Having your Cake, and then Raping the Baker: Biblical Criticism by a Respectful Nonbeliever

I’m pretty busy with my thesis right now… hence the sudden fall off in proper posts. However, one of the good things about getting back into the office and working on the University computers is that I had a dig through my old documents and came across some essays and assignments that I submitted as a first year undergraduate. During that time I took some Theology courses… and some biblical studies courses. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things that I submitted… in an attempt to show that you don’t have to believe in what you are studying to engage with it. Especially with biblical studies… some of the stories are just absolutely fascinating. Here is a piece that I wrote on II Samuel 13: 1-22 – a quite shocking (and thus, unfortunately, often overlooked) story about David’s son and daughter, Amnon and Tamar.

You can find the NIV translation of this passage here. Or a more light-hearted look at it on The Brick Testament (and I shall intersperse my essay with images from this amazing resource).

Power and Powerlessness in II Samuel 13: 1-22

The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is one of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that can prove shocking to the modern reader. This is illustrated well by the fact that, in the opening paragraphs of many commentaries, the authors feel compelled to highlight the nature of the account as “exceptionally tense” (Hertzberg, 1964:322), “frighteningly realistic” (Evans, 2004:220)  or even “revolting” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341). However, when looking at the passage in the form in which we have it today, it is important to not become distracted by subject matter, but to see the story as it is in its context. In this passage, the doom pronounced on David’s house in the previous chapter [2 Sam 12:10] begins to receive its fulfilment (ibid), and the passage also  “stands as a prologue to the account of (Absalom’s) rebellion in chapters 15-20” (McCarter Jr., 1984:327).

Much modern scholarship (particularly Christian scholarship) tends to focus on the character of Tamar and her tragic fate, but, as Hertzberg points out, whilst Tamar is indeed the “tragic figure of the drama, (…) in the general context she is merely a subsidiary figure whose fate is only important for the light it sheds on the struggle between the two oldest princes and its further consequences for the history of the kingdom of David” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Marie Evans believes the focus of the text to be “the use and abuse of power” (2004:222)  and it is the intention of this essay to build upon this belief by identifying and discussing the various manifestations of power and powerlessness in the text, rather than focussing on one individual character.

At the very beginning of the chapter we are made aware that the recorded events related to the previous chapters. Whilst “in the course of time” [2 Sam 13:1] does not denote a precise duration of time, the phrase “was intended to provide the link between chapters 12 and 13” (Mauchline, 1971:259)  – these chapters, along with David’s indiscretion in chapter 11, are connected as cause and effect (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341).

The main characters of the story – Amnon, his father David, Amnon’s half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom – are introduced in verse 1, and we learn that not only has Amnon fallen in love with Tamar [v. 1] but that Amnon became “frustrated to the point of illness” because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” [v. 2].

Because of the clarification that Amnon was so frustrated because he wish to do something to Tamar, it is clear that Amnon’s is confusing lust with love (Conroy, 1978:23), and that he is “dominated by the same sensuality as his father” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Not only is he presented as being powerless against his desires, he is also powerless to do carry them out because she was a virgin [v. 2] – “unmarried girls, and particularly those of the royal house, would be carefully guarded” (McCarter Jr., 1984:321).

In verse 3 we are introduced to the only other character in the story, David’s nephew Jonadab, indicating that whilst this whole affair will have far-reaching consequences, it is essentially a family affair. (Conroy, 1978:28)  Jonadab notices how Amnon’s frustration is affecting him physically [v. 4] and addresses him as “the king’s son” – emphasising the dichotomy between the powerlessness he was feeling, and the power he should be experiencing “as a prince with all the privileges of royalty” (Mowley, 1998:182).

Before the plot is developed in verse 5, the reader is subtly reminded of the ominous presence of Absalom – Amnon identifies Tamar as his “brother Absalom’s sister” [v. 4], emphasizing to Jonadab just how bad the situation is, and alerting the reader that Absalom is very much involved in the story, even though he is currently ‘backstage.’

From verse 5 onwards, Amnon is presented as exerting power and authority, albeit for his own selfish ends and, as throughout this entire passage, always subject to the power of his own lust. Here, Jonadab provides Amnon with a crafty plan to see Tamar in private, but one that will require the (innocent) collusion of King David. In actuality this presents no problems, and verses 6 and 7 describe how David believes Amnon’s feigned illness and sends for Tamar. Apart from illustrating the power of Amnon and Jonadab, who successfully manage to trick and manipulate the king, these verses also say something about the power of King David: this is the first instance in this passage where David is seen as a power that must be appealed to – whilst the exercising of this power is overshadowed by Amnon’s manipulation, the important notion here is the necessity of appealing to David, and the potential that had David exercised his power in a different way, the following events would not have occurred (Evans, 2004:221).

Tamar arrives at the house of her brother Amnon [v. 8], silently obedient and submissive to the wishes of her father, the king, and her brother, the crown prince. Amnon, however, refuses to eat the food that she has prepared for him [v. 9], and orders everyone to leave the room – an action which Hertzberg regards as “a whim of the crown prince, who is so used to giving orders” (Hertzberg, 1964:323).

After dispensing with the servants, Amnon continues exerting his power, effectively ordering his sister to bring the food to him in his bedroom [v. 10] and again, physically grabbing her saying, “Come to bed with me, my sister” [v. 11].

What follows in verses 12 and 13 is an impassioned speech from Tamar. She recognises that she is powerless to stop her much stronger [v. 14] brother carrying out his wishes, so she appeals to two more powerful authorities – custom [v. 12 & 13] and the king [v. 13]. The reason Tamar gives for condemning Amnon’s wishes as a “wicked thing” is that “such a thing should not be done in Israel.” Regardless of whether she is referring to incest, or premarital sexual relations, it is worth noting that in this case “morality (…) finds its sanction in custom, not in a written code,” (Kennedy, 1905:252) – here she is referring to “serious violations of custom [Gen 20:9; 29:26] that threaten the fabric of society” (McCarter Jr., 1984:322)  She makes no reference to the Law, or to the authority of God, and it is at this point that the reader first realises that God is mysteriously missing from this ‘revolting’ story. When looking into the subtext of Tamar’s statement that Amnon would be “like one of the wicked fools in Israel” [v. 13], Kirkpatrick tells us that the term “fool denotes not merely one who is stupid and ignorant, but one who has abandoned the fear of God, and cast off the restraints of decency and morality” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:343)  Whilst this description certainly fits with the character of Amnon presented in the text, and whilst the narrator may indeed have intended the reader to pick up on this meaning, if we accept the apparent absence of God in this passage, this places more responsibility on the individuals capable of changing the situation, and their use and misuse of power.

Tamar’s appeal for Amnon to speak to the king [v. 13] has provoked much academic discussion. This discussion is generally directed towards the nature of Amnon’s sin (incest or rape), but it can also prove useful in discerning how much power David would have had in this matter. Numerous questions arise: Was the law stated in Leviticus 18:9, prohibiting sexual relations between siblings and half-siblings, in place? If so, does Tamar assume David would use his power as king to overrule this law?  If not, is David to be appealed to as a father or as a king?

There is a lot of disagreement amongst scholars about whether the law of Leviticus 18:9 is in place. McCarter Jr. (with Mowley, 1998:182) believes that the most defensible position is that the laws were in full effect, and that unless Tamar is merely temporising, her “assumption that David would be willing to overlook such a prohibition in order to accede to Amnon’s request is consistent with what we know of David’s attitude elsewhere [v. 21]” (1984:324).  Whilst this is based slightly more recent scholarship, by the simple fact that Tamar makes no reference to God or any legal code, it seems more reasonable for us to accept the opposing position of Mauchline (with Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) that Amnon “could have married her in the ordinary way” for “the marriage of a brother and half-sister was possible at this stage of Israel’s history” (1971:260).  If we accept that this is the case, it is reasonable to conclude that Tamar is appealing to David as a father who has the power to grant or refuse a marriage proposal.

After clearly demonstrating his physical power by raping Tamar [v. 14], Amnon continues to treat her like a servant, ordering her to “Get up and get out” [v. 15]. We are told that, not only did Amnon suddenly hate her, but that “he hated her more than he had loved her.” This sexual, psychological factor is a natural progression of Amnon’s (now fulfilled) lust from verse 2, for “it is human nature to hate those whom you have injured” (McCarter Jr., 1984:324,citing Tacitus).  This demonstrates how powerless Amnon really is against his base, human nature.

Amnon refuses to listen to any further protest from his sister Tamar, and has his servant unceremoniously throw her outside outside, and bolt the door behind her [vv. 16-18]. Tamar, who has acted blamelessly throughout because she did everything in her power to stop Amnon disgracing them both, then tears her robe, puts ashes on her head and goes away weeping aloud, performing “all the signs of mourning, not for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of her virginity” (Mowley, 1998:184).

In verse 20, Absalom takes an active part in the story for the first time. It is interesting to note that Tamar turns to her brother Absalom after the incident, and not to her father, David. Conroy suggests two possible reasons why this might be the case – there may be have been more solidarity between siblings than between a father of many offspring and his children, or Tamar may have held David partly responsible for what happened (1978:18). Both of these alternatives diminish David’s power and influence over his children, the only difference being that in the first case this was always so, and in the second it is the result of these recent events.

Some translations, such as the New International Version, do not include the full version of verse 21 (included in the Septuagint and the ordinary text of the Vulgate  (Kirkpatrick, 1930:345)), which reads, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry; but he did nothing to harm his son, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  However, the inclusion of the italicised text makes little or no difference to how we interpret the text. Whether David did not act because of his love for his son, or because “he was reminded of his own misconduct and could hardly punish his son for a similar offence” (Mowley, 1998:185),  it is clear that David, who had the power to intervene as both king and father, did not do so.

In the final verse of this passage, we see Absalom, Tamar’s actual brother, silently hating his half-brother Amnon. According to Kirkpatrick, by oriental custom, Absalom had both the power and the duty to avenge his sister’s wrongs (1930:345).  However, Absalom chooses not to exercise this power – this could be seen as a sign of weakness (maybe he feared that the house of David would be discredited if he made a sharp protest ) but it is far more likely, given his eventual murder of Amnon, that he is exercising his power wisely, by biding his time (McCarter Jr., 1984:326)

Power has clearly been a major theme running right through this text. What we have been presented with is a situation where four human characters all use, or misuse power in various ways, in a situation in which God plays no active, recorded role: Amnon is the powerful crown prince, who is powerless to resist his sexual urges, and uses his royal powers and physical strength to satisfy this lust; Tamar is the powerless victim who tries everything within her power to prevent the events taking place; David is the powerful king who fails to appropriately use his power to prevent the situation; and Absalom wilfully withholds his power, preferring to bide his time and take revenge at a more suitable moment. There is a clear “pattern of reversal, upset and contrast”  (Conroy, 1978:36-37) at work here – those who have power (Absalom, Amnon and David) misuse it, and Tamar, who is powerless, is the only character to emerge blameless, albeit as “a desolate woman” [v. 20].


•    Conroy, Charles, Absalom Absalom! (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)

•    Driver, S. R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913)

•    Evans, Mary J., The Message of Samuel (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)

•    Hertzberg, Hanz Wilhelm, I & II Samuel (London: SCM Press, 1964)

•    Kennedy, A. R. S., Samuel (Edinburgh: TC & EC Jack, 1905)

•    Kirkpatrick, A. F., The First and Second Books of Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930)

•    Mauchline, John, 1 & 2 Samuel (London: Oliphants, 1971)

•    McCarter Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)

•    Mowley, Harry, 1 & 2 Samuel (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998)


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

2 responses to “Having your Cake, and then Raping the Baker: Biblical Criticism by a Respectful Nonbeliever”

  1. Derek Williams says :

    Fascinating! The toys are a brilliant adjunct to this tale of woe.

  2. Gemma says :

    The rape of Tamar is one of the most intriguing Old Testament passages, and one I’ve struggled with since looking at the historical development of rape as a crime.

    The law of raptus was in place, which did not refer specifically to what we now know as rape, but instead referred to theft, and in cases such as these as theft of a woman from her legal owner. Raptus of a virgin required the perpetrator to marry her (giving added import to Tamar’s “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me” remark) whilst raptus of a married woman, or in a situation where it is impossible to marry the woman would require payment to the ‘owner’ of the woman for her bride price (probably David in this case), as she would be damaged goods, as it were. This is why unmarried girls would have so much protection. Then again, given the relative ease with which he was given the opportunity to commit the act, this is perhaps besides the point.

    Perhaps there is another reason as to why David did not punish Amnon (as well as the others given about the hypocrisy given his own conduct) which is that the actual punishment would simply be the fine of his son , which doesn’t seem worth it in terms of the dynamics of the Royal house and it’s relationship with the surrounding countries?

    I do have to disagree with your conclusion though; Amnon was not powerless to control his lust – he quite deliberately set up a deception in which he could fulfil his desires; which doesn’t really fulfil the ‘heat of the moment, mad with lust’ thing that has often been discussed.

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