Editor’s Note: As Sexual Assault Awareness Month draws to a close, we offer this reflection with the hope that our churches and communities will break the silence around sexual and gender-based violence. From the pulpit to the pews and beyond, we must do more to acknowledge and address the reality of rape and abuse in our midst.
When I read 2 Samuel 13, the first thing that comes to my mind is simple: Where the hell is God? Where, oh where, is God when Tamar gets sexually assaulted by her brother Amnon?
For me, what’s so disturbing about this story is how slow and calculated this assault happens. There are so many places where God could have intervened to stop this violence.
In the beginning of the passage when Amnon, the perpetrator, was “so tormented [by his love for Tamar] that he made himself ill,” couldn’t God have actually made him ill? Couldn’t God have given him yellow fever, leprosy, or malaria?
When Jonadab (the “crafty” man who gives Amnon the strategy to get Tamar alone) comes to town, couldn’t God have created an earthquake so he could not have completed his journey?
In the minutes before the assault, Tamar is baking cakes to serve to Amnon. For Moses, God came as fire in the burning bush, right? Couldn’t God have come in the form of the fire and blown up the oven and burned the house down?
I can go on with elaborate ideas of what could have happened, but the question remains: Where the hell was God?
And what’s even harder about this question is when I ask it not about a biblical narrative, but apply it to the stories of my friends, family members, or myself. Where the hell is God in this world?
Where the hell was God when Bresha Meadows, a young girl who shot her abusive father to protect her own life and her mother’s life, was locked up in juvenile detention? Where the hell was God when my friend was assaulted by her uncle? Where the hell was God when my other friend was assaulted by his brother? Where, where, where?!?
After Amnon rapes Tamar, he is filled with “loathing” for her and says, “Get out.” Tamar begs to stay but is bitterly ignored, with the door of the house slammed in her face. So now we have Tamar, once a virgin princess daughter of King David who has become a traumatized woman. I imagine her outside the door shaking and wondering what to do and where to go. Perhaps asking herself, where the hell is God?
The moment after Tamar is put out on the street, she does something important. She does something no other woman who is assaulted in the Bible does. She cries.
She not only weeps, but she does four important actions:
First, Tamar puts ashes on her head. In biblical times, this action is associated with the ritual of mourning and occurs multiple times throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In Jeremiah 6:26, God commands the people to “roll in ashes; make mourning as a child, most bitter for lamentation.” In Ezekiel 27:30, the people mourn the violent destruction of their community by “wailing aloud, crying bitterly, throwing dust on their heads and wallowing in ashes.” Tamar knew of this ritual. She knew that when things die, when people mourn, they use ashes. I imagine Tamar reaching down to the earth, grabbing soil and placing the dark, gritty, dust solemnly on her forehead in mourning of her lost innocence.
Next, Tamar tears the long robe she’s wearing. Different translations describe this robe differently. Some say “a long robe with sleeves,” some describe it as “a vest of many colors,” and some depict is as “a long sleeved garment.” The Hebrew word that’s used is the same word that’s used in Genesis 37 to describe Joseph’s colorful robe. This piece of clothing was a symbol of royalty and purity and was worn by all King David’s virgin daughters. Just as the king of Israel tears his clothes in 2 Kings when he cannot deliver healing to the leper Namann, we see Tamar with shaking hands and ash on her forehead, tearing apart the seams of this ornate dress in response to the pain and anguish inside of her.
Then Tamar takes those still shaking hands and she puts them on her head. In U.S. culture, making a fist and showing someone your thumb has a positive connotation, whereas lifting one’s middle finger has a negative connotation. In biblical times and perhaps now, putting your hand on your head is a sign of great stress. In Jeremiah, the Lord says to the prophet that after his people are defeated and shamed they will “walk away with their hands on their heads.” Just as Tamar does.
Finally, she cries aloud. So here we see Tamar crying aloud with dark ashes of the earth on her forehead, her elegant, royal, Technicolor dream coat torn in pieces; and her shaking hands placed on her forehead in grief. Again the texts differ: she cries continuously, she wails, she screams. Whatever the exact action, we know that Tamar’s voice made a sound that externally signaled her pain, her despair, and her anguish.
I’ve carefully described this scene, because in all my thinking and reading and praying and studying on this text, I’ve come to a conclusion that in this painful passage—in this painful description of sexual violence—I see God in Tamar’s cry.
When Tamar makes the decision to cry out, she publicly affirms the violation of her body. This cry, this moment of public mourning and public grief, is the first step to inviting God into the picture.
In a recent conversation with a domestic violence advocate, she shared that one of the most powerful things a survivor has ever said to her was that, “God was not with her during her assault. God came in the people who took her to the hospital after she was beaten. God came in the doctors, in the lawyers, in the people who believed her.”
Now when thinking about the theology around trauma of any sort, it’s important to make room for multiple theologies. It is vital to make room for the survivor to determine for themselves whether God was with them holding their hand in the suffering, completely absent because a God wouldn’t let this happen, or if God was with them in their healing and recovery. In each situation, it is not up to me, or us, or anyone to theologize around another person’s pain.
However, when I think of Tamar, when I think of myself in Tamar’s situation, or when I think of all the women, men, children, people of God whom I know have experienced trauma of this sort, I’d like to believe that God comes in the cry.
God comes when our bodies, which according to Genesis are sacredly created in God’s image, open our tear ducts in refusal of a violent reality. God comes when our flesh, which Jesus chose to come in, quakes in revolt against any action that makes our flesh feel anything less than divine.
God is not a sovereign being in the sky that reaches down with her hands and shakes the earth to make an earthquake knock Jonadab off his path, or a person that drops a magical key down from the sky for us to unlock the prison door to let Bresha Meadows free.
Instead, God is present when one person cries and another person hears it. God is made known “when two or more are gathered.”
The God I’m talking about comes in the form of ashes that come from the earth to symbolize deep lament for our bodies and our sisters and our earth. The God I’m talking about lives in the threads of a torn royal garment or torn prison jumpsuits.
The God I’m talking about comes when we put our hands on our heads, or raise our hands in front of us crying “hands up, don’t shoot,” or lift our hands in a fist to represent black power and solidarity—actions that signal how are bodies are not objects which can be violently assaulted by another person to gain power.
The God I’m talking about comes when communities of people gather together to hold, heal, and love each other fully. God comes when we actually hear that cry, and we act on it.
In the text, Tamar’s cry is denied. Her brother Absalom silences her. And Tamar is then described not as the king’s daughter, but as a desolate woman who is compared to the abandoned and neglected land in Isaiah.
So in returning to our original question, I must ask: If Tamar is still alone and broken, where the hell is God?
Recently, one of my classmates shared that at 45 years-old she still remembers the faces of the Christian camp counselors who heard her and held her and affirmed her after she told them of the abuse she experienced. In this class about childhood sexual abuse, she named each one of those counselors whom she still carries with her.
In my inquiry about where the hell God is today, the good news of the gospel is that God is in you. God is in me and in our communities. And God is here when we open our ears and eyes to the sacred cry—the sacred cries of our women and men, the sacred cry of Tamar, the sacred cry of Bresha, the sacred cry of the earth.
Healing only comes, God only comes, when one being cries out in refusal of evil and another hears that pain. And as we open our arms and stand with another, we remember together that each of us are a creation of and a representation of the living, breathing body of God.