A tale of two Tamars: Power and who has it - Part 1

This is the first of three blog articles on this subject.


Amnon’s rape of his step-sister Tamar and Absalom’s murder of Amnon put a mirror up to what lay behind David’s sin with Bathsheba. The issues of misuse of power and people (usually men) using predatory behaviours to control others and inflict violence and abuse sound loud warnings to us. They serve to teach us about how we should respond to these behaviours in our own community.

The consequences of David's adultery and murder.

The story of the traumatic rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon is one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing narratives of Scripture (2 Sam 13: 1-22). It is a tragic story, but it is a consequence of David's sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. After the victorious return of David from the battle, he chose to lead his army from his palace, until one day he sat down and saw a beautiful woman bathing. As the King of Israel, he considered he had the right to possess her. Despite the various wives and concubines he already had, he "took" her and "slept with" her. Later, he proceeded to cover up the crime through another (even more terrible) crime of murder. We know the story.

The record and God himself never blame Bathsheba: "What David had done displeased the Lord" (2 Sam 11:27 NIV). David should have been a shepherd. The "little ewe lamb" in Nathan's parable serves to emphasise this. Just as the narrative we tell is important, so the narrative told of this event. David used predatory power. It was not Bathsheba's fault.

Many of us have responsibilities in the body of Christ as shepherds. Shepherds should care for the sheep of their flock and not devour them (Ezekiel 34). We can see the example of Jesus who, like the good shepherd - that perfect shepherd announced by the prophets, fed, served, healed and blessed everyone he met, and we as his disciples are commanded to do the same (Mark 9:35; 10: 42-45). Predatory behaviours have no place.

Entitlement and Power

David, “a man after God's own heart” (Acts 13:22 NIV), succumbed to temptation. His was principally not the temptation to look at a woman bathing but more terribly, the temptation to take what he could as his, even when she was unavailable to him (Bathsheba was Uriah's wife, his loyal servant). In all the narrative Bathsheba never utters a word. This eloquent declaration of silence peaks volumes without a single word. Bathsheba was not invited to give her consent. We know she was in the hands of a powerful man. We know kings (even Yahweh's anointed king) gets what they ask for. Resistance is futile and it could be argued Bathsheba's silence was the safest response.

Scripture does not judge her. Nor can we.

It is important to reflect: What would our response be if we heard about this sin today? Would we say, "She was beautiful so she shouldn't have bathed where anyone can see her"; or "She should have resisted"; or "She should have screamed"; or "It takes two you know”?

Do what I say, not what I do

This crisis in David's family brought inevitable consequences on his children. The reality is that children are silent observers. It is the actions of their parents which speak loudest in their ears. Those actions speak more than the teaching of God's word imparted to them as we “are in the way with them”. The expression "Do what I say, not what I do" is not a maxim possessing power when parents speak to their children.

What was the message of David's sin to his sons Amnon and Absalom? It was that powerful people like kings (and by extension kings’ sons) can take what they want. Amnon saw any woman as an opportunity for selfish sexual satisfaction no matter what the woman thinks. That opportunity can be taken without her consent. Her response should be silence, but beyond that, Absalom considered that any consequences can be solved with murder.

Parents, what are we teaching our children with our actions? What are we doing that destroys our moral authority even with our adult children? What do they notice us looking at? What do they see us lusting after and taking? What respect do we have for our spouses and for other people's spouses? Do they see in us a willingness to acknowledge our sins? Or do they see us covering up our sins with more serious and evil actions?

Amnon's entitlement

As if by accident, Amnon "fell in love" with his half-sister and Absalom's sister, Tamar. He fell in love with the wrong person: his stepsister, but this was not the major problem. The real problem was that having “fallen in love”, all his subsequent actions were things he chose to do. He was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister. He knew that she was a virgin, and that it was impossible for him to do anything to her (just like David knew Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah). This was his choice: he made himself ill. It was his choice to feast on his own entitlement: behaving as David did and believing that he could have what he wanted. Despite being completely off limits, he thought: “as a son of the king I am entitled to have and do what I want without consequence. Regardless of whether I obey God’s laws, I will do it because it is my decision, it is my desire. I want it and no one can admonish me for that”.

As in Israel of old, sexual assault does occur in the today’s ecclesia, but it occurs only through the decisions of brothers and sisters. These bad decisions reflect an entitlement attitude and selfish narcissistic behaviours that allow the person making those bad decisions to make themselves sick in pursuit of selfish sexual gratification and show no respect for the will of the person wronged.

Amnon's Objectification of Tamar

In addition, the language reflects Amnon’s objectification of Tamar: “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” (2 Sam 13: 2 NIV). Tamar had no say in the matter. She was an object. Amnon had concluded he could do whatever he wanted. The language does not indicate what he could do "with" her, but "to" her - that is, her will was irrelevant.

In a society that excels at the objectification and sexualisation of women and girls, little wonder that it can influence us all.

Predatory "birds of a feather"

Like all “birds of feather”, Amnon's confidante, Jonadab flies in to support him in his anguish. He chooses to ask why “the king’s son” is “haggard” (2 Sam 13: 4). We can see how Jonadab’s narrative reinforces the entitlement of Amnon (“the king's son”) and supports his narcissistic behaviour (he chose to be “haggard”). Jonadab had opportunity to stop a terrible injustice in its tracks. However, when we take advice from "cunning" people, we fall into a trap. This trap was set in the same way that the "cunning" serpent set a trap for Eve – and in the same way, Amnon fell.

The opportunity that this story may have turned at this point was lost. That opportunity was not so much in the narrative but earlier, when Amnon chose his counsellor and friend. If instead he had appreciated Solomon’s advice in Proverbs 12:26 (choose friends carefully), and 27:5-6 (choose a friend whose wounds could be trusted) things may have turned out very differently. Amnon knew the nature of Jonadab and was attracted to him. Furthermore, Amnon decided to follow the advice of a man he knew was cunning enough to find a way for him to satisfy his urges.

Jonadab volunteers his evil predatory strategy. It played on the worst part of Amnon's character. He constructed a plan that echoed David's instruction of Joab using the letter sent in the hand of Uriah. In the same way as murder victim Uriah diligently delivered the letter to Joab, Tamar obediently and lovingly responded to Amnon's request delivered by David.

As in the time of Jeremiah "Among my people are the wicked who lurk like men who catch birds and like those who set traps to catch people" (Jeremiah 5:26 NIV), so also in the time of David, and so too in ours. David innocently (but so terribly conflicted) became the enabler of abuse in his own family. He is manipulated by his son, who used the same wicked ways that David used himself. He followed the same pattern of behaviour. Jeremiah's words imply that we are unaware of wicked men lurking among us. How true that is! We can easily become "volunteers". We enlist in utter ignorance and with innocence, in the plots and manipulation of evil men and we rarely acknowledge it, even in hindsight. Grooming is such an evil act that it has become illegal in most Western countries. It happens in the ecclesia. We can be turned into the facilitators of evil like domestic violence, sexual abuse and violence because we have been manipulated and deceived by evil men.

Looking in the mirror: David's first missed opportunity

It is important to note that David himself had the opportunity to recognise the inappropriateness of Amnon's request: a private audience in a bedroom with his stepsister. What was David thinking when he almost abruptly ordered Tamar, "Go to your brother Amnon's house and prepare food for him”? Was he thinking about what was happening? Was David blind to the potential? Was it so unthinkable that he did not think about it? The real challenge for David was that the key to Amnon’s behaviour lay in his own behaviour. Unless he was prepared to look in the mirror and assess the example he had shown to his sons, he would find himself enabling the terrible things that did befall his family.

In hindsight, we may think, “What was he thinking?” Well think more - in our own lives we also lack this acuity he lacked. In hindsight, we find ourselves not understanding what we did wrong. We too fail to engage in honest self-evaluation. The mirror is the best place to start looking.

Amnon, the sexual predator

When David orders Tamar to go to Amnon, Tamar agrees without comment or complaint (2 Sam 13: 8). She had fallen into the hands of a predator. What should have been a loving respectful family relationship was forever ruined by pretence and lies. The presumption that it was a privileged and happy family hid a terrible tragedy. It would be talked about forever in a low voice.

Amnon's lewd interests are highlighted for us in the record which details the food-preparation process of Tamar completed “in his sight”: she took dough, kneaded it, and made cakes in full view of him.

It is an unfortunate reality that sexual predators satisfy their illicit desires in what should otherwise have been innocent activity. To the rest of us, it is an unremarkable domestic scene in its everyday nature, but it concealed a pornographic interest as Amnon burned with lust for his sister. This is how predators carry out their terrible business right under our noses, while the rest of us only see the mundane and normal. These abuses happen behind closed doors in what look like normal homes or ecclesial halls (say); at events that seem like perfectly wholesome “functions” or circumstances. The evil is protected by our naive unwillingness to recognise unsafe environments and potential for danger within our community.

Amnon "gas-lighting" Tamar

Tamar finishes her work and offers him the food prepared with love, but he does not want to eat. By itself, this offensive rejection of his stepsister's love and care points to Amnon's narcissistic character traits. His responses were unpredictable. He was doing what is called today, "gas-lighting". It is a form of psychological and emotional abuse. He first says he wants something, and then, after his victim has acquiesced in love, suddenly he doesn't want it. There is no acknowledgment she had done exactly what he asked of her. The reality now was that what he asked for was not what he wanted. He had such an entitlement that he assumed Tamar would also fulfill what he wanted. His supposed "love" for Tamar expressed to Jonadab receives no mention.

Turning a blind eye: the role of bystanders

To get what he wanted, Amnon had to have seclusion and privacy. Once again, he uses his power and says, " Send everyone out of here… so everyone left" (2 Sam 13: 9 NIV). As with most situations like this in life, here was another potential turning point – a moment when people’s reactions could have been principled and changed the outcome. But Amnon had power. The consequences of being a recipient of his anger would have been well understood. Bystanders (presumably servants) in the room, could have changed history, but only if they were brave enough to put their lives in danger.

As bystanders, we are crucial to creating safe environments, whether in our ecclesias, in our Sunday schools, in our youth circles, in our families, even at work and school. When we ignore unsafe environments or situations and allow vulnerable people to end up in dangerous positions, when we ignore the predator (or the possibility that any of us could be a predator) and hide, we endanger people’s lives and their life in Christ. The covers we hide behind vary. Sometimes it is "not our job". Other times "it is not our responsibility". Maybe “it's the responsibility of the arranging brothers”, we think, or someone “older”. Sometimes we hide behind the herd of affected people like us who are not prepared to name what they see – it can be called “group think”.

We are all “jointly and severally” responsible for creating and maintaining safe environments in our ecclesias, Sunday schools, and youth circles. We all have an obligation to keep other people safe. It has been a biblical principle since the angel of Yahweh asked Cain about Abel.

When we act to extract people from unsafe environments, to “pull up” our brothers and sisters and others at risk of breaching the principles of providing safe environments for children and other vulnerable people, we change the story and remove the offense.

There will be predators among us. Hindsight tells us that. When bystanders act to create safe environments, they disrupt the predator's plans. When we all accept that this is the only way, we destroy the power of the predator to follow their plot. We refuse to leave the room. We keep the door open. We ensure the older person is not alone with the younger person, or the teacher with the student or other people of power (including arranging brothers or respected speakers) with people who do not share their power. When we do these things we act to alleviate the violence and oppression that sometimes exists amongst us.

When we don't ask about bruises or a black eye; when we don't ask about fear and anxiety in children; when we don't believe their disclosure; we allow and enable abuse and allow a culture that will lead to harm. The damage is not just trauma, but the psychological effects of trauma, now well understood, which can be devastating to people's lives, can crush innocence, destroy childhood, create mistrust and hypervigilance, disrupt family relationships, eat out marriages, and in particular, push people away from Christ and the company of the Saints in light – endangering their eternal wellbeing.

Reporting the crime: "He raped her"

Tamar's response to Amnon's demands is the perfect argument against rape:

Do not.

You're my brother.

Don't force me.

Such a thing should not be done in Israel.

Don't do this wicked thing.

What about me? Where could I get rid of the disgrace?

What about you? You would be like one of the fools in Israel.

If so, talk to the king. He won't stop me from marrying you.

This is an amazing speech from Tamar. She speaks with clear moral power and perspective on the evil of it. Tamar is the daughter of a king and Amnon's half-sister - the balance of power is not as dramatic as between David and Bathsheba. But despite Tamar's objections and their power, there remained an imbalance of physical power and Amnon did not listen in any case. The predator does not listen, does not understand, does not reason. He is carried away by his power and superiority. He was stronger and forced her because he could. There was no one to intervene.

He raped her

Three terrible words scripture uses to denounce the crime. It names him as the perpetrator and names the act as "rape." It doesn't say that Tamar was in love with him, or that Tamar led him on, or that Tamar had a crush on him. We can assume the act was within ear-shot of the servant who was later within earshot (and potentially could have intervened and stopped this abominable act in Israel). Yet the servants preferred to remain silent so as not to participate as witnesses perhaps. However, Tamar, crying out loud, denounced what would happen, yet terribly had already been shamed, damaged, humiliated and soon thereafter, discarded.

Scripture calls out the crime. For us we should reflect on it when things happen behind closed doors. We need to analyse our narrative and reflect:

When a sister discloses sexual abuse, do we call out the crime for what it is? Even Jacob’s sons in the incident of the rape of Dinah speak of her acting as a prostitute and so vilify their sister and tend to support the narrative of the rapist Shechem, that (after he had raped her) he “loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her”.

Do we question the morals of the sister disclosing sexual abuse, evaluate what clothing she was wearing or often wears, where she goes, what she does as though that it is relevant to the question? It is abundantly clear that given the immense shame and trauma involved in reporting sexual abuse, especially by one of our sisters or girls, that it is extremely unlikely that one would choose to lie about it. We ought first to believe her and treat her allegations seriously and respectfully. Then ensure her safety. Reinforce with her that her disclosure will be treated seriously, confidentially. Tell her that she is believed and act to follow that up.

We must not blame the victim.

Sexual assualt is a crime (even in marriage), so too incest and the authorities have been put in place by God for the punishment of evil-doers and criminals ought to be reported to the Police (Romans 13:1-3).

We need to learn to recognise the true nature of abuse and the patterns that characterise predators. We need to be prepared to call it out when we see it, actively safe-guard our community, protect the young, the vulnerable and the lonely and seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless and plead the widow’s cause (Isa 1:17).

In our next blog we will look at the consequences of Amnon’s rape of Tamar and reflect on Judah’s mistreatment of his daughter-in-law Tamar and what they teach us.