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Listening to Tamar

A sermon by the Rev. Liddy Barlow

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Larimer, Pennsylvania

July 8, 2012

(This sermon, which was selected as part of Sojourners' 100 Sermons Against Domestic and Sexual Violence initiative, was preached at the congregation our Executive Minister, Rev. Liddy Barlow, served before she accepted the call to Christian Associates. It was presented in worship on "Pajama Sunday," as the congregation collected pajamas for the women and children residing at the Blackburn Center in nearby Greensburg.


Sometimes, before a TV show, there will be a black screen and a solemn voice that advises that, because of violent content, the following program may not be appropriate for children. That same warning applies to today’s Old Testament reading. This is a story you may not have heard before. It is not in the lectionary, so we do not often hear it read aloud in worship. It is almost certainly a story you did not learn in Sunday School as a child. And frankly, it may be a story you do not want to hear. Today, we are reading the story of the rape of Tamar.

Because this is a difficult story, I want to give you full permission to do what you need to do to take care of yourself while you’re listening. If you need to close your ears for a moment, even if you need to leave the room – that’s ok. And take care of one another, too; if you see someone struggling, come offer a hand to hold or a tissue or a drink of water. Together, we are going to go to a dark place. But, guided by the one who faced the cross for us, together we will look for some light. Listen now for a word from God.

The Old Testament Lesson: 2 Samuel 13:1-22

            One: The word of the Lord

            Many: Thanks be to God

The New Testament Lesson: Ephesians 5:21-33

            One: The word of the Lord

            Many: Thanks be to God

The Gospel Lesson: Matthew 11:28-30

            One: Glory to you, O Christ

            Many: Praise to you, O Christ


I did not know Tamar’s story until I encountered it in this book when I was in college – a book called Texts of Terror. The author, Phillis Trible, talks about four Biblical stories in which women face brutal violence. “Texts of Terror” seems a very appropriate way to label this passage from the second book of Samuel. Not only did Tamar feel terror at the awful events she experienced, but we also feel terror when we read this story in our Bible. We want to believe, don’t we, that the world was kinder and gentler thousands of years ago. We want to believe that the heroes of the Bible, men like King David, were righteous role models who made good choices.  But Tamar’s story shatters our hopes. The violence that happens in our homes and parking lots today happened back then too. The people we look up to can be deeply, devastatingly flawed. We start to wonder: where is God in a world where people suffer so much? There is no easy answer to that question, and perhaps that’s a blessing: when we are experiencing great pain, easy answers are the last thing we want or need.

Tamar was born into a family of privilege and power. King David, her father, had ten wives; among Tamar’s many siblings she had a full brother, Absalom, and a half-brother, Amnon. And Amnon, we are told, developed a twisted passion for his half-sister. He conspired with his cousin Jonadab to form a plan: Amnon would pretend to be sick, and ask Tamar to care for him. When they were alone, he would take her by force. It happened just as he intended. Amnon feigned illness, and when his father came to his bed, Amnon asked David to send Tamar to him. David remained ignorant of Amnon’s intentions – or maybe he just looked the other direction, in a chilling, Penn-State sort of way. The king told Tamar to go to Amnon’s house to cook for him.

Amnon sent everyone else from the room, and then he dropped all pretense of illness and says, “Come lie with me, my sister.” Tamar said no. She doesn’t just say no once. She said no half a dozen times, in all different ways. Listen and count with me:  (1)“No, my brother, do (2)not force me; for such a thing is (3) not done in Israel; do (4)not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my (5)shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the (6)scoundrels in Israel.”

Tamar spoke wisely. She kept her cool, kept her powers of logic, tried to persuade. In a desperate attempt to maintain her dignity, she even offered to become Amnon’s wife, so that at least she would not bear the shame of losing her virginity out of wedlock  – but nothing worked. The words that come next are a text of terror indeed. “But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she was, he forced her and lay with her.”


In the aftermath, Tamar still refuses to be quiet – she tells Amnon that sending her away is even worse than violating her in the first place: it will publicize his crime and ensure her social ruin. When he does turn her out, she cries aloud in the street and tears her sleeves, a public sign of mourning. Absalom, her brother, takes her in, and she remains in his home, “a desolate woman.” That is all we know of Tamar.


Tamar seems so powerless in this story – she is told what to do, first by one man and then by another, and has no choice but to follow their instructions. In the book Texts of Terror, Phillis Trible describes how the Hebrew grammar tends to wrap Tamar’s name right into the middle of each sentence, so that she is literally and figuratively surrounded by the more powerful men. But there is one way Tamar does have power. She has the power of her voice. There were only two people in that room to hear the conversation and witness the rape: Amnon and Tamar. And still, Tamar’s voice survived. We know what she said. We can hear her NO, her logic, her vehemence. Tamar was able to tell someone the story of what happened to her and what she said. And that person was able to hear her, and remember her story, and share it at the right time with the right person, until this story made its way into our holy book, until thousands of years later, we know Tamar’s name, we know her tragedy, and we know her courage. “But he would not listen to her,” the Bible tells us of Amnon. But across all the barriers of history and culture and shame, we can listen to Tamar.


And if we listen to Tamar, then we cannot help but also listen to the voices of women today. Because for all our modern enlightenment, we still have not rooted out rape and abuse from our world. There is no place, no race, no social class, that is immune from domestic and sexual violence. If we listen to Tamar, then perhaps we can find the courage to raise our own voices, to say our own NO. We can say NO when rape is glamorized in the media. We can say NO when young people are given no instruction in forming healthy relationships. We can say NO when neighbors turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the violence going on next door. Like Tamar, we can say NO half a dozen times, as many times as it takes, until we begin to be heard. This kind of courageous NO to sin and YES to righteousness is the message that prophets have been crying out for generation upon generation, all through our Bible and up to the present day: we can be prophets too.


But first, here, in the church, we have to acknowledge how Christian churches have been complicit in domestic and sexual violence. We have to own up to how the words of St. Paul have been twisted and turned into knives. The passage that Jim read from Ephesians – how many times have women been told “wives, submit to your husbands,” as if that means “submit to beatings, submit to rape, submit to humiliation.” Too often, we don’t even bother hearing the rest of the passage, that husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. We don’t even pay attention to how the passage begins: be subject to one another out of reverence of Christ.

It’s not only Paul who has had his words misread: it’s even Jesus, too:“if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Women have come to their pastors reporting abuse and have been sent right back home to turn the other cheek. But that is not the message of Christ: forgiveness does not mean we cannot escape harm and seek justice. The real message of Christ comes through in today’s gospel: Jesus says, Come to me, all ye who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I can give you rest. I can wrap you up in some brand new pajamas when you have fled your home, Jesus says. I can give you the strength to carry on, and to find your voice.


In a moment, we will sing the hymn “In the Garden.” It’s one of Lil’s favorites, and I suspect it might be a favorite for many of you as well. But not everyone likes that song. There’s a retired seminary professor named Tex Sample who said it had bad theology, it was too focused on the individual, full of escapist spirituality. He made fun of it one day in his classroom, singing it in a mocking tone: “I come to the garden aloooooone.” But after class, one of the students approached him. She told him that, starting when she was eleven, her father had sexually abused her. “After every one of those ordeals,” she said, “I would go outside and sing that song to myself: I go to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses, and he walks with me and talks with me and he tells me that I am his own. Without that song I don't know how I could have survived. Tex, don’t you ever ever make fun of that song in my presence again.”

If we wonder, when we read Tamar’s story, or hear the stories of today’s Tamars, if we wonder where God is, I think one answer is that God is in the garden. God is walking with Tamar. God is walking with every woman, every man, every child who has suffered domestic or sexual violence. God is saying, come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. I will walk with you and talk with you and tell you that you are my own. I will hear your story, and I will remember.

If you read on in Tamar’s story, there is the faintest, smallest glimmer of hope. Her brother Absalom did seek justice for his sister, though maybe a bloodier justice than we’d recommend today: when the time was right, he conspired to kill Amnon. And years later, Absalom had sons and a daughter. We don’t know anything about his sons. But the scriptures tell us about his daughter. She was beautiful. And her name was Tamar.


Absalom remembered Tamar’s name. In a moment, we will light candles for the women, men, and children who have been killed in domestic violence so far this year in Western Pennsylvania. They are our Tamars. We remember their names. We listen for their voices. And we work for an end to violence.

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