II Samuel 13 – The Rape of Tamar

My wife reads through the Bible annually.  She selects a reading plan every January 1 and goes through the whole Bible – has done it for years.  It’s something she’s committed to and feels very strongly about (and something she convinced me to start too – I’m on my third year).  When I say she reads the whole Bible, however, I should explain that she does skip one chapter, every time.  She never reads II Samuel 13.  As far as she’s concerned, it doesn’t exist.  Her Bible in II Samuel goes from Chapter 12 to Chapter 14.  The bottom line for her is that she knows what happens in 13 and doesn’t see the need to put herself through reading it each year.

If you know the story of this chapter, you know why.  There’s nothing happy here.  It’s an account of depravity.  There’s really no other way to put it.  It’s the second shoe to drop (after the death of the child) after David’s sin with Bathsheba.  And in its horrific details it’s essentially a replay of that sin – with some added ugly factors.  Chapter 13 is the beginning of what Nathan prophesied would be true of the house of David – the sword will never depart from it and evil will rise up from within it.

Consequently, it’s not really a fun chapter to apply.  The lessons are all negative.  This is what sin’s ramifications look like.  This is what lust looks like.  This is what pure selfishness looks like.  This is how far sin can take the willing participant.  This is what happens to innocent bystanders caught up in the collateral damage of willful sin.

It IS in the Bible, though, so it’s worthy of our time.  And in the end its warnings and negative lessons are grimly valuable.  God is great (and His grace even covers sins like these) and man is sinful.  Sin in its purest form is heinous and horrible.  And we are all capable of the worst acts when we put ourselves on the throne of our lives.

The first verse sets the scene for the whole chapter.  Notice the first name mentioned – Absalom (if you’re reading the NIV it’s not the first name, but that’s because the NIV changes what’s in the original Hebrew to make it more readable).  The writer wants to establish from the start who the main character in the upcoming story is.  He won’t make an appearance until after the main events occur, but what is about to transpire is ultimately all about Absalom.  These events are the first steps toward him becoming the evil that will arise from David’s house (as Nathan foretold).

This verse also introduces the other two characters we need to know.  Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom (which means they have the same mother among the wives of David), and Amnon, the oldest son of David and current heir to the throne.  Tamar and Amnon are half-brother and sister (different mothers, David as father).

Amnon is the firstborn of David and Absalom is the third (II Sam 3:2-3).  The second son – Chileab (Daniel in I Chron 3:1) – is not mentioned again after being listed as the second son of David.  It could be that he dies young.  Since he’s apparently not in the picture, Absalom is presumably the second in line for the throne after Amnon.  How much of a role this plays in the upcoming story is hard to tell, but it’s definitely worth keeping in mind as we study how Absalom interacts with his big brother.

The verse ends with a disturbing piece of information – Amnon loves Tamar.  Since we know she’s beautiful, the implication is that this isn’t brotherly love.  He loves her as a brother shouldn’t.

Here’s where things start to go off the rails.  Amnon isn’t just infatuated with Tamar (as weird as this sounds, it’s worth pointing out that he likely doesn’t have the same relationship with her as we would imagine a brother and sister having today – they are raised in a royal family with several wives and many children – it’s not like they grow up sharing a bathroom and traveling back and forth to school together – this by no means excuses Amnon’s feelings, but it perhaps better explains how the feelings can exist at all), he’s obsessed with her.  He’s so obsessed that he’s sick.  He can’t have her because she’s a virgin and under the protection of the household, and his unsatisfied desire affects him physically. 

We should note here that even though the Bible refers to this as love, it’s not love at all (the author leaves this to the reader to understand).  This is lust.  He wants her for himself – pure and simple.   Note that he’s frustrated because he can’t get to her and do anything to her.  He’s not looking to run away and start a family.  He wants to sleep with her.  She’s beautiful and he wants her.

Another thing to consider is who Amnon is.  He’s the heir to the throne.  Whether or not it’s available to him now, he knows that he will have his pick of women someday.  Even now, we can assume that female companionship isn’t hard to come by.  We’ll find out that David is a very accommodating father (not big on saying ‘no’), so it’s likely that Amnon can do what he wants as far as the opposite sex is concerned.  And yet he wants his sister.  He can have multiple other women but he’s fixated on one he can’t have.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  Like father like son.

One more thing not to miss – he’s physically ill.  He’s so lost in his lust that he makes himself sick.  Think about that.  He wants so much to have what he can’t have that his body breaks down.  This is out of control lust.  It WANTS and it wants NOW and it devours whatever stands in its way.  It demands satisfaction.  He’s obsessed with her but he’s really consumed by self.  It’s all about satisfying him.  Lust is just an outward manifestation of towering selfishness.

Amnon’s misery is so extreme that his friend and cousin – Jonadab – notices. He asks Amnon what the problem is and Amnon explains.  Amazingly, Jonadab doesn’t respond with disgust over Amnon wanting his sister, he instead hatches a plan whereby Amnon can lure her to his house (which tells us a lot about both men – Jonadab doesn’t have a problem with Amnon wanting to engage in incest and Amnon isn’t surprised by Jonadab’s deceitful scheme). 

[Notice something here.  Amnon has a house.  This means he’s of an age to be on his own.  He’s a man.  Tamar – his beautiful half-sister – is a virgin.  This means she’s likely a young teenager.]

Amnon goes along with the plan.  He fakes sickness and it’s serious enough that his father – King David – visits him (just as Jonadab planned).  When his dad visits, Amnon asks him to send Tamar to the house to make some food that presumably will help him feel better. 

David apparently sees nothing odd about Amnon’s request (and there’s no reason to think that he should) and so calls for Tamar to come to the house.  Tamar comes and prepares food but Amnon refuses to eat.  He then tells all the servants to leave so that it’s just he and Tamar in the house (does she start to feel uncomfortable at this point or is what’s about to happen so unfathomable to her that she doesn’t worry about being alone with him?).  He asks her to bring food to his bedroom and then grabs her and invites her to “…lie with me, my sister.”

Once she sees what he wants she pleads with him not to do it.  She appeals to his responsibility under the Law.  What he’s proposing is a disgraceful thing not done in Israel (the Mosaic Law forbids incest at any level – half-siblings, step-siblings, in-laws).  If he does it he will be like one of the fools in Israel (implicit in what she says is his standing as the heir to the throne – does he want to risk his future?).  She also appeals to his honor by stating that it will disgrace her. 

Lastly she says something that may be true or may simply show how desperate she is to change his mind.  She tells him to ask their father and the king will give her to him as wife.  This is odd to consider because it would be against the Law.  But since David seems to allow just about anything with his sons – as we’ll see later in the chapter and in future stories – it just might be true.  Regardless, it’s clear that she’s willing to say anything to save herself.

What she doesn’t realize, however, is that nothing she says means anything to Amnon.  He’s not looking for a wife, he wants her and he wants her now.  And any rational thought left him a long time ago.  Lust wants nothing to do with the future or with logic or reasoning or with a consideration of its effect on others.  Lust wants what it wants and wants it now.  And she isn’t going to stop it or him.  He’s bigger and stronger and he rapes her.  He rapes his sister.

When he’s done, lust turns on him.  When he finally gets what he wanted so badly that it made him sick, he realizes the lie.  It’s not satisfaction he feels, it’s loathing.  It’s enormous regret.  Serving his lust was supposed to fulfill him but instead it rips a hole in him.  Lust takes the blinders off and lets him see in all its horror what he’s done.  He becomes instantly miserable and the personification of that misery is the beautiful young girl lying in his bed.  And so he hates her.  She’s the symbol of everything he hates about himself and what just happened and she has to go.

So he yells at her to get out.  He has to get her out of his sight.  And here’s where things go from horrific to incomprehensible.  Her response to his demand to leave is hard to understand because we are so culturally separated from her world.  She pleads with him and tells him that throwing her out now is actually worse than raping her.  She says this because apart from him her life is effectively over.  No one will marry a woman her age who’s been with a man.  As unthinkable as it sounds, she pleads with him to keep her as his wife (as the Law demands – Deut 22:28-29).  If he throws her out, she’s sentenced to a life alone.  She will never marry, never be with another man, never have kids.  She’ll become culturally irrelevant.  He’s humiliated her, but the humiliation at this point is private.  If he throws her out, it becomes public.

He doesn’t care.  He hates her.  He calls for his servant and essentially says to him, “Throw this out and lock the door behind her!”      

When she’s thrown out, Tamar tears her long-sleeved garment because it’s a symbol of her virginity and she’s no longer a virgin.  She then puts ashes on her head and puts her hand on her head and cries out as she walks.  She goes into mourning over what’s happened to her and she makes it very apparent to anyone who sees her that she’s been disgraced.

Her brother Absalom finds her (he makes his first appearance in the story) and asks her a very interesting question – “Has Amnon your brother been with you?”  This seems like a very odd thing to ask.  Is it known that Amnon has been pining for her?   Does Absalom know that Tamar went down to Amnon’s house to minister to him in his sickness?  Is Amnon so loathsome that it’s not a surprise that he did this?  Some have suggested a conspiracy theory wherein Jonadab and Absalom planned for this to happen with the goal of elevating Absalom over Amnon in line for the throne (either in David’s eyes or by giving Absalom a reason to kill his brother).  The thinking goes that they were willing to sacrifice Tamar for the ambitions of Absalom.  This seems like a stretch but it would explain why Absalom jumps to what seems to be a random conclusion and would also explain how Jonadab will know later in the chapter what really happens to the King’s sons at Absalom’s farm.  Regardless of Absalom’s role (and if the conspiracy is true he’s as heinous as his brother), he takes Tamar into his house and there she stays as a desolate woman.

David hears about Amnon’s actions and becomes very angry.  And then…does nothing.  That’s it.  His oldest son rapes his sister and David does nothing.  He becomes angry and apparently hates that it happened, but does not act at all.  It’s here that we conjecture.  Is David reminded of his own sin and is therefore hesitant to act?  His son just forced himself on a woman that wasn’t lawfully available to him, does that hit a little too close to home?  Or is it that it’s his oldest son and heir to the throne and David doesn’t want to do anything that will humiliate him or harm his future rule?  There’s no way to know, but regardless of the reason his lack of response is unconscionable.

Two years pass.  Absalom and Amnon have nothing to do with each other.  Absalom hates him (which seems to argue against the conspiracy theory) but takes no vengeance.  The problem appears to blow over.

At the end of two years Absalom decides to have a sheep-shearing party and invite the whole family.  He invites his dad and tells him to bring everyone.  David – perhaps becoming the first parent to employ the “we don’t want to be a burden” excuse – says ‘no’ to Absalom.  Absalom then asks if Amnon specifically can come.  At this point you might expect David to become a little suspicious.  If they haven’t spoken for two years and if it’s only BEEN two years since the rape, isn’t it a little odd that Absalom wants Amnon specifically to come to the farm?  Perhaps David does because he asks, “Why should he go with you?”  However, his suspicions apparently aren’t very acute because once Absalom urges him he gives his okay for Amnon to come.  The one thing he does do to perhaps protect Amnon is to okay all the other sons going too.  Maybe if they’re there, Amnon won’t be so vulnerable.

David’s plan (if there is a plan) doesn’t work.  Absalom tells his servants to wait until Amnon has a few drinks and then kill him.  They do as he orders.  Absalom’s servants execute Amnon.  The rest of the sons panic and flee the premises.  They mount their mules and ride back to Jerusalem.

In the confusion a message reaches Jerusalem that Absalom has killed all the sons of David.  When David hears his he goes into mourning in the same way that he mourned the impending death of his and Bathsheba’s son.  He tears his clothes and lies on the ground. 

Interestingly, Jonadab – the same cousin who schemed with Amnon to lure Tamar to his house – shows up to reassure the king that all his sons aren’t dead, it’s just Amnon.  And Amnon’s dead because Absalom revenged his sister – which he’s been planning for two years.  The text doesn’t say how Jonadab knows this.  Is this a sign of his conspiracy with Absalom?  Are he and Absalom just buddies and so Jonadab instinctively knows Absalom didn’t wipe them all out?  Or does he know this because of his friendship with Amnon and so has word that only he’s dead?  There’s no way to know.  We just know that Jonadab is a slippery character who seems to be in the right places at the right times and seems to come out of all the crises completely unscathed.

Absalom flees and the king’s sons – other than Amnon – make it back to Jerusalem safely.  Jonadab was right – only Amnon was killed.  Absalom flees to the house of his grandparents (on his mother’s side) to wait out the storm he’s caused.  He ends up staying there three years.

Once the dust settles, David mourns his son.  It’s not entirely clear which son is meant in verse 37, but it seems reasonable to assume it’s Amnon.  David also either longs for Absalom or decides not to chase after Absalom.  The Hebrew isn’t clear and so the verse can be translated either way.  Regardless of which is true, he eventually comes to grips with Amnon’s death which is interesting to consider in light of two sons now being dead and a third in exile all because of his sin with Bathsheba.

Lessons from II Samuel 13
The sins of fathers are visited on their families. The second ramification of David’s sin with Bathsheba is that his oldest son engages in the same sin and essentially rehashes the same story.  Amnon’s lust leads to illicit sex which leads to murder.  Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

The depths of lust are immeasurable.  Said another way – there is no depth lust won’t take us to.  How can someone do what Amnon did?  What kind of mind rationalizes so heinous an act?  One that obeys its lust.  Amnon sank so far into himself and into his desires that he left behind any rational thought about those desires.  He reached a point where forcing himself on his sister seemed like a good thing and a means to satisfaction.  This is where a life of selfishness leads.  A life committed to and centered on us allows for the worst kinds of sin.

The temptations and consequences of sexual sin are different from other sins.  Paul warns about this (I Cor 6:12-20).  God gave us sex to seal a lifetime commitment in marriage and to model the intimacy of the Trinity.  Because of its role, it’s immensely powerful.  The Enemy knows this and perverts its purpose in a fallen world and uses its power to tempt us all.  Sexual sin, therefore, is particularly attractive and especially destructive.  Amnon is an example of what the Enemy can do when armed with the power of perverted sexual attraction.

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