“Tamar lived desolate in the house of her brother Absalom” (2 Sam 13:20). These words have given me both heartache and comfort. Heartache because I don’t want Tamar’s story to end this way. Comfort because Tamar’s desolation validates my own desolation. “Desolation”1 describes the barren woman, a desert wilderness, and the destruction of Jerusalem.2 Jerusalem’s desolation is described contrary to the creation account: formless and empty,3 dark, and isolated.4 To live desolate means to live lifeless,5 a common reality for those who suffer the impact of sexual abuse. Millions worldwide live in this reality: men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Even the daughter of King David.
Tamar was a beautiful princess from the tribe of Judah.6 Her father was a former shepherd from Bethlehem;7 her mother was the daughter of a Canaanite king.8 Tamar grew up in the palace of Jerusalem and lived during Israel’s golden years under the reigns of her father, David (1010–970 BC), and her half-brother Solomon (970–930 BC). Tamar was the daughter of the messianic forerunner, the chosen and anointed one, the man after God’s heart.9 She was the only daughter of David named alongside nineteen of David’s sons.10
Tamar was raped, silenced, and left desolate by Amnon, David’s firstborn son and heir to the Davidic throne,11 within the palace of the king. But her story does not end here. Tamar has a voice, and her community has made sure that her voice is not silenced. This community, represented by the biblical writers, stands with Tamar, validates her voice, and acknowledges her suffering. Through the biblical writers we hear Tamar’s voice of wisdom and outrage.
Tamar’s voice of wisdom and outrage testifies to her courage, godliness, and pain. She speaks powerfully and relevantly today to those who live in desolation. Hearing Tamar requires close attention to her words and actions, for the narrator has added volume to her voice. As we approach 2 Sam 13, emphasis will be given to key words and themes employed by the narrator.12 We begin by situating 2 Sam 13 within its historical and literary context.
Historical and literary context (2 Sam 13:1–22)
Tamar speaks in the account of the rise and fall of the Davidic kingdom which emphasizes Israel’s division, idolatry, and exile. This broader narrative begins with a desolate woman (Hannah, 1 Sam 1:2) and ends with a desolate nation (2 Kgs 25:1–21). The rape of Tamar marks a pivotal point in the book of 2 Samuel and in David’s kingship. Indeed, 2 Sam 13:1–22 was written as a chiasm.13 The first ten chapters record David’s success and victories14 and portray a united Israel, while the last ten chapters record David’s failures and decline and a divided Israel. Near the center of this book are the narratives of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) and Amnon and Tamar (2 Sam 13). Between these two narratives, Nathan prophesies that calamity will come upon David through his family (2 Sam 12:10–11).
Calamity strikes David’s family when the firstborn son of David and Bathsheba dies. This death is followed by the birth of Solomon, Tamar’s younger half-brother and the inspiration for the book of Proverbs (Prov 1:1). Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman who speaks truth (Prov 8:7), gives instruction and knowledge (Prov 8:10), brings life (Prov 3:18, 8:35, 16:22), enables kings to reign (Prov 8:15), and possesses counsel, sound judgment, understanding, strength, and power (Prov 8:14). These characteristics of wisdom are embodied in Tamar, who suffers calamity at the hand of her brother Amnon. We now proceed to 2 Sam 13 to listen to Tamar’s voice of wisdom and outrage.
Tamar offers life-giving sustenance (2 Sam 13:1–9)
Tamar is described as a beautiful15 sister who obediently prepares sustenance in order to sustain her “sick” half-brother Amnon. According to the narrator, Amnon made himself sick with frustration because of his love for Tamar, her virginity, her relationship to Absalom,16 and the impossibility of doing “anything”17 to her. This description of Amnon casts him in a suspicious light.
Amnon’s distress over Tamar’s virginity is incongruent with his love for her. Tamar’s virginity is a valuable commodity and a significant source of family pride and honor rather than a cause for distress. Her virginity ensures her marriageability, status, and future. As her brother, Amnon is obligated to protect her virginity and his family’s honor. The narrator discloses a deceptive and manipulative plan that evolves from Amnon’s frustration and “sickness,” raising even more suspicion about Amnon.
Amnon willingly listens to the voice of his cousin Jonadab, who concocts a plan to exploit family relationships and obligations of hospitality. Jonadab advises Amnon to lie down, make himself sick, and request that David send Tamar to “sustain” (brh) him with “sustenance” (bryh) from her hand.18 Amnon follows Jonadab’s advice, David fulfills Amnon’s request, and Tamar obeys David’s command.
Amnon requests that David send Tamar to come and make two special cakes (lbb)19 before his eyes. The sustenance that Amnon desires resembles the Hebrew word for “heart” (lb). Tamar is sent to Amnon with sustenance intended to revive and restore his heart.20 The narrator portrays Tamar as an obedient daughter and loyal sister who diligently works to sustain her sick brother. Tamar offers life-giving sustenance to Amnon through her laborious efforts.
Tamar offers life-giving wisdom (2 Sam 13:9–13)
Tamar does what is expected of her by fulfilling Amnon’s request. Amnon, however, does the unexpected and commands everyone to leave. He commands Tamar to come to the bedroom so that he may be sustained from her hand. Everyone leaves, and Tamar comes to the bedroom to offer sustenance from her hand. As soon as Tamar comes near, Amnon seizes her and commands her: Come, lie with me, my sister!21 Tamar, however, resists Amnon with wisdom and outrage: No, my brother! Do not rape me because this is not done in Israel! Do not do this outrage!
Tamar first says, No! She is the only person in the narrative who stands up to Amnon. By defying Amnon, Tamar aligns with the laws of Israel (Deut 22:20–29). Amnon is required by law to honor Tamar’s voice of refusal. By calling Amnon “my brother,” Tamar confronts Amnon with his brotherly obligation to protect her sexuality, status, and wellbeing. She explicitly commands Amnon not to “rape” (‘nh)22 her, accurately discerning Amnon’s request to “lie” (shkb) with her as rape. Tamar warns Amnon that what he intends to do is not done in Israel, the kingdom which Amnon himself is expected to rule.
Tamar orders Amnon, Do not do this outrage! The word “outrage” (nblh)23 occurs only in extreme circumstances that threaten the life of not only an individual but also the community.24 Examples of outrages include rape,25 violating YHWH’s covenant, not speaking truthfully about YHWH,26 and repaying good with evil.27 Amnon would know that those who commit an outrage in Israel are put to death.28 Tamar commands Amnon not to risk his life and kingship by committing a godless abomination29 in the land of Israel, whose ultimate king is YHWH. Tamar speaks outrage on behalf of the nation of Israel, and she offers Amnon wise counsel in order to deter his course of action.
Tamar wisely appeals to Amnon’s compassion and reason: Where would I go with my disgrace? You will be like one of the godless fools in Israel! Tamar asks Amnon to consider what will happen to both of them if he rapes her. Tamar will lose her marriageability, identity, status, and future; Amnon will become a godless fool (nabal) who commits an outrage (nebalah) in Israel. A nabal is one who is foolish, godless, evil, associated with Belial,30 and an enemy of David and YHWH.31 Tamar warns Amnon that he is in danger of aligning with evil and opposing both the king and the God of Israel.
After Tamar voices wisdom and outrage, she devises an honest and straightforward plan: Please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you. By addressing their father as “the king,” Tamar reminds Amnon that their father is the highest human authority in the kingdom; violating Tamar would be a violation against their father and king.32 However, Tamar assures that the king will give his permission and blessing if Amnon abides by the laws and customs of the kingdom.33 Tamar confronts evil with truth and offers Amnon life-giving wisdom.
Amnon commits an outrage (2 Sam 13:14–15)
Tamar, unlike Jonadab, counsels with truth and wisdom. According to the narrator, however, Amnon is not willing to listen to Tamar’s voice. Amnon ignores her voice and acts as though she has not even spoken. The narrator testifies that Amnon overpowers Tamar and rapes her. Through his testimony, the narrator aligns with Tamar and validates her voice by repeating Tamar’s words.34 The narrator portrays Amnon as a godless fool who has disregarded the voice of wisdom and committed an outrage in Israel.
The narrator clarifies that Amnon does not love Tamar; he intensely hates her. Instead of wanting Tamar near him, he wants rid of her. Amnon had commanded Tamar, Come! Lie! Now he commands, Rise! Go!35 Tamar again resists with wisdom and outrage.
Tamar is discarded (2 Sam 13:16–18)
Tamar again confronts Amnon: No! Sending me away is a greater evil than what you have already done to me! Tamar again says, No! Cultural and familial obligations obligate Amnon to protect and provide for her.36 By raping Tamar, Amnon has dishonored her, himself, and their family and has jeopardized Tamar’s status, wellbeing, and future. Tamar voices Amnon’s intention to disregard her as evil. Amnon, however, remains unwilling to listen.
According to the narrator, Amnon had first been unwilling to listen to Tamar’s voice. Now he is unwilling to listen to her. The narrator indicts Amnon through Amnon’s own speech and actions. Amnon gives another command, this time to his servant: Please send this away from me outside, and bolt the door after her. Amnon humiliates and dehumanizes Tamar by commanding a servant to throw “this” out.37
The narrator responds to Amnon’s command by highlighting Tamar’s garment, which is reminiscent of Joseph’s and symbolizes her special status with her father as a royal daughter of the king.38 Her garment represents her virginity, which ensures her marriageability, status, and future. Rather than confronting Amnon, the servant boy throws the royal daughter of the king outside and bolts the door after her. Amnon casts out his sister who is in pain and need.39 He discards the one who offers life-giving sustenance.
Tamar is desolate (2 Sam 13:19–22)
Thrown outside and locked out, the narrator stands by Tamar’s side, bearing witness to her pain and suffering. First, Tamar puts ashes upon her head, voicing her devastation and grief.40 Second, she tears her special garment, voicing tragedy and death.41 Third, she cries out, voicing injustice, oppression, and anguish.42 Tamar openly acknowledges the outrage that Amnon has committed and the devastation she feels. Amnon, however, does not respond.
Tamar is raped, discarded, and left desolate, but her family responds with silence. Absalom minimizes the rape43 and commands Tamar to be silent and not to set her heart on “this matter.”44 David does nothing, even though an outrage has been committed in his family and kingdom.45 As father, David is required to act on behalf of his daughter;46 as king, he is obligated to uphold the laws of Israel.47 The daughter of David lives desolate, and calamity within David’s family escalates into calamity within his kingdom.48
Absalom hates Amnon, kills him,49 and declares war against David.50 The rape of Tamar evolves into the deaths of twenty thousand (2 Sam 18:7). The kingdom of David becomes ravaged by war, a foreshadowing of Jerusalem’s invasion, exile, and desolation. Jerusalem, like Tamar, is described as a virgin daughter of Judah,51 naked,52 hated,53 and desolate.54 Both cry out in devastation and grief.55 Both receive honor and restoration.56
Tamar receives honor and restoration not only through her voice of wisdom and outrage but also through her prestigious position in David’s genealogy. Tamar’s name is strategically placed, preceding Solomon and the kingly line of Judah (1 Chr 3:9–16). Tamar’s legacy continues through Absalom’s daughter, also named Tamar,57 and through the kings of Judah. She offers life and sustenance to those who fellowship with her in her suffering and find comfort and strength in her voice of wisdom and outrage.
Tamar lived desolate, but her testimony does not end in desolation. Tamar’s voice of wisdom and outrage continues to speak today. The biblical writers have honored and preserved her voice for those willing to listen. She offers life-giving sustenance through her words of wisdom and her outrage against evil. Tamar confronts evil with truth and speaks with authority on behalf of the narrator and the laws and wisdom of Israel. The narrator validates Tamar’s voice and bears witness to the multidimensional violence,58 consequences, and devastation of rape. Amnon represents godless foolishness, while Tamar represents godly wisdom.
Indeed, Amnon forsakes wisdom (cf. Prov 4:6), does not love wisdom (cf. Prov 4:6), and fails to call wisdom “my sister” (cf. Prov 7:4). Because Amnon does not listen to wisdom, he forfeits life and favor from the Lord (cf. Prov 8:34–35). Amnon hates wisdom and, therefore, loves death (cf. Prov 8:36).
In contrast, both Tamar and wisdom call out (cf. Prov 1:20–21), raise their voice (cf. Prov 8:1, 4), and speak what is right and true (cf. Prov 8:6–7). Both fear the Lord and hate evil, pride, and perverse speech (cf. Prov 8:13). Both stretch out their hands (cf. Prov 1:24), offering health, nourishment, and life (cf. Prov 3:8, 18, 22, 4:22, 8:5, 35). Both possess sound judgment, understanding, and power (cf. Prov 8:14). Both offer advice and rebuke (cf. Prov 1:22–23) yet are rejected and ignored (cf. Prov 1:24–25). Tamar is remembered as a wise and valiant59 woman (cf. Prov 31:10) who offers life and does good and not evil (cf. Prov 31:12). She provides sustenance for her family and girds herself with strength (cf. Prov 31:15, 17). She extends her hands to the needy (cf. Prov 31:20) and wears fine linen, strength and honor (cf. Prov 31:22, 25). Tamar speaks wisdom and the law of loving-kindness (cf. Prov 31:26). As a woman who fears the Lord, she is praised (cf. Prov 31:30) and honored within the messianic line of Judah (1 Chr 3:9–16).
- Shamam occurs 91 times in the OT, predominantly in prophetic texts (62 times) and “occurs most frequently (55 times) with the sense to suffer destruction.” Tyler F. Williams, NIDOTTE, 4:168. Shamam appears only 8 times in reference to people (2 Sam 13:20, Isa 54:1, 62:4, Lam 1:13, 16, 3:11, 4:5, Job 16:7).
- Isa 54:1 (barrenness); Gen 47:19, Deut 32:10, Isa 64:10 (wilderness); Isa 24:12, 49:19, 62:4, 64:10, Jer 4:27, Lam 1:4, 5:18, Ezek 23:33, 33:28–29, 36:34–36, Zech 7:14 (destruction of Jerusalem).
- Jer 4:23. The phrase tohu vabohu, “formless and empty,” appears in Gen 1:2 and Jer 4:23, cf. Isa 34:11. The LXX translates tohu vabohu in Gen 1:2 as “invisible and unformed” and in Jer 4:23 as “nothing.”
- Jer 4:23, cf. Gen 1:2–3 (dark); Jer 4:25, cf. Gen 1:20–21, 26–27 (isolated).
- Jer 4:26, cf. Gen 1:11–12.
- Tamar means “palm tree,” which is associated with fertility. See Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, “Amnon and Tamar: A Matter of Honor (2 Samuel 13:1–38),” in Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons (ed. Gordon D. Young, Mark W. Chavalas, and Richard E. Averbeck; Bethesda: CDL, 1997), 353.
- 1 Sam 16:1, 11, 2 Sam 7:8.
- Tamar’s mother was Maacah (2 Sam 3:3, 13:4, 1 Chr 3:2), mentioned after Ahinoam (mother of David’s firstborn, Amnon) and Abigail (mother of David’s second-born, Kileab). Maacah was daughter of King Talmai of Geshur (2 Sam 13:37). Geshur was a small Canaanite kingdom that Israel failed to conquer (Josh 13:13), located at the eastern border of the Sea of Galilee in the Bashan (Deut 3:14, Josh 12:5, 13:11).
- Pss 18:50, 89:20–29, Isa 9:1–7, 11:1, 10, Matt 1:1, Rom 1:3–4, Rev 5:5 (messianic forerunner); 1 Sam 16:1, 12, 2 Sam 7:5–16, 19:21, 23:1 (chosen and anointed); 1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22; cf. 2 Sam 7:8, 1 Chr 17:7, Jer 23:5–6, Ezek 34:23–24, 37:24–25 (man after God’s own heart).
- 2 Sam 5:13–16, 1 Chr 3:1–9.
- 2 Sam 3:2, 1 Chr 3:1.
- The narrator’s voice represents the divine perspective. See Miriam J. Bier, “Colliding Contexts,” in Tamar’s Tears (ed. Andrew Sloane; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 175. Charles Conroy attests that Tamar’s words reflect the narrator’s point of view. Conroy, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983), 118–19.
- George Ridout, “The Rape of Tamar: A Rhetorical Analysis of 2 Samuel 13:1–22,” in Rhetorical Criticism (ed. Jared J. Jackson and Martin Kessler; Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1974), 81; J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (4 vols.; Assen: Van Gorcum, 1981), 1:100.
- See 2 Sam 5:1–25, 6:1–19, 7:1–29, 8:1–14, 10:1–19.
- Tamar’s brother Absalom is also described as “beautiful” (yph) (2 Sam 14:25).
- Absalom is David’s third son and Tamar’s full brother. Amnon’s frustration over Tamar’s relationship to Absalom alludes to sibling rivalry. Absalom’s name forms a literary inclusio around 2 Sam 13–14, which reveals his significance in the larger narrative though he is largely absent from 2 Sam 13:1–22. Bill T. Arnold, 1 and 2 Samuel (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 560.
- As a virgin daughter of the king, Tamar would have been well-guarded and protected. Robert P. Gordon, 1 and 2 Samuel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 262; David G. Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 436.
- Brh means “eat” and “food” (BDB 136) and appears 6 times in this narrative (2 Sam 13:5–7, 10). David had refused to sustain (brh) himself after Joab murdered Abner (2 Sam 3:35) and after his first son with Bathsheba became fatally ill (2 Sam 12:17); cf. Lam 4:10. Bryh appears only in this narrative (2 Sam 13:5, 7, 10).
- “Bake” and “cake” come from the same root (lbb) and resemble the words “heart” (lb) and “flame” (lbh). This may have been a special cake baked over flames; Jackie A. Naudé, NIDOTTE 3:754. Tivka Frymer-Kensky suggests that the name of this cake indicates either its shape (heart-shaped) or its function (to strengthen the heart of the sick person). Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken, 2002), 159; Robert Alter, The David Story (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 267.
- Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1989; repr., New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 254; Alter, The David Story, 266.
- “Seize” is hazaq; cf. Deut 22:25, Judg 19:25. For the command, cf. Gen 39:7, 12.
- Gen 34:2, Deut 22:29, Judg 19:24, 20:5.
- David J. A. Clines, ed., The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001), 5:595. Nblh occurs only 13 times in the OT. See also Deut 22:21, Jer 29:23.
- Alice A. Keefe, “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” Semeia 61 (1993): 82; Hilary B. Lipka, Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2006), 208; P. Kyle McCarter, 2 Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984), 328.
- Gen 34:7, Judg 19:23–24, 20:6, 10.
- Josh 7:15, Job 42:8.
- 1 Sam 25:21–25.
- Gen 34:25–27, Josh 7:25, Judg 20:46, 1 Sam 25:38.
- HALOT 1:663; TLOT 2:713. See also TDOT 9:171; Anthony Phillips, “Nebalah–A Term for Serious Disorderly and Unruly Conduct,” VT 25 (1975): 237–38; Frank M. Yamada, Configurations of Rape in the Hebrew Bible: A Literary Analysis of Three Rape Narratives (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 7; and DCH 5:595. Nbl appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 7:9) in reference to offenses against the community, and nblh appears in 1QS 10:21f and in connection with “Belial” (TDOT 9:171).
- 1 Sam 25:17, 25, 39. Belial means “worthlessness, wickedness, destruction” (BDB 116) and conveys death (2 Sam 16:7, 22:5–6). According to Robert G. Boling, Belial is “one of the most maleficent characters of the mythic underworld.” Boling, Judges (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975), 276. See Judg 19:22, 20:13.
- 1 Sam 25:21–22, Deut 32:6, Pss 14:1, 74:18, 22.
- Sexual offenses were considered not only offenses against the woman but also against her father. Yamada, Configurations of Rape, 116.
- Cf. Gen 11:27–30, 20:2. Marriage between half–siblings would have been viewed as lawful rather than incestuous. Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 239–40; Matthews and Benjamin, “Amnon and Tamar,” 351.
- The narrator here affirms Tamar’s use of ‘nh, “rape” (2 Sam 13:12, 14, 22).
- Cf. Judg 19:28.
- Exod 22:16–17, Deut 22:28–29.
- Contrast Gen 2:23, where z’ot (“this”) is a term of endearment.
- The only other time this garment is mentioned is in the Joseph narrative (Gen 37:3, 23, 31–33). Both Tamar and Joseph were described as beautiful (yph) (Gen 39:6, 2 Sam 13:1), were seen, desired, seized, and given the same command: “Lie with me!” (Gen 39:7, 12, 2 Sam 13:6–11). Both resisted with wisdom (Gen 39:8–9, 2 Sam 13:12–13, 16). Both were betrayed by their families.
- Cf. Isa 32:6.
- Cf. Josh 7:6, Esth 4:1, 3, Job 2:8, 12, Isa 61:3, Ezek 27:30.
- Cf. Gen 37:31–34, Josh 7:6, 1 Sam 4:12, 2 Sam 1:11, 1 Kgs 11:29–33, Ezra 9:3, Esth 4:1, Job 1:20, 2:12.
- Cf. Gen 4:10, 18:20, Exod 22:22–23, Deut 22:27, Jer 20:8, Ezek 9:8, Hab 1:2 (injustice); Exod 2:23, Deut 26:7, Pss 22:5, 107:13 (oppression); Ezek 27:30–31, Pss 88:1, 107:6, 142:5–6, Lam 3:8 (anguish).
- Instead of asking if Amnon had “raped” her, Absalom asks if Amnon had “been with” her (2 Sam 13:20).
- Cf. Jonadab’s advice to David in 2 Sam 13:33.
- Dinah’s father Jacob was also silent and did nothing in response to the rape of his daughter (Gen 34:5). The LXX and 4QSam state that David did nothing “because David loved Amnon since he was his firstborn.”
- Exod 22:16–17, Deut 22:28–29.
- Deut 17:18–19.
- 2 Sam 15:14, 17:1–4, 11–13, 18:3, 6–7.
- 2 Sam 13:22–29.
- 2 Sam 15:10–14, 16:11, 15–16, 19:10. The rapes of Dinah (Gen 34) and the Bethlehemite woman (Judg 19) also resulted in war. Both Tamar’s brother and Dinah’s brothers initiated revenge deceitfully and took justice into their own hands.
- 2 Sam 13:1–2, 18, Lam 1:15, 2:13.
- 2 Sam 13:14, Ezek 16:39.
- 2 Sam 13:15, Ezek 23:29.
- 2 Sam 13:20, Isa 24:12, 49:19, 62:4, 64:10, Jer 27, Lam 1:4, 5:18, Ezek 23:33, 33:28–29, 36:34–36.
- 2 Sam 13:19, Lam 1:2.
- Ezek 36:34–36.
- Absalom also had three sons, but the text only names his daughter (2 Sam 14:27, cf. 13:1).
- Keefe, “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” 91.
- Hayil; cf. Ruth 3:11, 1 Sam 16:18, 2 Sam 17:10; Prov 31: 29.