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The Sword Comes to David's House (2 Samuel 13) December 3

"The Tamar/Amnon/Absalom story is not simply a tale of lust and a brother's revenge. Amnon, as David's oldest son (3:2-5), was first in line for the throne. Kileab [or Chileab] had apparently died [as Absalom will act as heir apparent on his return from exile following Amnon's death, see 15:1-3], so Absalom was next in line after Amnon. Rivalry already existed between Amnon and Absalom! We need to understand the political implications of the events to fully understand the story" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, 1991, note on 2 Samuel 13).

Map title: The Family of David
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David, by his sin, had set a horrible example for his children—that of a man unable to govern his passions. We now find Amnon, David's firstborn, unable to govern his passions. He is in "love" with his virgin half-sister Tamar, David's daughter by Maacah. David's only daughter recorded in Scripture, Tamar is the full sister of Absalom.

Marriage to a sister or half-sister is forbidden (Leviticus 18:11). So Amnon's infatuation cannot be satisfied. Yet he is so obsessively consumed with his longing for her that he visibly loses weight. Upon discovering the reason for this, his crafty cousin Jonadab encourages Amnon to pursue his wicked desire by using trickery to get Tamar alone with him. The plot succeeds, but she refuses his urging her to lie with him, suggesting rather that he ask for her hand of the king—no doubt a ploy to escape the situation, as she certainly knows that David cannot legally grant such a request. Undaunted, Amnon forces himself upon her. The words "he forced her" here "can also mean, 'he humiliated her.' Victims of rape sometimes speak more strongly of their humiliation than of the physical pain they were made to suffer" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 2 Samuel 13:14). Of course, it was undoubtedly physically painful—but the psychological anguish she suffered was likely much worse.

There is a strong distinction between love and lust. The Scriptures reveal the true characteristics of love. Love is kind. It does not seek its own gratification. It does not think evil. It does not rejoice in iniquity (1 Corinthians 13). In contrast, lust requires immediate gratification. It is totally contrary to the way of love. Amnon's "love" reveals itself for what it is—perverted lust—in the rape and in his attitude immediately following it. Amnon now hates his sister. Once his lust and his desire to conquer were satisfied, there was a big letdown as he realized he had no real love for Tamar. "The sudden revulsion is easily accounted for; the atrocity of his conduct, with all the feelings of shame, remorse, and dread of exposure and punishment, now burst upon his mind, rendering the presence of Tamar intolerably painful to him" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 15). Perhaps he even irrationally blames her for what she has "made him do."

Amnon tells her to "be gone" (verse 15). But she does not. Defiled and with no apparent witnesses to what has happened, she will be left shamed and destitute, with no prospect for future marriage. Amnon, however, will hear none of it. He summons a servant and orders him to put her out. Tamar is devastated by this horrific ruining of her life. She is overcome with grief and despair. After telling Absalom of her plight, her brother encourages her to keep the matter to herself, which she does, while he plots revenge. Absalom certainly cares for his sister—later naming his own daughter after her (14:27). But remember that, secondarily, politics were probably also involved in this matter. Absalom now has what he perhaps reasons to be a legitimate reason to dispose of Amnon and become heir to the throne.

David, though becoming extremely angry on hearing of the matter, takes no action at all. As to why this is we can only guess. First of all, there may have been some confusion in the case since, upon Absalom's urgings, Tamar did not make the matter public. Secondly, while seizing a betrothed woman and having sexual relations with her against her will was a capital crime punishable by death under Israel's civil code, the death penalty was not mandated for seizing an unbetrothed woman and having sexual relations with her. The preset punishment in this case was the payment of a bride price and a forced marriage for life if the father so deemed (see Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Could that be allowed here? After all, Abraham being married to Sarah, his half sister, might seem to serve as precedent (compare Genesis 20:12). But since the time of Moses, incest with even a half-sister was punishable by the death of both participants (Leviticus 20:17).

Yet if it could be ascertained that the woman was unwilling in the act of incest, just as in the matter of the rape of a betrothed woman, she would not be punished—only the man. It is possible that Tamar did not "cry out" when she was raped or was not heard (compare Deuteronomy 22:24). Furthermore, there was evidently no examination to determine that defilement had taken place. It would seem, however, that a thorough interrogation of those who had been sent out before the rape (compare 2 Samuel 13:9), might have yielded the essence of what had happened—perhaps some actually did hear a cry from Tamar but were afraid of retribution from Amnon. Remember that someone could only be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Tamar was only one witness if Amnon refused to testify against himself—although evidence itself could also be considered a "witness" in a matter, as the New Testament makes clear (compare 1 John 5:7-8, NRSV).

Nevertheless, David, as already stated, does nothing—he apparently does not even investigate the matter. Perhaps he doesn't want to shame his own household—particularly with a possible lack of needed evidence. Or it may just be that, as with many parents, David is trying to protect his son from the consequences of his actions. Indeed, David displays an apparent unwillingness to appropriately discipline his children, as can be seen even at the end of his life in the example of Adonijah (see 1 Kings 1:6). And even others of his relatives, such as Joab, sometimes literally get away with murder.

Of course, none of this explains why David took no action on Tamar's behalf, given the normally deep-seated sense of protection a father feels for a daughter. Perhaps David was giving special consideration to Amnon as firstborn and heir apparent. Or it could be that David, having been spared the death penalty in his own adultery and even murder, is unwilling to put his son to death for less. Although David had repented of his sins, he was probably still burdened with feelings of guilt. Often those who feel guilty are reluctant to take a strong moral stand, feeling they have lost their moral authority and would be hypocritical to take firm action. This often contributes to a downward moral spiral in families and nations. It may even be that David felt his own sin was partly responsible for what happened, since one of its consequences was to be family infighting.

Remember, God had proclaimed that the sword would never depart from David's house (12:10). And that sword first comes when, two years after Tamar's rape, Absalom finally exacts his revenge. David won't do anything about Amnon—but Absalom does. The deed completed, David's oldest son—an incestuous rapist—is dead. And the one who is now his oldest son is a fugitive from justice charged with murder.

Absalom flees the country to Geshur, northeast of the Sea of Galilee, receiving amnesty from the king there, Talmai, who is his grandfather on his mother's side (see 3:3). There he remains for three years. As David's grief over Amnon's death gradually subsides, he desires a restored relationship with Absalom but perhaps views it as inappropriate to pursue it anytime soon under the circumstances.

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