Today I continue my studies on Tamar’s rape and the events in the life of David’s family that culminated with the death of two of David’s sons. The links for my previous studies on this topic are listed at the end of the present post.
The rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon was a tragic event that shook the house of David. The tragic story of Tamar sheds light on one specific problem that confronted the royal family of Judah. Tamar’s story is a story of rape and revenge, the failure of a father to punish his son and his inability to sympathize with the plight of his violated daughter.
The rape of Tamar must be understood in light of the aftermath of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the words of divine judgment pronounced upon David and his family by the prophet Nathan. Thus, this tragedy begins to fulfill what the prophet Nathan had predicted would occur with David and his family.
After Nathan rebuked David for his sin, he announced God’s judgment on David and his house: “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 12:10-12).
The sin of David’s adultery with Bathsheba brought intensive emotional distress to people around David. Earl D. Bland provides a psychological evaluation of Tamar’s rape and its effects on David’s family. He wrote:
It is not difficult to imagine the destructive emotional and relational dynamics that must have plagued David’s family during the tragedy of Tamar’s rape and the subsequent killing of her assailant and half brother Amnon by her brother Absalom. The powerful needs and expressions of rage in this narrative evoke both sorrow and outrage authenticating the scriptural portend that sins of the father will be visited upon the children (Numbers 14:18). Amnon’s lustful and violent bedding of Tamar echo’s their father David’s scandalous assignation with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband to cover the crime. Unified in their unhinged passion, both father and son give play to their desire beyond reasonable boundaries (2010:143).
The rape of Tamar occurred, in part, because David was deceived and betrayed by his own sons. In his desire to have sex with his half-sister Tamar, Amnon, with the help of his cousin Jonadab, devised a scheme to bring Tamar to his house.
The plan was for Amnon to deceive his father David by pretending to be sick and by requesting that his father allow Tamar to come to his house and prepare food for him. So convincing was the deception that when Amnon presented his request to his father, David did not suspect the intentions of his son, So, he allowed Tamar to go to Amnon’s house and prepare food for him.
The tragedy of what happened to Tamar was made worse by the action or lack of action by David. When David heard what Amnon had done to his sister, “he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (2 Samuel 13:21).
In her treatment of David’s refusal to punish Amnon, Trible wrote:
David’s anger signifies complete sympathy for Amnon as total disregard for Tamar. How appropriate that the story never refers to David and Tamar as father and daughter! The father identifies with the son; the adulterer supports the rapist; male has joined male to deny justice for the female (1984:53-54).
When reading the narrative about Tamar’s rape, one is perplexed at the silence of David when he was confronted with the fact that his firstborn son raped his sister. Although David as king had the power to punish his son for his act, he evaded his responsibility and remained silent when confronted with Amnon’s act. Nowhere in the text does the narrator refer to David’s concern for his daughter or his feelings toward the actions of his son.
After Absalom killed Amnon, David wept very bitterly, but not for the disgrace that befell his daughter. He wept for Amnon, the perpetrator of the violence done to his daughter. David mourned for Amnon “day after day,” but he did not shed one tear on behalf of his dishonored daughter.
If tears were shed on this occasion, they were shed by Tamar herself. Tamar mourns alone the loss of her virginity: “But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went” (2 Samuel 13:19).
As a result of David’s lack of action in punishing Amnon for Tamar’s rape, Absalom was forced to take matters into his own hands and kill his brother Amnon in order to vindicate the honor of his sister. It was also David’s lack of action that bred Absalom’s hate for his father, a hate that eventually led him to revolt against David’s authority and usurp the throne of his father.
By not punishing Amnon for his rape of Tamar, David did not overtly condemn the rape. His refusal to bring justice to his daughter was an affront to Absalom. The rape and the lack of punishment for Amnon brought humiliation to him and to his sister, and it served to increase his resentment against his brother and his father. The bitterness that Absalom had for his brother, led him to commit fratricide and to undermine his father’s authority as king.
As Bland wrote,
His inaction and inability to control his children is reflected in the tragedy of this episode, as well as others that follow. The kings of Israel were continually reproached by the prophet for failing to heed the needs of the needy and desperate within their kingdoms. In the rape of Tamar, we see David’s failure to extend these basic cares even to those in his household. Perhaps no other single episode greater demonstrates how David’s failings as an individual affected his family and the rest of Israel.
Absalom’s revolt against his father was an act of revenge against David for not punishing Amnon for violating Tamar. Absalom was able to seize the throne by criticizing David’s leadership and by telling the people of Hebron that David was too busy to adjudicate their case (2 Samuel 15:1-6).
When the news came to David that Absalom had killed Amnon, David believed that Absalom had killed all the king’s sons and that no one was left alive. At this, the “king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments” (2 Samuel 13:30-31).
When the king’s son arrived in the palace, Jonadab, one of David’s officials gave him a different report and explained to David the reason Absalom killed Amnon: “But Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, said, ‘Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king’s sons; Amnon alone is dead. This has been determined by Absalom from the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar’” (2 Samuel 13:32).
The irony in what Jonadab spoke to David is the fact that this was the same Jonadab who gave Amnon the plan to deceive David and bring Tamar to the house. The person who created this tragedy is the same person who now tells the king the reason Amnon is dead.
When the cases of rape in the Old Testament are considered, one learns that Tamar is the only raped woman that speaks and has a voice. Tragically, the one person who had the power to act and to vindicate her honor was her father David.
David did not act to defend his daughter because his primary concern was to protect his firstborn son and the potential heir of his throne. Tamar’s dignity was taken away in order to protect the perpetrator.
But Tamar has not been forgotten. Her memory lives in Absalom’s daughter who was named after Tamar and, who like her aunt, grew up to become a beautiful woman.
Hicks, Mitchell W., Earl D. Bland, and Lowell W. Hoffman, “Restoring the Voice of Tamar: Three Psychoanalytic Views on Rape in the Bible.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 29 (2010): 141-148.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror. Overture to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Studies on the Rape of Tamar
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary