The narrative vocabulary of rape in the Old Testament and the counter-example of Amnon and Tamar

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I asked in the previous post about blaming Bathsheba, “If it was a rape, why isn’t it presented as a rape?” James McGrath asks to the contrary, if we call Amnon’s assault of Tamar “rape,” why do we not apply the same category to David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba? “Where in the story is Bathsheba complicit? Where is she willing? Where does she give consent?”

My immediate response to that is to ask how often the biblical writers record the consent given when a man lies with a woman. Most sexual encounters in the Bible are of the form: he lay with / knew / went in to a woman and she conceived, which is pretty much what we have in the case of David and Bathsheba. All very perfunctory. No one stops to ask whether consent was given.

There is, however, one outstanding example of consent not being given, and that is the case of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar. It is integral to the Bathsheba-Solomon story. The first child that “Uriah’s wife” (2 Sam. 13:15) bore to David dies, David comforts Bathsheba, goes in to her, lies with her, and she bears a son, Solomon, who is loved by the Lord. There is a brief interlude while David captures the city of Rabbah, and then we are back to the royal court: “Now Absalom, David’s son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar…” (2 Sam. 13:1).

The differences between the account of this incident and the account of David’s illicit liaison with Bathsheba are striking.

1. There may not be a Hebrew word for “rape” comparable to the modern English term, but the Old Testament authors do appear to have had a clear enough narrative vocabulary to speak about sexual violence: Shechem saw Dinah and “seized her and lay with her and humiliated (yeʿann) her” (Gen. 34:2); a man who seizes an unbetrothed virgin and lies with her has “humiliated” or “violated” (ʿinn) her (Deut. 22:28-29); Amnon was stronger than Tamar, “he violated (yeʿann) her and lay with her” (2 Sam. 13:14). This is very different to “she came to him, and he lay with her” (2 Sam. 11:4).

2. The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is told at length and in vivid and painful detail. We know a great deal about Amnon’s motivation, his state of mind, his frustration: he was tormented, he made himself ill, he appeared haggard. Jonadab devises an elaborate scheme to get the two of them alone together. We are assured of Tamar’s innocence; we hear her protests; consent is definitely not given. The narrator is quite capable of exploring the subjectivity of his protagonists if he wants to. He knows what sexual coercion looks and feels like.

3. In this case the offence is entirely against Tamar, not against a male relative—not even against her father David. She is shamed by the violation, but to her way of thinking being hated and sent away by her violator is the greater wrong (2 Sam. 13:16). She puts ashes on her head, tears her robe, and leaves, “crying aloud as she went.” Her brother Absalom advises her to hold her peace, but hates Amnon “because he had violated his sister Tamar.” The ruling of Deuteronomy 22:28-28 is not applied. Amnon does not marry Tamar; she does not get to be Queen Mother. Again, this is very different to Bathsheba’s quiet return to her house, later to send word to David that she is pregnant.

It seems to me very difficult, therefore, to include both these stories in the same category of “rape.” Admittedly, we could still judge that David “raped” Bathsheba simply by commanding her submission as king and that her compliance was conventional. That definition would hold, would it not, even if she did not think that she had been “violated” by David? But such a judgment seems anachronistic and alien to the perspective of the narrator.

In some cases the language used does indicate that the woman was “humbled” or perhaps “held down” (that seems as though it could fall within the range of meaning of ענה‎). This does not mean that all instances where such language is absent are not rape by our standards. Sometimes women do not fight back out of fear, and we still call it rape. 

Your point that the expectation in this time period was not that a woman would not be raped but that if she were then the man would at least keep her. That seems to preclude viewing the fact that Bathsheba eventually becomes David’s wife as evidence against rape.

I wonder how much of this is a selective resistance to anachronism on your part. Can we not classify the extermination of Canaanites (had that actually happened) as genocide by our standards even though the ancient narrators’ perspectives are very different? 

@James F. McGrath:

I can’t find any examples where ענה‎ clearly means “hold down”—as in a man pinning down a woman. The sequence of verbs in Gen. 34:2 precludes that sense. Something more general must be intended in in Deuteronomy 22:29. It would work very well in 2 Samuel 13:14 taken out of context but is ruled out by the use of the verb in verses 12 and 22. It’s not a meaning given in BDB. But quite possibly I’m missing something.

The Law says that a man who rapes a virgin who is not betrothed (and therefore is not another man’s possession, in contrast to Deut. 22:25) must pay the father 50 shekels and marry the woman, “because he has violated her”; he may never divorce her (Deut. 22:28-29). David’s case is different: Bathsheba was married, so the fundamental offence was in having Uriah killed so that David could marry her. Besides, one wonders whether the rules really applied in the palace.

Yes, this seems to me to be the critical point. My concern has been to understand and safeguard the perspective of the ancient narrator, whether the implications are moral (as in the case of the extermination of the Canaanites and David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba) or theological (justification by faith, coming of the Son of Man, etc.) or both (penal substitutionary atonement). It’s another task to decide whether the ancient values and beliefs are viable in our own context. My book End of Story: Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission was an attempt to show how a “narrative-historical” methodology can help us negotiate not only theological but also ethical tensions.

But obviously the historical work may affect the moral judgment. My impression has been, fairly or not, that a lot of people have read modern moral concerns into the text. We are under cultural pressure, for very good reasons, to view Bathsheba as the innocent victim and we recoil at any suggestion that she was complicit. But the narrator does not describe the incident in that way, and there’s no reason why it must conform to modern expectations. My suggestion is that he does not think that the incident was a “violation” but rather the beginning of a narrative arc that would end in the enthronement of her replacement son, Solomon. If we want to speculate about Bathsheba’s motivations in order to understand what actually happened in some sense, I think that we need to do so according to that trajectory.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 07/27/2022 - 16:19 | Permalink

This is just an interpretation, but it has long seemed to me that Amnon’s rape of Tamar and Absalom’s murder of Amnon stood in the narrative as a kind of recapitulation of David’s sins, first with/against Bathsheba and then against Uriah, and that in the narrative they functioned as the first fulfillments of Nathan’s prophecy that YHWH would visit on David’s family the kinds of things that David had done to others.

If that’s right, it would suggest that the narrator does see more agency on David’s part than on Bathsheba’s, even if that is not explicitly affirmed (deference to royal reputation?) in the way it is in the Amnon/Tamar story. But that is sort of a ‘second order’ inference, depending as it does on the supposition of intentional parallelism between the David/Bathsheba and David/Uriah events and the Amnon/Tamar and Absalom/Amnon events.