After Amnon forcibly raped his sister Tamar and bolted the door of his house behind her, Tamar was forced to find refuge in the only place she believed would be safe for her: the house of her brother Absalom.
Tamar’s rape affected her physically and psychologically. When Tamar was attacked by her brother, she was deprived of her virginity, her sense of worth as a woman was diminished, and her shame became overwhelming. As a consequence of her rape, Tamar was condemned to live a life of desolation in the house of her brother Absalom.
After Absalom learned that Amnon had raped his sister, Absalom spoke to Tamar, urging her to keep quiet: “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart” (2 Samuel 13:20). Absalom’s words downplay Amnon’s heinous crime and do not take into consideration the strong sense of violation Tamar felt as a result of her half-brother’s violence against her.
Tamar’s feelings of desolation intensified and Absalom’s outrage grew stronger with David’s reaction to what Amnon had done. When David was told what Amnon had done to Tamar, David “became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (2 Samuel 13:21).
David’s unwillingness to punish Amnon made Absalom angry at his father and intensified his hatred toward his brother Amnon: “But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar” (2 Samuel 13:22).
Absalom’s hatred for Amnon had also a political implication. Absalom and Tamar were the children of Maacah, who was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur (2 Samuel 3:3). Thus, both their parents were royalty, while Amnon’s mother, Ahinoam, a woman from Jezreel, a village located in south Judah, was a commoner.
As David’s firstborn, Amnon was the potential successor of David as king of Israel. It is possible that David refused to punish Amnon for fear that a harsh punishment could place the succession to the throne at risk. Absalom was next in line to the throne since David’s second son, Chileab, the son of David and Abigail, probably had died at an early age because he is never listed among David’s sons who vied for the throne.
Another possibility is that David felt that punishing Amnon in public would put his own kingdom in peril. David probably believed that the private affairs of the royal family should not be displayed in public. The rape of the king’s daughter by the heir-apparent to the throne would damage the reputation of the future king.
When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and found a way to kill Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, David did not receive the death penalty as prescribed in the Law. Rather, David receives mercy from Yahweh and was allowed to live. It is possible that David remembered the mercy he received from God and decided to extend his mercy to Amnon.
It was David’s failure to vindicate Tamar’s honor that forced Absalom to take matters into his own hand in order to vindicate his sister’s honor. Absalom decided to bring Amnon to justice by killing him. On that same day Absalom began to plot to kill Amnon.
Absalom was able to control his anger for several years until he found an opportunity to induce his brother to come to a place where he could bring to fruition the plan he had been developing for years.
In order for Absalom to put his plan into action, he had to wait two years before he had an opportunity to confront his brother and punish him for the rape of his sister.
The occasion for the retaliation came when Absalom held a celebration at the time of sheepshearing (2 Samuel 13:23-29). Absalom invited his father and his officials to come to the celebration, but David decided not to come. Absalom then asked David to allow Amnon to come to the party. At this David began questioning Absalom’s motive in inviting Amnon. David asked him: “Why should he go with you?” (2 Samuel 13:26). Reluctantly, David allowed Amnon to go with his brother.
During the feast, Absalom told his servants to watch and see when Amnon had enough wine to drink and then kill him. When Amnon was drunk, Absalom’s servants killed Amnon as Absalom had commanded. At this, all the king’s sons were afraid. They mounted their mules and fled back to Jerusalem.
Amnon killed Amnon in order to vindicate Tamar. His action also shows his unhappiness with David’s leadership as king. This unhappiness with David’s leadership motivated Absalom to revolt against his father and seize David’s throne with the help of Joab, David’s nephew and his army commander.
By killing his brother, Absalom eliminated the person who stood between him and the throne of his father. In time Absalom would revolt against his father and usurp the throne.
The killing of his brother and the eventual rebellion against his father is both an act of revenge for Amnon’s violation of his sister and his frustration with David for not punishing Amnon for his dastardly act.
When David heard the news of what Absalom had done, he tore his garments and lay down on the ground in great sorrow. Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimea told David that Absalom had killed Amnon. According to Jonadab, Absalom had decided to kill his brother from “the day his half brother raped his sister Tamar” (2 Samuel 13:32).
After killing his brother, afraid of his father, Absalom fled to Geshur to seek refuge with King Talmai, his maternal grandfather, where he remained for three years. “But the king mourned for his son Amnon every day” (2 Samuel 13:37). After the period of mourning, “David began to long for Absalom once people had consoled him over Amnon’s death” (2 Samuel 13:27-39).
Studies on the Rape of Tamar
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary