The Rape of Tamar
Chapter 13 relates the rather perplexing tale of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, their father King David’s failure to react to the rape, the murder of Amnon committed in revenge by Tamar’s full brother Absalom, and Absalom’s flight to avoid punishment. Amnon was David’s eldest son, as indicated in II Samuel 3:2, and Absalom was his third son born to David and the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur, according to 3:3. Chapter 13:1 states explicitly that Tamar was Absalom’s sister, although, as we will see, the rabbis in the Talmud and some traditional commentators state she was not exactly his sister.
The chapter raises many questions, including:
- Why did David fail to react to the rape of his daughter other than to become angry?
- How did David’s reaction compare to the reaction of Jacob when his daughter Dinah was raped?
- Did Absalom have a moral right to kill Amnon?
- Why did Amnon and Absalom use subterfuge?
- How was Absalom’s behavior different than that of Jacob’s sons?
- Did David’s failure to act properly regarding Amnon cause Absalom to rebel against his father?
- Why didn’t David require Amnon to marry Tamar, the woman he raped, as required by Deuteronomy 22:29?
- Why does the Bible fail to reveal what happened to Tamar and Dinah in their later life?
Many commentators have spoken about these questions at length and we will view a few, but not all, of them within the context of our efforts to understand the stories of the Prophets in their most rational manner.
The story appears to be the fulfillment of the punishment that the prophet Nathan predicts will be inflicted upon David, “the sword shall never depart from your house; because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife…. I will raise up evil against you out of thy own house.” The punishment is fulfilled by David’s son Amnon raping Tamar and by his death, parallel measure for measure to the taking of Bat-sheba and the death of Uriah. Future chapters will show how the punishment continues.
Amnon lusts after his half-sister Tamar, the sister of Absalom, and pines until he makes himself sick. She was a virgin, which, according to Kimchi, inflamed his passion, and according to Rashi reflects the hopelessness of his passion because virgins lived in a secluded area. She is described as wearing a khutonet passim, usually translated as a “garment of many colors,” the same kind of garment that the patriarch Jacob gave his son Joseph, who he loved more than any other of his children. When Joseph served as a slave in Egypt, his master’s wife tried to have sex with him. He ran and left his coat.
His cousin, the son of David’s brother who was very wise suggests that Amnon persuade Tamar to come to his dwelling and prepare a meal for him, suggesting that his closeness to her will satisfy his desire. Amnon requests his father David to send her to him, and David, fooled as Uriah was fooled, complies. But Amnon is not satisfied with just observing her.
Amnon tells Tamar that he wants to sleep with her and implies that he will not let her leave his bedroom if she does not comply. She tries to stop him by repeating al, “no,” three times. When he persists, she tries to dissuade him with several arguments and then, in 13:13, she says: “Now therefore, I pray you, speak to the king [our father David]; for he will not withhold me from thee.”
However, Amnon ignores her request, and rapes her.
- Was David’s punishment inflicted upon him by a miraculous intervention of God in human affairs?
- Why should we try to read a biblical narrative as a natural event?
- How can Tamar suggest that their father will allow Amnon and his half-sister and violate Leviticus 18:9 that forbids such a union?
- Is there another instance in Genesis where Abraham married his half-sister?
- Should we construe Tamar’s plea to Amnon that they petition David to allow them to marry as a viable possibility?
- How did the Talmud understand the story and Tamar’s request?
- Why is the talmudic view anachronistic and unlikely?
- Must an observant Jew accept a talmudic explanation of Scripture that is not feasible?
- If the talmudic interpretation of the events of chapter 13 is unreasonable, why did Maimonides support the talmudic solution?
- How did Joseph ibn Caspi and Isaac Abravanel see the events?
Was This David’s Punishment?
One could, of course, understand that God interfered with the laws of nature and performed unnatural acts to punish David for his misbehavior with Bat-sheba. This was how Radak understood the narrative. In his commentary to verse 15 that states that Amnon became angry after the rape, Radak writes that God caused Amnon to hate Tamar after he had intercourse with her in order to punish David. This is curious theology, that two people should be harmed because of David’s act.
A simple and reasonable reading of the chapters shows that the events following David’s encounter with Bat-sheba followed a natural and not a supernatural course. The chapter starts with the words “And it came to pass after this,” which many commentators understand to mean that after David’s son Amnon saw the devious immoral tactics of his father to satisfy his desires with Bat-sheba – which appear in the two preceding chapters that also begin with the words “And it came to pass” – he was emboldened to gratify his own desire. Amnon saw how his father used subterfuge to acquire Bat-sheba and decided to do the same to satisfy his own sexual desires. He obviously felt that David would find it hard to criticize him for doing what he, David, had done. Similarly, when Absalom decided to take revenge, he also used subterfuge. Additionally, in contrast to Radak who contended that God made Amnon angry, Gersonides explains more reasonably that after the rape, when his ardor cooled, Amnon’s natural reaction was to become furious at the threats that Tamar had made to him before and during the rape.
The Talmud’s Understanding of the Tamar Tale
The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21a, states that King David had four hundred children born as a result of the law in Deuteronomy relating to captive women, discussed below, which would mean that he had relations with far more than four hundred captive women because the law only allows a man to have intercourse once with a captive. “Rav Judah further said in Rav’s name, ‘Tamar was a daughter of a captive woman, as it is written, “…speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from thee.” Now should you imagine that she was an offspring of a legitimate marriage, how could a sister have been granted him [in marriage]? We must infer therefore, that she was the daughter of beautiful captive woman [who, as we will see, is not considered the daughter of the man who bore her].’”
The View of Maimonides
Maimonides accepts and explains the talmudic statement. His Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim addresses the laws of the captive woman, mentioned in Deuteronomy 21:12. He explains that the Torah allows a soldier who captures a beautiful woman during war, to, in Maimonides’ words, “have sexual relations with [the] woman while she is still a non-Jew if his passion overcomes him.” However, he may not do so a second time until she decides that she wants to convert and become a Jew, and he must then wait three months before he can marry her and resume having sex. If she does not want to convert, she must be set free.
Then, apropos our situation, in 8:8, Maimonides writes: “If she conceived during the first intercourse [with her captor] the child is a convert. [However] the child is not regarded as [the soldier’s] son, because his mother was a non-Jew. The court must immerse him [or her in a ritual bath and convert the child] in their capacity as a court [with authority to do so]. Tamar was [conceived] from [David’s] first intercourse with a ‘captive woman,’ but Absalom was conceived after David married [Tamar’s mother]. Thus, Tamar was Absalom’s sister only from his mother [but she was not related to David or his son Amnon], and therefore would have been permitted to [marry] Amnon. This is why Tamar said to Amnon ‘speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from thee.’”
Should we assume that Maimonides considered the view of Rav Judah the most reasonable way to understand chapter 13? Maimonides, as Saadiah Gaon and ibn Ezra before him and as Gersonides and other rationalists after him, taught that a person is only obligated to accept the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible in respect to halakhah, how the rabbis expected a Jew to behave, but not regarding their other statements. If the statement does not conform to reason, the statement, they say, must be interpreted in a way that conforms to reason.
The rabbinical law discussed in the Talmud did not exist in biblical times and therefore could not be the true meaning of the chapter. The Talmud states in essence that the soldier’s child from the captive woman is not considered to be his own child because the child was born of a person who had not converted to Judaism, and once a person converts the convert is considered as if he or she is reborn and the convert’s natural parents are not considered his or her parents. In a word, the law is based on the rules of conversion. However, as stated in the prior footnote, conversion did not exist in the biblical period.
Many notable commentators had absolutely no compunction about rejecting the talmudic view as a true report of the event of chapter 13, including Tosaphot, Joseph ibn Caspi and Don Isaac Abravanel. It is clear, then, that Maimonides only wrote what he did to teach the halakhah, not to explain the biblical tale.
The Explanations of Tosaphot, Joseph ibn Caspi, and Isaac Abravanel
Tosaphot state that Tamar was Absalom’s sister from another father and was not related to David and Amnon and therefore could marry Amnon. She was called David’s daughter, according to Tosaphot, only because she was raised in his house. Tosaphot is thus rejecting the talmudic tale of Tamar’s origin.
Ibn Caspi and Isaac Abravanel similarly but more expansively note that there is absolutely no indication, not even a hint, of the talmudic history of David having relations with over four hundred beautiful captives, including Tamar’s mother, and his siring four hundred children from them. Furthermore, chapter 13 states explicitly and repeatedly that Tamar was Amnon’s sister. Therefore, these two commentators explain that Tamar never believed that their father David would condone a marriage between her and her brother. Her intent was only to stop Amnon from raping her, and to stall for time by offering herself in marriage.
An Even Simpler Explanation
Once we avoid both halakhic thinking and modern morality, both of which are post-biblical, we will recall that in the biblical period a man could marry his half-sister, as Abraham states in Genesis 20:12, that his wife Sarah “is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife.” Thus it is possible that Tamar’s offer to marry Amnon was a legitimate and acceptable one at that time.
There are quite a few lessons people can learn from this chapter and many questions.
- One can read chapter 13 as natural events, part of the laws of nature, or as the miraculous interference of God in natural law. David’s punishment, foretold by the prophet Nathan, could be seen as natural cause and effect, following his improper act. Amnon saw his father David take a woman forbidden to him, learned from his behavior, and did the same. In contrast, if one sees the events here and in the following chapters as God manipulating people, such as God causing Amnon to become angry, it turns out that God is killing and otherwise hurting innocent people to punish David, which seems wrong.
- The story serves as another instance where scriptural interpreters attempted to read rabbinical laws anachronistically into a biblical narrative even though the laws did not exist during the biblical period. This backward reading is legitimate and appropriate in regard to teaching halakhah, Jewish law, but it is entirely inappropriate when people want to understand the ancient text that they are reading. There are perfectly reasonable explanations for Tamar’s assertion that her father David would give her to her brother in marriage. One possibility is that she was agreeing to marry him as permitted in the biblical era, though not in modern times.
- Reading the Bible without searching for miracles and without applying halakhah anachronistically not only reveals what the book of Samuel is actually saying, but also makes the narrative more interesting.
- The Bible is filled with obscure and ambiguous event, leaving it to readers to interpret what they are reading. Failure to see obscurities and ambiguities causes readers to miss the essence of the stories.
- It is a mistake to think that there is only one interpretation of a biblical event, and there is no need to do so.
- If we understand that Abraham married his half-sister and Amnon could do the same, why did the law change?
- We obtain greater and deeper insight into a biblical tale by comparing the event before us with other similar biblical events, such as the reactions of Jacob and David to the rape of their daughters – while both seemed to be energetic and active before the rapes they appear generally passive for the rest of their lives after the rapes, Joseph’s and Tamar’s coats of many colors which are torn, Jacob’s and Amnon’s and Absalom’s and David’s use of subterfuge, the many rapes in the Bible such as in Judges 21, David’s rebellion against his father-in-law Saul and Absalom’s rebellion against his father David, and more.
- We need to recognize the multitude of times that the Bible uses three, and what it indicates when it is used.
- Despite the rabbis saying that courts of law existed in Israel as early as the days of Moses, saying, for example, that the 70 advisors that Moses had was a 71 member Sanhedrin, David did not refer Tamar’s rape case and Absalom’s murder case to a court. Why?
- Why didn’t David mourn the death of Amnon? Should we compare this behavior to his reaction when his and Bath-sheba’s child was sick? At that time, David mourned by falling on the floor, but as soon as the child died, he ceased mourning perhaps because there was nothing else he felt he could do. If so, isn’t this inconsistent with his mourning the death of all his children by falling on the floor when he is mistakenly told that Absalom killed them all?
- Why doesn’t scripture tell us what happened to the two rape victims Dinah and Tamar, and is obscure in relating what occurred to Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11?
 The prophecy is also fulfilled by the death of David and Bat-sheba’s first child and by the events in the rest of the book of II Samuel.
 There is no biblical support for the view that the ancient Israelites secluded virgins.
 Genesis 37:3, 23.
 Genesis 39:12. Should we compare the two instances and derive an understanding from these two incidences? Should we compare them with the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34? Both 13:12 and Genesis 34:7 are similar in saying that such a vile deed should not be done in Israel. There are a number of seduction tales in scripture, as in Genesis 19. Should we compare them?
 David surrounded himself with family, such as his nephews being leaders of his army. Should we read the event here, that Amnon gets bad advice from a relative who was probably, but not certainly, on David’s staff, as showing how nepotism is bad, that if David’s staff were not relatives the situation would have been different.
 Another interpretation of the words in the verse is that the cousin actually suggested that Amnon rape her.
 Three is used in scripture many times for emphasis. We are reminded of Tamar’s refusal in verse 25 where Absalom invites his father David to join the festivities of sheep-shearing, together with all of his brothers. This was a ploy that, unknown to David, to bring his brother Amnon to a place where he can have his men murder him in revenge for the rape. David refuses twice, using the word al, “no,” the same verbal refusal used by Tamar.
 The is the view of the talmudic rabbis who were convinced, although there is no proof, that David knew about and observed Moses’ Torah.
 This view of Maimonides assumes that conversion existed in biblical times, but as shown in my book on Ruth, the concept of conversion did not exist until the second century BCE.
 The Tosaphot were biblical commentators, mostly in France and Germany. The first were relatives of Rashi (1040-1105). The last members lived a couple of centuries after Rashi. Ibn Caspi was a strong fan of Maimonides. He traveled to Egypt to see Maimonides’ descendants and was disappointed that they lacked Maimonides’ intellect, Abarbanel opposed Maimonides and his rationalism, but was very astute.