The Rape of Tamar

Desolation of Tamar
Desolation of Tamar

This summer at Church of the Pilgrims we are focusing on troubling texts, Biblical narratives that are cringe worthy because they bump up against deeply-held Biblical values. So far we've focused on texts that say women need to be silent in Church, violence that creates an occupied land, Jesus as "the way", and Sodom and Gomorrah.

I preached on the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-21. Tamar was raped by her brother, Amnon. Amnon's father was King David. Tamar was the beautiful sister of Absalom, who was also David’s son.

Context: My dear friend from Union Seminary in NYC, Anna Olson, preached on this text for a worship service we created for a Christian Ethics and Domestic Violence class our second  year at Union. The professors for the class? Beverly Harrison, Mother of Christian Feminist Ethic and Annie Ruth Powell, then the pastor of Union.

This worship service included two amazing parts (other than Anna's sermon):

1) The hymn "Sacred the Body." It was created by Ruth Duck for our Union worship service:

[blockquote indent="]Ruth Duck was inspired to write this hymn after a conversation with Janet Walton, professor of worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Duck notes that Dr. Walton “called to ask if I knew of a congregational song that spoke to issues of battering and abuse using Paul’s concept of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17).” This request came as a result of a conversation among students planning for a seminary worship service at Union Seminary who needed a song on this theme. None was to be found.

Dr. Duck states, “I didn’t know of existing hymn texts on that theme, but the idea inspired 'Sacred the Body.' Writing the text was a source of healing for my distress over a friend’s story of being sexually abused by a religious professional.” [/blockquote]

2) The action: After Anna's sermon, we invited people to come forward and mark their foreheads with ashes and tear burlap, both ancient mourning rituals of Israel Tamar embodied after her sexual assault.

We sang "Sacred the Body" and marked ourselves with ashes at Pilgrims as part of my sermon on Tamar.

Here are excerpts from my sermon (again, Anna's sermon deeply inspired my version):

Tamar’s story raises questions about God, and humanity that matter. The questions Tamar’s story lift up matter because in our Dupont Circle neighborhood, in our city of Washington, D.C., and on the planet on which we all live, desolation is the reality for many, and the ending of many stories isn’t always deliverance...... 

The Hebrew word for rape, or overpowered, in this story is the same word used for rape in other stories, including the rape of Dinah in Genesis and the rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges. Just as importantly, it has a broader meaning of “to oppress” or “to afflict.” In that broad meaning, it is the same root word used to talk about the oppression of the Israelites under slavery in Egypt....... 

So there was Tamar. Thrown out. Standing outside in her ornamented tunic, a dress for princesses, where all the servants who were asked to leave the room could see her. No place to hide her body, her feelings, her vulnerability. No place to feel safe.

In the moment, Tamar found enough of herself, her own power to put dust, or ashes, on her head and rent, or tear, the tunic she was wearing. She put her hands on her head, and walked away, screaming loudly as she went. The beautiful, princess daughter of King David, sister of Amnon, walked down the streets with dirt on her face and clothes torn, symbolizing her status, her body, her being had been torn to shreds.

Ashes as a symbol of mourning
Ashes as a symbol of mourning

She cried out, again invoking the story of the Israelites, as the word “cried out” is the same word used when the Israelites cry out under oppression in Egypt. 

Right after my sermon, there was an invitation for people to come forward, take ashes from the communion table, mark their foreheads with the ashes, and remember themselves, a friend, family member, anyone who is a victim of assault.  People had the choice to mark their forehead in silence or mark and say something about the person they were remembering.

One-by-one over ten people (in a sanctuary with 50+ people) came forward. Some marked in silence. Some shared a name and a short story.

During announcements I extended the invitation for those who needed to talk about the service to come by my office after worship.

People came.

Tamar's story is alive and on that Sunday is was very clear she was sitting in our pews.