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Tamar, Daughter of David

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

Jan van Dornicke

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.

  • west-gerald

    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).