This tragic story follows immediately after the David and Bathsheba tragedy. Details and names change, but we have a beautiful woman, fulfilled lust, and then murder.
“And it came to pass after this, that Absalom the son of David had a fair sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her . . .” (2 Sam. 13:1-39)
Summary of the Text
Absalom had a beautiful sister named Tamar, and Amnon loved her (v. 1). Amnon made himself sick over it (v. 2). Amnon had a friend in Jonadab, his cousin, and he was a man full of twists and turns (v. 3). He saw Amnon’s condition and found out the problem (v. 4). Jonadab came up with a plot to get them alone together (v. 5). So Amnon did it (v. 6). So David sent Tamar to her half-brother in his sick bed (v. 7). She prepared the food, but he refused it, and sent everybody out (vv. 8-9). He invited her to his inner chamber (v. 10).
When she did, he grabbed her and said “come, lie with me” (v. 11). She refuses—it would disgrace both her and him (vv. 12-13). But he was stronger, and raped her (v. 14). Then Amnon hated her with greater hatred than the love he had for her before (v. 15).
She refused again, saying that this would be even a greater evil (v. 16). So he called a servant and had him throw her out, and lock the door behind her (v. 17). She had a beautiful robe, the kind that the virgin daughters of the king would wear (v. 18). So Tamar put ashes on her head, tore her robe, laid her hand on her head, and left weeping (v. 19). Absalom tried to comfort her (v. 20), and she remained, desolate, in her brother’s house. David was very angry . . . but did nothing (v. 21). Absalom also did nothing . . . or so it appeared (v. 22).
Two years later, Absalom invited all the princes to party out of town, celebrating the shearing of the sheep (v. 23). He invited the king first, knowing he wouldn’t go (vv. 24-25). This made it possible for him to invite Amnon, as the king’s representative (v. 26). David thought it odd, but let them all go (v. 27). Absalom told his servants to wait until Amnon was merry with wine, and to strike on the signal (v. 28). They did this, and all the other princes fled (v. 29). Rumors got to David before the princes did (v. 30), and so he tore his robe, and lay on the ground (v. 31).
Jonadab has apparently switched sides, or at least has distanced himself from the former episode, and he tells the king that only Amnon is dead, and it has been in the works for two years (vv. 32-33). Absalom fled (v. 34), and the watchman saw many people coming. Jonadab said that it was just as he said (v. 35). When he was done, the king’s sons all came in, weeping, and the king and his servants wept also, greatly (v. 36). Absalom fled to Geshur, home of his maternal grandfather (v. 37). David mourned for Amnon daily, and Absalom remained in Geshur three years (v. 38). And David’s soul turned to Absalom after he was comforted concerning Amnon (v. 39).
A Very Structured Story
There are seven interlocking “pages” in this story, each one with two characters, and one of these characters will appear in the next scene. They are: 1. Jonadab/Amnon 2. Amnon/David 3. David/Tamar 4. Tamar/Amnon 5. Amnon/servant 6. Servant/Tamar, and 7. Tamar/Absalom
The dumplings that are prepared are “heart-shaped.” Amnon used “heart-nourishing” food to violate his sister. And Absalom used feasting to make Amnon’s heart merry with wine before the murder.
Tamar, desperate to fend off Amnon, trying to buy time, says that she could be given to him as a wife. But this was not possible according to the law (Lev. 18:9, 11).
When he loved her, he said, come, lie. When he hated her, he used the exact antonyms in reverse order, arise, go.
Echoes of Genesis
There are numerous (and obviously deliberate) allusions to the time of the patriarchs. But at the same time, it is hard to see what the Samuel historian could have meant by it. For example, when Amnon orders everyone to clear out, he uses virtually the same language that Joseph used when he was about to reveal himself to his brothers
And we also have a situation comparable to Genesis 34, where Dinah is raped, and her brothers respond with murderous vengeance. The fathers—Jacob and then David—are silent in both situations. But unlike Tamar, Dinah’s assailant Shechem at least loved her afterwards.
The only two people in the Bible who are said to have worn this kind of robe are Joseph and Tamar. In both cases, that robe is torn, and probably blood-stained. In both families you have a woman named Tamar—women greatly sinned against. And in both cases, you have murderous siblings. Some of the key action occurs at the time of the sheep shearing—Judah has sex with Tamar, Absalom orders Amnon killed. And Tamar was descended from Tamar, with ten greats between them.
Vanished Moral Authority
David has been forgiven—he really has. But his vigor in rule is gone, vanished. So is his shrewdness. In this story he gets played twice, first by Amnon and then by Absalom. He inadvertently acts as a pimp for his own daughter, and then as one who sends his oldest son to his death. He doesn’t see through as he used to.
When David heard about Tamar, he was very angry but did nothing. When he heard about Amnon, he tore his robes and lay on the ground. All his servants tore their robes. The other princes tore their robes. There was great weeping over the death of the rapist. Tamar tore her robe, and she wept also, but had to do it by herself. Not only did David not see through, he did not see ahead.
The Story is Always Bigger Than We Think
You have heard many times that God draws straight with crooked lines. Here is a textbook example. God is simultaneously unfolding the consequences of David’s sin, in a way that is a true grief to him, while at the same time preparing a path to the throne for Solomon—son of the woman who was David’s downfall. Too often we try to make sense of the grand story with just a snippet of the information—like trying to guess what the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle is about from just two pieces.
Seeing David as Jacob
Remember that Jacob’s other name is Israel. The point being made is that David is Jacob, David is Israel. A related point is that Israel is a mess.
Both had a child with an ornamental robe. Both of those children were abused by siblings. Both of them had a child who was raped. Both responded to that rape ineffectively. Both of them had a Tamar in the family. Both of them had concubine/s violated by a son. Both of them had sons who (in effect) committed treason that way. Both of them had sons who sinned grievously at the time of sheep shearing. Both had sons who robbed a woman named Tamar of a legitimate lineage. Both had sons who told everyone to clear out — one to forgive a crime, and the other to commit one.
First, the great and irrevocable promises were given to Israel. Second, we must not infer from this any kind of “golden age” nostalgia—the recipient of the promises was a mess. And third, the promises are still gold. Let God be true, and every man a liar.
So God is true in Christ. Christ’s robe was not like the robes in this story—it was not torn. And Christ’s body, which was the veil in the Temple, was in fact torn. That is how God determined to bring all these stories, some of them pretty grim, into a glorious conclusion. Christ is risen.