The Bible and Sexuality in South Africa

How Tamar’s story is helping redefine sexual attitudes

David’s son Amnon rapes his own half-sister Tamar in this 1640 painting by French artist Eustache Le Sueur. Photograph © 1984 the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Purchase Mr. And Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift.

With the Bible used as both tool and resource, human sexuality is being openly discussed in South Africa, according to a paper presented recently by Gerald O. West at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago.

West, Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, spoke in the African Biblical Hermeneutics section on “What Kind of Man Does Tamar Want? In Search of Redemptive African Masculinities.” His was one of several papers centered around the section’s themes of sexuality and the Bible in Africa.

West said that the HIV epidemic in South Africa—widespread among the black communities and now making significant inroads in the white communities—“focuses us to rethink other ways of being men.”

In South Africa, there is a tradition of using the Biblical text as a foundation for discussions of the great questions facing humanity—oppression and poverty, wealth and its distribution, sexuality and its role in society, racial matters, patriarchy and women’s issues.

Focusing on 2 Samuel 13:1–22 (the story traditionally called the Rape of Tamar), West’s paper recounted how this story has been and continues to be used successfully as an educational tool in studies of women’s sexuality and, more recently, men’s masculinity. Known as the Tamar Campaign (part of the broader Contextual Bible Study project), additional information on the tool is available through the Ujamaa Center of the University of KwaZula-Natal.

The 2 Samuel passage tells the sad story of a half brother and sister, Amnon and Tamar, royal children of King David by different wives. The pericope’s characters are Amnon; Tamar; Jonadab, son of Shimeah, David’s brother, and a very shrewd man (v. 3); Amnon’s unnamed servants; and King David.

The Biblical text describes Tamar as a virgin, the beautiful sister of Absalom, another of David’s sons (v. 1); she wears a richly ornamented robe designating her status as one of the king’s virgin daughters (v. 18). Her words and actions, as recorded in the Biblical text, present a highly nuanced, articulate and strong-willed character.

According to the story, Amnon falls in love with Tamar and becomes frustrated to the point of illness because he cannot have her (vv. 1-2). Noticing this, Jonadab devises a seduction plan (vv. 3-5). Faking illness, Amnon deceives the king, his father, who orders Tamar to attend him (vv. 6-7). Amnon lures her into an intimate and unprotected sick room where she prepares the special meal he requested (vv. 8-10). He grabs her and commands her to come to bed with him (v. 11).

Urging him not to do such a wicked deed, she offers many protests (vv. 12-13), but he overpowers her, and then hates her intensely after the rape; he orders his personal servant to drive her out and bolt the door after her (vv. 14-18). Tamar puts ashes on her head, tears her ornamental robe and weeps aloud (vv. 18-19). Her brother Absalom comforts her, but she is desolate (v. 20). King David hears of it and is furious; Absalom says nothing to Amnon (vv. 21-22).

The text leaves silent what, if anything, David does to punish Amnon or what, if anything, he does to aid Tamar. Two years later Absalom orders his servants to kill Amnon (vv. 23-29). The king mourns Amnon, and Absalom flees (vv. 36-37).

According to West, Tamar’s story, which was first used as a tool in South African women’s discussion groups about rape and male dominance within the highly patriarchal society, also, surprisingly, was found to be well suited for discussions of masculinity. The three named male characters present different role models for men. “The men do not all have to identify with Amnon, the rapist,” West said.

The family context of 2 Samuel 13:1-22 is relational, West continued, and the text shares other elements found in South Africa. The Contextual Bible Study project points out that Tamar was assaulted by someone she knew while at her brother’s house, a place she knew well. Her training in obedience and her kindness to another led to her assault. Her rejection of Amnon’s advances is neither accepted nor respected. No other women come to her aid. Justice for her cause is taken out of her hands and handled by men. Several years later, her father the king weeps for her brother Absalom’s death (2 Samuel 19:1); he never weeps for her situation.

“Over and over again the women [in the study groups] said, ‘Why haven’t we heard this story before?’” noted West. Indeed, the passage is seldom preached in sermons or contained in lectionary readings. “The hearers wanted to break the chain of silence.”

The women in the study related strongly to the rape experienced by Tamar and the various reactions of the story’s characters, for rape is common in South Africa and frequently accompanied by shame and silence. Routinely, blame for it falls on the woman or girl, who is then often ostracized.

The story allows readers and hearers to see Tamar in different aspects of her life before and after she is raped by her half brother, and to study the rational arguments she uses to try to persuade Amnon against the deed.

The Tamar Campaign began in three of the languages of South Africa: Zulu, Sotho and English. Pointing out how the Tamar project combines the Biblical story and daily life in South Africa, West said, “The text and the context are in dialogue.”

The campaign revolves around three words: see, judge, act. Seeing means looking at the text; judging means the struggle for justice in a system and culture of patriarchy that either ignores or consistently condones violence against women; acting means taking constructive actions in one’s life and society.

Recounting the campaign’s progress, West said, “We wondered what kind of Bible study would have power like that over men.” In dealing with South African men, West and his fellow project members returned to Tamar’s story in 2 Samuel, but now focused on the passage from a masculine viewpoint. Because masculinity is such a sensitive issue in South Africa, the Tamar story is useful because it provides a range of male characters that can be discussed. Indeed, the relationships among the characters mirror many aspects of life in various communities in South Africa, West said.

As seen from a masculine perspective, the text opens by revealing Amnon as an ordinary man with desires; but he does not act on these desires. As such, the participants are invited to discuss how Amnon’s love changes to lust (vv. 1-2).

The text shows a shift from the kind of man Amnon could be and contrasts it with the kind of man Amnon is. The text also reveals the kind of man Tamar expects or hopes Amnon to be.

West pointed to these insights from verses 12 and 13: Tamar hopes for a man who is understanding, resists force, respects the community’s standards, desists from doing a disgraceful act, listens to and examines the views of others, and listens to rational argument.

Instead, Amnon has an irrational response to Tamar’s rational questions and argument.

Describing what he has found when facilitating discussion among men regarding Tamar’s story, West said, “Younger men in a group often confess to talking like Jonadab. They urge a younger member of a group to get a woman, especially one they think is unattainable.” The purpose of such Bible study, according to West, is to find, discover and present a redemptive masculinity based on Biblical principles.

Robin BranchRobin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).


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  1. JAllan says

    I remember this Biblical story, but I had forgotten the woman’s name. She may have been named after another Tamar, to whom I thought, at first, this article referred: the twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, who took the initiative to bear children, as described in Genesis. This woman, who is also listed in Matthew as an ancestor of Jesus, would be a good role model for women fighting against the patriarchal system.

    Genesis tells us that this earlier Tamar was first married to Er, the oldest son of Judah (no wife of Judah is mentioned, so she may have died before this event), who had committed some sin, never specified, for which Er was punished by the Lord with death on his wedding night. In accordance with the custom, later specified as a commandment in the Torah, Tamar was then wedded to the second son Onan, who (for some unexplained reason) “spilled his seed”, i.e. withdrew, on their wedding night, and thus was struck dead by the Lord also. We never learn why Onan did so, presumably to avoid being a surrogate father to his dead brother’s child, but why did he hate his brother so much? Could the unspecified sin of Er have been the abuse or sexual molestation of his younger brother? Whatever, apparently the Lord found both of them guilty of capital sins (in our day we would assume that both had an inherited physical disability, such as a weak heart). But Judah, now afraid, refuses to let the widow marry his third and last son in accordance with custom (his excuse being that the boy is still too young), and forces Tamar to live as a celibate widow in his household.

    Tamar, afraid that she will NEVER have children, sneaks off when Judah goes on a business trip to purchase some livestock, sets up a tent in the road, and pretends to be a harlot, then seduces Judah (who, if widowed, probably NEEDED a bit of recreation). Since the Master Card was not invented yet, he promised to pay her with one of the animals he is going to buy, and leaves his signet ring and staff as collateral. The “harlot” is gone when he returns, and he assumes the collateral was stolen.

    Some weeks later, Tamar is found to be pregnant. Judah, as patriarch and judge, demands to know who the father is before he has her stoned. Tamar produces the ring and staff, Judah realized he was deceived, but for his own (and his descendants’) good, and she bears him twins.

    Perhaps these “Tamar seminars” could work this earlier Tamar into the discussion: the behavior of the men, except for Judah AFTER the revelation, is not that noble. Er does SOME unspecified wrong thing, understood by the Biblical narrator as deserving the death penalty from God Himself. Onan compounds the wrong (he could have refused the honor of siring a child for his brother’s legacy, or accepted it honestly; instead he tried to “have it both ways” by marrying the widow, possibly intending to keep “trying” for a few months then “give up” and divorce her; and it is for THAT attempt to deceive God, NOT for practicing birth control per se, nor for spilling his seed in some other fashion as traditionally assumed, that he is punished). Then Judah compounds the wrong again by denying this honorable woman a third husband (this may be the origin of the superstition referenced in the book and movie Yentl, that it is bad luck to marry a twice-widowed-on-her-wedding-night woman). But the “reformed” Judah honors Tamar’s initiative and ingenuity.

    Does anyone else have any comments on how either of the Tamar stories has any lesson for the South African, or for that matter American, way women are treated by men?

  2. Alice says

    Er was married to Tamar, the daughter of a Horite priest, but he “offended Yahweh and Yahweh killed him.” Following the levirate law, Onan then married Tamar to produce an heir for his dead brother. Here we have a clue that this story is a late slur. It falls in the same category as the curse of Ham and the incest of Lot. It represents a time well after the people named in the story because it fails to recognize that Er already had an heir.

    The line of Er continued, as is evident from the re-appearance of his name. One of Joshua’s sons was a descendant of Er by Joshua’s cousin-wife. The cousin wives named their first born son after their fathers, so likley Joshua’s second wife was a daughter of someone named Er. The named were passed down through family lines. That is why there is more than one Lamech, Enoch, Nahor, Esau, etc.

    Onan’s motivation in not impregnating Tamar appears to be the security of his heir by his sister-wife. Tamar was his cousin/niece wife and her firstborn son would ascend to the throne of her father, who isn’t named in the Biblical text. Apparently, Onan’s spilling of his seed was motivated by fear of a son who might rule in competition to his heir. At this time Horite land holdings were smaller than those of the great Kushite kingdom builders such as Nimrod (Sargon the Great). Evidently, there was greater competition between ruling sons.

    Onan’s denial of a son to Tamar was serious because the anticipated “Seed” of Genesis 3:15 might come by a cousin/niece wife. Indeed David’s ancestry is traced back to Tamar and Judah, showing that David is in the line prophesied concerning Messiah.

    The key to understanding this story lies with the identity of Tamar’s father. He appears to have been connected to the shrine of Hathor-Meri at Timnah. Hathor -Meri was the virgin mother of Horus who was regarded s the “seed” on of God.

  3. Leanne says

    First, I enjoy your articles. They provide a well thought out, educated woman’s perspective. I also was confused about the Tamar’s and didn’t realize there were two in the Bible. My question is why would the same name be used for two different women? Is there some type of significance? My heart goes out to both women, but especially in this case. She received very little support or comfort. Thank you in advance for your response.

  4. Shalonda says

    Alice, you are presenting heretical garbage as a point in your explanation. Horus is not of the Almighty God, Horus is a false Egyptian god and has nothing to do with YHWH, the one and only real God who has real power, glory and who is love. Don’t get it twisted.

    Leanne, what you are saying about Tamar receiving very little comfort or support, as asserted in this erroneous and shallow program that is being spread by these heretics is completely false. You and the authors of this “training program” are either ignorant or flat out liars.

    Why do I say this? I say this because the there is a clear agenda by these worldly educated heretics who want to twist paternal, patriarcal systems of family into weak, matriarcal perversions of God’s intended design.

    Why do we need fathers? Fathers are the first line of defense against satan’s attack of the family structure because fathers are supposed to instill in their children a sense of identity and destiny. He does this by modeling the love of the father God toward all of His children as David did in expressing his anger (2 Samuel 13:21) toward the situation, not his children per se. Why doesn’t he express anger toward his children? It can be argued that David felt responsible for not providing protection to his daughter and for not fully vetting Amnon’s true intentions. He can’t hate his children and begin punishing them when he felt responsible. Maybe he even knew that Absalom would take revenge because he knew that if he were in that situation he would do the same (2 Samuel 13:38). The bottom line is that 2 Samuel 13:38 illustrates that David did not feel remorse over Absalom killing his brother because David was probably more furious with himself for bringing these curses upon his family (2 Samuel 12:1 – 14) but knew that his own sexual immorality caused this so decided that he wanted his son Absalom to forgive him, which he ultimately did not forgive his father but David knew that his lust caused this entire mess. So keep it real and stop trying to lie to the good people of South Africa.

    As illustrated in Absalom and David, God intends men to celebrate and reward sexual chastity in females and they are supposed to protect female chastity and femininity by fighting for their women to remain feminine (not fighting for themselves) so that the family structure can be maintained.

    The problem with America is that we have greatly de-valued and utterly destroyed patriarchy, family structure, femininity and chastity to the point of masculinity being forced upon us females. I have wished that I would have had the benefit of a patriarchal family structure in my immediate family, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up pregnant at 14 or maybe I wouldn’t have lost my virginity at 12 or maybe I wouldn’t have had sex with more than 100 different men by the age of 14, who knows? But I know that God has a plan for my life, to be an advocate for those who don’t have male protection. We desperately need it!

    Men, and the patriarchal structure are designed to model the love of God for us, His children. When there is a protective man in the home, guarding his children against evil through his own conduct and through the love that he shows for his children, he allows his children to be able to trust that there is a loving God (our Father) who created the entire universe, just for His children, aka ME!

    This program is full of lies and deceit and I pray that it goes away. These people are misleading the people of South Africa with their atheism. This is all in the plans of the Guttmachers and the Darwin’s and the Sangers of the world whose stated goal is to kill off all of us black people. Well, we will not go down without a fight. satan is a liar and the father of all lies and we have victory over him so this program and all of its intentions are already defeated in the name of Jesus!

  5. Shalonda says

    For those who think I just went off on some crazy rant, I encourage you to view the Maafa 21 documentary which shows that what I am saying is true and valid. It is not a coincidence that the black family structure has been decimated here in America and now “they”, the atheist social engineers of the world are trying to export their garbage into Africa, which I am sure they have been doing for quite some time now. I pray that Africans do not fall for it.

  6. Kurt says

    “The Law of Jehovah Is Perfect”
    Statutes of the Law covenant stated that sexual relations and childbirth—even among married people—brought on a period of uncleanness. (Leviticus 12:2-4; 15:16-18) Such statutes did not denigrate these clean gifts from God. (Genesis 1:28; 2:18-25) Rather, those laws upheld Jehovah’s holiness, keeping his worshipers free from contamination. It is noteworthy that the nations surrounding Israel tended to mix worship with sex and fertility rites. Canaanite religion included male and female prostitution. Degradation of the worst sort resulted and spread. In contrast, the Law made the worship of Jehovah entirely separate from sexual matters. * There were other benefits too.
    *FOOTNOTE:Whereas Canaanite temples featured rooms set aside for sexual activity, the Mosaic Law stated that those in an unclean state could not even enter the temple. Thus, since sexual relations brought on a period of uncleanness, no one could lawfully make sex a part of worship at Jehovah’s house.
    Those laws served to teach a vital truth. * How, after all, is the stain of Adam’s sin transmitted from one generation to the next? Is it not through sexual relations and childbirth? (Romans 5:12) Yes, God’s Law reminded his people of the ever-present reality of sin. All of us, in fact, are born in sin. (Psalm 51:5) We need forgiveness and redemption in order to draw close to our holy God.

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