Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Samuel 13:1-22
by Bill Sytsma
I love the Brady Bunch. In almost every episode there is a problem that can be neatly wrapped up in 30 minutes or less. Whether it’s a broken vase, a bruised nose, an injured ankle, or a changing voice; the problem is never insurmountable. There is no crisis that cannot be overcome by timely advice from engaged parents as well as respectful responses from the children.
Sometimes, the damage of sin lasts longer than 30 minutes.
In 2 Samuel 13, we are given an insiders view of gut-wrenching family dynamics that seem to have no quick and easy solution. In the previous chapter, King David is told that his sin with Bathsheba would cause calamity in his own house. The sword would never leave his family. In Chapter 13, we see the beginning of that scandal that would lead the deaths of two sons as well as the shame of his daughter. As the story of this scandal unfolds, we see that there are some circumstances that have no easy solution. No one seems to act in a heroic manner that will lead to peace. There are no good answers.
When preaching this text, we must take special care to be sensitive to the wounds of listeners who have experienced the pain and shame of sexual abuse. This story of David’s family falling apart begins with a conspiracy to commit a rape. When we preach this text, we will want to be sensitive to the wounds of people within our churches who have been victims of sexual abuse.
The story of 2 Samuel 13:1-22 does not focus on the pain and heartache that Tamar experienced in the way she was treated. When preaching on this text, we should take great care to make certain that we do not gloss too easily past the violation that she experienced. Victims of sexual abuse can often feel overlooked, isolated, and ashamed. If we do not acknowledge Tamar’s perspective, we will likely lose the attention of those listeners who have engaged the victim’s perspective in an instance of sexual abuse.
David’s son, Amnon, had fallen in love with his half-sister, Tamar. Although the text calls it love, Amnon’s actions make it clear that this was not a pure kind of self-giving love, but rather a consuming lust that seeks to satisfy personal appetites. When he reveals his longings to a friend, Jonadab, the two of them devise a scheme that will result in Amnon raping his sister.
Amnon manipulates his father, King David, into unknowingly cooperating in this scandal by convincing the king to have Tamar come to care for Amnon during his (feigned) illness. When Tamar arrives, Amnon ignores her objections and violates her. Following his offense against his half-sister, Ammon’s heart changes. He is moved from loving her, to despising her, and he sends her away.
Tamar weeps over the way she has been treated, and during her mourning, we meet her brother, Absalom. In this particular text, Absalom is the only man who acts with decency. He consoles her and takes her into his home to care for her. But the attack takes a toll on him. Our text tells us that he hates Amnon for what he had done, and that hatred simmers for a long period of time.
Following the rape of Tamar, King David’s family falls apart. Absalom, who seems to be the only man in our text who acts decently, harbors resentment for two years; and takes his revenge by killing Tamar’s attacker, Amnon.
Absalom’s reaction causes tension between himself and King David (Absalom’s father). The tension escalates in the following chapters to the point that Absalom stages a coup to take his father’s throne, and subsequently loses his life at the hand of his father’s soldiers.
What seems to be a single act of evil in 2 Samuel 13:1-22 becomes the beginning of a long period of chaos that is unleashed by sin.
Sin is more than guilt and individual consequences. There is a corrupting nature that ruins relationships and corrodes the purest intentions. In 2 Samuel 13, we see that sin has an ongoing affect on David’s family. The roots of the problem go back to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his treacherous murder of Uriah in an attempt to hide his sin.
The corrupting nature of sin worked its way into David’s family, so that Amnon conspired and then committed a rape against his own half sister. Once sin enters a situation, everything seems to go awry. Even when we understand the responses that the characters in this story have, their actions end up adding strife and heartache to a bad situation.
Evil circumstances corrupt people more easily than we can understand. There is a paper-thin line that exists between justifiable anger and hateful destruction. Justice can look very much like revenge. In an attempt to set things right, we may stumble into spiteful vindictiveness.
In April, 1945, American troops took control of the Nazi concentration camp a Dachau. Upon seeing the devastatingly cruel treatment that the Nazi guards had inflicted upon their prisoners, American troops killed some of the German guards who had surrendered. Even today, many who know the history of World War 2 can understand the anger that the American troops must have felt. We could probably imagine that we might act similarly to those troops if we had been in their shoes. We might even be glad that no American troops were convicted of war crimes for that act. However, the understandable and justified anger of the American soldiers caused them to violate standards that they were supposed to observe. The evil of Dachau turned justified anger into vengeful hatred. Those who had come to bring justice, acted out in ways that violated the standards they were called to follow.
Even when we have pure and righteous intentions, the corruption of sin can cause us to act out, and violate the call to be righteous. Even the characters in 2 Samuel 13 who were appalled by Amnon’s actions were prone to being drawn into the corrupting cycle of sin and acting out in ways to continue to advance that corruption.
How does one respond to the scandalous nature of sin? Unfortunately, there are only bad examples in this text. There are no humans who are held up as models of gracious responses to sin.
Amnon the Offender: Amnon serves as a classic example of someone who believes that his despicable actions are justified because of his longings. Amnon believes he is in love, but it is not the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 (always protects, not self seeking, kind…). His passion is one that consumes and ends up harming the object of his infatuation. During the attack, Tamar pleaded with him to act honorably, suggesting that if he spoke to the king, they could be married. Amnon would not relent. He was focused on satisfying his own desires, rather than acting with honor.
When we seek to satisfy our own desires, we can easily cast aside standards that should guide our lives. It may not seem like we are trying to act with evil intentions, but evil often comes through actions that perpetrators believe are prudent. That is the nature of sin. It corrupts our desires and clouds our judgment. If we are not careful, we can easily become people who are blinded to our own corruption, and perpetrate evil while fully believing that we are acting virtuously.
Jonadab the Instigator: Jonadab is David’s nephew, and Amnon’s cousin. The text tells us that he was a shrewd man, but he used his street smarts for an evil purpose. Although he is not the perpetrator, his guilt seems as inexcusable as Amnon’s. Jonadab was in a position to hold his cousin accountable and wake him up to the dangers of his passions. He had opportunity to protect Amnon from himself and encourage virtue. Instead he instigated a horrible episode.
The corruption of sin can keep us from using God’s gifts for God’s purposes. Jonadab’s shrewdness could have been turned to confront Amnon and challenge him to aspire to actions that were better than his passions. But that takes courage. It is often easier to pacify someone than it is to challenge.
David the Bystander: King David was living in the shadow of his own guilt. He had his own scandal that may have clouded his judgment. We might want to say that David should have known something strange was happening when Amnon asked for Tamar. Perhaps he should have been more aware of human nature and prevented the attack. He was duped by Amnon, and in his naiveté, he unwittingly became part of the plot to take advantage of Tamar.
David’s naiveté was probably not enough for us to accuse him of evil. However, his lack of response following the attack seems to be negligent. In the verses following this text, we discover that two years after the attack, it seems as though David has done nothing to intervene in this situation. Even though he was furious, he allowed evil to go unaddressed. As a king and a father, he had the responsibility of addressing this evil, but he remained silent.
Absalom the Avenger: Of the four men in this episode, Absalom seems to be the most honorable. When he learns of his sister’s attack, he shows her compassion. He takes her into his own household to care for her. However, Absalom’s nobility is short lived. The mess that sin has created affects him powerfully in the following chapters. The anger that simmers within him leads him to plot the murder of the man who raped his sister, Amnon. Following the murder, he provokes an insurgence by leading a revolt against his father, King David. His justified anger ends up corrupting him.
None of the men in this text seem to be good examples of how we should respond to sin and temptation. Yet we still see God’s grace. God remains faithful to his promises to David and his family, by keeping them on the throne. History shows God favoring Israel through a time of peace and prosperity through the reigns of both David and Solomon. It is apparent that this is not a prosperity that is given because David’s family is so virtuous. It is a product of God’s faithfulness.
Rev. Bill Sytsma is the pastor of New Life Christian Reformed Church in Highland, Indiana.