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.