“No” Is a Prophetic Word — 1 October 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
1 October 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

“No” Is a Prophetic Word

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2 Samuel 13:1-22 

Some time passed. David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar, and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. 

But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, “O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?” Amnon said to him, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” Jonadab said to him, “Lie down on your bed and pretend to be ill, and when your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.’” 

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill, and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.” Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, “Go to your brother Amnon’s house and prepare food for him.” 

So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.” So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber so that I may eat from your hand.” So Tamar took the cakes she had made and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. 

But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.” 

But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her. Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, “Get out!” 

But she said to him, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.” 

(Now she was wearing an ornamented robe with sleeves, for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. But Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.” So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house. 

When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad, for Absalom hated Amnon because he had raped his sister Tamar.

Like most stories of sexual violence, we never hear this story— not just in context of worship, but in Bible study, in theological tomes. It is glossed over, hidden from view. Sexual violence is the most under-reported crime. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only 63% of rapes are reported, despite happening to one in five women and one in 71 men. We tell these stories rarely, at least in part, because little ears are listening, especially here, when scripture is proclaimed, and, also, because we do not wish to traumatize or re-traumatize those who come to worship. Yet, these words should be proclaimed in our midst, because the legacy we want for our daughters, and for our trans and non-binary children, and for our sons is the unmistakable clarity that sexual violence is outside the kin-dom of God. That those truly anointed as heirs to the kin-dom are not the powerful who get their own way and take no advice, who are deaf to God’s prophets… those truly anointed are the ones whose suffering is transformed by God’s own self, by the Lamb of God who takes away sin—this sin—from the world. We want our legacy to be that our children know that “no” is a divinely-ordained, prophetic word.

Last week, when we heard the story of Bathsheba, the language obscured the violence done to her and to her body. Because there is no evidence in the story that says she consented to what was done to her, the assumption has been that she must have consented. But that is a dangerous and slippery slope, which protects only the powerful. So, if we wish to believe and hear the vulnerable, our assumption should be that, given no evidence to the contrary, she did not consent. Today, we hear the consequences of the that text’s waffling.Because David’s sons knew of his deeds, because these deeds were not described as they should be, in stark and violent language, David’s sons are given permission to assume that women were theirs for the taking. We also see that David’s daughter knew of his deeds, and was well prepared to voice their denial. She gives seven clear points to deny Amnon, which Anna Carter-Florence outlines with perfect accuracy:

“1. No. I’m saying no.
2. You’re my brother.
3. We don’t do this in Israel. It’s not who we are.
4. This act has an adjective: vile.
5. What would happen to me? I would have nowhere to go.
6. What would happen to you? You would be one of the scoundrels in Israel.
7. If it has to happen, if it’s really about to happen, at least talk to Dad first—because we both know he won’t withhold me from you.”

And, so, in today’s story we see—this time well documented— not just Amnon’s ferocious cruelty, but also Tamar’s denial of consent.

These stories live in tandem, a testament to all victims of sexual violence whose stories are not heard, not believed, not told, not litigated on behalf of, not served justice, and not redeemed. If you factor in unreported rapes, only 6% of rapists are jailed. There is no way to report a rape that will be consistently heard, and Tamar knows it. So, after Amnon’s wicked deed, she resigns herself to live out her life a desolate woman in her brother’s house. In her seminal work, Texts of Terror, Phyllis Tribble writes, “When used of people elsewhere in scripture, the verb be desolate…connotes being destroyed by an enemy (Lamentations 1:16) or being torn to pieces by an animal (Lamentations 3:11). Raped, despised, and rejected by a man, Tamar is a woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief. She is cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the sins of her brother; yet she herself has done no violence and there is no deceit in her mouth. No matter what Absalom may plan for the future, the narrator understands the endless suffering of her present.” The unresolved nature of this story haunts us.

Admittedly, the text offer’s Absalom’s revenge as some kind of “redemption” in this story. Absalom will eventually murder Amnon and attempt a coup on his silent, complicit father, David. And this too is offered as “redemption”: that Absalom names his daughter after her aunt. As Phyllis Tribble points out, “From aunt to niece have passed name and beauty, so that rape and desolation have not the final word in the story of Tamar.”While I think I have to concede ever so slightly, that this is what redemption looks like for many people—past and present— so the text isn’t required to look for another solution. I, personally, would feel better if the text admitted defeat: “it would never be enough, but…” But none of this feels like redemption to me. What is done is done, these feeble attempts at resolution will not change that.

The neat bow offered Tamar— one of many tidy endings edited into scripture— allows us to assume that life is, ultimately, resolvable. That our redemption lies in how all our problems can be explained, rebuilt. We need only look to the right and to the left in this community of beloveds— we need only to call to mind the sorrowwe know is lodged in one another’s stories— to know that redemption cannot be located in the ultimate solvability of our lives. For I look out upon those who I know have been redeemed in baptism, offered endless grace and mercy from the table, and whose lives hold within them deep unresolutions, chasms of pain and sorrow, for which redemption is already promised but which has not yet been transformed in the light of the resurrection.

But there is a glimmer of redemption in this text, a transformation that cannot be completed by human action.The homiletics professor Anna Carter Florence points out that, after Amnon throws her out— actually, the text says he tells the servant to “Put this out” in one last attempt to remove from Tamar her autonomy and humanity—Carter Florence writes, “Tamar responds by tearing her robe, putting ashes on her head, and taking to the corridors, crying aloud as she goes. It’s a mourning script, but it’s also a prophetic one; the prophets of Israel “cried aloud” in times of injustice. And she makes sure that everyone in the palace sees and hears, even though Amnon wouldn’t. She makes a scene, one that any activist would admire.” This story is one of trauma, but also of prophecy.

In truth, Tamar has been a prophet all along. She has the longest sustained speech of any character in this story.These words echo other stories of sexual violence—the rape of Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dinah and of the Levite’s concubine in Judges, stories of sexual violence that erupt into what Robert Alter calls “murderous fraternal vengeance.” Like most prophetic speech, there is an offer of repentance, but Amnon shuts out Tamar’s voice. In this story there is only one person who is faithful— faithful to Torah, faithful to YHWH, and to herself— and that is Tamar. She is surrounded by faithless fools— the crafty Jonadab, the rapist Amnon, the vengeful Absalom, her absent and silent father, the king, David, even servants who are silently withdrawn in the face of merciless injustice. Not one of these characters act in a way contrary to their nature. Not one of these characters works to prevent the assault. And still Tamar speaks.

She speaks a word echoed by other prophets: the exploited, the trafficked, the raped, the mugged, the assaulted, the harassed, the abused. She speaks a word on behalf all those who had no chance to say it, who couldn’t say it, whose silence will be held against them. Beloved, she speaks a true word of redemption, and let us bear witness to this truth, and let us take it on as our own, and let us hear it with clarity as a prophetic word,this divine ordinance in the face of injustice and violence: No.