Acquaintance Rape and the Biblical Story

The story of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1-21) gives significant insight into the tragedy and dynamics of acquaintance rape. The story begins with the introduction of the main characters: “David’s son Absolom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her.”

Then follows the story of collusion, deceit and entrapment that tells us Tamar was set up in much the same way victims of acquaintance rape are set up for violation today. As was the case for Tamar, friends of the person planning the violation may be aware of the plan and do nothing to stop it, and may even assist the plans.

Amnon’s cousin Jonadab came up with a crafty idea, and King David actually (though perhaps unwittingly) helped to carry it out. When Tamar realizes what Amnon’s intentions are, she begs him not to “do anything so vile!” and points out the consequences of his actions for both of them. “But he would not listen to her” (v 14) and carries out his evil plan. Then, to add to his sin, he turns his lust into loathing, and tells her to “Get out!” Tamar begs him to take redemptive action, but again “he would not listen to her.” (v 16) He in fact had his servant lock her out, leaving her entirely defenceless and vulnerable. Amnon was rejecting the law described in Deuteronomy 22:28 which states that a woman in Tamar’s situation who had been violated must become the perpetrator’s wife, with no option for divorce as long as he lives. This law was designed to provide some protection and provision for women who had been violated like Tamar was.

Absalom gives her dubious comfort, telling her “to not take this to heart.” Victims of acts of violation are often urged to get on with life and not given the support, help and time needed for healing to take place.  Often, they are in fact blamed for the violation. King David, when told what had happened, though he “became very angry” did nothing to hold Amnon to account. Perhaps the memory of his own violation of Bathsheba kept him from confronting the truth in this situation too.Absalom, meanwhile plotted his own revenge and killed Amnon with devastating consequences.

In contemporary cases of acquaintance rape, as in this biblical story, the perpetrator is often in a position of greater power. which he chooses to use selfishly without regard or respect for the other person. This can include physical power, social position and the expectation that no one will hold him accountable. There is also cultural power in that the king values his sons more than his daughter. The text tells us that “David mourned for his son day after day” (v 37) but no mention is made of mourning for Tamar’s grief and loss. Tamar received no support in this entire sorry tale. It is clear in the story of the rape of Tamar, sons in the family were of much greater value than daughters.

Today, there are still practices and teachings in the church that reinforce this belief. As Carolyn Holderread Heggen points out in her book Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, the belief that woman was created after the man and is therefore secondary to him, and woman was created to be a helper for man and as such is subordinate to him (p.84) contribute to an environment where violation of women is more likely to take place.

Jesus, by contrast, paid more attention to those with less power in society, e.g. children, women such as the one with the flow of blood, the woman who had been crippled for 18 years and the Samaritan woman at the well.  He gave stern warnings to those who misuse or despise those in a weaker position and instructed his disciples to serve one another rather than behave as lords or tyrants. (e.g. Matthew 18:6-14, Mark 10:41-45, Luke 11: 42-46 and 4:18-19). He demonstrated equal regard and respect for women and men and it is our mandate as his followers to live in the same way.


February 2009

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