who is named after her.
 And, she's remembered, too, in the preservation of her
story in the Bible. And so she has become, down through the
centuries, a character with whom those who have been raped may
potentially identify. So, at least, did her story affect my
friend Karen. For as Karen began the long process of healing
from her sexual assault, Tamar's story became a significant
touchstone for her. It validated her pain and shame. It
permitted her to critique our sex-saturated culture. It
allowed her to see the depths of the sin committed by Amnon,
Jonadab, Absalom, and David. It encouraged her to stand up to
the denial so often practiced in the church towards those who have
 One of the things which Karen rejects is the word
"survivor" as applied to herself. For to her, survivor
implies that she was somehow unaffected by the rape-that she was
simply able to skip over it and resume her life as if it had never
happened. And that's simply not true-for Karen's
life was profoundly impacted by the rape. And
yet, in and through the long years of healing she has gained a new
life-one that in its sensitivity, its openness, and caring towards
others-may well be a positive good that she would not have
© May 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 4, Issue 5
 "Karen" is a pseudonym. I
have also modified several other of her identifying markers-at her
request-to preserve her anonymity. Incidentally, I chose
"Karen" for her pseudonym because it's so similar to the Hebrew
word, keren, meaning "horn." Since horns in ancient
Israel were used to trumpet important happenings for the community
at large, I thought it appropriate, since Karen's story here is a
trumpeting of a truth too often hidden in our society.
 The Boston Women's Health
Collective, The New Our Bodies Ourselves, updated and
expanded for the 1990s (New York: Touchstone, 1992), pg. 131.
 Danna Nolan Fewell, "Imagination,
Method, and Murder: Un/Framing the Face of Post-Exilic Israel," in
Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book, ed.
Timothy K. Beal and David M. Gunn (London and New York: Routledge,
1997), pg. 145.
 Indeed, it's the
very first thing the text tells us about Tamar.
"Now Absalom, David's son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was
Tamar…" (2 Sam. 13:1).