Picture: Amnon and Tamar
Painter: Jan Steen (1625-1679)
This is my third post on the series of studies on the rape of Tamar, David’s daughter. The links for the previous studies on this series are found at the end of this post.
People who read the Bible regularly know that there are several texts in the Bible describing the plight of women who are raped. However, not many people have devoted much time studying these biblical texts dealing with rape or how Israelite laws dealt with this problem in their society.
Susanne Scholz, in her book Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (see my review of the book here), wrote the following about the problem of rape in the Bible:
The presence of rape in biblical literature proves the seriousness of the topic. Not only do the rape texts demonstrate that rape has long been part of the human experience, but the very fact that these texts exist proves the significance of the issue. The Bible deals with it, and so should we. Biblical rape literature is seen also as a pedagogical tool that strengthens our ability to confront sexual violence. Biblical rape texts describe human interaction as sexually violent but they do not prescribe it (2010: 7).
Rape is a violent, unlawful violation of a person’s body. Rape is also a violent demonstration of power between a man and a woman in which a woman is forced into a violent act of sexual intercourse without her permission. When a woman is raped, her body is violated and her personhood is diminished.
The rape of Tamar must be understood in the context of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Tamar’s rape continues the pattern of sex and violence set in motion with David’s illicit relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. David’s relationship with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband provoked the Lord’s anger: “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:1). David’s sin set in motion a series of events that would affect his family and his reign until the day he died.
At the command of the Lord, Nathan the prophet rebuked David and told him that as a result of his destruction of Uriah’s marriage that trouble would come upon his house, that the sword would come upon David’s family as it came upon Uriah, and that his wives would be taken by another man:
“Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun” (2 Samuel 12:9-12).
Nathan’s oracle began to be fulfilled with the rape of Tamar. As a consequence of David’s affair with Bathsheba, Nathan predicted that the Lord would raise “trouble against you from within your own house.” According to the biblical text, the rape of David’s daughter came after the narrative of David’s affair with Bathsheba.
Nathan had predicted that the sword would never depart from David’s house. This prediction began to come true when the servants of Absalom killed Amnon as Absalom had commanded (2 Samuel 13:28-29).
Nathan’s prediction that David’s wives would be taken by another and that “he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun” was fulfilled when Absalom, David’s own son, had sex with his father’s concubines in public, in the sight of all Israel (2 Samuel 16:22).
Amnon was the son of David by his wife Ahinoam, a woman from Jezreel (2 Samuel 3:2). According to the biblical text, David married Ahinoam shortly before he married Abigail (1 Samuel 25:42–43). While David was reigning over Judah from Hebron, David had six sons born there by six different wives; Amnon was his firstborn.
Amnon’s rape of Tamar, to some extent, reflects David’s behavior toward Bathsheba. David saw that Bathsheba “was very beautiful” (2 Samuel 11:2). Amnon lusts after Tamar because Tamar was also very beautiful (2 Samuel 12:1).
Bathsheba was unavailable to David because she was married to Uriah. Tamar was unavailable to Amnon because “she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her” (2 Samuel 13:2).
In her description of the rape of Tamar, Trible wrote: “As a virgin, Tamar is protected property, inaccessible to males, including her brother. Yet the ominous phrase, ‘it was impossible . . . to do to her anything,’ not only underscores his frustration but also foreshadows the disaster of its release.” (1984:38-39).
The biblical writer says that Amnon’s desire for Tamar was so intense that he was physically affected: “Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar” (2 Samuel 13:2). Filled with lust for his sister, Amnon began to look for ways to have sex with her.
In his obsession to have sex with Tamar, Amnon confided his desire to his cousin Jonadab, a “very crafty man.” After Jonadab heard of Amnon’s desire to have sex with Tamar, Jonadab proposed a strategy to bring Tamar to the house. His plan was simple. He told Amnon: pretend that you are sick and unable to leave the house. When your father David comes to the house to see you, then ask him to let your sister Tamar come and prepare food for you.
Unaware of Amnon’s motives, David told Tamar to go to Amnon’s house and prepare food for him. At the request of both her father and her brother, Tamar, in her willingness to care for her sick brother, came to Amnon’s house unaware that she was to become a victim of her brother’s lust.
Upon her arrival, Tamar prepared “a couple of cakes” (2 Samuel 13:6), a special kind of bread, and gave to Amnon to eat. After she placed the food before him, Amnon requested all the servants to leave the room. After the servants left, Amnon asked Tamar to bring the food into his bedroom so that he could eat from her hands.
When they were left alone in the bedroom, Amnon grabbed Tamar and ordered her to get in bed with him. It is at this point that Tamar became aware of Amnon’s intention. Alone in the bedroom with a predator, Tamar probably recognized that it would be futile to resist Amnon’s advance. So, she tried to reason with him.
Tamar pleaded with her brother not to bring disgrace upon her: “Don’t humiliate me, for such a thing should never be done in Israel. Don’t do this horrible thing! Where could I ever go with my disgrace?” (2 Samuel 13:12-13 HCSB). Tamar knew that if Amnon would rape her, she would become an outcast in the eyes of the community. It would be better to become his wife than to be a violated woman. As a wife she would avoid the scorn of the people and keep her reputation.
But Amnon “refused to listen to her, and because he was stronger than she was, he raped her” (2 Samuel 13:14). Amnon had no concern for the consequences of his action on Tamar and how she would be perceived by the people in the community. Rather, Amnon showed his contempt for Tamar by casting her out of his house:
“Then Amnon greatly despised her. His disdain toward her surpassed the love he had previously felt toward her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and leave!’ But she said to him, ‘No I won’t, for sending me away now would be worse than what you did to me earlier!’ But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal attendant and said to him, ‘Take this woman out of my sight and lock the door behind her!’ So Amnon’s attendant removed her and bolted the door behind her” (2 Samuel 13:15-18).
So Tamar became the victim of Amnon, her brother. Amnon was not only a rapist but a rapist who hated his victim. This incestuous and violent incident brought great humiliation to Tamar and wounds that would remain with her for the rest of her life.
In my next post I will deal with Tamar, the victim. My post will deal with Tamar’s emotional state and the humiliation she encountered as a victim of rape.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Other Studies on the Rape of Tamar
Scholz, Susanne. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror. Overture to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.