Tamar (2 Samuel) by Gerald O. West

After Tamar is raped, she is silenced. But by the time we are told of her silencing, we have already been told her story, much of it in her own words.

How is the story of Tamar narratively framed?

The story of Tamar, David’s daughter, is told in 2Sam 13:1-22. She is raped by her brother Amnon and silenced by her brother Absalom. The larger narrative in which Tamar’s story is told deals with male matters. Scholars have referred to the larger narrative (2Sam 7-1Kgs 2) as the “succession narrative” or the “court history.” David is promised a dynasty in 2Sam 7, and so scholars have argued that what follows can be understand as a narrative about who will succeed David as king. Which of David’s sons will succeed him? Tamar’s story may well have been placed into the larger narrative because it tells of the growing animosity between two of David’s sons, Amnon and Absalom.

 

Male actions and associations frame Tamar’s story: Tamar belongs to Absalom, her brother of the same mother (1). Amnon, her brother of another mother, loves her (1). Amnon desires her (2). Amnon and Jonadab (the son of David’s brother Shimeah) talk about her (4). Jonadab and Amnon construct a plan to rape her (5). David participates in this plan by sending her to Amnon’s quarters (7). Amnon’s servants abandon her (9). Amnon instructs Tamar to have sex with him (11). Amnon refuses to listen to her when she resists (14). Amnon rapes her (14). Amnon hates her (15). Amnon sends her away (15). Amnon again refuses to listen to her when she resists (16). Amnon’s servant evicts her (18). Absalom silences her (20). When David hears that his daughter Tamar has been raped by his firstborn son he ignores her (21). Each and every male character is complicit in the rape of Tamar.

In what ways is Tamar an active subject?

Tamar is an active subject. Unaware of the plot to rape her, Tamar responds immediately to her father David’s command to “go/walk” (7) to her brother Amnon’s quarters: “And she went/walked” (8). The sense of the verb that connotes “walking” is apt, for it signals that Tamar must move from one part of the royal court to another. Separating Tamar from her home area and relocating her to Amnon’s area is key to Jonadab’s strategy because it makes her vulnerable within the polygamous patriarchal household. She goes immediately to Amnon’s quarters, complying fully with her father’s command. There is a minimal sense of agency here, but as we read on her subjectivity becomes more evident.

 

On her arrival at Amnon’s home she makes cakes for him, having been led to believe that he is ill (5-6). He is ill (2), but not in the way she expects. He has allowed his love for her to become obsessive. When her brother Amnon becomes physically violent towards her, demanding that she have sex with him (11), Tamar speaks clearly (12-13), making an eloquent argument against Amnon’s violence, offering him a way to become a different kind of man. Her direct speech has a number of elements (12), each of which succinctly captures an entire discourse. First, she says “No.” Her “No” is both a rejection of his violent masculinity and a summons to be a different kind of man. Second, she names him “my brother.” She reminds him of their relationship as siblings and summons him to recognize her as “sister.” Third, she says, “Do not force me,” both declaring and rejecting his violent masculinity. Fourth, she invokes an alternative form of masculinity from their religious-cultural heritage, saying, “For such a thing is not done in Israel.” She then, fifthly, makes a moral judgement, identifying what he intends to do as disgraceful.

 

These five negatives are then followed by two personal appeals (13a). Adding to her argument she asks Amnon to consider the consequences of his violence, first for her and then for himself. For her the violation would result in “shame,” and for him there would be the legacy of being known as a disgraceful fool.

 

Finally, summoning Amnon to be as rational as she is, she tries to break out of her isolation within Amnon’s quarters (13b). She appeals to him to consult their father, “the king.” It is not clear whether the proscriptions of Lev 18:9, Lev 18:11; Lev 20:17, and Deut 27:22 are absent from this narrative world or whether Tamar is suggesting that David, as “the king,” can overrule the law. What is clear is that Tamar attempts to break out of Amnon’s quarters, using the arguments of one of the wise, rejecting the irrational actions of the disgraceful fool.

 

The alternative form of masculinity she has invoked is rejected by Amnon (14), who rapes her. Yet even after the rape, she asserts her agency, again saying “no” (16). This time her “no” summons Amnon to assume a minimal responsibility. When he once again refuses to “listen” to her (16b), having told her to “walk away” (15), she refuses. She refuses to be a discarded sexual object. And when force is again used against her, to evict her from Amnon’s quarters (17), she testifies to the crime through her actions of mourning and her cry of lament and protest (19). “And she cried out” is the final phrase (in Hebrew), a phrase that often connotes an appeal to an authority for help or justice (see 2Sam 19:28; 2Kgs 6:5, 2Kgs 6:26), and in narratives often describes the oppressed crying out to the divine (see Gen 4:10; Exod 2:23; Judg 3:15), to which many biblical traditions claim YHWH is especially attentive (Exod 22:23; 1Sam 12:8).

 

Though Absalom will silence her (20), Tamar has already broken the silence. Her voice will continue to be heard and her arguments will continue to resonate across communities of faith.

Gerald O. West , " Tamar (2 Samuel)", n.p. [cited 17 Oct 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/tamar

Contributors

west-gerald

Gerald O. West
Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Gerald O. West teaches Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and African Biblical Hermeneutics in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is Director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, a project in which socially engaged biblical scholars and ordinary African readers of the Bible from poor, working-class, and marginalized communities collaborate for social transformation. Among his publications are: The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); Reading Other-Wise: Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with Their Local Communities (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007); The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (Leiden: Brill; Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2016).

Tamar is the daughter of David whose brother Amnon rapes her in 2 Samuel.

Did you know…?

  • In verse 21, a Qumran manuscript and the Septuagint add “but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.”
  • Absalom names his own daughter “Tamar” (2Sam 14:7).
  • The Joseph story in Genesis takes up phrases from the story of Tamar (compare 2Sam 13:11 // Gen 39:7; 2Sam 13:18 // Gen 37:3).

hostility

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A description for Jesus locating him in the direct, royal lineage of the ancient Israelite king David.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

2Sam 13:1-22

Amnon and Tamar
1Some time passed. David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David's son Amnon fell in love with her.2Amnon was so to ... View more

2Sam 7

God's Covenant with David
1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,2the king said to the pro ... View more

1Kgs 2

David's Instruction to Solomon
1When David's time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying:2“I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, b ... View more

2Sam 7

God's Covenant with David
1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,2the king said to the pro ... View more

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A formal poetic category (see Psalms, Lamentations, prophets).

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

having more than one husband or wife at the same time

forbidden action

Having a qualitative basis or being influenced by point of view rather than objective.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Lev 18:9

9You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born abroad.

Lev 18:11

11You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister.

Lev 20:17

17If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and the ... View more

Deut 27:22

22“Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

2Sam 19:28

28For all my father's house were doomed to death before my lord the king; but you set your servant among those who eat at your table. What further right have I, ... View more

2Kgs 6:5

5But as one was felling a log, his ax head fell into the water; he cried out, “Alas, master! It was borrowed.”

2Kgs 6:26

26Now as the king of Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him, “Help, my lord king!”

Gen 4:10

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!

Exod 2:23

23After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.

Judg 3:15

15But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites s ... View more

Exod 22:23

23If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry;

1Sam 12:8

8When Jacob went into Egypt and the Egyptians oppressed them, then your ancestors cried to the Lord and the Lord sent Moses and Aaron, who brought forth your an ... View more

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

2Sam 14:7

7Now the whole family has risen against your servant. They say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother, so that we may kill him for the life of his brother who ... View more

2Sam 13:11

11But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.”

Gen 39:7

7And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.”

2Sam 13:18

18(Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, an ... View more

Gen 37:3

3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.

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