I had already encroached on my friend’s time long enough. Yet his hand beckoned me to stay across from him, welcoming the prolonged dialogue as we coaxed my words of fear and doubt out from hiding. A duet of angst, my fears lamented shakily in verse; his words harmonized with comfort and confidence. My doubts pushed back. His reassurances doubled down. I was thankful for the chance to openly struggle with such a compassionate voice, but at the end of it all, there remained a final chasm he could not cross with me – the chasm of womanhood.
There exists a tension within me, a discomfort within my soul, as I was encouraged to take my fears into the holy of holies and rest them on the altar. It is difficult to not question who it is God responds to when both sides call upon His name in the midst of conflict and abuse. In my experience, it seems justice on the oppressor is often suspended for the sake of mercy. Even now, in a culture where these misogynistic injustices are illuminated each day, it is easy to feel as if compassion for the oppressed is even rerouted to promote the power of justice. Either way you slice it, it is easy to feel the wounded can go unseen. Yet as a woman who longs to know God so intimately, the true struggle I have had was to continue to trust He is just as much my God too. It has begun to feel as if my gender-laden experiences bring into question my significance to Him in the shadow of my oppressor. It is hard to detach my fears from the One I cannot see, who, especially in His silence, becomes suspect to my wounds.
In this season, I have often been reminded of Tamar, daughter of King David. She is not unknown, yet hardly given center stage, as her father so greatly overshadows her in the Scripture. She is often spoken of as a stain of indiscretion within another protagonist’s story we’d much rather tell. However, for those of us who identify with her, she provides a reflection of reality few others can demonstrate within Scripture. Here is a woman, a princess of the High King and daughter to a foreign queen, making her doubly royal in blood. She was a young woman who would’ve been held in high esteem. She was also astoundingly beautiful; she should have been precious both in appearance and position. David’s name should have brought her protection, which instead betrayed and destroyed her. His complicated harem of women made family life dysfunctional and perverted as it was, but it was David’s first-born Amnon, the rightful future king of God’s chosen people, capable of receiving anything he merely asked for, who pillaged the virginity of his own half-sister. Tamar’s brother stripped her not only of her status, but of her royalty, her future, her honor, and her value in her community. Though his sins were uncovered, and his life demanded of him, Tamar was forced into hiding to grow old and die, as the Bible states, ‘in desolation.’
It is from this story Psalm 61 is often attributed to – from David’s point of view. It is an encouraging psalm to the suffering, unless the suffering is from Tamar’s perspective. There have been many times when this passage has been taught and exegeted over the years, my thoughts have drifted down the abandoned paths, searching for Tamar in darkness and obscurity. I’ve so often wished I could sit with her in the dust of her shame and ask her so many things. Did God hear your vows? Have you, too, been able to take refuge under the shelter of His wings? Has He been a strong tower against your enemy, and do you believe you have a heritage, as well, in His name? Do you think God hears your cry, Tamar, the abused and spat upon, the abandoned and the wretched?
As a woman who has suffered abuse, it has been difficult to read David’s perspective of events when I see the women who have suffered in his name. I wonder if David was after God’s heart, who was God’s heart after? Was His heart for Tamar? What truth did she cling to as she sat exiled from the Temple, the dwelling place of God, because she was now unclean and shunned? What faithfulness did she count on as a guarantee the God she worshipped would care for her in the wake of other men’s sins? I wonder what Tamar thought. I wonder what evidence of His presence she might have sought in the histories passed down by her paternal ancestors of a God who had brought her into the land she now dwelled in alone.
I wonder if she thought of Sarai, who stood between her husband and an Egyptian king, who slept in his bed to preserve the life of her fearful husband. I wonder if she saw a God who burned with the anger and jealousy for Sarai, which Abraham lacked amidst his own selfishness and forgetfulness of God’s promises. I wonder if she called to mind the God who rained down plagues to redeem Sarai when Abraham gave her away, the God who broke into the dreams of kings to demonstrate her exceeding worth to Him.
I wonder if she thought of Hagar, who bore a son at her masters’ pleasures, only to be cast aside in spite. I wonder if Tamar saw a God who pursued her into the desert, a God who looked for a wounded woman with patience and care. I wonder if she remembered Hagar’s rescue from death by the God who loved her enough to preserve a life His own people would not trouble to save.
I wonder if she thought of Leah who, though wed to Jacob, was seen as less beautiful and less loved by the husband who only had affection for her sister. I wonder if she considered it the love of the God who saw Leah in her affliction and blessed her with all the sons Jacob had ever wanted, and so provided joy and protection for her life.
I wonder if she thought of Leah’s daughter Dinah, who also had a passive father who would so easily release his own flesh and blood to the man who’d raped her. I wonder if Tamar saw her reflection in Dinah, and I wonder if she thought it God’s providence to give Leah so great a number of sons who would cherish Dinah enough to come to her defense, slaying the men who violated her when her own father stayed his hand. I wonder if she looked to the God they believed in and saw the shadow of an avenger. I wonder if she clung to the God who would bring such protection and vengeance on behalf of the women in His sight.
I wonder if she thought of Rahab, a woman well acquainted with sexual violence, who took it upon herself to protect others in her midst, to honor a God she did not know. I wonder if Tamar considered God’s salvation drawn to any who would trust in it. I wonder if she saw a God who gave favor to a woman who would forsake her home to pursue Him to graft her into His family. I wonder if she considered Him a God of open arms.
I wonder if she thought of Deborah and Jael, who bravely fought wars their men were afraid to lead, and yet called those same men up to bravery and action for the sake of enacting the will of God. I wonder if she thought of them and saw a God who gave women strength and dignity, who did not fear in His midst to stare evil down with a warrior’s cry. I wonder if she believed in a God who handed power to women who clung to His name in utter dependence.
I wonder if she thought of Hannah, who gripped the feet of God and would not be moved until He answered her with a son. I wonder if she thought of Hannah’s tenacity, her belief in a God who would hear and answer her. I wonder if she anchored herself in hope, knowing her foremother believed firmly in a God who hears and sees the tears of women – and responds to them.
And, I wonder if she thought of Ruth, a woman of humble means and an outcast in society, who boldly risked everything to find a home with Boaz. I wonder if she thought about how Ruth, though not a Jew, could also be drawn in by a God who desired to widen his tent for the needy and the downtrodden, so they too, could eat at His table and rest under the shelter of His provision. I wonder if she saw Ruth as a promise God was generous to women who needed Him, who asked Him to be their redeemer.
We don’t know. The Bible only tells us Tamar died in the desolation of her brother Absalom’s house. She never married, though she knew a man who violated her, and never was provided with a family. In many ways, Tamar’s story is confusing to me, because it seems the promise falls short for her. It seems God does not see her. I know the men in her life did not see her. But we don’t know how God did or didn’t meet her in her suffering. I wonder what kind of women she looked to, if she did look, to find the strength to walk in the aftermath of such trauma. I wonder if she might have still learned of God from them, the ones who knew and deeply understood the kind of life she led as an abused woman.
As I look to her life, I see only questions, questions that force me to push back further into history’s unfolding line to search for the God of women. And though I do not know what stories Tamar knew, or what (if any) strength Tamar drew on to suffer under the domain of an almighty God, I have been pushed to search for the stories myself. In the light of man’s abuse, I have had to turn to these women to point me to a God I am so desperate to know, yet so unsure if, in the shadows of the unseen, He would be my God, too.
I look at Sarai, and I know her God was jealous for her safety and her protection. God raised hell on earth – quite literally – to save her from abuse. He gave her a son in her old age, and faithfully taught her to trust Him. His outlandish favor on her even made her laugh. I am confident God loved Sarai, with or without Abraham.
I look at Hagar, who Sarai (though loved by God) abused, and I know God pursued the outcast with a heated sense of justice. Yes, I have questions for God regarding her treatment, but she is the woman who teaches me that her God is the God who sees me. He saw her, and chased after her to bring her into His sight. She taught me God will chase even a lowly concubine into the desert to convince her of her worth.
I look at Leah, and I see a God who shows no favoritism, yet a God who cares specifically for those who lack, and who loves deeply those who are unloved. I see a God who provides for the desperate needs of women with lavishness, and a God who does not abandon women in desperate seasons.
I look at Dinah and I see God’s loyalty as the father she needed, when such loyalty could not be found in the father she had. I see a God who fights for his daughters, a God who snatched her from strangers, and exchanged her life and safety for a whole city that day. I see a God who passionately fights for His daughters.
I look at Deborah and Jael and I see a God who empowers women to lead and call men (and women) to strength and bravery. I see a God who loves to equip women to battle against evil and entrusts them to be valiant, strong, and enduring through trial, just as he created them to be. I see a God who chooses to speak His justice and His mercy through the lips of a woman, who enacts His righteousness through the actions of women. He calls out women to reflect His wisdom and His grace toward others in His name. I see a God who honors and esteems women by girding them in His power.
I look at Hannah, and I see a God who is intimate and tender, who enters into the suffering of women and provides love and peace, who clings to them as fiercely and passionately as they cling to Him. I see a God who delights in the private, persistent prayers of women, and honors them in highest regard, though they may not be the ones uttered from the Temple courts. I see a God who desires to listen and specifically respond to my voice.
And I look at Ruth, and I see a God who is a defender of the foreigner, who is a friend to the sojourner, who is a kinsman to the unseen. I see a God who lovingly redeems those who are nothing, who have nothing, with such honor and proximity to Himself. I see a God who walks closely with the humble, the invisible, the silenced so that they might know Him as the God who chooses them, who gives them shelter in His courts. I see a God who befriends women, and holds them with loving affection, and a God who deeply, specifically loves me.
When I wrestle to believe God’s love in a world which seems to deny me that love, I think often of Tamar, who feels so hidden within the pages of Scripture. I see Tamar, and I am reminded I see a God I could never fully understand, a God who invites my honest questions and does not hide the ugliness of life from me. I see a God who I can fight with as a woman, no differently than Jacob did as man, and still win His favor, though I am wounded at His hand. I see a God who not only invites my pain and insecurities, but who also does not placate me with sugar-coated responses to mollify my suffering. I see a God who baffles me and disappoints me and is frustratingly silent sometimes. I see a God who guides me to look beyond myself and consider He might not be showing me the whole story just yet, and a God who reminds me I am never above needing other women to testify to His character and faithfulness before me when it is not evident in my own life.
Tamar reminds me God is sometimes silent, and there is such unspeakable pain in His silence. But as Mary stood before the cross watching her own son be tortured and crucified, she witnessed Jesus endure even greater unspeakable pain through God’s silence amidst unthinkable abuse and injustice. Surely Tamar, wherever she was in eternity’s reach, could be satisfied in worshipping the God before her wounds who understood her, at last, in the fullness of His condemnation. And furthermore, there was a God who would step out for her sake to save her, voluntarily disrobing His glory to be shamed in ways she could deeply understand, being forcibly disrobed herself by another man to her earthly shame and condemnation. She could understand the precious cost of her Savior’s love in ways many men would never know. As a woman subjected to horrible abuse, she could bask in the fullness of glory of the One who had walked with her every step of the way so He could suffer with her, and through that suffering, redeem her.
There is hope for the abused. There is hope for the lowly. There is hope for the unseen. No matter what the world tells you, no matter how much evil pulls you into its clutches and slashes your heart open, there are countless women who can foretell the hope of calling upon a God who loves – deeply, irrevocably loves – women. If the testimonies of these women are trustworthy, there is a God for women too, even in the shadow of Tamar’s unanswered pain. He is the God who hears my cries, though they may fall on deafened ears around me. And He is the God who is forever fighting for the women He created as He calls them unto Himself as their lover, protector, father, avenger, rescuer, equipper, teacher, provider, friend, and savior. And in the knowledge of His adoption of us, we can push to fight for Tamars to receive what they so desperately need – to be seen and heard, and know God longs to be their God, too.