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Sunday August 7

Sunday August 7

Readings for Sunday, August 7:

Psalms 66, 67 (Morning)

2 Samuel 13:1-22

Romans 15:1-13

John 3:22-36

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. It’s 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 Jonadab’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. 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?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepsicatoid

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Maria L. Evans

Thanks for commenting, Savi. In my mind, many things in subsequent chapters play out, but I see it more with an eye to Friedman’s family systems theory than to whether prices are paid for the behavior. We are seeing how dysfunction, aka sin, plays out intergenerationally. There is a kernel of truth in the old saw of “the sins of the father,” here.

I see your point about your thoughts about what may or may not constitute a “text of terror” for you. For me, the rape of Tamar certainly qualifies because of the de-souling nature of rape. For me, being attacked in a way where the weapon of choice has the power to create life, life that I did not yearn to create but yet must bear the responsibility for its survival, is particularly de-souling.

Savi Hensman

But surely in this text, Amnon pays a high price for his crime, as does David for his refusal to do justice to Tamar as her king and father. I would not consider the story of Cain and Abel as a ‘text of terror’, say, just because violence occurs in it.

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for your comments, Bill. You are right on target with how these “hard stories” challenge us to meet these stories head on, not conceding our own moral ground and not making excuses for the behavior that we find unacceptable in modern culture. 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel are full of deplorable behavior, and as serious students of the Word we have to be reconciled to it being an expression of our broken world in general, I think. Thanks for the Phyllis Trible reference, also!

Bill Moorhead

Dr. Evans, no doubt you have noticed that the Old Testament readings in the Daily Office — particularly at this season of the year, when we are working through historical material — are full of appalling stories. You may have noticed that there are additional appalling and unedifying stories skipped over in the Office lectionary. Granted, the rape of Tamar is one of the hardest stories, particularly for us who strive for greater sensitivity about domestic abuse and other forms of misogyny. The story of Tamar reminds us that we need to get a lot more serious about how we understand how to read Scripture, and to counter mindless literalism with much greater vigor (and I would say less politeness) than we usually do. Yes, we need to read about Tamar, as well as the rest of the bloodshed and even genocide that occur throughout the Bible. (Last/next year we are spared the story of the Levite’s concubine from Judges 19.) You write, “It’s hard to come away with any sort of redeeming lesson from reading this passage”, although you then proceed to do it pretty well anyway. We might note that Phyllis Trible offers a close and detailed study of the Tamar story in “Texts of Terror.”

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