The Power of Speech
Content warning – this post on 2 Samuel 11 and 13 refer to stories of sexual abuse.
Vegietales, the children’s bible-story animation series, retold loads of Old Testament stories using metaphors. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo worked in a chocolate factory and had to worship a giant chocolate bunny; Joshua engaged in the blueberry pie wars. The story I was surprised to see them tackle was the story of Bathsheba – but they told it (similar to the prophet Nathan’s metaphor in 2 Samuel 12) replacing “wives” with rubber ducks. I watched some teenagers watching this light-hearted story and swoon over the cuteness
of the ducks. The end of the story was modified – the soldier came back from the blueberry pie wars and got his rubber duck back with a deeply-felt apology. When the teenagers picked up their bibles and read the actual story, they were shocked – sex, pregnancy, murder…not so cute.
We had an interesting time talking about agency. How much power did the king have? All of it – wealth, position, people to carry out his command, guards to protect him. How much did the rubber duck have? The only thing going for it was that it was desirably cute and was morally beyond reach. And Bathsheba? The same. She was desirably beautiful and the wife of someone else.
Two stories sit side by side in 2 Samuel, telling of men who sinned greatly against women. Most of the time, the second story of Tamar is not told. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on it, and it’s not commonly talked about like Absalom’s hair-in-the-tree incident or David’s fight with Goliath. Bathsheba gets more of a mention, but often it’s described as an affair, as if she was an exhibitionist bathing on the roof and consented to sex with the king (similar to the false argument that revealing clothes mean a woman is “asking for it”). In truth, the roof was the most private place to bathe, and a common place for women to cleanse themselves once their period was over. It was out of sight of everyone…except for someone who had an enormous palace with windows higher than all the city rooftops. It’s improbable that the approach to a woman whose husband is away, from the most powerful man in the country could have been refused or resisted. In the same way that Monica Lewinsky was once declared a whore and is now understood as a woman who was manipulated by a much more powerful man, we need to understand Bathsheba as someone with very little choice in this situation, not a consenting temptress. Indeed, she only ever speaks two words in the entire story: “I’m pregnant”. She is as much an object to David as a cute rubber duck.
Tamar also has little power, but she does attempt to use what power she has to resist. We read her speech to Amnon as he is about to overpower her, clearly saying “stop”, begging him not to ruin her life, arguing that it would also ruin his life, appealing to the morality of their people. She speaks, but is not heard – everyone who could have heard her has been sent away, and Amnon is too caught up in his own selfishness. She then uses her appearance and action to speak after the event – tearing her clothes, symbolising the loss of her virginity, looking dishevelled and dirty, crying aloud. She wants people to notice. She wants justice and care. But her closest brother, although he listens to her and wants to care for her, shuts her up. He takes away her speech and her ability to direct what will happen next. Absalom is trying to be kind to her, filled with rage against his brother, but condescendingly takes over, removing all the choices out of her hands. From here, the main woman in the story then disappears.
Frequently these stories are told from the perspective of the perpetrator, as though all of us are potential rapists, but not usually from the woman’s perspective. We learn about confession from David, and about rage and lust from Amnon. We can be sucked into once again, making the victim in the story an object lesson about the powerful ones. They can also be told in isolation, rather than exploring some factors in the relationships that made these attacks possible:
1. Poor parental modelling and boundaries. David’s sons saw him take what he wanted. David receives a curse beyond the death of Bathsheba’s son: his precedent allows Amnon to behave in the way he did. Moreover, David even though he is furious, takes no action against his beloved first-born when he hears of the terrible thing he has done.
2. Friends who don’t hold you to a high standard. When Amnon told Jonadab that he had fallen in love with his sister, a good friend would say “That’s tough, man. Shame she’s off limits, but there’s no way that’s ever going to happen. You’re better than that. Let me help you get over it.” Instead, he cooked up a plan to enable Amnon’s terrible deed! We need to cultivate friendships where people can stand against us for our own benefit. It’s likely that Jonadab, with less power than Amnon, wanted to keep on his good side. On the other hand, Nathan, who in the past had been a strong encourager of David, has the guts to confront him. While Bathsheba is robbed of her voice, Nathan speaks up for her.
3. A culture that looks away from wrong. Half-way through Tamar’s visit, we realise there were other people in the room as she was preparing food for Amnon while he creepily leers over her. Then they are sent away to leave the two alone. At this point, it’s probable the servants would have guessed what was in Amnon’s mind. They didn’t stick around, they didn’t speak up, they didn’t call Tamar away with them. They knew that if they did, they would at least lose their job, at worst, be killed for disobedience. Joab, David’s general, followed orders to commit murder in order to cover up David’s sin. We will all have a situation where we know that speaking up for someone else will cost us.
Tamar and Bathsheba did not stand a chance against these factors. Beyond the physical difficulty of resisting a person stronger than them, their ability to be heard resisting and crying for justice was reduced by the people around them complicit in these actions. They didn’t just need to have more power than their perpetrators, they needed to have more power than the perpetrators family, friends and culture.
Where is God in these stories?
There are lots of Bible stories where God doesn’t get much of a mention. In both these stories, a lightning strike before David and Amnon act may be preferable. However, God appears in the speeches. God appears in the speech Nathan makes to David, bringing judgment. God appears in the speech of Tamar, as she urges Amnon to be righteous.
God is in the speech of any victim that tells truth, any prophet who calls out injustice, any person who will allow that speech to be heard. God is listening to the victim’s cry.
God’s judgment is the natural outworking of children who learn from their father and king that they can take what they want without limit, a belief that sparks this incident that leads to ripping the country up in civil war. God is in scripture, which does not leave out the stories, however hard they are to hear.
Galatians 5:19-23 says:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (I think these two stories cover most of this list.)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
May we lift up those who exhibit this fruit – even while their joy and wholeness is threatened by those who are ruled by their flesh. May we understand the power dynamics of the rubber ducks in our society, and listen carefully to those voices. In those stories, we hear the anger and sorrow of God. May we allow every person the power to seek justice and hope, and in this, see the justice and hope of God.
This article has been inspired by the writing of Anna Carter Florence and Tamie Davis.