Tamar was the daughter of David and Maacah, David’s fourth wife. Maacah was also the mother of Absalom, Tamar’s brother. Maacah was a princess; she was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur. Maacah’s marriage to David was a political marriage, representing a diplomatic alliance between David and the kingdom of Geshur.
Amnon was David’s firstborn son by his second wife Ahinoam. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and was killed by Absalom. The story of Tamar’s rape is not only a story of lust, but also of political ambition. Amnon was the first-born son of David and Absalom was his second son. Both men were in the line of succession for David’s throne. In this story of lust, Tamar is a pawn in the hands of her rapist, a fact that reveals the vulnerable estate of women who lived in a patriarchal society.
In his introduction to the story of Tamar, the writer of the biblical text introduces the four protagonists who will play the key roles in the tragic story of the virgin daughter of David. “David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her” (2 Samuel 13:1).
This introduction clearly reflects the patriarchal society in which Tamar lived. Both Absalom and Amnon are introduced as sons of David. On the other hand, Tamar is introduced only as the beautiful sister of Absalom. Tamar is not identified as David’s daughter. This pattern of giving prominence to sons reflects a patriarchal behavior and attitude in which only David’s sons, but not his daughter, have the right to succeed to the king’s throne. Frymer-Kensky says that “Tamar, the center of the story is presented as an object” (Frymer-Kensky 2002:157).
The biblical text says that Amnon fell in love with Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1). However, as Wilda Gafney writes, the word “love” in the text “is a challenging word here because of its incompatibility with rape” (Gafney 2017:227).
In his lust for Tamar, Amnon was unable to touch her because she was a virgin, “Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her” (2 Samuel 13:2). In patriarchal societies, the virginity of daughters should be protected and preserved. Virginity was prized in Israelite society. Virgin daughters were to be protected by the head of the household. Fathers were compensated for their daughters when they were given into marriage to a prospective husband.
Virgin daughters required a large mōhar from prospective husbands. The mōhar was the money a prospective husband gave to the father of the bride as compensation to the family. When Shechem wanted to marry Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, he offered to give a mōhar for Dinah. Shechem said to Jacob, “Ask of me a bride-price [mōhar] ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife” (Genesis 34:12 TNK).
Amnon was so obsessed by his lust for Tamar that he made himself sick. In his desire to have sex with his half-sister, Amnon followed the advice of his friend Jonadab to lure Tamar to his house so he could seduce her. According to Jonadab’s advice, Amnon would pretend to be sick and then ask his father to allow Tamar to come and prepare a meal for him and feed him.
Frymer-Kensky suggests that David was led to believe that Amnon wanted Tamar to perform some form of a healing ceremony. The Hebrew word for food is birya. Frymer-Kensky says that “The word comes from the root meaning ‘fat’ or ‘healthy’ and may mean a healing substance. The birya is not simply a food, and making it is not simply an act of cooking; it is the preparation of a medicinal concoction. Perhaps, we could speculate, the princesses of the realm were instructed in the creation of healing foods” (Frymer-Kensky 2002:158).
David consented to Amnon’s request. He told Tamar, “Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him” (2 Samuel 13:7). With her father’s consent, Tamar went to Amnon’s house and prepared the special food for Amnon to eat, but Amnon “refused to eat” (2 Samuel 13:9). In order to be alone with Tamar, Amnon sent his servants out of the room.
Amnon invited Tamar to bring the food to his bedroom so that she could feed him. Not knowing the intentions of her brother, Tamar took the food she had prepared for Amnon who was in his bed in his bedroom. When Tamar approached Amnon, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister” (2 Samuel 13:11).
Amnon violently grabbed Tamar. Amon “is brusque, blunt, and brutal. He is coarse, calloused, and cruel. He is devious, demonic, and destructive” (Smith 2013:15–16).
Tamar immediately rebuked her brother. She said to Amnon, “no my brother, don’t rape me! That shouldn’t be done in Israel. Don’t do this godless act” (2 Samuel 13:12 GWN). Tamar’s rape was a disgraceful and sinful act, it was a nebālāh in Israel, a violation of the moral standards commanded by the laws of the Torah, ‘Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter” (Leviticus 18:9).
The Hebrew word for “godless act” is nebālāh. The word nebālāh refers to acts of immorality and to outrageous behavior and it is generally translated as “a vile thing” or “a wicked thing.” A virgin who had sex before marriage commits nebālāh (Deuteronomy 22:21). A man who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife commits nebālāh (Jeremiah 29:23).
Tamar told Amnon to appeal to the king and he would allow her to marry him. Without the benefit of marriage, Tamar would become an outcast. She told Amon, “Where could I go in my disgrace?” (2 Samuel 13:13). Tamar’s concern for her honor was crucial for her in the society in which she lived. Amnon, however, refused to listen to his sister. Amnon grabbed Tamar and raped her.
After raping Tamar, “Amnon’s love turned to hate, and he hated her even more than he had loved her” (2 Samuel 13:15 NLT). Tamar once again protested and made an impassionate appeal to Amnon, “No, brother! To send me away would be worse than the other wrong you have done me” (2 Samuel 13:16). But Amnon refused to listen to his sister’s appeal and sent her away. Amnon “called his personal attendant and said to him, ‘Take this woman out of my sight and lock the door behind her’” (2 Samuel 13:17).
In describing Ammon’s act of casting Tamer out of his house, Diane Jacobson writes, “We watch as Amnon casts Tamar aside, calling her a thing, and commanding his servant to bar the door—his cruelty compounded, stripping the other not only of her clothes and her honor, but even of her humanity. We watch Amnon, because through this true portrayal of sin we viscerally learn the destructive power of self-centered love. Never has a rapist been painted more pointedly. Amnon is the very picture of a self-serving, lust-crazed miscreant, willing to violate both this woman and this home, to violate both the object of his purported love and the sacred trust of his people” (Jacobson 2004:355).
Amnon’s raping and sending Tamar away had a lifelong devastating consequence for Tamar. After Tamar left Amon’s house, “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). This act of deep grief and public humiliation was designed to make known her violation and desolation to David, her father, and to the people of Jerusalem.
Absalom, Tamar’s brother, tried to console his sister. He said to her, “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart” (2 Samuel 13:20). But Tamar took what had happened to her “to heart.” Tamar was devastated and inconsolable. She was depressed and desolate. Tamar lived as a desolate woman, uncomforted and grief-stricken, in the house of her brother Absalom (2 Samuel 13:20). When King David heard what Amnon had done, he became very angry. His response to Amnon’s outrageous behavior was very subdued. David did not punish Amnon because he favored him since he was his first-born son.
There are many troubling circumstances in Tamar’s rape that are consistent with the plight of most violated and raped women. Frymer-Kensky says that Tamar was sexually assaulted and raped, not by a stranger, but her brother and not in a dark and remote place, but in the house of her brother (Frymer-Kensky 2002:159).
Amnon took advantage of Tamar’s willingness to help him in his time of distress and used her kindness to perpetrate the vile act of violating his sister. Although Tamar said, “no,” Amnon was deaf to her plea, raped her and abandoned her to live a desolate life, to live like a widow in the house of her brother.
Tamar lived in Absalom’s house for the rest of her life. Tamar was raped and abandoned, but not forgotten. When Absalom’s daughter was born, Absalom named her Tamar because “she was a beautiful woman” (2 Samuel 14:27), just like her aunt Tamar. In Absalom’s daughter, Tamar is remembered, “and in this acknowledgment is heard the promise that violence will not have the last word” (Jacobson 2004:357).
Jacobson urges each one of us to remember Tamar, her plight and her humiliation. Jacobson writes,
to remember is to give honor, to give voice, to give substance. To remember is to claim that this woman’s story belongs at the heart of the story of God, whose compassion is never ending. To lament with Tamar and to remember is to say that God lives within the lives of the downtrodden and shamed. To remember and to tell this story is to say that we know, we understand, we see, and we name the truth. To remember is to receive her story as a gift offered to us in the tenderly cupped, yet bleeding hands of the Almighty, given into our care that we might practice the divine task of remembering (Jacobson 2004:357).
I have written a series of studies on the rape of Tamar. The links below cover various aspects of Tamar’s rape and humiliation.
Studies on the Rape of Tamar
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Bible. New York: Schocken Books, 2002.
Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017.
Jacobson, Diane. “Remembering Tamar,” Word & World 24 no. 4 (2004): 353–357.
Smith, Sr., J. Alfred. “Break the Silence: Justice is Waiting for You to Speak,” Review and Expositor 110 (2013): 15–23.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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