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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  • 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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