2 Samuel 13:1–22: Amnon and Tamar
In this passage we focus in on a few people: a son of David’s named Amnon, another son of David’s named Absalom, and Absalom’s sister (meaning Amnon’s half-sister), named Tamar.
We’re told at the beginning of the chapter that Amnon is in love with Tamar—so much in love that he’s making himself sick!
Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. (verse 2)
That language has always struck me: Amnon was driving himself crazy because he couldn’t “do anything to her.” In this context, it seems really appropriate, even to modern ears. (And it’s not just the NIV either, because the ESV version for verse 2 also says, “it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her.”)
Amnon is making himself so crazy with thoughts of his half-sister Tamar that he actually starts looking “haggard” (verse 4), and his cousin Jonadab, who is also his advisor, notices and asks him what’s wrong. (The NIV describes Jonadab as “shrewd” in verse 3, whereas the ESV translates it as “crafty.”) Amnon doesn’t even bother to hide the truth from his cousin, he just lays it out bare: “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”
And then Jonadab gives Amnon advice that, to my ears, sounds… weird. He tells Amnon to pretend to be sick and bedridden, and to ask for Tamar to come and prepare and serve him some food so that he can eat it from her hand. Jonadab doesn’t specify what’s supposed to come next—he doesn’t specifically say “and then you can rape her” to Amnon—but we’ll see where Amnon takes it, because he does exactly that: he lies down pretending to be sick, and when King David comes to visit Amnon asks for Tamar to be sent to make him some bread that he can eat from her hand.
David doesn’t seem to think anything is wrong—or maybe he ignored any warning signs because he wouldn’t want to think that way about his son?—because he sends Tamar to make the bread for Amnon, as requested.
So she goes to Amnon’s house and makes the bread, but he refuses to eat it. Instead, he sends everyone but Tamar out of the house, and then tells her to bring the food to his bedroom, so that he can eat it there. So she does. But when they get there he grabs her hand and tells her to come to bed with him.
She is not willing to sleep with him, however, so it goes from bad to worse to even worse:
“No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.
Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.”
And Amnon’s servant does exactly that: he puts Tamar out of the house and bolts the door behind her.
Tamar is obviously distraught at this point. She tears her robe and puts ashes on her head (which was a way of expressing grief at that time), and goes away weeping.
Absalom immediately figures out what happened:
Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman. (verse 20)
Absolom now hates his brother Amnon, and David finds out and is also furious. But… nothing happens to Amnon. (Spoiler alert: until the next passage, which takes place two years later.)
This is obviously a horrible, sad, disturbing story to read. A graphic tale of rape and incest, and one in which—as is typical—the rapist faces no consequences.
But to modern readers, I’m guessing that the rape of Tamar isn’t the only disturbing thing about this story; it’s also how she, as a person, is treated as a consequence of the rape:
|When Amnon is first threatening to rape Tamar she says, “No, my brother! Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing.” That part makes sense to us. Later she says, “And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you,” which also makes sense to us—she’s trying to think of ways to talk him out of it. But between those two points she says, “What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace?” Now that doesn’t make sense to the modern reader! Why would it be Tamar’s disgrace that her brother raped her?
|After the rape, Amnon’s love1 for Tamar immediately turns to hate, which feels realistic to me. This is how men2 are; I think there’s feelings of guilt mixed in with a lot of other feelings. I’m not a psychologist, but Amnon forcing himself on Tamar and then immediately hating her feels realistic.
|When Amnon tells Tamar to “get out,” her response is, “No! Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” Which, again, seems counterintuitive; he just raped her, so why would she want to stay with him?
|Absalom’s response to Tamar is confusing because it’s kind of both dismissive and supportive at the same time (to the modern eye, at least). He says, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart,” which sounds very dismissive—but, at the same time, Absolom clearly does take it to heart himself. I think the best way to read this is that Absolom is saying, “you don’t need to worry about it because I’m going to take care of it on your behalf.” Though there could also be a huge paternalistic element to his response.
|One of the last things the passage tells us is that David is “furious.” But he does nothing, even though Tamar is his daughter. She has been raped, her future has been stolen from her, but her father does nothing to punish her rapist. He doesn’t even help her; she ends up living with Absalom, not David. David might have been “furious,” but he didn’t do anything. Did Tamar not matter to him? Amnon is David’s son, and the Scriptures are pretty clear that David has blind spots when it comes to his sons, but at the same time, Tamar is his daughter. Does he only care about his sons, and not love his daughters?
The first reaction is to the question of why Tamar would be judged when she’s the victim of the rape, but honestly, I think that’s more human psychology: it’s a sad fact that she would be judged, because rape victims always are. Anytime a woman is raped (and people hear about it), there’s an immediate dismissive attitude, questions of what she was wearing and how she acted, whether she did everything she could to fight her rapist off, etc. We read this story and know exactly what happened, but I’m 100% sure that anyone Tamar told, at the time, had doubts in the back of their mind.
But that’s me speaking to modern readers, and I don’t think that’s what Tamar was even referring to. Definitely, when she tells Amnon it would be even worse for him to send her away than it was for him to rape her, she’s not talking about what people will think; she’s talking about the fact that her life is now over. This is not a case of Tamar having been raped and now having to move on with her life, difficult as that may be; this is a case of Tamar knowing that she’ll never be married, never have children, never have a “normal” life, because Amnon has taken all of that away from her. In her day, and society, no man would want to marry her.
We can argue about whether that should be the case—and such arguments might even be useful, if we apply them to our own time and society, and look for ways to do and be better—but whether or not it should be the case, it was the case. This passage ends with Tamar living with her brother Absalom, and the truth is that this would be the rest of her life. She’ll be living with Absalom, or someone else from her family, never marrying, never having children. According to the Biblical law, since Amnon raped her he was actually supposed to marry her, for exactly this reason: he did something horrible to her, but part of his restitution for his actions should have been to take care of the consequences—which would mean, in this case, giving Tamar the normal life that he, instead, ripped from her.
The ESV Study Bible notes include a wry comment that Amnon’s “love” for Tamar is really just “lust,” based on the overall story, but I’m not sure that we need to read it that way. Let’s not oversimplify the human psyche and claim that just because Amnon’s love turned to hate that it wasn’t love in the first place; I’m not saying that anything about Amnon in this story is good or acceptable, I’m just saying that it’s too oversimplifying of human psychology to claim that the overall story proves the “love” was really just “lust.” ↩︎
I really want to say “this is how some men are,” or “this is how men who rape are”—especially speaking as a man myself—but I also feel that rape and sexual assault are so prevalent a problem that I don’t want to make it seem like it’s just “a few bad apples” who are doing all of the sexual assault. To be clear, I don’t think all men are rapists, but I do think that our society teaches men to behave in certain ways, and we never seem to get around to stressing the point that men shouldn’t be assaulting women, or just trying to take what they want, instead of leaving the impression that when it comes to sex it’s somehow “the survival of the fittest,” and having sex with women is some form of conquest. When it comes to rape prevention, we seem to spend all of our energy suggesting to women that they protect themselves from getting raped, and never suggesting to men that they shouldn’t rape. ↩︎