Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 13, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 6.
David’s family begins to break apart with the horrendous rape of Tamar by Amnon and Absalom’s murder of Amnon in retaliation.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider sick power dynamics, proper responses to injustice, and living up to our responsibilities and roles.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
1 In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David.
2 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.
While the story at hand is primarily about Amnon and Tamar, Walter Brueggemann notes that Absalom makes appearances both at the beginning and end of the section. Absalom will later seek to usurp David, which makes this the beginning of a long and difficult time in David’s reign. In 2 Sam 12:10, Nathan declared on behalf of God that the sword would never depart from David’s house due to his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba. This account begins the outworking of that proclamation.
In regard to this being a punishment from God which entails horrendous acts committed by people, it is helpful to remember John Goldingay’s words from last week’s notes:
God will bring this calamity about, but there will be nothing supranatural about it. You could say it will be the natural outworking of the way David has behaved; certainly the punishment will fit the crime. David has let violence and sexual immorality loose in his household and in Uriah’s; but when you have let these loose, you may not be able to get them back into their cage.
As the story begins, Amnon, David’s eldest son and the heir apparent to the throne, falls in “love” with Tamar, his half-sister. While the word “love” is used here, it is certainly not the kind of love that is modeled by God in Christ. Rather, the piece about Amnon’s obsession seems a better descriptor. Rather than loving Tamar, Amnon is lusting after a beautiful woman. Note how verse 2 ends up: Amnon’s obsession makes him ill because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her.” For Amnon, Tamar is an object to be acted upon rather than a woman to be cared for. He is obsessed with what he wants to do to her. This attitude is far from love, though the next verse shows that Amnon seems to have convinced himself that love was his motivation.
3 Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. 4 He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”
Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”
5 “Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”
6 So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”
Had Jonadab not entered the story, things would have ended with Amnon’s lust. Jonadab, however, offers up a plan that will allow Amnon to be alone with Tamar. Here we see the importance of who we surround ourselves with. Jonadab is an “adviser,” but he does little more than enable Amnon’s base desires. A true adviser would have pointed Amnon in a different direction. In our culture today, our friends and family often act as our “advisers”. It matters who we allow to speak into our lives.
Amnon puts Jonadab’s plan into action. Note that David becomes the go-between in the plan. David, who manipulated Uriah, is now manipulated into providing Amnon with opportunity to harm Tamar. (This insight from Brueggemann.)
7 David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” 8 So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. 9 Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.
“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. 10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. 11 But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”
David, hoping to help Amnon recover from his “sickness,” grants his son’s request. Tamar now enters the story in person (up to now we have only heard about her) and acts dutifully as Amnon’s nursemaid. Amnon then orchestrates events so that Tamar is left alone with him. Because Amnon was supposed to be sick, this move is understandable. A weak man is requesting a particular form of comfort from his sister. When Tamar tries to care for him, however, Amnon throws aside the ruse of his weakness by grabbing and propositioning her. He is strong, and Tamar is now in danger.
12 “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. 13 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.” 14 But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.
Though Tamar is the weaker party in this scene, she uses the power she has in hopes of changing Amnon’s mind. The power she uses is found in her words as she offers four arguments for Amon to change course. These include:
- Such an action is beneath a member of God’s people. (“Such a thing should not be done…”)
- She herself would be disgraced.
- John Goldingay helps us understand this argument: “In many cultures the mere fact of its becoming known that a young woman has had premarital sexual experience is inclined to bring great shame on her. She becomes used goods … To put it another way, in such cultures having sex is virtually tantamount to consummating a marriage.”
- Amnon would debase himself, making himself like a “wicked fool”.
- The rape is unnecessary because David will allow Amnon to marry her.
- Goldingay is once again helpful in explaining the logic behind this argument: “…Amnon’s rape of Tamar does not involve incest in the strictest sense, as they will have two different mothers. Tamar can therefore raise the possibility that David would be willing for Amnon to marry Tamar, though she may simply be trying any means to avoid the rape that in fact happens.”
Tamar is remarkably composed in an impossible situation and offers Amnon multiple chances to rethink his course of action. Amnon will not be dissuaded, however, “and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.” Tamar has used her power, but it is not enough to stand against Amnon’s lust and physical stature. In the end, Amnon overpowers her and violates her.
15 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!”
16 “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. 17 He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” 18 So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. 19 Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
Here we see the true nature of Amnon’s “love” for Tamar, which of course is no love at all. In the end, Amon’s “love” turns to hate, and he orders her to leave.
Once again, however, Tamar is composed in an impossible situation. Rather than doing as she is told, she once again verbally resists with an argument for a different course of action. This time Tamar’s argument is that Amnon sending her away would be worse than the rape itself. While this sounds strange to our ears, it makes sense in the cultural setting. As Goldingay notes in the quote above: “having sex [in this culture] is virtually tantamount to consummating a marriage.” Having now taken Tamar’s virginity by force, Amnon should now be responsible for her. In sending her away, Amnon requires that Tamar live in disgrace and be viewed as “used goods” by the wider community. Amnon’s actions are horrid in the moment of the rape, but those actions are also horrid in their continuing consequences. Tamar will be disgraced for life and will live as a “desolate woman.”
Once again, Amnon is not swayed by Tamar’s words. Indeed, he once again overpowers her by having his servant “put her out” forcibly. Even now, though, Tamar uses what little power she has. As Brueggemann explains:
Tamar is a highly visible person in the court (v. 18). When she leaves the presence of Amnon, she changes her dress and appearance, removing her clothes which mark her as a virgin (v. 19). Thus she makes a public gesture of humiliation, which also serves to indict Amnon. Amnon may have wished, like his father, to have his wrong covered over and hidden from public notice; Tamar, however, will not comply with such a cover-up. Because she has now made the scandalous matter visible, the other characters in the narrative must respond.
In effect, Tamar requires that Amnon be held accountable for his actions by making his act public. That accountability, however, is sadly lacking (at least at first).
20 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.
21 When King David heard all this, he was furious. 22 And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.
Here we see two reactions to Amnon’s actions. Absalom ends up caring for his sister (she lives in his house) after telling her to be quiet and not to take things to heart. Absalom ends up hating Amnon for his treatment of Tamar and ceases to speak to him.
Meanwhile, we learn that David is furious when he hears of these events but that he ultimately does nothing about them. This is doubly problematic due to David’s position. Not only is he a father who should discipline his son and protect his daughter, he is also a king who should guarantee justice for his people. As both father and king David fails to act.
David’s failure in this instance is unexplained, leaving us to fill in the blanks. Could it be that David is furious but does not want to do anything to affect Amnon’s ascent to the throne? In this line of thought, David could be protecting his son from the consequences of his actions. Or could it be that David has lost the moral authority to address the situation? After all, this story, though separated in time from the David/Bathsheba storyline, is told directly after the story of David’s adultery and murder. As Brueggemann says: “The narrative knows that David himself is so compromised by his own past action he can do nothing.”
In observing David’s reaction, it is important to note that Tamar does not receive justice. As noted above, she has forced Amnon to face the consequences of his actions by going public. Amnon, however, goes unchallenged, while Tamar must take refuge at her brother’s house as a “desolate woman.” In effect, Tamar trusts the system by going public, and the system betrays her because of David’s inaction. (David is the upholder of the system.)
As for Absalom, his advice to be quiet and not take things to heart is troubling. Why should Tamar not loudly demand justice from David? And the idea of not taking things to heart seems to badly underestimate the weight of the trespass against her. In light of the larger story, however, Absalom is not telling his sister to be content with injustice. Instead, he will take matters into his own hands and provide the justice that David failed to command. Absalom, it seems, is playing a long game. This, however, is still problematic advice in the moment. Why shouldn’t Tamar loudly demand justice? Why should she “not take it to heart”? Tamar should not have been raped in the first place. Once raped, she should have swiftly been given justice. Though she is a woman who takes initiative and seeks to use the power available to her, that power only goes so far and is dependent on the faithfulness of the men in her life. Amnon and David prove unfaithful to their responsibilities to Tamar, while Absalom is problematic even as he seeks to care for her.
I’ll let you read the rest of the chapter on your own. The gist is that Amnon eventually avenges Tamar’s rape by killing Amnon. As was so often the case with his father, David, early in his career, Absalom can be understood in both positive and negative lights. Positively, he secures the justice that David failed to provide, though he does so brutally. Negatively, killing Amnon conveniently puts Absalom as next in line for the throne. Absalom will eventually seek to usurp his father. Could he be using Tamar’s cause as an excuse to act on his own ambitions? Because the story is told in light of Amnon’s rape of Tamar, I think that we should allow Absalom’s actions to be seen in that light. He apparently did not hate Amnon until after Amnon’s mistreatment of Tamar (v 22). It would seem, then, that Absalom’s animosity toward Amnon arose because Absalom took offense at his brother’s actions. Absalom may therefore be seen to at least partly (if not mostly) be acting to avenge his sister and not just using her for his own advancement.
In the end, Absalom flees, and David “mourned many days for his son.” Goldingay notes that we are not told which son (Amnon or Absalom) David mourns for. Whatever the case, his life and his family have been turned upside down.
Notes for Teaching
You’ll need to be careful as you present this chapter to your class. This is so because the victimization of Tamar rings true in our culture. The thing to realize as you teach is that this is more than a story about something that happened to someone a long time ago, though that is true. It is also a story about something that still happens today. Indeed, the #metoo movement has made us all too aware that sexual abuse happens far too often in American culture in the present day. Our culture therefore stands at a moment when it is sensitive to this kind of story (as it should have already been). There is also the possibility that someone in your class will have suffered sexual abuse in the past. All this in mind, handle this text with care.
In thinking of Tamar, I think that the power dynamics inherent in the story are worth looking at. In Tamar, we have a brave woman who exhausts her power both before and after she is raped. Before, she seeks to talk Amnon out of it. After, she refuses to go away quietly and ensures that Amnon must face consequences for his actions. In this, we see that Tamar does everything she can to obtain justice. In the end, though, the full extent of her power is not enough to repel Amnon’s advance or to cause David to pronounce a punishment. She exists in a world in which she is at the mercy of those stronger than she is and in a system that only provides her a certain amount of power to act for herself. In a real sense, she is dependent on the good behavior of the other characters in her story, and she suffers greatly when they fail to live up to their roles and responsibilities. While we have most certainly moved to a healthier view of women in our culture today, power dynamics still exist, and people made weak by stature or societal standing are dependent on the good behavior of the strong. As noted above, the #metoo movement is making apparent the sickness of this power dynamic as it relates to women today. And we don’t have to look far to find other examples of the same. A point of conversation might therefore be how we can live up to our own responsibilities in the various relationships in our lives.
Beyond this, the text is rich with character studies:
- David is a successful public figure whose private life is in ruins. This is not unlike the stories we hear of brilliant CEO’s losing their families. Being competent in public life does not make one competent in private life. David is also passive when he should have been active in the story. His passivity both denies Tamar justice and opens a way for Absalom to exact brutal revenge. Had David acted decisively and justly, the story would have turned out very differently.
- Tamar is a brave woman who exhausts her resources. Though she is victimized, she never passively accepts her victimization. Rather she does all she can to make things right. Unfortunately, the system fails her.
- Amnon is a young man who convinces himself that his lust is love. He allows his lust to drive him and listens to the wrong people. In the end, he is violent and abusive as he takes what he desires.
- Jonadab is a sycophant “adviser” who enables bad behavior rather than seeking to stop it.
- Absalom is a sympathetic character, but his response to Tamar is flawed. He is also patient and calculating in planning his revenge.
As a last thought, in mixed classes, make sure to create room for the women to speak.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we remember from last week’s lesson on David and Bathsheba?
- What were the consequences for David’s actions?
Explain: Explain that we are seeing the outworking of those consequences in today’s study.
Amnon’s Transgression and Tamar’s Shame
Read 2 Sam 13:1-5
- How would you describe Amnon’s intentions toward Tamar after reading these verses?
- Is it appropriate for the narrator to say that Amnon fell in “love” with Tamar? Is it appropriate for Amnon himself to say the same?
- Do you think our culture confuses love and lust today?
- How can we know what real love is? What are its aspects?
- What is Jonadab’s role in the story?
Read 2 Sam 13:6-14
- How would you describe Tamar after reading these verses?
- What are the four reasons that she gives for Amnon to stop?
- Is Tamar in any way at fault in this scene?
o The answer here is no.
- Why won’t Amnon listen to reason?
Explain: Explain that this is a horrific scene in which a woman is victimized despite her best efforts to change things.
Read 2 Sam 13:15-19
- Why does Amnon “hate” Tamar after he rapes her?
- Why does Tamar say that Amnon sending her away would be worse than the rape itself?
- What is the significance of Tamar putting ashes on her head and tearing her garment?
- After reading these verses, how would you describe Tamar?
Read 2 Sam 13:20-21
Explain: Explain that we see here two responses to the rape of Tamar.
- What is Absalom’s response? Is it adequate?
- What is David’s response? Is it adequate?
- What should Absalom have done?
- What should David have done?
- Why do you think David fails to act even though he is furious?
Read: 2 Sam 13:28-29
Explain: Explain the circumstances that lead to Amnon’s death.
- Was Absalom right in doing this?
- What would have been a better course of action?
- Would this episode have taken place if David had acted justly after the event itself?
- What is God’s attitude toward those who have experienced abuse?
o Answer: He loves them, wants their abuse to end, and wants them to be whole.
- What should our response be if/when a victim comes to us for help?
o Answer: We should act swiftly for the good and just treatment of the victim.
- What can we learn from Jonadab’s role in the story?
- What can we learn from David’s failure in the story?
- How should we understand all of this violence and difficulty in light of Nathan’s declaration that the sword would never leave David’s house? Is God causing all of this?
Walter Brueggemann’s 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series
John Goldingay’s 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone
Explore the Bible curriculum
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 145). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 153). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (pp. 150–151). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Brueggemann, W. (1990). First and Second Samuel (p. 288). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.
 Brueggemann, W. (1990). First and Second Samuel (p. 289). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.