Old Testament Precursor Parable: II Samuel 13-14

The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old is made manifest in the New.
(et in Vetere Novum latet, et in Novo Vetus patet)
–St. Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch II.73 (modified for grammar)

There’s a fantastic Old-New connection hiding in II Samuel, one of the last places one would think to look.  Ok, one of the last places I would think to look.  Seeing the connection requires some set up, because stories unfold with quite a bit more detail and complexity in the Books of Samuel.

Going into II Samuel 13, we already know that David has had his major lapse–the rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah–and that pain is coming.  David stands apart from his predecessor Saul not by virtue of sinlessness but rather because of repentance.  That’s what Psalm 51 is about.  But repentance is not a get out of jail free card—you still have to face the consequences of your actions.

As a consequence of his epic failure, David receives a threefold curse from God delivered by the prophet Nathan.  This curse is the undoing of all the blessings that David and Israel had enjoyed as a result of David’s fidelity; now the sword shall ever be against his house, someone from within his house—no mere foreign enemy—will rise up against him, and that someone will do to David what David did to Uriah, but the more so.  Rather than steal one man’s wife in private, this doom will steal all of David’s wives in public and humiliate him before the sight of the sun, for all the world to see.

Often when reading the Old Testament we have to be patient in waiting to see how God’s promises and curses play out.  At this point in the story we’re still waiting to see what happens to the house of Eli from the prophecy back in I Samuel 3.  But not in this case; not for David.  The Doom of Nathan starts to unfold the next chapter.

In II Samuel 13, one of David’s sons (Amnon) rapes one of David’s daughters (Tamar).  There are some cruel details to this story.  Amnon was thwarted in his wicked desire until he disclosed his heart to a cousin, Jonadab, who helped him arrange the rape (what the heck, man?!).  In addition to raping Tamar Amnon began to hate her and drove her out, destroying her public and future life by making her unfit for marriage.  In one of the most heart-rending scenes in all of Scripture, the victim of assault pleads with her half-brother not to compound his evil, to take her as wife or concubine, as the only remaining acceptable option in their world and time.  And like a true, self-hating villain, he drives her out.

Tamar has a full brother, Absalom, who loves her very much.  Absalom outwardly advises the moral high road but secretly plots his brother’s death for two years.  At the end of that time Absalom arranges a feast for all his brothers and there murders his rapist half-brother.  Jonadab sticks around long enough to play the villain role one more time, informing David (incorrectly) that Absalom has killed all of David’s sons.  David and all his house rend their garments and wail in grief.

If true—that an elder son massacred every other living heir to David’s throne—it could only mean one thing: Absalom is making a play for the throne and David is almost certainly next.  Luckily before any rash action is taken, David’s sons all show up, disoriented and grieving, and David gets a kind of perverse relief: Absalom has clearly not begun a coup but has merely avenged his sister.  But then another blow: Absalom has fled Israel for the land of Geshur into a self-imposed exile.  A roller-coaster of emotions for David and his family.

There are some major blanks to fill in and some inferences to draw about motives if I am to reach my conclusion.  I need to make a strong interpretive move here, and I’m going to base it on the dog that didn’t bark.  The one character who is almost completely missing in chapter thirteen is David himself.

Does David know that his oldest son has raped one of his daughters?  Indubitably, and the news of it makes him “very angry.”  Ambiguous: what is he angry about?  But more importantly, that’s the last we hear of David in this story until after the murder of Amnon two years later.

What does David do about Amnon?  Nothing.  Does he punish him or come to Tamar’s aid in any way? No.

I will maintain that the next few chapters make a heck of a lot more sense if we understand here that Absalom is furious with his father for failing to do anything for Tamar.  To be fair, David is stuck in a difficult place; I have no idea how I would handle this if I were in his shoes.  But surely the answer is not “Do nothing.”  Shouldn’t Amnon be punished somehow and Tamar avenged somehow?

In the previous book, before his fall from grace, we know what David did every time he was faced with the impossible choices.  He asked God.  This is another kind of test, asking of God’s covenant mediator a kind of wisdom and justice that cannot stop at the merely human.  Abraham passed his test in Genesis 18, bargaining for the lives of the innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Saul failed his test, indulging in the massacre of the Amalekites in I Samuel 15.  And David had shown remarkable faithfulness in consulting God throughout his long ordeal against Saul.

But here?  Failure.  Bad failure.  Injustice reigns by his silence.  The King of Israel is complicit in the rape of his own virgin daughter.  And after two years of seething, waiting for his father to do something—anything!—Absalom has had enough.  After taking matters into his own hands he goes into exile in disgust, in shame, and perhaps certain that David would insist on exile anyway.  Or perhaps even making the choice for David, thinking his father could not have brought himself to punish him either.  One way or another, Absalom has lost faith in his father completely.

II Samuel 13 is about the disintegration of David’s family.  It’s one of the saddest things ever written and it just gets worse at every verse, every choice every actor makes.  It’s appalling.

Three years later, in II Samuel 14, Joab intervenes to try to fix things (this seems out of character for Joab, unless he was trying to resolve the situation to avoid a succession war in the future–ironic).  In a scene highly reminiscent of Nathan’s Doom in chapter twelve, a wise woman tricks David into passing sentence on himself.  She chides him for not using his royal power to pardon Absalom and gets him to see that it is within his power to fix this situation.  So after three long years of exile in Geshur, Absalom is brought home.

Even after three years, however, David has still not forgiven his son.  It makes me hurt to read this passage every year and explain it to my students.  This is unbridled pathos poured out on the page in a way that would make Homer jealous. Because now David prolongs and intensifies the conflict with his son: he places conditions on his return to Israel.  He may never enter the king’s presence again.

Ok maybe that makes sense if we are dealing with a run-of-the-mill manslaughter case.  But Absalom is David’s son and at this point his heir.  With Amnon dead Absalom should be the next king of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promise to David back in II Samuel 7.  But he withholds his forgiveness—again, I get why the man is conflicted, but come on!—and Absalom is made to suffer at his father’s hands for another two years.

Seven years!  Seven years since the rape of Tamar and the failure of David to bring justice and heal the family.  Seven years of hatred between father and son.  Would it be hard to forgive?  Of course it would.  But now we will see the fruit of this hardness of heart and the wages of sin.

After two years Absalom forces an audience with his father in a most amusing way—he sets Joab’s fields on fire, forcing David’s right hand man to “take his call.”  When father and son meet, Absalom greets him as a subject greets his king, having defiantly resolved beforehand that he will risk David choosing to execute him for the murder of Amnon.

And now, seven years—seven years!—after the whole sordid affair began, David has finally come around.  David has resolved his internal conflicts and greets his son as a father should—with a kiss.  Forgiveness at last.  We have limped to a happy ending!  See, Absalom?  David loves you.  You are his son, not his servant!

Er, no.

The very next chapter, Absalom overthrows his father and claims the throne for himself, the curse of Nathan come home in full.  Because screw you, Dad, you made me wait five years for forgiveness.  You don’t get to kiss me and pretend it’s all ok now.  You’ll always be the one who abandoned my sister and sent me into exile.

Sometimes the train has left the station and we have to face the consequences of our actions regardless of how we’ve grown or changed or forgiven (or been forgiven).  The curse of Nathan has begun, but with the cruel twist that David himself is complicit in the enemy arising against him from within his own house.  Remember this when St. Paul starts talking about sin in his letter to the Romans!

Now all of this long summary has been to make a fairly simple point that I could not make without this interpretation in hand.  There’s a story almost exactly like this in Scripture, where an estranged father and son quarrel and then reconcile.  But that other story has a happy ending, because the father immediately runs out to his son and forgives him instantly and without condition, holding a feast in his honor and making him pay no tax for his burden on the family.  The prodigality of the father’s love is offensive to his other son but it cannot possibly be any other way.  It is the logic of divine love, without which we all die in our misery.

II Samuel 14 is the broken, failed version of the story of the Prodigal Son from St. Luke’s Gospel.  This is what happens when the father screws up and does it wrong.

Read more Old Testament.

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2 thoughts on “Old Testament Precursor Parable: II Samuel 13-14

  1. Great analysis. I’ve never liked the story of Tamar and Amnon, but I’d never thought about where David was during this time. Poor Tamar. What became of her? And yet the episode was important enough for the chronicler to note, despite the number of girls raped in Israel at this time.

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  2. Thanks!

    Just sticking close to the narrative, Tamar’s ending is to be taken into her brother Absalom’s family to live out her days–her prospects as a wife are over. It’s both a sweet sign of her brother’s love and a pitiable ending for the victim. There is no text on Tamar after this, leaving open a lot of possible “endings” for her. I’m not familiar with any Jewish traditions about what happens to her after this, but I may poke around a little. This for sure, though: the narrator, despite devoting time to fleshing out characters, is really only interested in telling David’s story. Tamar’s ending doesn’t serve the narrator’s goal. Another of those great loose ends you can find all over the Old Testament.

    I have several more posts scheduled over the next few weeks on this part of II Samuel. Perhaps I’ll put something together for Tamar.

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