Most of us recently had lesson 24 in this year’s Old Testament Sunday School curriculum. The main topic of discussion is the story of David and Bathsheba, but an enrichment section at the back of the manual suggests talking about the story of Amnon and Tamar from 2 Samuel 13. In characterizing this story, the manual summarizes: ” 2 Samuel 13 contains the story of David’s son Amnon and David’s daughter Tamar. Amnon was attracted to Tamar and forced her to commit fornication with him.” (Emphasis added) It seems to me that our nameless, faceless, anonymous curriculum committee writers have done Tamar a grave disservice with this formulation.
KJV 2 Samuel 13:14 reads as follows: “Howbeit he would not hearken unto her voice: but, being stronger than she, forced her, and lay with her.” This is a straightforward translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text. “Lay with her” is indeed what the Hebrew says, but this is simply a euphemistic way of saying that Amnon raped his sister Tamar. And it is not unusual for modern translations to convey this straightforwardly and non-euphemistically, as in the following examples:
NET: “He overpowered her and humiliated her by raping her.”
NIV: “since he was stronger than she, he raped her.“
CEB: “He was stronger than she was, and so he raped her.“
CJB: “and since he was stronger than she, he overpowered her and raped her. “
CEB: “He was stronger than she was, so he overpowered her and raped her. “
[That should be sufficient to make the point; for these and other examples, go to this verse at biblegateway.com.]
Now, I can imagine the back and forth that might have gone on in the process of the committee that wrote this manual. They wanted to make reference to this incident, but they didn’t want to use the normal English word for what happened here, rape, as that is too ugly a word for the delicate sensibilities of those who attend Sunday School. [But of course, the actual act of rape is uglier than the word itself, and if the committee was too squeamish to use the accurate word in modern English for this encounter, maybe they should have left the whole episode out of the manual altogether.] So anyway, they resolved to do a linguistic work-around to avoid the unpleasant word rape.
I can understand that. And they started out well enough, using the word “forced.” But then they thoughtlessly followed that with “her to commit fornication with him.” If we restate that, using names instead of pronouns, it asserts that “Tamar committed fornication with Amnon.” What is fornication? Generally, it is consensual sex between two people not married to each other. So it is illicit–but consensual–sex. So while the word “forced” starts off well and contains the right idea, the rest of the sentence then takes much of the force of that word back and essentially conveys the sense that “Tamar had consensual sex with her brother to whom she was not married.”
This was an unfortunate and thoughtless formulation. It would be easier to let it go if we didn’t have a history of blaming the victim in cases of sexual assault (such as trying to decide if a victim fought back hard enough against her rapist, advising girls to fight to the death with a rapist [abominable advice], and informal church discipline sometimes being handed out to victims of sexual assault, and other hoary relics of the thinking of the past).
This is supposed to be the Church of Jesus Christ, not the Church of Bobby Knight. Tamar did not commit fornication with her brother. She did not “lay back and enjoy it,” as the old joke goes. Rather, he raped her. This was completely against her will, and she tried every avenue of suasion available to her, and none of it worked. She deserves better than the careless editing fail reflected in the teacher’s manual.