The Word We’re Looking For is “Rape.”

The GD lesson manual makes the following comment regarding the story of Amnon and Tamar:

2 Samuel 13 contains the story of David’s son Amnon and David’s daughter Tamar. Amnon was attracted to Tamar and forced her to commit fornication with him (p. 116)

Forced her to commit fornication?

Forced her to commit fornication? Er, how about “he raped her?” And how about we find a way to include the idea of “incest” while we’re at it? Unless I’m missing something in this story, I don’t see anything but a very brutal rape in the best traditions of Israel’s fratricidal violence.

The manual goes on to say that Amnon’s “feelings changed after he sinned against her.” It poses the question “Why does hatred, rather than love, often result between people who violate the principles of morality?” That sounds a lot like a question that applies to consensual pre-marital sex, not rape.

Finally, the manual quotes President Hinckley:

“I heard Elder John A. Widtsoe…say ‘It is my observation that young man and a young woman who violate the principle of morality soon end up hating one another.’ I have observed the same thing. There may be words of love to begin with, but there will be words of anger and bitterness later” (“True to the Faith,” Ensign, June 1996, 5).

Why the incoherent moral conclusions? What would an inglush perfesser say? Would you feel comfortable approaching the story this way if there were a victim of rape in your class?

There are tremendous lessons in this story, powerful examples about stewardship, the need for, and loss of, moral authority in leadership roles and the dynamics of family life. It all really goes back to the David and Bathsheba incident. Why re-cast it into a garden-variety sermon on pre-marital chastity?

And why not use the word “rape?”

32 Replies to “The Word We’re Looking For is “Rape.””

  1. I think most of this comes down to trying to say things in a less shocking/nice way if one can. Those like you will be able to know the full meaning and implications. Others who are not so prepared might be spared some of these implications until later. The scriptures are read by all kinds of people at different levels.

  2. But Eric, do you really think that “forcing her to commit fornication” is really a “nicer” way of putting it? She hasn’t committed fornication at all. This is a sin, but she has not sinned. Why should we apologize for the man’s actions by implicating the woman? Doesn’t this (and hasn’t it already) provoke much worse consequences than using a word that is used on the nightly news?

  3. trying to say things in a less shocking/nice way if one can

    Nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses for your kind and gentle heart, Eric! However, I’m with TT on this one.


    I should have added from the start that the irony of this situation is that the narrative does occlude the full impact of the violence from the novice reader.

    Consider the following allusions:

    1. David saw a beautiful woman. Amnon saw a beautiful sister. Nathan’s predictions begin to unfold through precisely the same mechanism as the original transgression.

    2. Amnon’s speech in v. 4 is a series of alliterated initial aspirants. The effect in Hebrew is like hearing a series of six gasping sighs.

    3. Amnon’s command in v. 9, “Clear out everyone around me,” is what Joseph commanded when he began the reconciliation with his brothers. Here, as a prelude to incestuous rape, it is hair-raising.

    4. The moment before the rape echoes the the interaction between Joseph and the wife of Potiphar. Amnon’s “Come, lie with me, my sister” is very like the wife of Potiphar’s “Lie with me” addressed to Joseph. And the reference to “my sister” dispels all illusion in our understanding of Amnon.

    5. Only Joseph and Tamar are said to have had “a coat of many colors.” In fact, the rape of Tamar is playing the Joseph story backwards. Instead of moving toward familial reconciliation, it moves away.

    6. Tamar’s response “It should not be done thus in Israel…this scurrilous thing” echoes the rape of Dinah (Gen 34). There is a contrast between Shechem and Amnon, but the outcome, murderous vengeance, is precisely the same.

    7. Tamar’s plea, “Don’t my brother,” also echoes the plea of the Ephraimite in Gibeah to the mob of rapists “Don’t my brothers” in the story of the Levite’s concubine (Jdg 19:23). The Levite’s concubine is gang-raped to death and civil war ensues. Similarly, although Tamar survives, civil war is the result of this event as well.

    8. Amnon’s words to Tamar after he sates himself are the precise opposite of his initial invitation. The words “Come, lie with me” have given way to “Get up, go.”

    9. Amnon is polite to his servant, using an expression of entreaty (n’)to get him to throw Tamar out, but calls Tamar z’t, perhaps translated as “this creature.”

    10. Count the number of times the words “brother” and “sister” are used. Serious irony!

    The fact of the matter is that the author has dumped a remarkable load of violence and allusions to violence into a very few lines of story. The normal, modern, reader will pick up little of it and so is shielded.

    But hey, at least the doggone lesson manual ought to deal forthrightly with the surface narrative… As it stands, it’s incoherent.

  4. Odd wording at best, in the manual. Nice analysis though. What’s your first line of resources to dig through when you hit something like this?

  5. I’m not saying it is the right thing to do, just trying to give some explanation – just a guess. Sometime you loose meaning when you try to sugar coat things.

  6. Indeed, Mogget, it is analysis like this (comment @ 8:32) that I often crave and don’t know where to find. Beyond bugging you all the time, where do you suggest a bloke like me turn?

  7. The term “rape” is not found anywhere in the KJV. Presumably the translators found other expressions that better suited their frame of reference. And apparently the authors of the church lesson material thought this to be appropriate.

    Apparently you missed the point anyway. While it certainly makes reference to an ugly incident, the scriptural narrative that includes the rape of Tamar is obviously included for completeness in illustrating the downfall and destruction of the house of King David. I suppose you’re welcome to overlay whatever revisionist views that please you, but perhaps you could forgive others for not anticipating the particular nuances you prefer to emphasize.

  8. Jim, I don’t see your point at all. I don’t see how Mogget is being revisionist, nor do I understand your seeming disgust with her interpretation. Mogget clearly agrees with you about the importance of the narrative in demonstrating the fall of the house of David. I confess that I am baffled by your comment.

  9. I would guess that Mogget’s analysis merely stems from the strangeness of the phrase “forced her to commit adultery with him.” If you think about that, it is ludicrous. Mogget is just pointing out that forcing someone to commit adultery with you is rape, and in this case, incest. Then, based on this simple observation (no knowledge of Biblical Hebrew or traditions required for this one), Mogget points out that the manual is forcing a moral lesson from a story that doesn’t support it at all.

  10. Jim, I’m also puzzled by your comment. What revisionist agenda does Mogget’s post serve? What’s she revising? The scripture is clear that Tamar did not participate in this and that Amnon “was stronger than she, and raped her, and lay with her.” (My translation of the Hebrew)

  11. I’m with you, Mogget. The tendency to want to euphemize here leads to serious misrepresentation of the scripture.

  12. See, wouldn’t we all like a nice OT/NT commentary? (Referencing J.Stapely and Ben S’s comments about a starting point.)

    I can’t wait to see what you have to say about Lot’s daughters! =)

  13. Mogget, thanks for your 10-point commentary on this and related events. It parallels my own understanding.

    I have no problem discussing rape with our adult GD class. But I think I nearly caused some folks to have heart failure one time when I talked about ritual prostitution that is rife throughout the OT. (Some folks read the material, but never understood what it was talking about.)

    Remember that the manual provides a *suggested* outline. In fact, it asks the teacher to follow the Spirit and to teach correct doctrine. I have no problem departing from the manual as long as I feel ratified by the Spirit, I am teaching correct doctrine, and I am meeting the needs of my class. I would probably take a different tack with 15-year-olds than I do with adults.

  14. Oh, and one other thing. Each lesson contains far more material than can reasonably be covered in 40 minutes, so the teacher has to be very selective. Manual writers are probably trying to focus on material that speaks to the life experience of most members attending classes. Statistically speaking, it is probably more likely that people have to grapple with sexual temptation than with rape. I wonder if manual writers are simply trying to speak to the former concern rather than trying to gloss over the latter.

  15. Perhaps it would be helpful to repeat Dan Peterson’s anecdote about writing for church manuals. This was given in a different context, where someone was claiming the binding character of the manual, and most of you have probably seen it by now (it was originally posted on the FAIR boards), but it is definitely worth another look:

    Having, some time back, served on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee of the Church for nearly ten years, I would never, ever, take a Gospel Doctrine manual to be an official and binding declaration of Church doctrine. We tried to get things right, we prayed about our work, and what we did was reviewed in Salt Lake before publication, but it scarcely constituted scripture.

    A story:

    Once, the scriptural selection about which I was assigned to write a lesson included, among other things, Acts 20:7-12, in which the apostle Paul drones on for so long in the course of a sermon that a young man (ironically named Eutychus or “Fortunate”) dozes off and falls from the rafters. Paul has to restore him to life. As a joke, I inserted a passage in my lesson manuscript that read somewhat along the following lines:

    Have a class member read Acts 20:7-12. Have you ever killed anyone with a sacrament meeting speech? How did it make you feel? What steps can you take in the future to ensure that it does not happen again?

    Members of the committee laughed, and the committee chairman sent my lesson on up, incorporating their suggested revisions but also still including my little joke, to Salt Lake City. Where it passed Correlation. (I can only assume that each member of the committee chuckled and then passed it on, expecting that somebody else would remove it.) When I received the galleys of the lesson back for final approval just before it went to press, the joke was still there. I faced one of the greatest moral crises of my life, but finally called Church headquarters and suggested that they probably didn’t really want the lesson to go out to Church members entirely as it stood. So the joke was removed.

    The point being that Gospel Doctrine manuals are not to be confused with authoritative divine revelations.

  16. Reach Upward,

    If the purpose of the GD’s weird language is to use this passage to discuss sexual temptation rather than rape, well then the manual should just use one of the many passages in the OT that actually does deal with sexual temptation.

  17. Thanks Kevin. I hadn’t seen that quote before but it is definitely worth passing on! (I think Dan is really quite funny — it’s a bummer that he takes so much heat at times.)

  18. While looking at other church-published commentary, I noticed that the Guide to the Scriptures quotes part of 2 Samuel 13:12 under its entry for fornication (defined therein as “Unlawful sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other. In the scriptures it is also occasionally used as a symbol for apostasy”).

  19. Ben S.,

    For SS, I usually start w/ OT narrative critics because I’m teaching reading skills. In this case, it’s Robert Alter’s The David Story, moderated by some more detailed input. It’s solid but not a scholarly work per se. You’ll see where to start from the footnotes.

    J. Stapley,

    Questions are always welcome. Just pop up in whatever thread is on top. However, in this case you might also have a look at the Alter book. Paperback, $15.00 new; there should be used copies. It’s accessible to anyone who can read and it’ll give you a new appreciation for David and for the authors of the OT.


    As far as I know, the story of Lot’s daughters is etiological, giving an account of the starting point of the Moabites and the children of Ammon. Their unsavory orgins make this the perfect taunt against Israel’s hereditary enemies. The matter of Lot’s performance given his inebriated state may simply be the oldest recorded use of popsicle sticks.

    And now I shall have to go give myself a Mogget-nipping for writing that last sentence.


    I suppose that fornication is a lesser included offense in rape! 😉 However, I’m with Serenity: it’s a weird way to talk about the reality of the event. That it should be repeated may simply indicate an unfamiliarity with the original citation and/or failure to check that citation.

    Then again, I could be wrong!


    I should have said something to begin with about the translation of rape reports in the OT. Ben’s Hebrew is better than mine and his translation, “and he was stronger than her, raped her, and lay with her” is fine. I’m just going back to the very literal to make two points:

    1) The AV is neither consistent nor accurate.

    2) There’s a reason for the biblical language choices.

    The expression Ben translates as “raped her” is translated as “forced her” in the AV but is literally “and he humbled her.”

    Ben has correctly preserved the rapid sequence of verbs with the same male subject: “ he was stronger than her and he humbled her and he lay with her.” That’s five quick words in Hebrew with nothing to soften or slow their blows as they fall from the lips of a speaker. The language is matching the activity, so to speak.

    The expression “he humbled her” is also used in the rape of Dinah. And once again there’s a rapid sequence of verbs with the same male subject: “he took her and he lay with her and he humbled her.” The AV translates that last by “he defiled her.”

    A translation of “defiled her” is a good representation of the pariah status of a rape victim at the time. It is, however, an abyssmal choice for modern readers if these readers do not know when/how to separate the explicit biblical use from their own life-experiences.

    Now contrast these stories of Dinah and Tamar with the report of David and Bathsheba: “and David sent messengers and he took her and SHE came into him and he lay with her.” Same sequence of rapid-fire verbs, but note the shift in the subject from David to Bathsheba.

    It is the shift in the subject of the verb sequence that suggests the possibility that Bathsheba wasn’t completely unwilling. No telling for sure, however. The author of Samuel is an oh-so-clever fellow.

    Anyway, with respect to Dinah and Tamar, I see no point in retaining the AV’s translation in the lesson manual, especially since the AV is neither consistent nor especially accurate. I’d love to know why they shifted, though

  20. Justin has mentioned the use of this passage elsewhere to support arguments about fornication. Reach Upward suggested that the author of the manual may be trying to address life’s more common challenges. This explanation may have merit. Consider the treatment of Dinah in the GD lesson manual:

    In the biblical entry, Shechem rapes Dinah and then decides that he loves her. Take a look at the triple repetition of his feelings: (Gen 34:2-3; AV)

    2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. 3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

    For very good reasons we view the idea that a rapist might love his victim as extremely unlikely. Was it so when this story was written? I don’t know the reality of the matter, but that’s how the story reads. Shechem genuinely loved Dinah after the event.

    Now here’s the manual:

    Notice the language in Gen 34:3 that describes Shechem’s feelings for Dinah: “And his soul clave unto Dinah…and he loved the damsel.” Why is this description inconsistent with Shechem’s actions? (If Shechem had truly loved Dinah, he would not have defiled her. Help class members understand that often people use the excuse “We are in love” to justify immoral activity, but people who love each other will not cause each other guilt and suffering to gratify physical passions and desires…)

    Notice that the triple repetition of Shechem’s feelings is missing? And that this retelling of the story is inconsistent with the narrative in Gen 34:3-4? The OT does not say that Shechem’s rape is motivated by love, but that his feelings were moderated afterwards. And Dinah’s feelings are never articulated or even implied.

    Once again, a story with its own distinct interests is muddied to support moralizing against consensual pre-martial relations. And once again, the whole approach is rather incoherent, I think, and it makes it harder to teach folks to actually confront the text.

  21. Well, well. The expression “cause her to commit fornication” does exist. It’s the hiphil stem of znh and the passage is Lev 19:20:

    You shall not pollute your daughter, to cause her to commit fornication, lest the land fall into harlotry and become full of wickedness.

    Good advice.

    There’s a handful of other instances as well, all of which seem to be metaphorical references to idolatry rather than literal.

  22. Great thread, excellent work Mogget, as usual. The thing that bugs me about the OT manual is its seeming desire to use as many of the stories as possible. With such limited time to teach the OT in a single year of Sundays, why don’t the compilers spend more time in, say, the teachings of the prophets instead of twisting stories to talk about fornication etc? We seem to blow through the prophets so fast that we have a church full of whiners about how hard Isaiah is. (Ok, I’m being petty and mean, sorry)

  23. Revisionism in insisting that study guide authors must use the parts of the narrative I prefer to moralize on, using the contemporary terms I deem correct.

    The lesson manual actually only makes a parenthetic mention of the incident. The superficial treatment of the passage is hardly comprehensive enough to earn the “incoherent” pejorative.

    If we must make a critical analysis of the story, perhaps it is just as interesting to consider what the narrative offers about Tamar’s reactions.

    First she entreats Amnon to have the king arrange some kind of semi-legitimate tryst. Afterward she reproaches him further for having her “put out”. She does not stage the traditional weeping and wailing scene until after the servant throws her out.

    Difficult to reconcile with the contemporary image of a distraught and traumatized woman crying “rape”.

  24. Good post. Great post even.

    Without a doubt this should be described as a rape. The only qualifier I could attach is that this word could be painful to that person in the class who suffered from being raped or sexually abused. I can imagine a committee talking about this and deciding that a church class is not a place to invite discussion of personal traumas. I still think though that we sometimes do ourselves a disservice by not directly confronting the text and what it is actually saying.

    Again, as mogget points out so effectively, this story is not merely about fornication or immorality and I think that in discussing this OT story, that needs to be broached.

  25. J,

    Good to “see” you again. I have thought about church manuals many times. I agree in principle that we attempt too much with the OT, but I’m not sure I know how to address the issue. I’d be interested in hearing what others think the goals of OT study should be and what passages best support these goals.

    Should we study the OT with an eye to appreciating the NT? Should we study it with an emphasis on it’s “own message,” however we might define that? Should we provide a “classical” approach? Or should we select passages with “known” modern relevance?


    Thanks. I agree that the whole story is best avoided if it would cause distress.


    Thanks for your response. First, let me send you some nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses and then admit that I am not able to respond to the emotional sub-text of your comments. I will have to confine myself to what I know.

    A slightly more historical-critical reading of the Tamar pericope suggests that both her pleas are consistent with a request for marriage.

    Before the rape, Amnon’s assent to her plea would have provided a chance to escape. After the rape, it would relieve the inevitable pariah status. As I am sure you know, the punishment for a rapist was marriage for precisely this reason.

    Although modern readers find it stylized, the details of Tamar’s response after being thrown out are quite traditional. They are proper, timely, and consistent with the narrative practices of the time in portraying a distraught, violated, woman.

    Another approach to the matter lies through the narrator. Samuel’s narrator is widely considered omniscient, as are most OT narrators. Absent, then, any indication that the narrative has shifted away from zero focalization, the narrator’s insight should stand. Depending on translation, Amnon “forced,” “humbled,” or “raped” his victim. A willingness on Tamar’s part is not an appropriate reading unless the narrator’s testimony can be impeached.

    Third, as I explained above the diction and syntax of the report of the rape are consistent with that of Dinah’s humiliation. The contrast with David and Bathsheba provides a good indication that the author is quite careful about these things.

    Although I have never heard the revisionist label applied to folks who note odd things in transitory texts such as lesson manuals, I guess it is something to keep in mind.

    Best wishes to all,


  26. This substitution of rape for fornication bothers me a bit. Too many women are raped and then treated like fornicators when someone says, “What were you wearing that night?”

  27. Ah, well, fortunately I don’t think that’s the issue here. I think it’s simply careless pedagogy.

    Sometime this weekend I’ll fire off a polite letter to the address in the manual pointing out that they’ve got an allusion to prostitution leading into some comments on consensual pre-marital sex that are supposed to illuminate one of the Bible’s more famous rape narratives. There may in fact be better ways to get at the OT’s sexual ethics–or modern ones, for that matter.

    If I get anything back, I’ll post it. In the meantime, we can probably all set it aside as one of those interesting things…

  28. We do seem to be ashamed of the Old Testament at times don’t we?

    What’s this “we” stuff???

    I’m more ashamed of the manual than I am the OT!!!

    Thanks Mogget.

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