Jonadab, the son of Shimeah, David’s brother, responded, “Do not let my lord suppose they have put to death all the young men, the king’s sons, for Amnon alone is dead; because by the intent of Absalom this has been determined since the day that he violated his sister Tamar. Now therefore, do not let my lord the king take the report to heart, namely, ‘all the king’s sons are dead, ‘ for only Amnon is dead.” (2 Samuel 13:32-33 NASB)
Chapter 13 of 2 Samuel begins the ‘Absalom’ narrative within David’s story. It begins with the tragic character of Tamar and proceeds through her humiliation by her step brother Amnon, to the eventual revenge of her brother Absalom on Amnon. What adds to the intrigue is the small details about the edges.
Amnon is the first-born, and therefore the ‘assumed’ successor to David. He would make a disastrous king; he’s self-centered, arrogant, manipulative, with no regard for anyone. The reader finds him repulsive very quickly in the account. But he is the first-born.
Absalom is very near the top of the list of king’s sons who might inherit the throne, but not at the top; he’s third (second doesn’t appear anywhere but in a list in 2 Samuel 3, and under a different name in 1 Chronicles). So the setting of this ‘revenge’ is set within the sons of the king, a king sitting on a throne; and therefore on an inheritance that only one can inherit.
David is the father who is suffering consequences for his sin with Bathsheba (see chapter 12). In a sense he too is a victim, or I see him as such. He ‘hears’ of an atrocity among his children, but not from them. What does he do? The penalty is death, but no one will talk about it (sound like a modern family?).
What does happen is that Absalom has told his sister to be quiet while he harbors hatred toward her attacker. So Tamar is not only victimized in one of the most horrible fashions possible (even worse in their culture than ours), she’s not given justice nor the opportunity for justice. She’s not even given an explanation of why this happened to her.
This situation goes on for two years, and then Absalom manipulates his father, the king, into allowing all the kings sons to dine with him somewhere north. At the meal, Absalom has Amnon killed. He escapes to grandpa Talmai (what happens to Tamar now?), and the rest of the princes flee home. By any assessment, the situation is a disaster.
Why? Why is this even in this book? It’s not in Chronicles. It’s only here in the book of Samuel. Why in the shuffle and tussle of spoiled princes of a warrior-king is the victim, Tamar, sidelined? In fact the ‘backdrop’ for this, repeatedly pointed out by the author, is the degradation of David’s family indicated in incest and murder. The repetition of ‘her brother’ and ‘his sister’ is almost irritating until you get the point.
David tried his best to guide and direct his children. He had them work in the shrine of the Ark of God. He made them ‘ministers’ with duties in the administration of the kingdom. He gave them wise counselors like Jonadab. They knew the job, they knew what was involved, and they knew where David’s power came from, his God. Yet it seems they saw the ‘chair’ as either deserved by right of birth, regardless of character (Amnon); or up for grabs by whoever could manipulate their way into it (Absalom).
David makes an easy target for us, but I doubt we truly appreciate the problems he faced in parenting. Tamar is swept aside and remains a tragic figure, but only to setup what happens to Amnon by Absalom. I think that only deepens her tragedy. Amnon is a cruel and despicable person; a fool who needs to die rather than become king. Absalom is a manipulative ambitious conniver who would even use his sister’s humiliation for his own ends. Jonadab is said to be wise, but we can’t tell if he was manipulated or participating in Tamar’s humiliation, and then in Absalom’s revenge.
The character list is peopled with characters, but not a lot of moral fiber. This isn’t a ‘success story’ or a ‘parenting bestseller’, it makes soap operas seem bright and cheery. As I look through the ‘knothole’ I see it’s still a story about David, but of his woes. I see it’s about his consequences on the one hand, but about his inability to control even his own children on the other (a theme common today). I see it is about horrible incomprehensible evil being done to a victim, and the ineffective application of justice.
What I learn about God is that He permits tragedy, He permits monsters, He permits bad things happening to good people. It’s a hard thing to see about God. In a real sense it’s incomprehensible; but God is supposed to be incomprehensible. In another sense it seems He has His hands completely off the situation, yet He predicts this very thing in his prophesy through Nathan. He knows it’s coming and doesn’t stop it. He doesn’t make life roses and song-birds for everyone.
And so I’m challenged to regard my own life, and not use my circumstances as the litmus test for my relationship with my Master. Some bad things are consequences, and some are not. Can I accept both from my Master and still be confident in His perfect love and perfect power? David was able to, and he didn’t even point to Jesus as compensation. Rather his faith was based on the other things he saw his Master do. Will I learn to also rely on my faith based on what I have seen my Master do? Or will I give into the view of here, now, the darkness I sense, and the hopelessness I think I face?
What about you? What do you see through the knothole?