“Do not do this outrageous thing.”
The tragic story that follows is the direct outgrowth of David’s sexual sins. The lesson is more profound than a mere personal fall. It bears profound lessons regarding sin and parenting in families, marriage, parental and official obligations, and the effects on society when great men fall into sexual sin. What one man thought he could get away with sexually will end up tearing at the very seems of social order throughout the land. This lesson (part of the continuing series on 2 Samuel, most of which is yet to be written) carries obvious lessons for us today.
This narrative relates the beginning of the judgment pronounced by Nathan after David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. God said, “The sword shall never depart from your house,” and “I will raise up evil against you out of your own house” (2 Sam. 12:10–11). This is the beginning of that evil. It will have a ripple-effect throughout David’s immediate family and all of Israel. It will eventually affect his son Solomon and his grandsons who complete the split of the nation of Israel.
This passage on the rape of Tamar and the revenge had by her brother Absalom sets the stage for Absalom’s rebellion and conspiracy against his father. This saga will last for several chapters to come. It is, unfortunately, an ugly story for a long time to come. God is telling us two primary things: First, when great sexual sacrilege like this takes place, the fallout is enormous. It is broad, deep, immense, intense, varied, enduring, and devastating. Second, by the mere fact of recording this fallout for posterity, God wants us to know how to deal with the various facets of this type of judgment. Too many people either overreact or, worse, try to capitalize on the fall of another man and promote themselves. God would rather us pull back the scabs and treat the true depth of the wound.
In order to do that, we have to see how deep it really goes.
Sinning Christians in the Hands of an Angry God
In order to understand the full background to this narrative, you have to go back all the way to 1 Samuel 25. It was there that David committed his first sin of this genre. The anointed king of Israel took a second wife. The polygamy debate comes up now and again in our little circles, particularly among those focused on patriarchy. I believe the debate is settled decisively by 1 Corinthians 7:2: “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” This is an exclusive relationship both ways. Women are not to share husbands any more than multiple husbands should share one wife. “His own” and “her own” denote this without question. “Her own” here forbids polygamy.
Even if there were some allowance, whether Old Testament or now, polygamy was expressly forbidden for Israel’s kings (Deut. 17:17). Thus it was forbidden for David. He, who “loves God’s law” and “meditates on it day and night” (Ps. 119:97) openly broke it in 1 Samuel 25:42–43, long before Bathsheba. Bathsheba was just the gross culmination of a sexual and prideful deviance in David’s doctrine and practice of family which he had been nurturing, slowly and mounting, over several years. It was right in front of many of his colleagues’ faces, and nobody said a word for too long.
The immediate narrative before us is the spillover of this perverted ethic into David’s children. Whereas David failed to uphold his integrity, so his son Amnon failed even worse. Whereas David failed in murdering his mighty man Uriah, so Absalom would fail in stifling proper justice and committing a very premeditated murder of his own brother.
Before we get to those details, let us note further how David’s polygamy adds to the setup of this series of tragedies. It is actually a familiar story. In nearly every instance of polygamy we see in Scripture, there is bitter rivalry between wives—as one could imagine. It was the intense rivalry between Rachel and Leah that led to an intense rivalry between their children. The narrative of young Joseph and his brothers introduces them as sons of different wives. That detail is given attention for a reason, and the story proceeds to the plotting of the murder of Joseph—though God thwarts this ultimately. But there was bitter division and rivalry there because the doctrine of the family was corrupted. Likewise, 1 Samuel opens up with a polygamous rivalry in which poor Hannah is tormented by the trophy wife.
Likewise here the narrative introduces Tamar and Absalom somewhat separately from Amnon David’s son. Though it does go on to note them as brother and sister, there is just enough of a hint of division to remind the reader that Absalom and Tamar are children of a different wife than Amnon. This had been made clear earlier in 2 Samuel 3:2–3. Absalom, especially, was born of a wife taken from a pagan king. This was one of the real reasons for the law in Deuteronomy 17:17 to begin with—to forbid a divided heart and family, foreign allegiances and alliances.
So with all these pieces in place, we can understand a little better why things fall out like they do here. It was not just a calamitous judgment out of the blue due to David’s great sin with Bathsheba, though that was the tipping point. It was instead a long systematic compounding of sinful behaviors and their consequences. It was bad family doctrine, bad parenting, and sexual deviance that all combined to explode when the great sin finally culminated.
As a brief aside, there is all kinds of biblical theology involved here, and I will not get to cover it all in this sermon. Tamar is named after her distant ancestor in Genesis 38. That story also involves sexual sin and failures of accountability and justice, as well as sibling rivalry. There is also a Genesis 3 motif at work, as we shall cover momentarily. Amnon is Adam, Tamar is the forbidden fruit, and Jonadab was the “wise” tempting serpent who brings about the fall. There are also strong ties to the story of Joseph. We already noted the polygamy. Note also that Tamar’s “long-sleeved coat” is the same Hebrew phrase as Joseph’s often wrongly translated “coat of many colors.” It is only used in the Hebrew Bible in these two places. This could all be dealt with separately and more at length.
Textually speaking, there are some important notes that do not come through in English translation properly. First, when Amnon complains to Jonadab that, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister,” (13:4) the Hebrew text alliterates sounds of longing suggestive of lust: “Ahh . . . Ahh . . . Ahh . . . Ahh . . . Ohh. . . .” It dramatizes Amnon’s desire: he really wants this girl, which he knows very well is forbidden. He is in near-animal lust.
His lust is highlighted again in a double entendre in verse 6. None of the translations pick this up, but some of the commentators have noted that when Amnon asks for Tamar to come make him “cakes,” the Hebrew word refers to something more like dumplings. They are not baked but rather boiled or braised in the way we make chicken and dumplings. This is on the surface a reasonable request for someone who is ill—though usually it’s Mama making the chicken soup and not sister. More to the point, the Hebrew word for these “dumplings” is a cultural metaphor. It comes from the same word for “heart” and means something like “little hearts.” So it’s bad enough that Amnon is referring to wanting her two little hearts. But there’s more. The verbal form of the same word is used in other places to indicate to sexual desire or love (Song of Sol. 4:9). In short, Amnon is making a double entendre in regard to having Tamar bring her two hearty little dumplings to nourish him. David perceived one thing while Amnon had something perverted in mind. So we see just how crafty and evil Amnon really was here, and yet how easily he deceived his father with good intentions.
But the most important textual note of all is in Tamar’s rebuke of her brother, and the word she uses is the hinge upon which the whole lesson turns. Again, the translations could be more pointed. The ESV makes an attempt to go beyond the KJV’s rendering of “folly” with outrageous thing (13:12). But the research indicates the word is even more pointed. Nabalah does indeed mean “fool” or “foolishness,” but it is more than mere senselessness, stupidity, or even ethical failure. It indicates the type of outrageous sin which tears apart covenantal relationships and rends the very seams of society. One commentator notes its uses to describe the sin of Achan (Josh. 7), rape (Judg. 20:6, 10), promiscuity (Deut. 22:21), adultery (Jer. 29:23), and homosexual assault (Judg. 19:23). It also describes Israel’s covenantal apostasy from God in general (Isa. 9:16–17; 32:6).
In short, this is not mere foolishness; it is an act of covenantal sacrilege. Surely incest and rape fit this description. It tears apart a family, filial relationships, parental relationships, and as well is a civil crime. In its fullness, it is a crime against all family, church, and state.
Failures of justice
Worse yet, no one reacts to this sin-crime appropriately according to God’s law. You have several players acting awry. Tamar, whose mistakes can perhaps best be excused given her trauma after the fact, is the first. Calvin is quite adamant that she was concerned more with her own reputation than with true justice. Again, it is perhaps more excusable given the circumstance, but her reactions “showed that she was badly taught in the Law of God, and secondly she showed that she was more concerned about her own reputation than she as about what was legitimate for her.” Unfortunate we have to say that he is correct.
Thus we have fallout from a parenting failure. We have a daughter whose proper education and training was neglected—even though she was so specially dressed in a long robe with sleeves because she was one of daddy’s little princesses, and was paraded about court manifestly as the virgin daughter of the king (13:18). She was treated outwardly as something special, but neglected where it really mattered. The one who loved God’s Law apparently had not engrained it into his children’s hearts and minds as Deuteronomy 6 commanded him, so that when the time of crisis came, she had no rock or anchor. She had no judicial mooring, and that led to the second failure: since she was poorly trained, she reacted poorly. Now again, here is a traumatized and abused woman who is blameless and not to be made at fault for what happened to her. It was a parenting failure that brought about her mistakes after the fact. Yet we must note that they were indeed mistakes. Both truths must be held if we are to advance forward in the fullness of Christian compassion, love, and truth.
Secondly, there is Absalom. He actually forbids Tamar to seek justice according to the law. Because he wants to seek private revenge and trump his brother in rivalry, he speaks smoothly to her and comforts her. In doing so, he throws God’s Law out the window and tramples it. He gives the appearance of helping the poor battered woman, of acting in love and compassion. He even appeals to family values. But he is nurturing a rivalry and planning to capitalize on the sexual fall of his brother. He acts in the name of love, but he has murder in his heart. And he will become a murderer in act. So often do Christian leaders act in the name of Christian love but proceed to throw the details and demands of God’s Law out the window. This, by definition, cannot be love, no matter how much compassion it appears to show to the hurting. It is actually exacerbating the covenantal sacrilege in society, and will cause more harm in the long run.
Thirdly, there is David. David has become the Eli, and socially we are basically back to 1 Samuel 2–4. His son commits the worst of sacrilege and fornication, indeed he even commits a capital crime, yet David sits and does nothing. It says he was very angry (13:21), but the guy is the father and he is the civil ruler—he should have done something. Yet he makes no motion toward bringing justice or discipline. He does nothing. And by doing nothing, he not only fails before God, and fails before men in not performing the offices to which he is ordained, but he gives space to the evil brewing in Absalom’s heart. That evil will not only develop a murderous revenge, it will rend the entire kingdom in conspiracy and civil war.
And of course the story falls out right along these lines. To shorten it just a bit, Absalom conspires to murder Amnon, and this causes a rift between him and David. It takes the space of two years before Absalom acts, and this heightens the guilt of the father-king who fails to bring justice. He had more than ample space to address the issues, but sat idle.
Once the murder takes place, Absalom flees in fear. Where does he go? Right back to the parents of his pagan mother (compare 3:2–3 with 13:27)—one of David’s earlier polygamous and civil mistakes. From this position Absalom will try to replace his father as king. This is one ambitious child, who does not mind to set aside the Law, and act in total rebellion, because he wants to be the leader. Remember the intent of that law against polygamy? Divided hearts and foreign policy? It was there for a reason.
There are several lessons for us in this passage. I will elucidate some of them further in the future. For now let’s simply note for brevity’s sake that we must not nurture temptation as Amnon did. We must kill temptation when it arises. Rather than dwelling on how much you want that forbidden fruit (woman), turn aside to proper channels for the desire. Kill temptation with prayer and the Word, just as Jesus did when being tempted by the Devil (Matt 4:1–11).
Second, be very careful from whom you take counsel. Be very careful whom you let influence you. Don’t listen to the cousin Jonadabs of this world. Don’t listen to the serpent who encourages you how to get that thing you know is wrong. He will help you dwell upon just how that fruit is pleasant to the eyes, satisfying to the flesh, and desirable to make you wise. He will help you rationalize that getting it in the most devious way is actually somewhat acceptable. Consider how highly you will think of your own prowess once you pull this off—so he will have you feel. Instead, we need to hang around company and friends who encourage us toward faithfulness, to stand against the trends of sin, and who hold us accountable to righteousness.
Third, we have to hold precious and dear the covenantal ties that hold society together. Especially in times of great sacrilege, and the confusion and fallout that occurs, we need to cling ever more closely to the things that matter: God’s Law in family, church, and state. Too many people in times of crisis—often people who have no such good grounding themselves, or whose hearts are filled with rivalry or self-promotion—want to, as some say, throw out the baby with the bathwater. This will not do. It will simply hand over the fight to the forces of evil, and often in the guise of love and compassion. This is a very difficult problem to combat, and once set in motion, can rend not only families, but entire civilizations.
This means, fourth, we must be at pains to instruct our children in the Law of God. We cannot risk increasing the numbers of this generation who have no moorings in basic righteousness, let alone fortitude in times of intense crisis or trauma. When children are untrained, or trained in bad family doctrine, they will overreact, grow bitter, or even abandon the faith when crises come. And yes, we can expect even some well-trained ones to fail under such circumstances, but there’s one way we can be sure they will fail, and that is not to teach them the Law at all.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when great sins like this occur, it must be dealt proper justice according to the Law. This story is perhaps as timely as anything that could be preached today. We have had, to be blunt, sexual sins committed (and confessed to) by highly visible leaders in the Christan community. These are of the covenant-rending “folly” type condemned by Tamar, and committed by Amnon. They leave huge swaths of victims, many of whom were poorly trained in the Law, or not at all, or even mistrained in many extra-biblical details. As a result, when the crisis hit, chaos developed everywhere. Hardly anyone, with the exception of a few, reacted according to the Law. Some are still reacting in unhelpful, unfortunate, or self-aggrandizing ways.
And here is the point: Amnon gave the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme. But so did David and so did Absalom. And to a lesser extent, though it’s difficult to say, so did Tamar. All of us do when we fail His standards. But especially in regard to these types of sins: failure to react properly gives the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme.
There are representatives today of each character in this story. There are true victims, to be sure. There are also failures of justice. There are efforts to capitalize publicly by leaders and followers alike. There are liberal opponents of Christian Reconstruction who have taken occasion to lump everything together and blaspheme the whole movement. There are leaders ready to pander to these forces, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not.
There are Absaloms today who desire to push their own private agendas to the fore under the guise of love and compassion. In the process, some of them set aside the Law, or even denigrate it, as well as many other important doctrines, publicly. This not only gives further occasion to the enemies to blaspheme, this directly advances the enemy’s causes—liberalism, feminism, secular law, etc.—by setting aside the Word of God as unhelpful or unnecessary, or worse, as part of the problem.
Unfortunately, when a great leader falls, there is always a perceived power vacuum. There is an empty stage, and the buzzards of ego are always circling waiting to light on the corpse of a fallen leader and devour the spotlight themselves. We should be very wary of one who subtly, using language of love and compassion, or even truth, slides himself in as the next great leader. Very wary. Especially when there is a market of emotionally distraught, mainly female, people—some genuine victims, some perceived or persuaded they are victims and are not—we are in danger of many compromises, and possibly even greater sins of the same type in the future. Without proceeding according to the Law, danger is imminent.
In the wake of great sexual sin, and covenantal-rending apostasies like this, there will inevitably be widespread fallout. It must be the job of Christian leaders to handle it faithfully while avoiding the ambitions of Absalom, the overreactions and bitternesses which are exploited by quasi-evangelical feminists, and yet also the idleness and failures of David. We must act. We must act decisively. And we must act with proper direction—the Word. Anything else is inviting further division, “murder,” and civil war in the community, no matter who says it, how smoothly they say it, or how popular they may be.
 For the textual notes in this regard, see P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, Volume 9, eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 322.
 McCarter, 322–323.
 John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, trans. by Douglas Kelley (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 630.