I wrote this draft many months ago but wasn’t happy with how it turned out. I left it to rot in my drafts, but a funny thing then happened. When I started trashing drafts to clean up my work space, I remembered that I owed Mrs. Darwin a post on Tamar and that this draft, while imperfect, isn’t so terrible after all. Many birds, one stone:
As I’ve said before, one of the strengths of the books of Samuel is the attention to character motivations and detail. The actors on the stage are far more complex and realized than in any other books of the Old Testament.
There are strengths and weaknesses that go with this approach. Here’s a weakness: the narrator presents characters we can invest in, only to drop them when they no longer serve the goal of the narrative. We are left with loose ends and unanswered questions.
Personally I think this gives the books an added charm or appeal. But it does also mean that we don’t get to find out what happens to, say, Jonadab. Here’s an inscrutably wicked fellow whose two appearances are almost indescribably base…and then he disappears. If anyone deserves to have something awful happen to him, it’s Jonadab. In a novel or a movie, he would need to meet the most grisly fate minds can imagine. But in II Samuel, poof. Gone, just as sadly happens in real life all too often.
The character this most affects is Tamar. Though described only briefly, Tamar is an immensely sympathetic and compelling character. She is also, regrettably, purely passive in advancing the story of David and Absalom. The perfect narrative foil to Jonadab: if anyone deserves a happy ending, it’s Tamar. But once Absalom takes her into his home to care for her, she disappears.
There’s a strong meta-narrative appeal to that—she enters a hidden life in reality and in the text. But it’s impossible not to wonder more about her future life from that moment on.
As my students are quick to point ask, what does she do when Absalom goes into exile? Does Absalom’s family continue to care for her or is she out of luck? What about after the death of Absalom? Is there any way to get clarity on these questions? These questions are in turn entangled in a textual obscurity about the fate of Absalom’s whole house.
Part of the problem is that we are dancing around a question that really ought to be answered head-on. Is II Samuel giving us pure, literal, family history? Or should we approach this more as historical fiction, a morality tale?
Dodging the historicity of the Bible has been a common move for generations of biblical studies at this point (boo!). We can do a lot of analysis by trying to be agnostic about that question, to hold it an abeyance or to construct interpretations where the answer doesn’t really matter. That’s what scholarship is all about, baby!
But here it seems to me this approach just won’t work well. If we want to get any clarity on the outcome of Tamar, our prior commitment to the historicity of the narrative is going to play a huge role. Does the author dump Tamar from the story because he doesn’t care about the fate of women? Because he wants to make a scathing social commentary sympathetic to the plight of women in the ancient world? Or because she really does just disappear/die/live out her life quietly? Should we take this as a lesson, an imitation of reality, or a reporting of reality?
We could construct a series of interpretations at this stage for comparison. Some possible outcomes:
- Tamar dies soon after Absalom returns from exile in Geshur and this is why he throws down the gauntlet against his father. Is there any reason to think this beyond the satisfying resonance with tragedies Greek and Shakespearean alike? A small clue: in II Samuel 14 they give a brief genealogy of Absalom which mentions in passing that he has a daughter named after his sister. Maybe he just loved his sister; maybe it’s a symbolic new life for her. Or maybe a memorial?
- Tamar lives out her days quietly in the house of Absalom, grieves the death of her brother in the civil war, and is ultimately brought home to the court of David so that her father can care for her. This is the happy ending version for David and Tamar alike. The only problem is that the narrator doesn’t care to tell us directly what happens to Tamar. At the level of the narrative, she’s just not important enough to mention. But if David really does have a conversion of heart over his deposition and restoration, this seems like a thing he would really do. Or we could really go for broke and have him bend someone to his royal will to guarantee she has a husband. Best ancient world solution to hope for, a la Ruth, right?
- Tamar ends in pure anonymity just like every other woman who got a raw deal in the ancient world. It’s tempting to have Tamar’s plight and callous discarding by Amnon, David, and the narrator be a cautionary tale to this effect, but it’s very hard to ascribe that sentiment to an 8th century Israelite author. More likely that would have to be located in the moral sense, but that’s a fairly complicated interpretation. On the other hand it would work nicely because…
Tamar makes an excellent type of the Church. No matter how fancy the literal sense gets in the Old Testament, there is always a typology, always an allegory, always a moral sense. The Old Testament is always teaching faith and morals even when it’s telling the story of an imploding, dysfunctional family. Any time you have a bridal-figure, you’ve got a type of the Church.
As the incomparable Origen taught us, you also have a never-fails connection between Church and soul. Hello, Song of Solomon! So I’m not really sure what to make of Tamar at the literal level. But I know exactly what to do with that open-ended outcome for her. That’s because Tamar is an allegory for the soul:
Tamar is the soul taken in by the deceptions of the world, seized by the violence of the world, and left unfit for matrimony to her heavenly Bridegroom as a result. Tamar is us when we are unwary of the beguilements of the world.
Amnon of course is the world, which at first pleases the soul with blandishments and seductions. When any soul stands strong against the world, it begins to fever for ownership and domination of the soul because the world cannot abide those who resist it. Whom the world fails to court, the world destroys and discards.
Jonadab is of course the serpent of great cunning who teaches Amnon, or rather the world, how to achieve the prize of his lust. Without his poison poured forth into ears, the world would not act, or would not act so wickedly, in the realization of its desires. But Amnon and Jonadab, or the world and the Devil, are always in league.
Absalom, the brother of vengeance who puts to death the abuser of the soul, is prayer and fasting. Wielded expertly in the struggle for holiness, prayer and fasting will prevail over the World and the Devil. However, as human acts, it is also possible for this Absalom to go astray and be not mindful of the Father’s mercy. The implacable foe must be moderated by wisdom or it brings about no justice.
When the soul finds itself under the assault of worldly seduction, it must be very afraid. Hatred and destruction lie close at hand! The soul must not be careless or tender-hearted; Tamar had no reason to doubt her brother but we have seen his wickedness many times now! Flee and say, “This thing is not done in Israel, brother.” Then take your sacrifice to the altar for your brother, that is, the world, and pray that God loose his redeeming angels soon.
After standing firm in the way of divine purity, the soul finds itself under a new assault: forced defilement. Woe to the soul that finds itself under the boot of the world, but woe upon woe to the soul complicit in its own defilement! The world can destroy both body and soul, but the latter only with our permission. The soul must be very ready indeed to resist the violence that the world will do to it. Like Tamar, the soul will not be able to prevail on its own. The world wields violence more expertly than she ever can. To be strong then means not to exceed the world in its own wickedness and violence, but to call upon and be safe in a power that brought the world into existence, and indeed sustains it still, despite its disorder and rebellion: the power of God’s word.
Tamar found herself alone with Amnon, but the soul should always surround itself with the great cloud of witnesses. The world is of darkness and works most of its wickedness in secret places of isolation; be not alone and the first defense is close at hand. And whereas Tamar was abandoned by her father in time of need, the soul has a heavenly Father who is present at all times in all things. Swifter than any wicked word of the Devil will He discharge his angels to preserve us and His grace to save us.
When the soul finds that it has lost the struggle against the world and wallows in sad misery, it must have recourse to both David and Absalom—that is, the tender mercy of the Great King and the powerful counterattack of penance.
We do not know the end of Tamar, that is, the soul. That is because the soul can use its freedom for malice and come to a miserable end, or it can walk in the way of salvation and come to repose in perfect beatitude. We know for certain that God is and that He rewards those who seek Him; we know that God works for the good of all who love Him. What we do not yet know, or have not yet willed, is whether we will enter that court with praise or flee to Geshur and reject the invincible divine assistance. We could end in either place; that is, Jerusalem or Geshur. But what wicked folly would lead us to reject a Father’s love and the invincible army of heavenly aid? Fly to Jerusalem, O Soul! Fly from Geshur!