The Cry of Tamar

Perhaps you read Elizabeth Smart’s comments on human trafficking recently. As a 14 year old kidnapping victim, she connected her feeling of worthlessness after her abduction and sexual abuse, with an abstinence lecture she had heard. Here’s the quote that is getting all the traction:

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

Having been told a woman who has sex before marriage is like a piece of chewed gum, how was Smart supposed to see herself?

Thankfully, people have helped her come to a new and better understanding of the situation since she was rescued from her captors. I wish her the best and pray for her, for the 3 women rescued this week in Cleveland, and for the women who remain captives.

But she was correct to speak about how the church’s conversation about sexual behavior contributed to her remaining a captive.

Other people have addressed the “purity” myth, and so I won’t re-invent that wheel. If you haven’t read enough about it, try herehere (this one has some language which might offend gentle readers), and here.

(I’ll wait while you go read those great articles).

Okay. So this “purity” business has been simmering on the back burner of my mind all week as the rest of the news has been added to the mix.

Pope Francis told a group of nuns they should be more like “spiritual mothers” and less like “old maids”.  Really. He said that. When asked for clarification, they said he meant to say “spinsters”, instead of “old maids”. Not an improvement…

“Chastity for the Kingdom of Heaven shows how affection has its place in mature freedom and becomes a sign of the future world, to make God’s primacy shine forever. But, please, [make it] a ‘fertile’ chastity, which generates spiritual children in the Church.

Forgive me if I talk like this but this maternity of consecrated life, this fruitfulness is important! May this joy of spiritual fruitfulness animate your existence. Be mothers, like the images of the Mother Mary and the Mother Church. You cannot understand Mary without her motherhood; you cannot understand the Church without her motherhood, and you are icons of Mary and of the Church.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with being maternal, of course, unless you are serving a church that has forbidden you from ever being a mother if you want to serve the same church as a nun.

And he could have made the point of…well, whatever point he was trying to make about fertility to a room full of celibate women….(I’m still at a loss) without calling them all “old maids” or “spinsters”. Both of those terms are full of judgment and bring to mind the bad women in all the fairy tales.

It would have been clearer had he just called them witches!

I’ll get you, my pretty, (because your prettiness is threatening for some reason).

Or maybe crones! (A crone is an archetypal woman, one who is marginalized because she is usually outside the control of men and not a part of the reproductive cycle.)

Hey there! Don’t be like me. I make men uncomfortable…

Whichever term he meant to use, none of the choices are positive.

They are limiting.

They are insulting.

And they are wildly insensitive for the leader of the Catholic Church to have used to a crowd of women who had to pull themselves outside of the reproductive cycle so they could answer God’s call on their lives and remain in their faith tradition.

Also in the news, a number of school districts have enacted dress codes for female students, because their yoga pants (seriously, people???) and prom dresses are too distracting to the male students.

How is a boy supposed to learn algebra when the girl next to him is in yoga pants? How is a boy supposed to dance the Jitterbug or the Charleston (that’s what all the kids are dancing these days, right?) when his partner’s dress doesn’t have straps?

awesome. Now she knows how inappropriate she is because she’s a woman. Good to learn that early on, I guess?

(I’ve already blogged once about this tendency to judge women by their clothing and the continued insistence that women, by their clothing choices, are responsible for the behavior of men.)

And before you comment with “well, some of those outfits are revealing and women shouldn’t be wearing______ because it is a distraction to men”, let me just say I’m not interested in going down that slippery slope. And here’s why.  Once you start blaming women’s clothing or other attributes for the behavior of men, where does it stop? If her dress is not too short, what if her hair is too pretty? If her pants aren’t too tight, what if she’s wearing too much jewelry?

Case in point:

A dentist recently fired his hygienist because he was too attracted to her and was afraid he would be unfaithful to his wife. The hygienist wasn’t leading him on. She wasn’t dressed “inappropriately” (whatever that means). Her very presence made him fear “he would have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”

Notice there was no indication she was interested in any affair, but he apparently saw her as his for the taking. Good thing he fired her before he initiated an unwanted relationship with her!?

All of this has me wondering what a woman ought to do. If we wear clothes that make us look attractive, we will be sent home from the prom for being too sexy. Or we’ll be fired.

If we go the other direction and become a nun, the Pope will remind us to be sexless, but not quite so sexless looking and acting.

What are we to do?

And then at Men’s Breakfast this week, we discussed the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar by her brother Amnon.  I love this group of men, even if they eat breakfast too early in the morning. One of the reasons I love them is because they were willing to read Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. This book presents feminist readings of some Biblical narratives. And this week’s was Tamar. From 2 Samuel 13:1-22, this story tells of how one of David’s sons lusted for his sister. And he schemed and plotted to get her in his room, even using his father to send her to him.

Thamar by Alexandre Cabanel

After the rape, he despised her and sent her away from him.

When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.

Every time I read this story, I hear that David got angry, and I have a momentary hope that it will turn out alright, that he will punish Amnon and restore Tamar. And then I realize he’s angry because this girl has ruined Amnon’s life.

My heart breaks for Tamar.

And King David is just another defender of the Steubenville rapists, just another voice claiming that this girl is ruining the futures of these young men. (Here is a great post by a friend on that particular situation.)

So when the scriptural record contains the behavior we see on the news–violence against women, treated casually, often blamed on the women— it shouldn’t surprise me that Elizabeth Smart’s religious sexual education contributed to her continued victimization at the hand of her rapist.

While we, as a culture, need to speak on behalf of women, we, as a church, really need to speak out.

We need to put to rest this “purity myth” which tells young women they are only of value as virgins. We need to give them room for redemption. We need to help them see their sexuality more holistically.

We need to teach our sons that women are never to be objectified–no matter what they are wearing. And “no” means “no”. Full stop. End scene.


We need to expect better, and more, from our religious leaders. Whether it is Pope Francis calling nuns “old maids” or evangelical pastors calling their wives “smokin’ hot”. Why don’t we, instead, lift up the giftedness and faithfulness of the women?

So, what are your thoughts? How should the church be speaking against this subjugation of women? How can we be a witness to a society with a long history of mixed messages about sexual behavior and purity?

The biblical record doesn’t tell us what happened to Tamar after she was taken in and given shelter by her brother Absalom. We’re told she was desolate. We know Absalom ends up killing his brother Amnon for the rape of Tamar. And we know Absalom named one of his daughters Tamar. She lives on through her niece, but other than that, her voice is lost to us.

But Tamar is easy to find in today’s world. And it is past time we stood up for her and listened to her cry. She has suffered long enough.

17 thoughts on “The Cry of Tamar

  1. this gave me chills. i am so heartened by all the words spilled on these themes lately by people pushing back against insidious messages and bad theology. we can do this so much better!

    this line stood out: “he apparently saw her as his for the taking.” that control and domination undergirds so much of our language and behavior. thank you for shining Light on this darkness.


  2. Thanks this a double standered in life a women haveing premariage sex is considered trash yet a young man doing the same thing is just being a man and the dress codes excuses make me laugh because a breeze could distract a teen age boy


  3. There is a commercial here in Nashville where I live about bioidentical hormones. I cringe every time I hear it because the physician (male) talks about how women complain of not having energy, night sweats and how many times does he have to hear that their husbands aren’t happy with ’em…? REALLY? Their husbands aren’t happy with them…because they are AGING, their bodies are changing and frankly they don’t do for men what they used to.

    This may not be the same exact thing you are speaking of but it fits…since when were women put on this earth to fulfill (or not fulfill) desires in men, like you say, as if they have NO CONTROL themselves…i could go on…and on….and on


  4. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’m a part of the same faith as Elizabeth Smart (and she was my neighbor once- that’s an interesting story). I grew up hearing and believing many of the purity-shaming talk from well meaning youth leaders. And I know the teen boys were hearing it as well.
    And I think we can do better for our children and youth and young adults. I think we can teach them about sexuality and even abstinence before marriage in a way that doesn’t shame or criminalize something that can and should be beautiful.
    I see the paternalistic, controlling views of sex from Christians and non-Christians alike. I’m a nurse practitioner and work in a GYN clinic- many MANY times do I hear from women about what their partners absolutely won’t do- even if it means sacrificing comfort or pleasure for themselves. How did we end up with a culture where women accept and sometimes encourage this paternalistic, unbalanced behavior and thought? When I see a teen girl in my clinic I give her “the talk” and it’s not about clean vs dirty. It’s about control and saying no and being comfortable and making healthy choices.


  5. I agree with the substance of this post, though I generally distrust slippery slope arguments (your paragraph about starting with dress code and wondering where it stops). Just like gay marriage doesn’t lead to people marrying their pets. I think those arguments should be avoided.

    To me it’s not the banning of the short dresses that’s the issue–because I’d argue that they could credibly be banned–but the reason. One could come up with a more neutral reason, i.e. some of them look like they could fall off at any moment!


    • It would have been less bothersome to me if the dress codes had been phrased differently. One of my problems, and the reason I used them as an illustration, is that the transparent way they claimed that the girls were responsible for the behavior of the male students is an illustration to me that it is okay in our society right now to blatantly discriminate against women and to hold them responsible for the violence inflicted against them.

      As to the slippery slope issue, I think this one is different because it is 100% subjective.

      I’d like to declare, for example, that tights should not be worn as a substitute for pants.
      But, if I’m honest, I have to confess the look bothers me much more on a heavily overweight woman than it does on a twig of a woman. So I recognize it is my issue. And it is tied in to body image, and to societal norms, and all kinds of things.

      So this feels different to me than the slippery slope of “if we let gay humans get married, we’ll soon let people marry their pets”. There is an objective way to determine if someone showing up at the courthouse is a human or a llama.

      I have a much harder time figuring out the objective dress code. Did you read the dentist article? It was really concerning to me that he told the woman he fired, “If you see a bulge in my pants, you’ll know you are dressed too sexy”. And he said this to a woman wearing scrubs.

      One of my other concerns is if there are dress codes in place, then is it okay for men to say, “well, I wouldn’t have raped you if you would have followed the dress code, but since you wore a strapless dress, what was I to do?”

      Clearly we don’t think that is okay. But with the recent rhetoric out there about women and rape, I just don’t think we have the luxury of finding some “middle ground”.

      Thanks for pushing back on this. It is a messy place without clear lines.


      • Everyone thinks their own slippery slope arguments are valid… including me 😉

        Again, I agree with you on substance. (And I’d read that dentist article before. Disgusting.)

        I’m saying that “it’s distracting” can be a valid reason to make a garment off-limits without arguing that it’s of a piece with blaming a scantily-clad victim for being raped. If you’re going to go there in a dress code, make it gender-neutral. If a high school senior has a wardrobe malfunction at prom, it’s going to distract everyone.

        That said, the yoga pants prohibition is just stupid.


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