The Terrible Story of Tamar

The Terrible Story of Tamar

Glynn Cardy

Sun 19 Aug

There are five chapters in the Second Book of Samuel that talk about the horror and consequences of familial dysfunction in the royal household of David.  Yet save for the passage in chapter 18 when David, on hearing of his son Absalom’s death, finally exhibits some emotion, this saga of rape, injustice, murder and betrayal doesn’t appear in the cycle of readings for Sunday services.  It’s as if the shame of it all reaches out across the centuries, mingling with the shame of modern day church and society, to still demand a silencing of the victims and a covering up of abuse.

Yet, our first reading [chapter 13], is being used in seminars, particularly in Christian countries, to talk about rape – causes, consequences, injustice and justice.  It is a very contemporary text.  “We can talk about these issues in very conservative cultures,” says one facilitator, “because it is written here in the Bible.”

Chapter 13:1 “And it came to pass after this”.  ‘This’ is a reference to the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband by the King.  In the story the consequences of those violations – of both victims and the law – are visited on the family of the abuser, the man unable to govern his lust and his power: David.

David’s eldest son is Amnon.  Tamar is David’s daughter, and the only daughter mentioned by name.  She is half-sister to Amnon and full-sister to Absalom.  Marriage to a sister or half-sister is forbidden by law.[i]  Amnon’s lusting infatuation for Tamar cannot be legally satisfied. 

So Amnon, with the help of cousin Jonadab, devises a scheme whereby he feigns sickness and Tamar is commanded by David to feed and nurse him.   The scheming is obvious in the text – for example when Amnon and Jonadab talk about Tamar she is called ‘the sister of my brother Absalom’, and when Amnon talks to David he says, ‘Let my sister come to me.’

After the rape the text calls Tamar ‘desolate’.  This word in Hebrew also means ‘humiliated’, ‘ruined’, and ‘childless’.  She is now viewed as unable to be married and condemned to spend her life in her father’s house and be childless.  This is why, both before and after the violating, Tamar pleads with Amnon to marry her, which of course is contrary to the law regarding marrying siblings [but not without precedent[ii]].

The text also graphically describes the descent from lust to violence to hatred, with Tamar’s presence now intolerable to Amnon.  Pamela White-Cooper in reconstructing this passage writes, “Then he [Amnon] looked at her with horror.  She had become simply a reminder of all that had happened.  She was no longer a beautiful virginal woman but a pathetic bruised and bleeding frightened girl, a reminder of his own brutality and weakness.  She was no more his possession now than before.  None of this had gone the way it was supposed to!  He felt betrayed by Jonadab and enraged at Tamar.  Why had she refused him? It was her fault!”[iii]

Tamar tells Absalom her brother who then does two things.  He takes her into his own private chambers where he protects her in her desolation.  He also tells her to keep quiet about the incident.  Is this ‘keeping quiet’ because Absalom wants to sweep the incident under the carpet? – plainly no; or because he wants to exact a private revenge against his half-brother and heir to the throne? – probably not [though some posit this[iv]].  In v.21 the text says “when the king heard all these things” the presumption is that Absalom informed him – that is Absalom defied convention by defending a raped woman against a patriarchy that despised her worth.  He turns to their father, the King, for justice and love for Tamar, and finds instead anger from David and failure to deal justly with this crime. 

Tamar’s story, sadly, is still modern:

Tamar was sexually assaulted, not by a stranger but by someone she knew
The violation took place not in a dark alley or in a desolate area, but by a member of her own family, at home.
Tamar said ‘no’; her ‘no’ was not respected.
When Tamar sought help, she was told to keep quiet.
The process for achieving justice and restitution was taken out of her hands entirely and carried forward by her brother – it became men’s business.
In the end, it was the perpetrator for whom her father mourned [jumping ahead Absalom murders Amnon and David mourns the lost of his son three times longer than the usual mourning period].  Her father did not grieve for Tamar.

In discussing this story during the week I was told of a woman who said the church became her Absalom – kind and protective of her, but also telling her to keep quiet as the men sorted it out somewhere beyond her hearing or knowledge.  For other women the experience is of the church being like King David – upset for the favourite son [the abuser] and upset for the “problem” this causes for the King/the institution/the church, rather than seeking support and justice for her.

While there is some truth that Absalom used Tamar to feed his need for vengeance and his own conflict with his father, it is also true that – unlike any of the other characters – he seems to have cared for Tamar, and the naming of his own child as Tamar[v] is one of the only humanizing references to Tamar made by any of the men in the story.[vi] 

In this story, as is common in stories of violence against women, it is Tamar [who has done no wrong] who is shamed; and it is Tamar who is then used as an excuse for blood revenge without receiving any solace or voice.  This is why Phyllis Trible calls this a ‘text of terror’ for women.

Philip Culbertson, in his book New Adam, also calls these chapters a text of terror for men.  While not denying the trauma and injustice inflicted on Tamar, he points to the dysfunctional relationships in the royal family.  David’s anger on hearing of the rape seems to be focused on the violation of his property [Tamar] and the loss of her value in later trading her for political alliances.  He does not seemingly reprove or punish Amnon.  Nor does he comfort or even talk to his devastated daughter.  David is emotionally distant from his children, and unwilling to bring a just outcome.  Thus it is David’s failure as both king upholding the law and father protecting his household that fuels Absalom’s vengeance, and in time the civil war that broke out.

Culbertson uses the text to address those fathers today who place emotional distance between themselves and their children, who let their work role [kingship in David’s case] shape their behaviour in their family, and who favour one child more than others and let that favouritism lead to unfair/unjust behaviours towards their other children.  The famous cry of ‘O Absalom my son’ needs to be heard as an acknowledgement of terrible outcomes from terrible relationships from terrible decisions.

The story of Tamar today, when sexual assault is being much more publicly talked about, is being told and re-told.   It is being told as a reminder that children, young people, and adults have a right to feel safe in their bodies.  It is a backdrop to lessons about good touch and bad touch, and messages like “It’s Ok to say No”

As one lesson plan says, “Without going into graphic detail, children can be told that Amnon didn’t respect Tamar. He touched her in ways she didn’t want.  When she told him to stop, he didn’t.  This is wrong.  If someone doesn’t want to be touched, including hugging, you need to respect that.  And if someone touches you when you don’t want to be touched, it is Ok to say No.  Yell it if necessary.  And tell an adult you trust about what happened.”

The ‘without going into graphic detail’ might mean passing over the issue of incest.  But we need to be aware that sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by people known to the victims.[vii]

Further the Tamar story is being used today to talk about the so-called “grey areas” of consent.  For example, Ryan Stollar[viii] suggests asking the following questions: If Tamar dressed beautifully, would that have given Amnon the right to have sex with her?  If Tamar kissed Amnon, would that have given Amnon the right to have sex with her?  If Tamar said yes to sex with Amnon yesterday, would that have given Amnon the right to have sex with her today?   No one has the right to have sex with someone without their conscious, enthusiastic, informed, and immediate consent – whether in a marital relationship or not.[ix]

God as a character does not appear in these texts from II Samuel.  Some commentators equate the will and purposes of God with the providential history that is narrated.  So the story of Amnon and Tamar is a regrettable but explanatory note regarding Absalom’s rise to power, the threat of Absalom to his father, and the eventual triumph[?] of David.  This argument though presents us with a God who is almost inseparable from what the King and his retinue desire.  This God is not there for Tamar; or, following Philip Culbertson’s argument, for Absalom.

Each biblical story needs to be measured against the whole of Scripture.  In particular, the biased perspectives of certain historical narratives, and the morals to those stories implied by their narrators, need to be measured against the larger theme of justice for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the vulnerable, against the ethic of care for the stranger and the sojourner, and against the overarching theme of love of neighbour as one’s self.[x]

Two elements are crucial in stopping violence and abuse of women and other oppressed groups.  The first is to hear the stories from their own viewpoint insofar as this is possible.  The second is questioning and opening for revision all forms of authority and power that are used to perpetuate, incite, or collude with abuse – consciously and directly, as with Amnon and Jonadab, or unconsciously, as with King David.  Such power and authority needs to be critiqued even when it appears in the Bible or in the church.

[i] Leviticus 18:11

[ii] Abraham and Sarah were half brother and sister Genesis 20:12.

[iii] P.27 Pamela White-Cooper, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.

[iv] The presumption being that Absalom was next in line for the throne after Amnon.  It’s speculated that the second born brother Chileab died at a young age.

[v] II Sam 14:27.

[vi] P.33 Pamela White-Cooper op.cit.

[vii] The PCANZ policy and advice regarding child and youth protection can be found through this link


[ix] There is a very good resource video regarding consent here:

[x] This is a paraphrase of Pamela Cooper-White’s conclusion on pages 37-38.