Throwing Tamar under the Linguistic Bus

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]

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.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this. I was absolutely sick to my stomach when I read this portion of the lesson and wondered how I might counter what was said without sounding strident. Thank you.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Very well done, Kevin. A curriculum writing fail met with a close-reading win.

  3. Thank you.

  4. We had a train-wreck of a David/Bathsheba lesson, taught by a new GD teacher whose style is 100% lecture. This week we were treated to 40 minutes of how we should have sympathy for the sinner, illustrated by the teacher’s personal experience with a friend of his (a high school teacher) who is in jail for having sex with a student. This poor man’s life is ruined! He is going to have to suffer because of his sins forever! His reputation will never recover! I eventually raised my hand and pointed out that he’s completely ignored the welfare of the real victim (i.e. the student) and for that matter, haven’t even mentioned Bathsheba except as a participant in the great and mighty David’s fall. I said that Bathsheba probably didn’t have much agency in the whole situation, and that with the next story being Tamar’s rape there’s kind of a theme going. The GD teacher masterfully redirected my comments back to the topic at hand–those poor, poor men–and I went back to counting the minutes until class was over.

  5. Angela C says:

    We haven’t gotten to this lesson yet, and unfortunately, I’m going to miss it due to being out of town. I found that the manual was really light on scholarship when I subbed a couple weeks ago. Even just reading the actual scriptures led to very different conclusions than the manual proof-texted.

  6. I’ve always thought fornication was sex outside of marriage. So the word fornication isn’t problematic. Forced to “commit” would seem to be the problem, then, but it’s really just saying she was forced to have sex outside of marriage. If the manual had said that, in fact you could still complain, because “having sex” also sounds like there was some personal choice in the matter, except for the fact that in all cases the words, “forced to” pretty much nullify that excuse.

    In fact, the current wording is actually more descriptive and accurate in a certain sense. If you don’t know what fornication means, you might also not know what rape means. Fornication also carries the extra weight in the definition that she was unmarried.

    The reason why we don’t like the word fornication being applied here is because we usually associate it with voluntary sin. But it’s clear in this case it was not voluntary – “forced”.

    Might I suggest that it is you who are obfuscating this issue, either out of ignorance or a misfocused legalistic reading (which is wrong on the facts and merits of the terms). You’re taking offense over accurate terminology, because you feel it doesn’t carry the weight of violence of the actual act. Understandable, but because the author used a different tone than your modern sensibilities would like does not mean your argument holds any water. At no point do I get the impression that she laid back and enjoyed it, and your use of that language is actually more offensive to me than the words you’re criticizing.

  7. As you scratch your head trying to figure out how the curriculum committee could have come up with such a gross mis-characterization of Tamar’s behavior, ask yourself one simple question: How many women were on that committee? Mystery solved.

  8. Kristine says:

    DQ–Tamar didn’t “commit” anything. She did not “have sex.” She was raped. If a man got stabbed in the back, we would never say “he was forced to have a knife fight.”

  9. Yes, Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar.

    However, I see nothing wrong with either the scripture writer’s or the manual writer’s choice of words. They both tell the story accurately and correctly. It is not necessary to always use the harshest word — indeed, I appreciate the discretion and tact of the writers. Forcibly tells the story. Rape is a loaded word, and was best avoided. The original poster understands and doesn’t argue that rape should have been used, and I appreciate that, but he errs in suggesting that fornication always implies a consensual act*. I am not so sure of that, so I do not share the outrage of others displayed here.

    * I checked four dictionaries — two suggested voluntary or consensual, and two did not.

  10. Kristine says:

    ” Rape is a loaded word, and was best avoided.”

    WHY??? If we can’t say “rape”, what in the world are we doing reading the Old Testament?

  11. “But he would not listen to her; he was too strong for her: he forced her down and raped her. ” NAB

    As for the poster who said, “Rape is a loaded word and is best avoided,” I have two thoughts.

    1 Since when is stating the truth “loaded?”
    2 Murder is an equally loaded term. As such, I would appreciate it if Mormons stopped saying “The mob at Carthage jail murdered Joseph Smith” and instead said, “The mob at Carthage jail forced Joseph Smith to place his soul in the hands of God.” The meaning is the same, but it’s far less loaded, less inflammatory, and less offensive to non-Mormons.

  12. Quickmere says:

    “Might I suggest that it is you who are obfuscating this issue”

    You might. But you also might come across as a rape apologist and a stooge as a result. But no one forced you to do something so dumb. You committed stupidity.

  13. “Forced her to commit fornication with him,” also implies that she is culpable for her actions, because it says that she committed something. It subtly makes her an actor in the event, rather than something that was acted upon by someone else.

  14. Did Dq teach the lesson for SuzyQ?

  15. But since the ‘fornication’ referred to in the manual was clearly ‘forced’ fornication, it would be better to avoid that unwarranted ambiguity by calling it ‘rape’, as the modern translations have done.

  16. “Rape is loaded word”

    Remind me BCC’s policy on swearing again? Because my comment starts with No, then includes a swear, then ends with a literary reference from the mystery genre. I could also squeeze in a few additional swears.

  17. Fornication in the religious context is understood to mean consensual sex outside of marriage and this is the only context in which it is used in the LDS scriptural cannon. It’s use in the GD manual in reference to rape is unfortunate but indicative of our cultural discomfort with confronting sexual assault. The formulation found in the GD manual is a mere symptom of the disease. Like any symptom, it tells us something is wrong but we have to look further to find the cause.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m simply not seeing any responsible lexical materials that include nonvoluntary sex within the meaning of fornication. As I said in the OP it means voluntary sex between two people not married to each other. Traditionally that meant two unmarried people, but more broadly it could refer to adultery or sex with a prostitute, and so in the OP I simply lumped all of that together under the rubric “illicit [as opposed to licit] sex,” but the sex is always consensual. If it’s not, then you’ve got the wrong word, and you should try something like rape or sexual assault. This notion that fornication is an appropriate synonym for rape is not true. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re talking about a woman that is tripping people up. Let’s imagine a scene from the HBO series Oz, where one male inmate rapes another. Is the second inmate committing fornication with the first? Of course not. Such a usage would be ludicrous.

    emmasrandomthoughts gets at exactly what my problem with this is. The wording implies that Tamar committed something and thus was an actor in the event, as opposed to being completely acted upon. And that’s just plain wrong and offensive to Tamar’s memory.

    Dq, you said “At no point do I get the impression that she laid back and enjoyed it, and your use of that language is actually more offensive to me than the words you’re criticizing.” Thank you, you have proven my point. Perhaps you’re not familiar with the world of college basketball, but I mentioned that we’re not the Church of Bobby Knight for a reason. He famously said in an interview that if rape is inevitable you should just lay back and enjoy it. I still remember the first time I heard that “joke” or whatever it was supposed to be, uttered by a banker in a deal I was working on, and I can’t tell you how shocked I was by it. But that is the ethos that underlies the idea of church leaders severely questioning traumatized victims of sexual assault to try to figure out whether they enjoyed it (and thus maybe it shouldn’t count as sexual assault and they should be subject to church discipline). I don’t think that happens as much as it used to, thankfully, but it did used to happen, and I imagine in a church as conservative as ours sometimes it still does. So I am glad you agree with me that that traditional ethos in our church is offensive and completely unacceptable. And whether intended or not, I see an echo of that kind of thinking in the unfortunate wording I critique in the OP. Some editorial line of defense should have caught that and fixed it before it went to print, but whatever editorial safeguards were in place failed in this case. And I’m calling the committee out on that failure. I think it was an egregious miss.

  19. Dq, you wrote,

    “You’re taking offense over accurate terminology, because you feel it doesn’t carry the weight of violence of the actual act. Understandable, but because the author used a different tone than your modern sensibilities would like does not mean your argument holds any water.”

    1. It’s not “accurate terminology.” Fornication in LDS teachings is understood to be a sin, and the word “commit” also suggests sin. We may as well say that Tamar was “forced to sin,” then argue that because we used the word “forced” we’ve nullified the “sin” part of our statement.

    2. For me, the problem is not that the wording “doesn’t carry the weight of violence of the actual act.” The problem is that Mormon rape victims sometimes feel that they have sinned. They have lost their virtue, they’re dirty, they feel guilt and shame, they have “committed fornication,” even when it is clear that they were forced. If removing ambiguities like the one pointed out in the OP can help rape victims – and the rest of us – have a clearer sense of what rape really is, then it’s worth the trouble.

  20. The Church is piloting a new teaching program in a very small number of stakes (5 English speaking ones, not sure how many non-English speaking ones) and we mercifully got to skip this lesson to catch up and start on the new lessons. Unfortunately, the lessons are very short (a page and a half, mostly of suggested subjects – the goal is for the entire class to read the lesson material and the teacher to orchestrate a discussion, apparently) and the teachers are supposed to essentially lead a discussion…but without any background material or even a real outline of what to teach, I’m a little worried about where this is going to go. Obviously with so little material we should avoid comments from the manual writers like the one discussed in this post (there are very few editorial comments)…but it kind of gives teachers the freedom to talk about whatever they want, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Merriam-Webster: “consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other.”

    Wikipedia: “Fornication is generally consensual sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other.”

    The Free Dictionary: “Sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other.” [Between sexual “partners” means consensuality of the sex, not a one-sided assault.]

    Web Bible Encyclopedia: “Voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and woman who are not married to each other is a common type of fornication. Adultery is a type of fornication.” “voluntary sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons or two persons not married to each other.” “Fornication is defined as sexual intercourse between unmarried partners.
    An example of fornication is sexual intercourse between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.”

    Here’s the etymology of the word from the Online Etymological Dictionary, with the normal definition given at the end:

    fornication (n.) Look up fornication at
    c.1300, from Old French fornicacion (12c.), from Late Latin fornicationem (nominative fornicatio), noun of action from past participle stem of fornicari “fornicate,” from Latin fornix (genitive fornicis) “brothel” (Juvenal, Horace), originally “arch, vaulted chamber” (Roman prostitutes commonly solicited from under the arches of certain buildings), from fornus “oven of arched or domed shape.” Strictly, “voluntary sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman;” extended in the Bible to adultery.

    I would be very interested in a lexical source that cites a usage where fornication is a synonym for any type of sexual assault where consent is lacking. I can’t find one.

  22. Amen, Kevin. I also see this as a perfect example of our cultural squeamishness about talking openly, directly and explicitly about all things sexual. It is so strong that people will go to great lengths to avoid certain words, even if that means the euphemisms and verbal gymnastics ends up conveying implications we don’t intend.

    I have no doubt whatsoever that the people who wrote the description in the manual had no intention to imply wrongdoing by Tamar, but their inability to say “rape” did just that. Thus, they erred (failed miserably) in trying to be circumspect and not be vulgar.

    This is symptomatic of so many other issues we have in our culture regarding sex – perhaps the best example being the use of the phrase “self abuse” instead of “masturbation” or the use of “procreation” instead of “sex” or “sexual intercourse”.

    There is a simple solution, but it will require people to recognize and admit the problem:

    Quit being childish and grow up.

  23. Thank you for this article. I agree this was an editorial fail. What’s the best way to alert the curriculum people?

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think alerting the curriculum dept. will do any good. This manual is already in print, and the Church is moving to new materials similar to the youth curriculum, so before too long this lesson plan is going to be phased out anyway.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, Ray, this is in some ways analogous to people teaching their children cutesy euphemistic names for body parts because they can’t bring themselves to say penis or vulva out loud.

  26. N. W. Clerk says:

    Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “fornicate: to have sex with someone who you are not married to”

    American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: “fornication: Sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other.”

    Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “Fornication is defined as sexual intercourse between unmarried partners.” “fornication: sexual intercourse between a man and woman who are not married to each other.”

    Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 1856 Edition: “Fornication: The unlawful carnal knowledge of an unmarried person with another, whether the latter be married or unmarried.”

    And for the Coup de grace (spoiler alert for future Hardy readers):

    Wayne C. Booth: “Promiscuity in a heroine is not nearly so damning a fault in the 1960’s as was even the involuntary fornication of Tess seventy years ago.”

    This concludes this episode of “Making a Man an Offender for a Word”.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    N.W. Clerk, I don’t think those definitions mean what you think they do. See my comment on the use of the word “partners” above. Is the rapist who crawls through a window at night and rapes you your sexual “partner”? These definitions are assuming consensuality. The only useful example of those you give is the one from the late Wayne Booth. Note that he had to modify the word “fornication” with “involuntary,” which means involuntariness is not already included within the meaning of the word. I suspect Booth used the expression “involuntary fornication” to get at the debate that surrounds that particular incident in the novel. In our passage, there is no such debate: Tamar was raped.

  28. Quickmere says:

    I was wondering if N.W. Jerk was going to show up in this discussion to disgrace the pseudonym of C.S. Lewis yet again. Viva la apologists!

  29. Question for those countering Kevin’s reading here: what is the upside to using what is clearly, at best, barely defensible language to describe a horrific Old Testament scene like this in a Church manual? Granting your arguments that fornication is an acceptable term to use, why include the episode at all while deploying a euphemism that is obviously leading to readings like Kevin’s here?

  30. Kevin Barney is right. If fornication includes rape in its definition, then why does the quote about Tess of the D’Ubervilles use the qualifier “involuntary?”

  31. Kristine says:

    Actually, emmasrandomthoughts, I think Wayne Booth’s usage is similarly problematic, even with the qualifier “involuntary.” However, Booth was writing in 1961…

  32. There is nothing in the scripture story or the manual that justifies Amnon’s action, or whitewashes, or condones, or even explains. Amnon was wrong all the way around, and everyone knows it, and Tamar was an unwitting victim or rape. That’s the message. That message is not hidden in any way. The rape is not hidden or diminished or excused.

    Why all the outrage here? Yes, the manual writers choice of words seems not to be perfect, but there is no ill intent, and the truth is very evident — any sensible adult today would understand that “forced her to commit fornication with him” means he raped her. There is no euphemism here. Why the outrage? I can’t see any good reason, other than to find an offender in the church and to stir up discontent.

    Oh, by the way, rape is a loaded word. Among some feminist luminaries, any act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always rape.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    ji, I think I’ve explained my problem with this usage adequately in the OP and the comments. If you can’t see the problem, I don’t think anything else I say is going to clarify it for you. By trying so hard to avoid the use of the obvious word choice here, “rape,” the manual writers succeeded in making Tamar appear to be complicit in a mutual sexual act. I stand by my position that the manual writers needed an editor to save them from themselves here.

  34. Kristine says:

    You’re right that there’s no euphemism here. “Forced her to commit fornication” is an outright distortion, not a polite equivalence. And, as has been pointed out, if it were a man, and we cast a slight aspersion of homosexual activity on an innocent victim of rape, we’d be having an entirely different conversation.

  35. “Actually, emmasrandomthoughts, I think Wayne Booth’s usage is similarly problematic, even with the qualifier “involuntary.” However, Booth was writing in 1961.”

    Oh I agree with that it is problematic. It ignores that rape is frequently not about sexual desire but about the exercise of power. Plus, I agree that consent is implied in the noun “fornication,” It would be similar to calling Joseph Smith’s murder “involuntary suicide.”

  36. Kristine says:

    ” I can’t see any good reason, other than to find an offender in the church and to stir up discontent.”

    Try imagining yourself as a rape survivor sitting through Sunday School class. Do you see a reason now? Or would it be ok with you to be vicariously accused of committing fornication?

  37. “You’re right that there’s no euphemism here. “Forced her to commit fornication” is an outright distortion, not a polite equivalence. And, as has been pointed out, if it were a man, and we cast a slight aspersion of homosexual activity on an innocent victim of rape, we’d be having an entirely different conversation.”

    Indeed. This settles it. From now on, if someone asks me, “How did Joseph Smith died?” I’m going to respond, “He was forced to commit suicide.”

  38. Ah, forgive me ji, I didn’t realize you were talking about Some Feminists.

    Some Feminists: n. Mythical beings known primarily for their hostility and aggression towards men, families, and marriage. Frequently cited as a source of extreme contention in their lives by insecure men. Believed to be secretly behind all causes related to women, like a female Bilderberg Group. Some Feminist are rumored to have dangerously radical views, and (to those who claim to have seen them) must be guarded against at all costs. Like vampires.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the comments. I think the point has been made, and I don’t have time to babysit the thread, so I’m going to close comments at this time.

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