And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colors that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying.
And Absalom her brother said unto her, Hath Amnon thy brother been with thee? but hold now thy peace, my sister: he is thy brother; regard not this thing. So Tamar remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s house.”
One of the greatest sorrows a father can know is to see the sins which he himself has committed, and from which he has repented, carried on, nonetheless, in his children. It was this which for the rest of his days was to be the lot of David.
David was a true child of God, but with two overriding sins which he could not restrain. The one was his inability to control his sexual desires and reject the temptation toward polygamy which was so strong in that day, especially for great rulers and kings. Through all the world the number of a king’s wives and the level of their birth was most common indication of his greatness; but David should have known better. After all, the history of his nation and its record in the Scriptures gave clear indication to the fact that God disapproved of the multiplication of wives, and when this was practiced it always led to ruin for the family. But David could not resist the love of many women; and the result was, in the second place, that he also erred in his love toward their children. To be sure David loved his children, he loved them with a strong passion; but it was the kind of love which pampered them rather than provided a sound religious discipline and instruction. It was perhaps inevitable. With all of his wives, the children of David were too many to be able to give any real personal attention. The result was that they were raised by servants who saw nothing else to do but to give these children whatsoever they desired. It could not but lead to trouble and difficulty in the end; and so it did.
It first became evident in Amnon, the oldest of David’s children and thus the heir-apparent to the throne. This in itself, however, was sufficient cause for a great deal of family trouble. In the first place, Amnon was hardly the most promising of David’s sons. He was a spoiled child, even more so than were the rest of David’s children, not too clever in mind but overbearing and demanding in his ways, a bully to those who were under him. And then, besides this, there was the fact that Amnon’s mother was nothing more than an ordinary commoner and not of royal lineage as were many of David’s latter wives, particularly Talmai the mother of Tamar and Absalom. It was a situation that naturally bred jealousy and hatred to cast a deep division within the household.
Because of the size of the royal family, it was necessary, of course, that there should be a certain organization within it. We do not know a great deal about this, but it would appear that as long as the children were young they would be raised under the immediate supervision of their own mothers, each with a separate portion of the palace in which to live. The girls were kept in this way until married, while the young men when coming of age would receive each his own home with his own servants and his own portion of farm land which he would supervise and from which he would live. The result was that the various divisions of the royal family were kept distinctly divided, and particularly the young, unmarried daughters were kept in rather complete seclusion until such a time as they were given in marriage to a husband.
As it was, however, there was enough contact between the various arms of the royal family for the young man Amnon occasionally to come within seeing range of his half-sister Tamar, the full sister of Absalom and a most beautiful young woman. As so easily and frequently happens with young men in such a situation: he fell madly in love. It was not a noble love nor honorable, but one of passion and lust. Nevertheless it soon came to dominate his life completely. All that his mind could think of was the beauty of this young woman; and he wanted her for his own. Moreover, being a spoiled child and the heir-apparent of the king he could not accept the fact that even this might be denied him. But then, on the other hand, there were the cold facts. The law of Israel did not allow for such incestual marriages; and kept as she was within her mother’s portion of the palace, there was no way that Amnon could possibly get to her. It was more than the spoiled nature of Amnon could take so that soon he became thin and sickly merely because of the bitterness of his thwarted desire.
As it was, there lived in the household of David also another young man, a son of David’s brother, by the name of Jonadab. He was a man of much the same inclination as Amnon and a close friend of his although much more subtle and clever. It was he that first noted the listless and sickly look on Amnon’s face and inquired of him, “Why art thou, being the king’s son, lean from day to day? wilt thou not tell me.”
It was not an easy request to answer; and yet, Amnon had been carrying his sorrow alone so long he almost welcomed an opportunity to talk of it. Still the answer when it came was brief and sullen, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”
To the quick mind of Jonadab, however, Amnon’s problem was no problem at all. He saw almost immediately how the whole thing could be solved to the satisfaction of Amnon’s carnal desires; and, moreover, he enjoyed plotting the ways of sin. He recognized the desperate seriousness of Amnon; but to him it was just a game to be played with the lives of these about him as long as he himself did not get hurt. Quickly and with a light-hearted laugh he laid out his suggestion, “Lay thee down on thy bed, and make thyself sick: and when thy father cometh to see thee, say unto him, I pray thee, let my sister Tamar come, and give me meat, and dress the meat in my sight, that I may see it, and eat it at her hand.”
The whole thing was a very clever plan because it got directly to Amnon’s problem. He simply did not know how to get close to Tamar to talk to her in private. So long had he lived with dreams in his imagination and so convinced was he of his own impressiveness that Amnon was sure that if he could get Tamar alone she would willingly submit to whatever he suggested. The only thing was to get to her alone; and for this Jonadab’s plan was most clever. The one thing for which Tamar was generally known around the palace was her ability to cook and bake cakes. Now already Amnon was looking sick enough. All he had to do was to pretend to be confined to his bed and when his father David came to visit him claim that it was due primarily to a loss of appetite. Then it would not seem to very strange to request that Tamar should come and practice her culinary art within his very presence. No, it would not seem strange, at least, not to one so trusting of his children as was David.
Accordingly Amnon did as Jonadab suggested and when David came to visit, he asked, “Let Tamar my sister come and make me a couple of cakes in my sight, that I may eat at her hand.” David, suspecting nothing, without thought, complied.
To Tamar, however, it must have come as a most strange and even frightening suggestion. Protected as young women were from the prying eyes of all men, it must have been a shocking proposal that she should go and practice her cooking with the very purpose that a man might sit and watch her. But the king had commanded it and there was nothing she could do about it. Moreover, she was at heart a very good girl and most willing to do what she could to help another who was suffering.
It must have been a most tense and nervous situation when at last Tamar came to the house of Amnon in obedience to the king’s command. There was the young girl, self-conscious in her modesty, not daring to lift her eyes from the dough she kneaded in the pan. Meanwhile Amnon only sat and thought, a mind full of evil thought but unable to speak because of the servants which were all about. Slowly the time crept on until at last the cakes were done and with a feeling of relief Tamar was able to pour them out before her brother Amnon. For Amnon it was the critical moment. The time had come for Tamar to go and as yet he had not been able to speak to her a thing. Within him there boiled as in a bubbling caldron mixed feelings of passion and shame, fear and disgust; but in the end the baser feelings won out. With one last desperate determination, he rose up as though in a spasm of sickness commanding the servants to leave and asking Tamar to follow him as he went into his bedchamber so as to feed him her cakes there with her own hands. Stunned, confused, and unwilling to do anything that might add to someone’s misery, Tamar followed, only to find standing before her there in the bed chamber a man entirely different from any she had ever seen before, a man with lust and passion written all over his face, urging her to join him in sin.
Tamar, however, was a young woman of pure heart and quick wit. Swiftly she began to put forth reasons one after the other why this should not be, “Nay, my brother, do not force me; for no such thing ought to be done in Israel: do not thou this folly. And I, whither shall I cause my shame to go? and as for thee, thou shalt be as one of the fools in Israel. Now therefore, I pray thee, speak unto the king; for he will not withhold me from thee.” The arguments were pointed and true, except for the last of them which was only an attempt to stall, knowing that the law of Israel and the king would never allow what Amnon wanted; but by this time Amnon had become a slave of his passions beyond the point of reason so that by sheer power of force he forced himself upon his sister.
Sin, however, never really affords the pleasure which it promises, but gives way to revulsion and shame almost immediately. So was it with Amnon. The shame and the guilt came like a tide back upon him. He had proved himself, as Tamar had warned him, nothing more than a fool. But Amnon was a proud and cowardly man, unable to accept his own guilt and folly. Rather than acknowledge his own shame, he had to find someone else to blame, and Tamar was the only possibility. Upon her now he turned with a revulsion and hatred more intense than his love for her had ever been.
It was Tamar, however, for whom the greatest suffering remained. No longer a virgin, in the customs of the day, she had no right to the kind of garments she wore nor to return to her mother’s room. Utterly confused, she pleaded with Amnon to allow her to remain until some arrangements could be made; but cowardly and frightened man that he was, he only commanded the servants to put her out. It left Tamar wandering about not knowing where to go. In her anguish and unwavering honesty, she could only tear her virgin’s clothing and throw ashes upon her head making her dishonor apparent to all.
Fortunately, the first one Tamar met was her brother Absalom. Moreover, no sooner did he see her than he suspected what had happened. The passions of Amnon had not been as hidden as he had thought. The trouble was that Absalom was hardly better himself. To be sure, he was indignant with what had happened to his sister; but underneath there was almost a sense of relief. Amnon was the one who stood between him and the throne; and now he had an excuse to put him out of the way. But Absalom was not a man of impulse. He would be sure first that everything was ready and the time was ripe. Meanwhile, he said to Tamar, “Hath Amnon thy brother been with thee? but hold now thy peace, my sister: he is thy brother; regard not this thing.” It was his promise to make all right, at least at his time. Until that day he would keep Tamar in his own house. So she lived there and in her shame remained hidden.