It may not have been my first encounter with the story of Tamar and Amnon but it’s the one that has stuck in my mind all these years later. After avoiding “silly juvenile” relationships for most of my school career, I reached my senior years of high school and started dating. It was about that point, that Mum handed me a book. I was a voracious reader and Mum had always encouraged and fed that habit. So it was not unusual that she would encourage me to read something. I think the book was already old when I got it, maybe even something she’d received herself as a young person.
I can’t remember the name of the book but maybe you encountered it too (I hope it’s not circulating anymore but who knows). We’d already learned about the biological processes of reproduction at my Adventist high school—the physiological processes in a context of abstinence and safety. This book took a slightly different approach. While spending some time on the mechanics of things, it mostly focused on using the story of Tamar and Amnon to encourage chastity and good decisions.
From memory, there was a good bit of content about how Tamar shouldn’t have allowed herself to be alone with Amnon and how lust can grow to become uncontrollable. Some blame was left at Amnon’s door but Tamar was complicit as well (see this article for an analysis of power and abuse in the story).
If you know the story, you know it is horrific. Incest, rape, abuse—while it does teach us things, they are in the areas of trauma, rape, David’s failure and how actions of injustice can have devastating flow-on effects—it probably shouldn’t be used to teach teens about sex, not healthy, consensual intimacy. It was the fire and brimstone approach. “This is what can happen when it all goes wrong,” rather than, “here is a healthy and biblical attitude to sex”.
I’m not blaming Mum. She and Dad modelled their strong relationship. We knew the standards and rules and the school did a good job of teaching us as well. But there was no real place to have a more open and honest conversation. As a man who has now been married for a decade (that makes me feel old), there are things I’ve learned about sex, mistakes I’ve made that I wish I knew earlier, conversations I wish I’d had and some balanced, practical guidance that I could have benefitted from.
Unfortunately, my experience with that particular text is a pretty good summary of some of the unhelpful and indeed unhealthy attitudes and teachings around sex and marriage in the Christian church.
Some Christian attitudes towards sex (our silence, our mistaken ideas) can actually foster abuse, toxicity and trauma. There are twisted ideas of submission and an inequality between the genders and what to expect for intimate relationships. Sheila Wray Gregoire and her team interviewed 20,000 Christian women and uncovered some of the harmful attitudes they had been taught by popular evangelical resources. In their book, The Great Sex Rescue, they expose the harm this has done to both women and men.
“When we are repeatedly told by our churches and the Christian media we consume that we can’t trust our husbands, even if our husbands are trustworthy, that plants seeds of doubt.” The same goes for young people.
We tend to moralise or shut down discussions about sex fearing it will lead to bad choices, but the church should be at the forefront, presenting a healthy biblical understanding and sexual ethic. Also parents can’t leave it to the school (or worse, the schoolyard) to teach their children but must lead the conversation in their homes.
Read my words carefully. I still advocate abstinence before marriage but it is also time to acknowledge that not everything that is popular Christian teaching stacks up and it can even be harmful. We must be more open and better informed. We must also go back to the Bible and develop more complete and redemptive theology around sex and relationships. We must celebrate the good gift God has given and help couples navigate the minefield that is sex with grace, self-sacrificing love and positivity rather than staying silent or giving bad advice.