The following chapter is a rather horrible story of the royal family, and comes with a major content note for rape and incest.
Since familial relationships are important, here’s a refreshment from 2 Sam. 3:2-3: David’s eldest son is Amnon, born of his wife Ahinoam. We aren’t given any information about Ahinoam, except that she is from Jezreel. His next son is Chileab, born to Abigail. Since he doesn’t come up again, it seems likely that he died at some point prior to the events in this chapter (perhaps as an infant). His third son is Absalom, born to Maacah. Maacah is the daughter of Talmai, the king of Geshur. Tamar, who was not listed in 2 Sam. 3 but features prominently in this chapter, is also the daughter of Maacah.
Assuming that Ahinoam, Abigail, and Maacah are all full legal wives (as opposed to concubines), the assumed succession would place Amnon first in line, followed by Chileab, then Absalom. Since Chileab is never mentioned and presumed deceased, that leaves Amnon and Absalom poised to take Israel’s crown if David dies. There’s a little more information on what might have been the inheritance practice in Deut. 21:15-17, though that doesn’t seem directed at the monarchy.
According to a somewhat plausible timeline ( I say “somewhat plausible” because I can see at least one spot where two years magically disappear), Amnon and Absalom are somewhere on the short side of 20 years old during the events of this chapter. Tamar is presumably around the same age, though she could be older since only the births of David’s sons are recorded. It’s possible that she was born while David was still or the lam or during his time with the Philistines, whereas her brothers weren’t born until David’s stay in Hebron. Of course, she could also be younger.
The sham illness
The text tells us that Amnon falls in love with his half-sister, Tamar. “Love,” I assume, is being used euphemistically. But he laments that, because she is a virgin, “it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her” (2 Sam. 13:2). Note that he wants to do something “to” her. That’s not love.
It’s possible that, when he says that it is “impossible” to do anything to his sister, he is referencing prohibitions like Lev. 18:11 or Deut. 27:22. Of course, little seems to have been made of Sarah’s marriage to her half-brother, Abraham, in Genesis, so it could be that the prohibition came later, or that it was an acknowledged practice that certain religious authorities were trying to curb.
But that assumes that his feeling really is love, and that his intention is marriage. I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I suspect that he is referring to how secluded or protected David’s virgin daughters are. They may be kept away from men, and perhaps are rarely alone. In other words, I think his complaint has more to do with his lack of access, rather than social mores standing in the way between him and the object of his “love.”
He complains about this to his cousin, Jonadab (who is the son of David’s brother, Shimeah, named in 1 Sam. 17:13). Jonadab has a reputation for being a “very crafty man” (2 Sam. 13:3), and he comes up with a plan: Amnon is to take to his bed and feign sickness, then request that he be cared for by Tamar.
As per Jonadab’s instructions, Amnon takes to his bed. When David comes to check in on him, he asks that Tamar be sent to cook for him and feed him. Tamar is sent, and Amnon watches her make cakes. He then sends all of his servants out, and tells Tamar to come close to hand feed him. When she does, he grabs her.
There are two injustices at play in the story. The first is, of course, that Amnon clearly intends to rape Tamar. The second is that Tamar is well aware of the fact that she will lose all status and social support if she attacked by Amnon. In Tamar’s mind, at least, the second is the greater injustice. When she begs for Amnon to stop, she implores him to ask David for permission to marry (a rapist with a wedding band is still a rapist, but at least he would not be taking everything else from her as well). As above, it’s unclear whether marriage to half-siblings was permitted at this time, or if she was trying to convince Amnon that David would grant a special dispensation.
Whether Amnon is uninterested in marriage or doesn’t believe that David would allow the union, he ignores her. “Being stronger than she, he forced her, and lay with her” (2 Sam. 13:14).
Depiction of the rape, by Eustache Le Sueur, c.1640
The text tells us that when Amnon is done, his love turns into an even greater hate. It could be that he is projecting his own self-hate for his actions or, I think more likely, his previous “love” was just a form of hate. He hated Tamar for being simultaneously desirable and unavailable. This king of love/hate is a social problem we are still very much dealing with today.
Having taken from her what he wanted, Amnon orders Tamar to leave. She begs him to at least mitigate the damage of his actions, because “this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other which you did to me” (2 Sam. 13:16). Once again, we see here the interplay between the two injustices – the personal and the social. By sending her away, Amnon is refusing to marry her (which would be required as per Deut. 22:28-29). He is using social morality to further victimize her – not just humiliating and violating her, but crushing her entirely as a person of worth in her society. And it is his society that gave him this power by diminishing/removing her value for his actions.
Rather than hear her protests, Amnon has his servants throw her out of his house and bolt the door behind her.
Tamar rends her clothes and puts ashes on her head, symbols of mourning. I’ve read some describe this seen as a mourning for her virginity, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Since Tamar is now considered “damaged goods” and, unless Amnon changes is mind, is now ineligible for marriage, she is effectively dead in a social way. She cannot marry, she cannot have children, she has been cut off from normal social participation. It is that life, and the lives of the family she will never have and that will never be born, that she is mourning. Take away all the loss implied by her lack of virginity and she would have nothing to mourn. She could focus on healing from her attack and then, in time, resume her life. But it is her society, its fetishizing of virginity, and its lack of recognition of women as people worthy of respect in their own right that gives her a tangible construct to mourn. I really can’t harp on this enough – evil as Amnon is, how much more evil is the social context that has given him so much power to destroy Tamar!
Tamar doesn’t go to David, and no reason is given for this. Perhaps she knew what his reaction would be, or perhaps she was too ashamed. Instead, she goes to her brother Absalom’s house. When he hears what happened, Absalom tells his sister, “Now hold your peace, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart” (2 Sam. 13:20). To me, this response just sounds incredibly callous. In light of his later actions, some apparently take his words as comfort and reassurance that something will be done, but that’s not how it struck me. In fact, Absalom’s response is eerily similar to what friends have heard in the aftermath of their rapes – men, relatives and friends, telling them not to make sure a big deal of it. After all, it was “only” their boyfriend, husband, doctor, and it was “only” sex/touching.
David’s reaction appears to be even worse. In my version, the text merely tells us that he was angry, nothing else. It doesn’t seem that he actually does anything, either to protect Tamar or to punish Amnon. The Hebrew Masoretic text leaves it there, but the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls tell us explicitly that David decided not to punish Amnon “because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (2 Sam. 13:21). In other words, he is choosing to shelter a rapist because of his own personal feelings for him – another behaviour for which we have plenty of modern examples (and, as an atheist, I’d say this is a pretty good parallel to what has been happening regarding Michael Shermer’s rape of a drunk woman and his subsequent protection by many of the most powerful and influential men in the atheist movement, including James Randi and Richard Dawkins). At no point does David express his love or sympathy for his daughter, Tamar. In fact, at no point is she referred to as David’s daughter, merely Absalom and Amnon’s sister.
It’s notable how similar Amnon’s crime is to David’s. Amnon’s attack on Tamar was unambiguously rape, but I think that there’s a fairly strong case to be made that David’s relationship with Bathsheba began as rape as well (including the sending her away so that she had to contact him by messenger to notify him of her pregnancy). This makes David’s refusal to punish Amnon and protect Tamar even more pointed.
For his own part, Absalom is outraged, but he bides his time.
Two years pass.
Absalom’s sheepshearers are apparently having a festival, presumably something like Nabal’s sheepshearing festival in 1 Sam. 25:4-8. He invites David and all of his brothers to come, but David refuses, expressing concern that it would be “burdensome” to have so many of them there. He could suspect what Absalom has in mind, or perhaps he is nervous at the idea of having so much of the royal family in one place that is not as well fortified as Jerusalem. If David won’t come, says Absalom, couldn’t Amnon at least make it? David agrees.
At the festival, Absalom gets Amnon nice and drunk, then commands his servants to kill him, finally avenging Tamar. Though I am sure the fact that Amnon’s death puts Absalom first in line for Israel’s crown didn’t escape him.
David’s other sons mount their mules and flee, though they apparently do so quite slowly. Word reaches David that Absalom has started killing his brothers before any of those brothers make it home, so David believes that Absalom has murdered them all. He rends his clothes and lies on the ground, but Jonadab, clever as always, seems to guess at what is really going on. He explains to David that only Amnon has been murdered, killed for his rape of Tamar. He is proven right when David’s other sons come riding home.
Absalom flees to his maternal grandfather, Talmai, the king of Geshur, and remains there for three years. The final verse is a little confusing, but the meaning I drew from it is that David grieved for Amnon (or perhaps for his rift with Absalom), but eventually longed to be reunited with his son. David, once again, is inhumanely practical – quickly forgetting about his dead children (and ignoring the female children entirely).
I mentioned that Tamar’s rape could have been seen by Absalom as an excuse to move against his older brother. There could also be a class issue at play: Absalom and Tamar’s mother was a princess, so they are royalty through both parents. Amnon’s mother, by contrast, was merely from Jezreel. It could be that the recourse of murder was motivated not just by Amnon’s crime, but also Absalom’s own feelings that Amnon was heir to the throne and had forced himself on a woman who would, almost certainly, have otherwise been married to a king.