Judith Rossall explores Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom’s responses to shame in 2 Samuel 13 following the rape of Tamar…

The Bible has any number of stories of rape – they are nasty and, too often, told from the perspective of the perpetrator rather than the victim. It is very tempting for the preacher to avoid them all together and certainly they need to be handled with great care – recognising that we may well have rape survivors (and perhaps also perpetrators) in the congregation. This post follows up the post I wrote in January, exploring the link between violence and shame and I won’t repeat what I said there. It may, therefore, seem strange to choose a passage in which shame is mentioned only once (and then by the victim) but I want to explore more of what I said earlier about the hidden nature of shame – shame is an inarticulate emotion and we do not always recognise the impact which it has on our actions. 

This is a passage which needs to read in context. Hopefully, when telling the story of rape today we would want to acknowledge the trauma caused to the victim but we have to face the fact that this story was first told in a world which saw things very differently, as we will see in this story the victim is silenced and sidelined. The narrator had a particular question he was seeking to illuminate and that question was why did one of David’s sons murder his half-brother? This story is told as a way of leading up to the point where Absalom kills Amnon. We can see this in the way that the major players are introduced – they are all children of David and Amnon is the oldest son (and presumably most likely heir). Yet at the beginning of the chapter we are told first that ‘David’s son Absalom’ had a sister Tamar and then that ‘David’s son Amnon’ fell in love with her. Absalom will not appear again until the rape is over – yet we are given a hint that it is his relationship with Tamar which is central for the narrator. 

Amnon: Unacceptable Emotions

The story opens with a focus on Amnon and it may seem that it is about to be told from his perspective, certainly we are told more about how he feels than anyone else.  At the same time, the story also contains hints about how his perspective might be questioned. For example, we are told that Amnon ‘loved’ Tamar in v1, but the rest of the story will proceed to undermine that by describing his actions. This is the story of someone who makes himself ill because he cannot do whatever he wants to someone else and who immediately begins to hate once he has had what he wants. Amnon does not act like someone who is in love. I would suggest that here shame begins to raise its head as it is quite possible to feel shame about our own emotions (a good Christian wouldn’t feel that, we tell ourselves) and to attempt to deny what we feel. Love, on the other hand, is an acceptable emotion and is often used to justify actions, particularly by abusers. Could it be that Amnon could not face the fact that what he really felt was a mixture of lust and rivalry with Absalom, combined with a sense of entitlement which made his needs more important than those of Tamar?    

Amnon’s reaction after the rape is complete is described as ‘hatred’ but again we need to be alert to the fact that psychologists argue that shame can trigger anger towards others. Shame is such a dreadful experience that it is not unusual to try to get rid of it by attempting to lay the blame elsewhere. In effect, the argument becomes ‘it is not my fault you made me do it.’ Amnon, I would suggest, cannot face the awful thing that he has done, and so he treats Tamar as the living embodiment of his guilt and shame. He literally cannot bear to look at her and so she is thrown out as soon as possible. After this, the narrator switches his attention to Tamar and Absalom, so we are not told whether Amnon finds any relief once Tamar has been removed, but it seems unlikely. The problem with blaming others is that it does nothing to help us face (and heal) the shame that we experience. 

Photo: Mart Production (Pexels)

Tamar: Carrying the Shame

In verses 11-14 we are shown the conversation between Tamar and Amnon before he rapes her, a conversation which shows us again that Amnon is entirely focussed on himself. Tamar predicts consequences for both of them if he does what he wants. Amnon would become one of the ‘nabal’ in Israel – although often translated as ‘foolish’ the Hebrew implies someone who is blind to demands of ethics and right behaviour. As for Tamar –‘where would I carry my shame?’, she asks. The tragedy of violence and particularly sexual violence is how often it is the victim who is left with a sense of shame, despite having done nothing to deserve what happened. It is as if the act conveys a sense that the victim is not worthy of proper consideration and that judgement can too easily be accepted and internalised. The Hebrew literally says something like ‘where would I go with my shame’, perhaps conveying a sense that Tamar believes that she would never be able to escape the humiliation of what has happened to her.  However, Tamar’s arguments make no difference and v14 literally says he would not hear her voice – mirroring the sense of many abuse survivors that they become voiceless, both during the attack and afterwards.    

Absalom: reacting to shame

Only once the rape has happened does Absalom, who was introduced first in the chapter, begin to play a part in the story. The implication of what happens is that he is avenging Tamar – we are told that he hated Amnon because of what happened. But it is worth noticing that he takes no more notice of Tamar herself than did Amnon, in fact he urges her to silence and plays down her trauma. It is not only Amnon who quietens Tamar’s voice, Absalom does so as well and it is quite possible that in doing so he made her struggle with shame worse. Tamar has already been treated like convenience by Amnon, now Absalom is telling her how she should feel about it; this is another way of telling her that her feelings and her understanding of her own experience does not matter. Ultimately, Tamar may be left to conclude that therefore she does not matter. 

This, of course, raises the question of whether Absalom is acting for Tamar at all – or does he act from his own sense of shame? We are sadly familiar today with the phenomenon of rape as a weapon of war – used to terrorise and humiliate civilian populations. What those of us who were brought up in an individualistic culture can miss is the sense in a collectivist culture that when a woman is raped that is a shame for the entire family. In Forbidden Fruit and Fig leaves I suggested that David’s rape of Bathsheba was, at heart, a part of the on-going fear of and rivalry with Uriah. Here that same dynamic appears to play out in the next generation. Tamar is Amnon’s half sister but this seems less important than the fact that she is Absalom’s sister and he, I would suggest, feels a powerful sense of shame that his sister has been raped. In a very real way the attack on Tamar is experienced as an attack on Absalom. Again, we need to be alert to the fact that the text does not say this – it merely says that Absalom hated Amnon but I would suggest that it is reasonable way to interpret the text in the light of modern psychology. Apparently, Absalom broods on his hatred for two years before the terrible events set off by Amnon reach their conclusion in his murder. 

All of which raises one final question – if this is a fair reading of text, how does it help preachers to deal with it for a modern congregation? Here, I want to turn to basic point often made about shame – it is difficult to heal unless we are first willing to recognise what lies at the heart of our struggle and many people avoid admitting to shame because doing so can itself be shaming. Here is a text which is honest about the way that shame can poison relationships. It shows us a man in denial about his own motives – the preacher might want to open up the importance of having somewhere safe to be honest about what we really feel. It shows us a victim left carrying a shame which she does not deserve – the preacher might want to take time to make clear that the victim should never feel that they are less because they were attacked. It also shows us someone who hits out possibly as a way to avoid the deep sense of shame that he feels – the preacher may want to explore the danger that if we cannot face our own shame, we too might react to it in ways which injure others. 

Judith Rossall is a Methodist Presbyter and tutor in Church History, Preaching and Spirituality at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham.  She is the author of Living the Story: What It Was Like to Be There – Dramas That Bring the Bible Alive, (Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 2003) and Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves : Reading the Bible with the Shamed (London: SCM Press, 2020).  She is a member of the Steering Group for the Transforming Shame Network and is involved with Inclusive Gathering which meets in Birmingham and Worcester. 

As always, guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

Where shall I carry my shame?

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