[K:NWTS 3/2 (Sep 1988) 25-32]

The Rape of Tamar

2 Samuel 13

James T. Dennison, Jr.

A story of love and hate; lust and disgust; conceit and deceit; potence and impotence; parricide and fratricide.

A story of beauty and the beast; a story of fathers and sons; a story of reaping what you sow–of fathers eating sour grapes and the children's teeth being set on edge; a story of what goes around comes around.

This is a story of David. Though playing only a minor role–it is his story. Though passive and relatively uninvolved–it is the story of the king and his kingdom.

It is the story of Absalom, son of David. It is the story of Amnon, son of David. It is the story of Jonadab, nephew of David, cousin to the house of Jesse. 2 Samuel 13 is a story of the house of David! We are ushered into the family–into the innermost recesses of the palace. This is a story about a family: a family torn, a family shamed, a family debauched, a family divided. 2 Samuel 13 is a story about the family of the king.

The curtain is raised in verse 1. The main characters of our narrative are introduced. Here are the dramatis personae. Absalom–son of David–third born; offspring of Maachah–Maachah of Geshur–foreign Transjordanian princess. Absalom–handsome Absalom, beautiful Absalom–Absalom is of thoroughbred royal stock–father and mother both of regal blood. Tamar–Maachah's second child to David; beautiful Tamar–sister of beautiful Absalom–daughter of a princess and beautiful David. And Amnon–Amnon, son of David; Amnon–firstborn son of David; Amnon–son of David and Ahinoam, the Jezreelitess.

Now Amnon loved his half-sister. Loved her to the point of sickness over her–loved her virgin form–sickened himself with fantasies of love. Fantasies of fixation; fantasies of obsession; fantasies of frustration–for she was a member of the family–she was part of his house–part of the house of David. She was of his blood–of the king's blood–and he could hardly complete his fantasy. Family circles proscribe certain acts; a taboo barred Amnon from fulfilling his fantasy.

But the family had its own wiseman–a shrewd and clever fellow–cousin Jonadab. And Jonadab witnessed the lust-sickness of Amnon, the unfulfilled fantasy and inquired of its cause. "I am in love with my sister." And Jonadab–clever Jonadab– suggested a way for lust to have its end. Taboos are meaningless to those with status (he suggests)–those with privilege. What is royal blood if it does not buy certain liberties, certain license? Jonadab is truly a clever fellow. We will petition the head of the family (he suggests) and devise a scheme for Tamar to visit you in your sick room. We shall suggest an illness which needs the special attention of Tamar–a visit from your sister, your nurse. A few cakes from her hand, a few moments alone . . . your desires may be satisfied by careful arrangement. A child of the king should not fret from self-denial. What delights the royal eye should delight the royal flesh.

Now David unwittingly becomes the pawn in the game. He comes to the scene of the proleptical crime and sees no more than genuine illness and need. The ruse works perfectly and the scheme advances. The beauty is summoned to the house–to the chamber of the lecherous fantasizer. And Tamar takes the dough . . . . And she kneads the dough . . . . And she forms the cakes . . . . And she bakes the cakes . . . . And she takes the pan . . . . And she dishes out the cakes.

But there are too many eyes. Lust conceived secretly in the fantasies of the heart must be brought forth secretly. Leave–go away–close the door! But how to get her into the bedroom? Bring the food to my bedside, for I am ill dear sister. Come to me that I may eat from your hand. And Tamar comes–unsuspecting, innocent Tamar comes. No other eyes, no other taboos: all is as he had imagined it–so many times, he had imagined it. And now she comes, her beautiful virgin form approaches–the cakes in her hand. And his hand seizes her–come lie with me!

Tamar is shocked; she is alarmed; she protests; she pleads; she reasons; she resists. Amnon has said yes to his fantasy; Jonadab has said yes to Amnon's fantasy; David unwittingly has said yes to Amnon's fantasy. The servants have exited implicitly saying yes to Amnon's fantasy. Tamar says, "No!" But her pleas cannot overcome Amnon's strength. The strength of his fantasy is too powerful; the strength of his scheme is too powerful; the strength of his sin is too powerful-- he has her in his power and he rapes her. Brutally, callously, heartlessly rapes her. Fantasy has become reality.

But oh the bitter taste of that reality. "Amnon hated her with a great hatred so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he loved her." Go! Get up! Get out! Tamar, the shamed, beseeches–Do not put me out; you have dishonored me, do not disgrace me like a common street prostitute. But the power of his disgust is now revulsion. He is sick of her for whom he had been sick. The servants he had put out are brought in. Throw her out; throw this thing out! But is she not your sister, Amnon? Throw this thing out!!

And Tamar went out; went out in her princess robes–went out in her robe of many colors; her beautiful robe of many colors. Tamar departed in her colorful princess robe–a robe that marked her as a virgin–a virgin daughter of the king's house. And Tamar tore her robe; tore her beautiful robe–beautiful Tamar tore her beautiful robe and put ashes on her head. Tamar marked herself with the signs of disgrace and went away crying. Tamar went away crying for shame and injustice.

But Absalom, her brother, urged her to keep silent. So Tamar remained silent and desolate in her brother's house. Tamar withdraws to obscurity and silence.

When David heard it, he was angry. David was very angry . . . but David did nothing. Absalom was angry. Tamar's brother was angry and Absalom began to fantasize–a scheme, a plan. And David sent Amnon to take his place in Absalom's scheme. And Absalom avenged his sister's honor–leaving Amnon desolate and silent . . . in the grave!

The inspired writer has woven a narrative masterpiece into the story of David. Called by the critics the Succession Narrative, this episode in the life of Amnon is alleged (by these Liberals) to be the ground of his disqualification from the line of succession to the throne of Israel. Such an explanation is as obtuse literarily as it is stupid theologically. The Lord in his righteousness is sovereign requiter of justice: even his own he chastens; even those after his own heart receive payment in kind. If we have lost a sense of retributive chastisement, even for the gracious, it is because we have lost the insight of the inspired author of II Samuel.

Did David gaze upon the beauty of a woman forbidden him? So does Amnon!

Did David scheme to take her, to violate her sexually? So does Amnon!

Did David devise a scheme of deceit to trick innocent and unassuming Uriah, the Hittite? So does Amnon!

Did David murder the loyal Uriah? So does Absalom murder Amnon!

Did David have his henchman, Joab, do his dirty work? So Absalom has his servants do his!

The circle which David has drawn with Bathsheba has been drawn within his own house.

"Thus says the Lord . . . the sword will never depart from your house . . . . I will raise up evil against you from your own household. I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion . . . . You did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel" (2 Sam. 12:10-12).

The emphasis upon the family unit is unmistakable. Notice the narrator's reiteration of the familial bonds: v. 1–son, sister, son; v. 2–sister; v. 3–brother; v. 4–son, sister, brother; and on we go. In this narrative, brother is used 11 times and sister is used 8 times. The drama of the royal house is a drama of the kingdom. This kingdom is riddled with lust and murder; this kingdom is advanced by deceit and injustice. The David who could not control his own passions cannot control the passions of his sons. The David who would not deny himself discovers his sons will not deny themselves. The house of this kingdom is torn–even as Tamar's purity is torn from her. So the integrity and dignity of this kingdom is torn: raped, defiled, dishonored. What a tragic failure is this kingdom; what a dishonorable kingdom is this house.

The central motif of this narrative is the family–the household of the king. The central theme of this narrative is love/hate. The story is a profound depiction of the love-hate relationship without the inadequacy of psychological detail–without the insufficiency of moralizing reflection. Note how the writer alerts us to the central role of this love/hate theme. He unfolds his pattern chiastically–you can see it even in your English version.

Verse 1-- Amnon loved Tamar

15a-- Amnon hated her with a great hatred

15b-- than the love with which he loved her

Verse 22-- Absalom hated Amnon

The story begins with love and ends with hate. And the climax of the story is a criss-crossing of the themes in verse 15: hate crossed with love. It is a perfect thematic chiasm. And the hatred of Absalom in verse 22–the hatred of Absalom is ominous, portentous, proleptic. For we begin to perceive that Absalom's deliberate and careful plan to murder Amnon is indicative of his own deliberate and careful plan to unseat his father and seize the throne of the house of Judah. Hatred is like a fire whipped by a Santa Ana; it consumes all in its path. The silence of Absalom in verse 22 is malevolent.

But the silence of David–the silence of David in verse 21 is impotent. He is angry, we are told; but he does nothing. Where is the king who executes justice in his kingdom? Where is the anointed of the Lord who begins at his own house to make wrong right? He is passive–a passive by-stander–silently watching life go by–life which he is unwilling and unable to control. Here is the king who came to grieving Bathsheba to comfort her on the death of the child born of their adultery. Where is he now when the desolate Tamar needs a word of comfort–yea, more, needs an act of justice? He is withdrawn, silent, passive. And as he was the unwitting tool of Amnon, so he becomes the unwitting tool of Absalom. In verse 7, he unwittingly plays the role of Amnon's pimp! In verse 22, he unwittingly plays the role of Absalom's accomplice.

Tamar weeps in verse 19 for her shame and the injustice of her ravishment. David weeps in verse 36 for Absalom. For shame that the rank vengeance of the bloody son goes unrepaid! David shall weep for Absalom once more. But Joab will shame him with his own impotence. You love those who hate you; and hate those who love you (2 Sam. 19:6). The chiasm returns!!!

Notice also several other literary devices. The dramatic character of the plot is advanced and heightened by the pattern of request and response. Verses 1-10 contain several requests which are fulfilled in response. Until verse 12 when Tamar abruptly breaks the pattern. Her response to Amnon's request is an emphatic "No!"

The masterful technique of retarding the action in verses 7-11 serves to increase the suspense. The drawn-out description of Tamar's preparation of the cakes is slow, deliberate–we are tempted to say tedious. But delay may bring restraint; drawing it out may bring Amnon time to repent. But the abrupt proposition of verse 11 breaks the suspense.

The coaxing, then abrupt proposition of Amnon does not surprise us. But the abrupt dismissal of Tamar despite her coaxing does surprise us. She has been used and now is to be discarded: abruptly, forcefully, insensitively. Virginity lost, Tamar sits in humiliation. Beauty lost, Tamar sits in ashes. Future lost, Tamar sits in desolation.

The writer has masterfully drawn us squarely into the story by leading us through each scene–not in a leering and obscene manner, but in an openly frank and sensitive empathy for a tragic figure: Tamar the violated, manipulated, used and abused innocent sufferer. Tamar the beautiful becomes Tamar the desolate. Tamar the virgin becomes Tamar the defiled. Tamar the gentle and unassuming becomes Tamar the ruined and rejected. Degraded, dehumanized, depersonalized: Tamar remains despondent in her brother's house. She weeps alone–with the king, her father, powerless to right the wrong; unwilling to plead her case; unwilling to daub her tears; unable to bear her sobs on his shoulders.

 Who will restore Tamar? Who will bring her out of desolation into the family again? Who will draw her with the cords of love into the kingdom-family once more? Who will approach Tamar with words of comfort? Who will assure her that she may be loved? That she may be the object of compassion, not lust? Who will tell her that her dignity may be restored? Who will assure her that her integrity can never be violated? Who will let Tamar's hot tears fall upon him and say, " I do not condemn thee." Who will say to her, not "Go from me you thing!"; but "Come unto me." Come with your burdens you violated ones–come with your grief you desolate ones–come unto me and I will make you whole. I will heal your broken heart; I will bind up your wounded souls; I will take away your reproach; I will bring you into a family where you will never be violated, never be used, never be abused, never be an object–a thing–a pawn of debauchery. Come to my house–the house of the King of Kings. Come to my house–my kingdom and I will protect your dignity. I will guard your integrity. I will protect your purity.

Come to the house of my kingdom saith the Lord Jesus and I will plead your case–I will be your advocate. Do not weep! I will give you what the world can never give–I give you an undefiled heart in a house of love forever. Let me put my robe upon you. Let me put my long-sleeved robe upon you. Here, let me take away the garments of your shame. Let me cover your shame with my spotless robe. Let me hide your reproach beneath the robe I provide. Let me dress you in a robe that can never be torn–let me clothe you with a seamless garment.

He shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; their robes shall be washed in the blood of the Lamb; and they shall sing "Hallelujah to the King of Kings." In the house of David's greater Son, in his Father's house, in the house of the Son of God, they shall sing "Hallelujah" and weep no more.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California

Suggestions for further reading:

  1. George Ridout, "The Rape of Tamar: A Rhetorical Analysis of 2 Sam 13:1-22," in J.J. Jackson and M. Kesslar, eds., Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg (Pickwick, 1974), pp. 75-84.

  2. Sarah Halperin, "Absalom's Story–Drama and Tragedy." Dor le Dor 11 (1982):1-14.

  3. J.P. Fokkleman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: The Crossing Fates (Van Gorcum, 1986).

  4. Bishop Joseph Hall, Contemplations on the Historical Passages of the Old and New Testaments.