We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Book of Samuel as Feminist Literature

Tiarini's Amnon et Tamar
II Samuel 13 is an awful chapter.  It contains the story of the rape of David's beautiful daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother and David's son, Amnon—and its aftermath.  As the story goes, Amnon "loved" Tamar, tricked her into his bedroom with the unwitting help of his father, and raped her.  His love then turned to loathing, and he forced her to leave him in the face of her pleas that he not double her disgrace.  After two years, Tamar's brother and David's son, Absalom kills Amnon and then flees in fear of his life.  David was left in grief with a chaotic family situation filled with tragedy.  It is clear from the larger story that the ultimate source of all of this was his lust for Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah (II Samuel 11-12).

In both the stories of Bathsheba and Tamar, it is clear that women are treated as the objects of male lust.  In both cases, the consequences of that lust are dire—destructive of the women affected as well as the male perpetrators.  And in both cases, there was no legal recourse in ancient times to protect Bathsheba from David or Tamar from Amnon.  If a man was powerful enough he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with a woman he desired irrespective of her feelings or wishes.  This was apparently especially the case with beautiful women, which adds the further insight that feminine beauty in the stories is at best a two-edged sword—not without its own dangers to the attractive woman.

All of this is fodder for feminist reflection.  In his commentary on I and II Samuel, The David Story (Norton, 1999), furthermore, Robert Alter comments at the beginning of II Samuel 14 (p. 275) that at several critical moments in the David story enterprising, resourceful women intervene to take the story in new directions.  This in a book otherwise dominated by "powerful martial men."  Women, that is, are a central part of the David story but exercise their influence in a way clearly different from men.  In sum, the stories of women in the Book of Samuel describe both the weakness and the power of women's place in ancient Israelite society and inspire reflection on their place in ours.

Whether or not the ancient writer and redactors of the Book of Samuel intended it to be a commentary on the place of women in society is not really the point.  In our context, it is possible to read it that way.  One of the core concerns of the Old Testament is justice.  Yahweh was a God of justice.  When Nathan confronted David (II Samuel 12) that was precisely the point that he made, and it is clear that Bathsheba as well as Uriah were the victims of lustful injustice.  Tamar suffered a double injustice (raped and then rejected).  While it is important to understand the original intention of the author and the subsidiary intentions of the redactors of this story, it is also important for us to read it with 21st century eyes.

The Book of Samuel, in sum, is inescapably a source for reflection on feminist issues and concerns.  Perhaps, unexpectedly.  Generally, overlooked.  But there it is.  Amen.