David had a number of wives, but one of the most high-ranking of them was Maacah, the daughter of King Talmai (Tholmai) of the neighboring kingdom of Geshur.
Maacah had two children, both of them extraordinarily good-looking. The first was her son Absalom, a favorite of his father’s, the other her daughter Tamar, whose looks stood out even in this family of beautiful children.
Tamar probably had a marriage arranged for her when she was still a child – this was the usual procedure for royal princesses. The young man would have been a princeling in a neighboring country, and her marriage would have been used to cement relations with David’s emerging kingdom of Israel. But things did not go as planned.
When Tamar reached puberty her half-brother Amnon, David’s eldest son, developed an unnatural obsession with his young half-sister. He watched her, he waited in places where she passed, he could not get enough of her presence, and above all he wanted to possess her.
The catch was that he was not prepared to offer her marriage.
We are not told why this was so – in the context of that time and place it would have been a possibility, though not a preferred one. Perhaps the marriage that had been arranged for Tamar was too politically sensitive to upset, or maybe Amnon thought that David would disapprove of his obsession, seeing it as a weakness.
After all, a king could not afford to let emotions interfere with politics.
In any case, Tamar was out of Amnon’s reach. As a royal princess and a virgin, she was closely watched by the harem eunuchs. She lived in the women’s quarters, and could not go outside its walls unless accompanied by other women and guards. There seemed no opportunity for Amnon to get her alone, let alone into his bedroom. To make matters worse, she seemed to have been intelligent and sexually moral, with only a sisterly interest in him.
But Amnon was not used to being refused something he wanted. He must have discussed his obsession with a friend of his, a clever cousin called Jonadab, because this young man came up with a plan. They would lure Tamar into Amnon’s room on the pretext that her half-brother was ill, and once they were alone there Amnon could have what he wanted.
Bedrooms in ancient mansions were designed to receive guests/visitors.
Amnon took to his bed, feigning illness. This caused consternation in the court. The health of a king’s eldest son was no small matter, and David was concerned. The doctors were consulted, and when they could not come up with a cure he visited his son, coming to the room where the young man lay.
Amnon sighed in a dispirited way and said he could not eat, but on being pressed by his father admitted that yes, he might be able to eat if his sister Tamar cooked some food and fed it to him.
David, gullible in matters regarding his sons, immediately sent for Tamar to come and tend her brother.
Tamar obeyed her father. She may have had reservations about coming to her brother’s private quarters but she had no choice. Law and custom required her to obey her father, and in any case she would have been escorted by her own servants.
She came to Amnon’s quarters and prepared a kind of boiled dumpling that Amnon asked for. She then set the food before him, but Amnon, pretending to be petulant and out of sorts, refused to eat. In a seeming fit of temper he then ordered everyone out of the room, and because he seemed ill and cranky his servants obeyed.
The Rape of Tamar
Since they were directly commanded to go, her servants had to leave the room also – David’s heir was not someone to be crossed. Then, still feigning the irritation of a sick person, he went into the bedroom alcove and insisted he would only eat the food if she brought it to him there and fed him with her own hand. When she did this, leaning forward with the food, he took hold of her and pulled her to him, molesting her.
Alone and unguarded, she had no chance of fending him off. She resisted him as best she could, she argued and pleaded, pointed out that what he was doing was wrong, that they could marry if he wished, that rape would bring ruin to them both.
Tamar was struggling for her life, not just her virginity. If she was no longer a virgin no-one would want her, no-one would marry her, even though she was the king’s daughter.
But her pleading had no effect on Amnon. He was too strong for her, and he raped her.
When Amnon had finished his brutal business, his feelings for Tamar suddenly changed. Now he was revolted by the sight of her, could not bear to look at her, was filled with a loathing far stronger than the lust he had previously felt.
He shouted at her to get out of his room, get out of his sight, but she pleaded with him, trying to retrieve something from this desperate situation. They might still marry, she argued.
To cast her out now, a violated woman, was worse than raping her, since it meant the crime continued. She could never marry or have children, never have a normal life. As far as the people around her were concerned, she would be a used object, unwanted, an outcast.
Amnon ignored her words. He was without pity or remorse. He had his servant literally throw her out of the room. He would not even use her name: ‘Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her.’
Outside Tamar collapsed onto the floor, wailing. Nearby were the cooling ashes of the fire she had used to cook his food. She plunged her hand into them and put the ashes onto her disheveled hair.
Then as she staggered away she tore the front of her richly embroidered outer robe as a sign of her despair. With her hand on her head, the sign of a bereaved woman, she staggered through the palace corridors crying aloud, until she reached the harem quarters of her mother.
Her appearance, and the women’s quick realization of what had happened, plunged the harem into turmoil. The three women most affected were Tamar, her mother Maacah, and Ahinoam, the mother of Amnon. The sisters of Tamar and Amnon would also have been intimately affected.
Other wives of David and their children would be sympathetic, but would quickly look to see what they could gain from Amnon’s crime – which way the wind blew, and what chance might there be to seize some political advantage for themselves. Among them would be Bathsheba, a commoner newly introduced into the harem.
But at the center of this storm stood Tamar, her position as darling of the king and petted princess now destroyed forever.
Tamar and her brother Absalom, by Alexandre Cabanel
Her Brother Demands Justice
When her brother Absalom found out what had happened he comforted her as best he could, and moved her out of the harem into his own house. Then he went to the King and demanded that Amnon marry his sister – marriage between a half-brother and sister was a possibility in this extreme case, though biblical law prohibited it elsewhere.
Prince Amnon refused outright to marry her, the callous streak already evident in David now coming out in the son.
David was angry, but did nothing to resolve the situation, or even to punish Amnon for what he had done. This was typical of David – he could never chastise his sons even when they deserved it. Instead he did what many people have done when confronted with rape or incest – he protected the abuser rather than the victim, and tried to hush things up.
Since David did nothing to remedy the wrong, people around Tamar were powerless to help the girl. Like many a victim of crime she gradually became invisible, the crime ignored, not spoken of.
But her brother Absalom was not so accommodating. He could not force Amnon to marry the devastated Tamar, but he would take his revenge – vendetta was part of Near Eastern culture.
The Rapist is Murdered
He waited, biding his time. For two years he said nothing, did nothing, but then he set his trap. He gave a feast for all David’s sons and at the height of the festivities when Amnon was half-drunk, Absalom had his half-brother killed, stabbed to death in a scene reminiscent of a Mafia killing. In the ensuring turmoil Absalom escaped, fleeing for sanctuary to Geshur, his grandfather’s territory.
Did the murder of Amnon help Tamar in any way? Probably not. It may have given her some fleeting satisfaction, but as matters stood she was condemned to the life of a childless widow.
It is to be hoped that Tamar did not accompany her brother to Geshur, since her status there would have been even worse that in Israel. Instead, Maacah may have used what little influence she now had to see that her daughter returned to David’s harem. In either place Tamar’s position would have been lowly, little better than a servant.
Some years after the rape of Tamar, Absalom led a revolt against his father King David. He was able to take over the royal city of Jerusalem, and force his father to flee.
When he invaded the palace itself, he found that David had left ten of the women of the harem behind him. He was advised to rape these ten women publicly, on a roof top in full view of the city, so that there could be no doubt that the act had been done. This burnt Absalom’s bridges with his father and make it impossible to back down from full revolt.
Absalom raped the women, dishonoring his father’s women just as his own sister Tamar had been dishonored. Since the place that he did this was almost certainly on a roof terrace of the palace, it was quite possibly the same place that David had first seen Bathsheba, an ironic twist noted with relish by the narrator of the story.
Absalom’s revolt against David was not successful, and the young man died after a terrible battle. The fate of the ten raped women is not recorded.
What became of Tamar? The only information we have is that Absalom named his daughter Tamar, and the text notes that she was a beautiful woman.
Tamar means ‘date palm’; the name suggests food, security and life
Women in the Bible – the Royal Women of the House of David
Tamar, royal princess raped by her half-brother Amnon, avenged by her brother Absalom