Day 11: May 13, 2018: An Outrageous Thing in Israel
2 Samuel 13:1-2, 11-14: Now Absalom, David’s son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar. And after a time Amnon, David’s son, loved her. 2 And 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… But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” 12 She answered him, “No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this outrageous thing. 13 As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the outrageous fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.” 14 But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her.
This story is one of the greatest tragedies related in the Old Testament. The tentacles of this tale of incestuous rape extend both backward and forward in the history of David’s reign. Amnon was David’s firstborn son (2 Sam. 3:2). In his inability to restrain his lust, and in his abuse of his power to take what he wanted, Amnon proved to be very much like his father (the affair with Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11). So, within the royal family, Amnon’s vile actions against Tamar had their precedent in David’s vile actions against Bathsheba. Further, Amnon’s rape of Tamar laid the ground work for: 1) Absalom’s revenge-killing of Amnon two years later (2 Sam. 13:23-39), and 2) Absalom’s rebellion and attempt to overthrow his father (2 Sam. 15-19). Absalom’s actions in each of these episodes may have been motivated not only by his own anger at Amnon and his own desire for power, but also by his anger at his father, for David failed to do anything at all to Amnon for what he did to Tamar (2 Sam. 13:21; to which the text of the Septuagint adds this explanatory note: “But he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, since he was his firstborn.”)
The text says that Amnon “loved” his half-sister Tamar (v. 1, 4). However, the story itself clearly shows that Amnon’s “love” was really a wild, raging lust. He was obsessed with Tamar, but he could not have her, for she was a virgin (the Law required unmarried women to maintain their virginity, Dt. 22:13-21), and she was his half-sister (the Law forbade such incestuous sexual relations, Lev. 18:9, 18:11, 20:17). Faced with this seeming inability “to do anything to her” Amnon was “tormented” to the point of illness with sexual frustration. We might say that Amnon was “bound up in knots” over his inability to have his way with Tamar.
Enter into the story Jonadab, his “crafty” friend and cousin, who readily suggested a way for Amnon to get Tamar alone in his room (v. 3-5). The ruse was for Amnon to pretend to be sick, and to ask his father David to send Tamar to come prepare food for Amnon, and to feed it to him, so that he could feel better. Amnon wasted no time putting this plot into action (v. 6). David, apparently without suspicion, sent Tamar to Amnon (v. 7); and Tamar dutifully went to care for her brother (v. 8). When Tamar had prepared the food, Amnon emptied the room of all the attendants so that he and his sister were alone (v. 9). Then Amnon beckoned Tamar to come near to his bed and feed him the cakes (v. 10). At her approach Amnon’s illness and weakness suddenly vanished and he “took hold of her and said to her, ‘Come, lie with me, my sister.’”
Against her brother’s sudden sexual aggression, Tamar protested, “No, my brother, do not violate me…” The term translated “violate” here is a word that often has violent and oppressive connotations (Ex. 1:11-12, Ex. 22:22). It is used prominently in the Bible’s other accounts of rape (Dt. 22:29, Judges 19:24 and 20:5, Gen. 34:2). Tamar also referred to Amnon’s intended action as an “outrageous thing.” This word is used consistently in the OT to refer to actions of great folly (1 Sam. 25:25, Isa. 32:6), and to willful and heinous sins of idolatry and violence (Gen. 34:7, Josh. 7:15, Judges 19:23-24 and 20:6 and 20:10, Jer. 29:23).
Further, Tamar protested that if Amnon were to violate her it would ruin them both: she would be cursed with a shame she could not remove, and he would be considered an “outrageous fool” in Israel (v. 13a). Lastly, Tamar tried to plead with Amnon to the effect that their father would give her to him in marriage if he would only ask (v. 13b). Whether or not David would have allowed Amnon to marry Tamar – in contradiction to the Law of Moses – is a matter of considerable debate. Clearly, Tamar was just trying to find a way to escape from Amnon’s clutches. Unfortunately, all of Tamar’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Amnon overpowered her and raped her.
At one level this story is a warning about the danger of disordered and unbridled passions. The apostle Peter gave this exhortation to Christians: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). The ‘passions of the flesh’ are our sinful desires; or, our desires which are sinfully directed and exercised. If we indulge our passions they will only grow stronger and become more difficult to control. Amnon indulged his lust for Tamar in his mind until it exploded in the violent act of raping her.
At a second level this story demonstrates the effects and influence of sin across generations. After David had committed both adultery and murder, the prophet Nathan announced to him God’s judgment: “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house…’” (2 Sam. 12:10-11a). The prophetic word that violence, bloodshed, and evil would continually mark David’s family proved true in Amnon’s violation of Tamar and all its subsequent troubles. Commentator Robert Bergen writes, “… the sins of one generation imprint the next generation. Each sin not only fosters more sin, it also fashions it by providing precedents for others to follow.”
Third, this story is about the suffering of an innocent victim. Tamar’s plight will be addressed more fully in the devotion for May 14, but it is important to note at this point that her story shares much in common with other biblical stories about female victims of male aggression: the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, and the rape and murder of a Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. These three stories are some of the most graphic portrayals of violence in the OT, and through their literary artistry they display both God’s judgment on the perpetrators and His compassion for the victims. So, Tamar’s story is a scriptural witness that cultivates in us compassion for innocent victims as well.
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started: “Heavenly Father, I know that the stories in Scripture are ‘examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did’ (1 Cor. 10:6). The story of what happened to Tamar is awful, but I thank you for the lessons it teaches. First, Lord, I submit all my passions to you. Help me not to indulge my sinful desires but rather to abstain from them through the power of the Holy Spirit. Next, Lord, help me to remember that my sins can have a terrible impact on my family – even for generations. Help me to fear you and to turn away from evil. Finally, Lord, give me your compassion for people in the world today who, like Tamar, are innocent victims of violence. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”