This chapter is a sordid tale of lust and rape between David’s children that sets the stage for the coming chapters dealing with Absalom’s rebellion against David.
While we might assume Amnon and Tamar are the protagonists here, the Hebrew text subordinates them to Absalom, literally: “The son of King David who tried to usurp David's throne. More, David’s son, had a beautiful sister named Tamar, and Amnon, David’s son, loved her” (v. 1). The same form of Absalom’s name (the form recognizable only in Hebrew) closes chapter 14 (14:39), providing an overall inclusio for these two chapters that set the stage for chapters 15-20, “Absalom’s Rebellion.” Nevertheless, Amnon and Tamar have their parts to play in this sordid tale of rape.
- Amnon, obsessed with lust, not his purported “love” of Tamar, lets his lust rule his reason, as had his father with Bathsheba. He plots his sexual encounter by feigning illness and enlisting the unwitting cooperation of his hapless father. He eventually forces himself upon and rapes his half-sister.
- Tamar, unlike the silent Wife of David and mother of Solomon. More, argues her case, proposes alternatives, and clearly refuses (“do not”) Amnon’s advances–all to no avail. A princess herself, Tamar was in a much different social location to resist her brother than Bathsheba was in to resist her king, especially with her husband and father off to war.
- Second king of Israel, David united the northern and southern kingdoms. More, displaying his weakness as a father, fails to discipline Amnon and leaves Tamar alone, without consolation, in dust and ashes, tearing the long robe that signified her virginity, and placing her hands on her head, signifying her grief or rejection (compare Jeremiah 2:37).
- Absalom, however, provides some consolation for his sister as he quietly seethes because of Amnon. In the next story, Absalom’s hatred will blossom into the murder of his half-brother, just as David had plotted the murder of Uriah.
We must note that the text preserves Tamar’s voice here. So many other accounts of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible do not address explicitly the desires [or complete lack thereof] of the women involved in sexual contact. The story of Dinah was the daughter of Jacob by Leah. More (Genesis 34), for instance, is simply not explicit in naming what the woman wanted. This text actively has Tamar begging her rapist to stop, and bargaining with him to avoid what is about to happen.