Sermon: Justice for Tamar

This sermon is the second in a three-part series. The series is a worship resource for the RCA’s We Are Speaking movement, a call to the church to no longer remain silent about harassment, abuse, and sexual violence.

This sermon was prepared and written by Jason Fulkerson, pastor of Niskayuna Reformed Church in Niskayuna, New York. The sermon was heavily influenced by Preaching the Women of the Old Testament by Rev. Dr. Lynn Japinga. It was originally preached on September 16, 2018.

Scripture: 2 Samuel 13:1-14

This might be one of those moments when our response to the reading comes in the form of a question, rather than a statement: “This is the Word of Lord?” A number of stories throughout the Bible make us uncomfortable, like this one. They are not nice, neat, family-friendly stories that can be turned into a VeggieTales movie. These stories remind us of the evils in our own world. Most times, either we skip over them, ignoring the uncomfortable nature of what we read, or we wonder why the story is in the Bible. I believe we do this because we often go to the Bible for comfort, a word of peace, or a word of encouragement. We don’t like that these stories are in our Bibles. Yet these stories, often referred to as terror texts, are a part of the biblical witness, and they should not be ignored. The trepidation for a reader or a preacher is how to approach a text like this? Where is the good news in this? Where is Jesus in this? There is no positive spin on this story, but God’s Word comes in the form of a challenge to change our own communities or, possibly, to help us grow in compassion.

Tamar is the daughter of King David; her mother is Maacah, one of David’s wives. David had several wives in addition to Maacah, including Ahinoam, Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba. In the family tree, Tamar’s full-blooded brother is Absalom, and her half-brother is Amnon. The text tells us that Amnon fell in love with his half-sister, but the reader has to wonder if “love” is an accurate translation. What happens in this story is far from love. Amnon becomes obsessed with Tamar, so much so that it makes him ill. With a little bad advice from cousin Jonadab, Amnon gives into this obsession. He gives into his misdirected lust and desire for Tamar by concocting a plan to take advantage of her. There is so much wrong in this story, so much evil and deceitfulness. Religion professor Lynn Japinga responds to the story with this comment: “This text offers insight into a tragic aspect of the human condition. People hurt each other. Even people who are intimately connected by family bonds can misuse their power and sexuality to hurt others. The story is a powerful reminder that abuse can happen in a church-going family, a wealthy family, an influential family.”

After the rape, Tamar is thrown from the room like a used piece of trash. Amnon’s earlier words were “I love my sister,” but now, he says, “Put this woman out of my presence.” Unable to deal with himself and his own guilt, Amnon cannot bear to look at Tamar. She tears her clothes, puts ashes on her forehead, and cries aloud for everyone to hear. Tamar does not remain silent, but everyone around her does. Her brother Absalom tells her to keep quiet, while he internally burns with hatred toward his half-brother. We are told that King David also burns with anger, but he can’t punish the son whom he loves. In some ways, this shouldn’t surprise us. David is heralded as a great king and a man after God’s own heart, yet he is also the man who used his power to take another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and then plotted to have that man killed in battle. And now, when his own daughter is raped, he remains silent. The same man who slew the giant Goliath now cowers in the face of this traumatizing event, most likely to avoid public shame. Men in positions of power remaining silent while an innocent woman sits in desolation and despair—sounds like a familiar story to me.

Tamar’s life is changed forever; the rape sets her future in stone, and she is left without options. Within her culture, she is looked upon as used goods. She warned Amnon about this and told him no, for she knew her future, and she knew his. “Where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel,” she told him. Tamar lives for the rest of her life as a desolate woman, living silently with Absalom, her brother. She carries the shame, the terror, the anxiety, the trauma, the anger, and the sadness of that experience. She’s speaking to us today. Put yourself in her torn robes for just a second. What do you feel?

What do we do with this story? How do we respond? What message is there for us? How do we change the story? How do we change the narrative? We cannot change it for Tamar, but we could change it for others.

Just like Tamar, a victim’s life is changed forever once they are raped or abused. Healing is not as simple as forgiving and forgetting. PTSD, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and suicide are a reality for victims. Victims cannot just “suck it up.” Pastor J. Alfred Smith, Sr. frames the call to action in this way: “Who will pray with Tamar and stand by her side as she screams for justice? Do you remember that Tamar is your daughter, your granddaughter, your sister, your niece, blood of your blood and bone of your bone?” We may think we are better than the culture reflected in the Old Testament, but are we? Victims of rape and abuse are still shamed. Victims carry around the feelings and thoughts that they are to blame for what happened to them. Victims continually deal with the belief that they are dirty, damaged goods that no one can love. Victims have to navigate how they will tell family, friends, spouses, and children. And, too often, the perpetrators and the attackers experience no repercussions, and systems, families, and institutions remain silent.

The first step is to engage in changing our culture. Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Seventy percent of sexual assault victims are 34 years of age or younger. One of every six American women will be the victim of rape or an attempted rape in her lifetime. Males attending college are five times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault than males of the same age. We have to do better. We have to stop the blaming and the shaming of victims. We can all learn not to treat another person as an object of desire or as an object for us to exert our will and power over.

We have to speak out against any talk or actions that normalize rape and abuse. We cannot be like Jonadab, the crafty cousin and friend, encouraging Amnon to pursue his misdirected desires. We cannot be like David, who kept silent and did not set the best example. In light of poor guidance, it is no surprise that Amnon did what he did. That doesn’t condone his actions, for there is no excuse for abuse or rape, but what we know is that some abusers and rapists experienced sexual abuse themselves or witnessed it in their families. Sons follow the examples of their fathers and other male influences. We have to speak up when needed, run interference when necessary, and advocate for those who cannot speak.

A part of the change in culture has to be holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. We have to stop making excuses for inappropriate behavior. Just within the past month, the public has become aware of the breadth and depth of abuse cover-ups with the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. This is not just a problem within the Catholic Church—I don’t want to single that institution out, because the problem exists in many institutions, in many families, and in many communities across the globe. The problem doesn’t just involve males, but all too often it is men in positions of power and influence that try to cover things up, men who get drunk with power and think they can do whatever they want, just like David and just like Amnon.

If we want our world to be more like God’s kingdom, we need to think about what God’s form of justice looks like when rape and abuse occur. When I hear about stories of rape and abuse, I want the perpetrators to pay for what they did. My insides burn with hatred and anger toward those I look upon as the worst of the worst. Because of his growing hatred toward his half-brother, Absalom eventually has Amnon killed. I have to be honest that my gut reaction to this is positive. There is a part of me that is glad that Amnon is killed. He got what he deserved. But Absalom’s pursuit is not for justice; it is for vengeance. Most times, my idea of justice is revenge, but I know that God calls me to a different approach.

This might be the pertinent time to ask that question: what would Jesus do? I think the first thing would be to extend compassionate care and appropriate love to anyone who has gone through the trauma of rape or abuse. Jesus would be right there with them, supporting them, listening to them. Jesus knows our hurts, our shame, and our brokenness. Then, I think Jesus would challenge the system. Jesus would turn over those tables in the courtroom. Jesus would call out injustice and oppression. Jesus would remind us, his followers, that we are called to something better.

There are some ways in which our world is better than the world that Tamar lived in. We have counseling centers that are blessings and safe havens for victims. There are trauma and crisis counselors, hotlines, and other organizations like Patty’s Place or Safe Inc. whose sole purpose is to help. Rev. Otis Moss III indicates that we need to help Tamar eventually change her clothes—to help her remove those ashes and the torn robe and then put on something new.

We call this place a sanctuary, and my hope is that it truly is. I sometimes worry that there might be just as much shame within these walls as there is outside of them, especially for victims of rape and abuse. Odds are one of us knows someone who is raped, or we have been raped ourselves. Can we trust that the person next to us, behind us, or in front of us would love and support us if they knew what happened?

I wanted to preach on this story not just to be provocative. We need to hear the voice of Tamar and the voices of the Tamars in our world. Victims need to know that they are heard and that they will be loved and supported. They need to know that there are safe places for them. They need to be reminded of God’s love. How can we, the body of Christ, grow in our capacity to be compassionate and to be indignant against injustice? For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather, a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.