(Amnon and Tamar, Jan Steen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally appeared in the Speaking to the Soul blog Sunday, August 7, 2011)
Readings for Sunday, August 7:
Psalms 66, 67 (Morning)
2 Samuel 13:1-22
Psalms 19, 46 (Evening)
Without a doubt, our Old Testament reading today, describing the incestuous rape of Tamar, is one of the most disgusting and one of the least redeeming stories in the Bible. It's hard to come away with any sort of redeeming lesson from reading this passage. Its place in the Daily Office, sandwiched between some fairly joyful and comforting passages, seems totally out of kilter in the day's readings. One has to wonder about the discussion that ensued in committee prior to its gaining a spot in the Daily Office. Where does one put this in the lectionary? What possibly is to be learned from such a brutal story? In fact, the richness of both the Gospel passage for today the Epistle, and the Psalms, provide a wonderful escape hatch, so that if one chooses to, the icky story of the rape of Tamar can be pushed aside entirely in our spiritual imaginations.
Yet, that tendency, to me, is exactly what this brutal story is all about--dealing with what I call "The Great Unspoken." The Great Unspoken is made up of all the terrible stories that all families have, and how unspoken it is often is directly proportional to the dysfunction the family has carried from generation to generation. It's made up not of what we say, but what we don't say. When we look at this story, the tempting tendency is to simply ignore it--and we see a lot of ignoring going on.
Let's start at the beginning--it seems rather implausible for Amnon to be burning with lust for Tamar as much as he was, and no one in the family even noticed. People don't just wake up one morning and say, "Gee...I think I'd like to have sex with my half-sister." David had to see something, and Absalom had to notice something, and royal households being a little bit like small towns, it just seems highly unlikely that the relatives and the hired help knew nothing. In fact, Cousin Johnadab's involvement in this story, and the fact he initiates the conversation with Amnon about how to trick Tamar affirms this. Tamar had to have noticed the extra attention she was getting and struggled with her own complicated feelings.
Meanwhile, The Great Unspoken keeps growing and growing. David sends Tamar in to Amnon without so much as a "be careful." Amnon intuitively knows what he did was wrong, going so far as to convert his unspoken shame to loathing for the victim. He even dehumanizes her vocally, calling to have "this woman" put out from his presence. (Shades of "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," a couple of presidencies ago!) Tamar, herself, loses the wise voice we saw earlier in this story and tears her virginal clothes, pours ashes on her head with the same hands that previously made a gift of bread, and Absalom more or less says, "get over it," but at the same time takes her in. (Did he do it to be kind, or did he do it because he knew and felt guilty, or did he do it because "this doesn't happen in 'nice' families?") As we travel further in the Daily Office this week, it will become apparent that the Great Unspoken will continue to wreak havoc in the royal family.
This story becomes a reminder that there are far better ways to deal with The Great Unspoken--whether it is among our kin, our network of friends, our workplace, or our parish. Yes, there are consequences to honesty or being proactive in the face of deceit or mental instability, but there are generally far worse and longer lasting consequences when we stuff those feelings or cause them to be manifest in a "sideways" fashion. I find it interesting in this story that nowhere do we see any of the characters approaching God for guidance, or lamenting or expressing their fears in the face of God. There's a Great Unspoken here, too.
The story of the rape of Tamar is a call to remind us that no Great Unspoken is too disgusting or nasty to take to God. It's a reminder that when we don't fully understand people, or they seem to behave in an odd or weird fashion, or over-react to a simple issue, that they may be carrying a Great Unspoken of their own. Finally, it's a call for us to address our own Great Unspokens.
What Great Unspokens block us in our own ability to be invited into full relationship with the living God? Are there Great Unspokens that create wedges in our relations to each other? Is today the day to fearlessly bring them first, to our prayer life, and later, to the place where reconciliation begins?