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18 December 2019

Suffering in silence: the story of Tamar

Like a library of literary genres, the Bible also contains surprising texts, particularly in the Old Testament, in which violence sets the stage. How should we view these stories? Why were they included in the biblical canon (determined in 1546 at the Council of Trent, for the Roman Catholic Church)?

The account of the rape of Tamar, daughter of King David, is an eloquent example. This little known text, never read in our liturgies, is especially relevant today. Its place in the biblical canon allows us to reflect on the dark sides of our human condition, with a faith perspective.

In the context of sexual abuse in the Church, but also considering all sexual violence against women, minors and vulnerable persons, Tamar’s story sheds light on the power relations, suffering and silence experienced by victims of abuse.

The following is a proposed discussion guide to facilitate a biblical reflection in your community or faith group1.

Read Tamar’s story in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Sam 13:1-22)

Note: Tamar and Absalom are sisters and brothers, children of David and the same mother. Amnon is their half-brother, son of David and another mother

Suggested questions for discussion:

What leads Amnon, Tamar and Absalom’s half-brother, to rape Tamar?

Consider: Amnon’s sickly desire linked to a forbidden practice (sleeping with his virgin half-sister2), the manipulation and planning of the aggression with Jonadab’s complicity.

How does Absalom react when he learns that Tamar was raped by their half-brother?

Consider: Absalom minimizes his sister’s suffering and silences her (v. 20), but takes her into his home, where she lives, abandoned. King David is «irritated» but does not intervene (v. 21).

Did Tamar have a voice and agency (control over her actions) at any time?

Where was the collectivity or community that could have reacted to this violence?

Complement. Read the remainder of the story (2 Sam 13:23-39). Amnon hates Tamar after raping her; Absalom hates Amnon and conspires to have him killed; David mourns Amnon and no longer speak to Absalom. From the rape plot to the murder of Amnon, the reader witnesses a cycle of violence.

Does Tamar’s story change our outlook on sexual abuse in the Church?

Consider: Victims are generally manipulated and «groomed» by their abuser, who establishes a trusting relationship with the victim and his/her family. This explains why in some cases, victims may normalize the abuse and only remember it years later. It also explains why some parents do not believe the child who reveals the abuse, since they themselves have established a friendly relationship with the abuser.

Did the ecclesial community or the Church leaders, to whom victims courageously revealed their abuse, minimize the suffering and experience they endured? Did abusers or Church leaders impose or buy silence? Did the larger Church community react to the violence or was it only “angry”, like King David?

Have victims really been heard in our Church, not only in legal contexts, but in restorative justice processes?

Is there a cycle of violence at work in sexual abuse as experienced in the Church?

Do Tamar’s story and this discussion encourage us to make changes, to demand better practices, as a people of God and ecclesial community?

1 Thank you to the young women of the Centre étudiant Benoît-Lacroix (Montreal), where I was a university campus minister, who allowed me to delve deeper into the story of Tamar, in the winter of 2019, during a Bible study and discussion on sexual abuse in the Church.

2 An ancient custom would have permitted Amnon to marry his half-sister, Tamar. However, the laws of Leviticus (18 : 9 and 11) and of Deuteronomy (27 :22) forbade it.

Sabrina Di Matteo
Assistant Director, Ongoing Formation, Canadian Religious Conference

This article is taken from the Autumn 2019 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Abuse in the Church: Between Crisis and Hope”.