This is the beginning of the worst period of David’s life. The effects and consequences of this rape and his response to it plague him and the whole nation for the rest of his life. His adultery with Bathsheba set in motion a series of events that in one way or another corrupt his house and the nation until they go into captivity hundreds of years later. You know the phrase “A Simple Twist of Fate”? What might well have been an isolated act has a ripple effect no one could have predicted and in every generation afterwards it only gets worse. We think of “crimes without victims” and fail to understand the impact of every sin whether or not it is a crime. We are so used to covering everything with the word “Grace” that we forget about the word “Consequences”. Yes, David is contrite and repents but what he has set in motion is relentless. Yes, he could have stopped it from infecting his family for generations but he chooses to do nothing instead.
The rape itself is bad enough. Amnon, David’s first born son by his second wife, Ahinoam, is the natural successor to the throne. Instead of being brought up to become a wise ruler and legitimate successor, he is nothing but a brute – and an infantile, whining brute at that. While complaining he is love sick, he is the embodiment of pathetic lust. “I want what I want and I want it now.” He is stupid, violent, selfish and spoiled. If a sociopath could be sick with love then this is Amnon. Think of Mike Tyson or Sonny Liston. He is a royal animal with diplomatic immunity – and cursed with a very cunning and devious friend, David’s nephew Jonadab. If Amnon is Mike Tyson then Jonadab is Don King. He sees an opportunity to use the witless but privileged Amnon as a weapon against his uncle, David, who was chosen instead of his father Shimeah. David is surrounded by resentment, envy and intrigue – not just on the part of Saul’s family but by his own. Success breeds envy from everyone, doesn’t it. People want to pull down their rightful superiors and call it equality. C.S. Lewis says, “The demand for equality has two sources; one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest, of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority.”
It’s a theme in Scripture and in life. It is the envious brothers of Joseph selling him to the Ishmaelites (their nephews) who sell him to Potiphar. It is the brother and sister of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, rebelling against him in the wilderness. It is the Pharisees jealous of Jesus and the false teachers encouraging the persecution of Paul everywhere he goes. As Clare Booth Luce said, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The story is classic, isn’t it? Too spineless to win Tamar legitimately, and too stupid to figure out another way, with the guidance of Jonadab (another fixer in the royal court) he concocts a story that easily fools his father completely into becoming an accessory to the crime. As Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, so Amnon follows Jonadab’s script to deceive David into playing into the scheme. Except things don’t go as planned and Amnon responds in the only way he knows – brute force and violence. He reminds me of the fool Samson – but without any sign of intelligence. All he knows is what he wants and is used to getting one way or the other.
W.G. Blaikie writes, ”In Scripture some men have very short biographies; Amnon is one of these. And, like Cain, all that is recorded of him has the mark of infamy. We can easily understand that it was a great disaster to him to be a king’s son. To have his position in life determined and all his wants supplied without an effort on his part; to be surrounded by such plenty that the wholesome necessity of denying himself was unknown, and whatever he fancied was at once obtained; to be so accustomed to indulge his legitimate feelings that when illegitimate desires rose up it seemed but natural that they too should be gratified; thus to be led on in the evil ways of sensual pleasure till his appetite became at once bloated and irrepressible; to be surrounded by parasites and flatterers, that would make a point of never crossing him nor uttering a disagreeable word, but constantly encouraging his tastes, – all this was extremely dangerous. And when his father had set him the example, it was hardly possible he would avoid the snare.”
It is more than being spoiled or coddled. It is pathological. Not everyone becomes an abuser of privilege but those who do are dangerous. Do you remember the 2013 case of Ethan Couch whose drunk driving resulted in the death of four people and the life changing injuries of nine more? Prosecutors wanted him to serve 20 years in prison but he was sentenced to probation after a psychologist testified that Couch was a victim of “affluenza” and a product of wealthy, privileged parents who had never set limits for him. After running to Mexico with his mother, he served two years in prison and was released earlier this year. Whether it is Ted Kennedy escaping the consequences of Chappaquidick or wealthy families like Stanford swimmer Brock Turner hiring expensive lawyers to keep their children out of prison for breaking the law, the lack of consequences under the guise of love and protection is nothing more than assuring them of failure. A friend once told me, “You can choose when your kids will hate you – now or later – but better they should hate you now.”
How does David respond? Furious but an impotent anger. There are no consequences at all for what Amnon has done to Tamar. What could he have done? He could have punished Amnon or made him pay for what he had done. He had any number of options but he does nothing but become angry for a moment. He flares up then goes dark.
David always does the right thing in war and the wrong thing at home. He is totally “at sea” with all the complexities of relationships – whether it is the rivalry between the two generals who want his approval – Abner and Joab – or the disputes (some fatal) between his children. He is at the mercy of intrigue, deception and the realities of court politics. He is anointed but deeply flawed and either incompetent or distracted by other things. He writes out his anger and confusion in the Psalms but is incapable of making it work in his closest relationships. Like many others, he leaves it to fixers and goons to take care of difficult things. We see that in his instructions to Solomon to put Joab to death and to punish the prophet who rebuked him in public. David can slay thousands but is at the mercy of a few individuals. Anointed does not always mean perceptive. Courage does not always include wisdom.
What about Tamar? There is consolation by Absalom but nothing other than that. In fact, this is not uncommon, is it? She is raped and then the man who ruins her hates her with an intense hatred. “In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her.” Even today, in some cultures, a woman who is raped is either put to death or disfigured. For some reason, she has shamed the family. The honor of the family has been dirtied by the crime against her. It doesn’t make sense but it is not just Iran, Pakistan, or Iraq where the woman is punished for being raped.
Tamar – like Uriah – is the only flawless character in the whole story. Obedient, kind, trusting, intelligent, pure. She does not deserve what she gets. But she does not get revenge or justice. Instead, she lives in her brother’s house, a desolate woman. We are naive to think that justice does not come at no price to the innocent. But it comes.
Rachel Denhollander was one of more than 160 girls who were abused by Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar over the course of 20 years. In an interview with Christianity Today, Rachel talks about the response of her church to the revelations about the abuse.
In your impact statement, you mention that it took you a long time to reveal your own abuse with other people. Was church included in that?
Yes. Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.
In your impact statement, you say, “My advocacy for sexual assault victims … cost me my church.” Can you share about when you decided to share with your church that you were going to speak up about this and what happened?
The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse. Because I had taken that position, and because we were not in agreement with our church’s support of this organization and these leaders, it cost us dearly.
When I did come forward as an abuse victim, this part of my past was wielded like a weapon by some of the elders to further discredit my concern, essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded. One of them accused me of sitting around reading angry blog posts all day, which is not the way I do research. That’s never been the way I do research. But my status as a victim was used against my advocacy.
Church leaders thought that your own experiences made you biased?
Correct. So rather than engaging with the mountains of evidence that I brought, because this situation was one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen, ever, there was a complete refusal to engage with the evidence.
As we have seen in the reports from the Southern Baptist Convention, such behavior was either ignored, swept under the rug, denied or, worse, women were counseled to put up with the abuse and pray for their husbands. To his credit, the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, has formed a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group in partnership with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. A release from Greear’s office stated, “This presidential study group will consist of outside experts and Southern Baptist leaders who will advise Greear on issues related to sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and related subjects.”
But, we should not be surprised when women are beginning to stand up, at great personal risk and expense, to being used this way. We should not be surprised when some go to what seem like extremes to others. We should not be surprised when some are tempted to follow the example of another Tamar who was taken advantage of by her father-in-law, Judah, the son of Jacob. She blackmails him into sparing her life. We should not be surprised that some see Jael’s grisly killing of Sisera as an option.
“Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.”
And someone did take revenge when he saw there were no consequences for Amnon’s behavior. It was her brother Absalom, the son of David and his wife Maccah, the daughter of the King of Geshur. He, along with Jonadab, is the most dangerous of all. Calculating, shrewd, persistent, violent, without conscience, ruthless, charming, handsome and spoiled. He is first generation royalty from a father who grew up a keeper of sheep. Unlike Amnon who must have what he wants immediately, Absalom can wait for two years. The text says that Absalom, like Amnon, was filled with hatred. It consumed him. “Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.” We don’t know for sure who coined the phrase but it is true, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Absalom never showed his hand to anyone – Amnon, Tamar or David. He simply waited. He even tried to convince David to come and witness what he had in mind for Amnon. He was that sure of himself and of David’s inability to act even though the killing would take place in broad daylight in front of David – and he was right. It reminds me of the final scenes of “The Godfather” when to the music of a Bach fugue the heads of the rival five families are assassinated during the baptism of Michael’s son. It is not subtle or passionate. It is controlled, planned and absolute. So it was with Absalom. Absalom fled and went to Talmai, his grandfather, the king of Geshur. “But David mourned for his son every day. After Absalom fled and went to Geshur, he stayed there three years. And the spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.”
It is a tragedy from beginning to end – and the opening act of even more tragedy. It is not an allegory or a fiction made up to illustrate a moral. It is real and it is repeated over and again because the distortion of sin for love, desire, affection, loyalty and fairness is constant. We are fools to think otherwise. I am reading “The Inklings” by Humphrey Carpenter and quotes F.R. Leavis, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. “From the beginning of his work at Cambridge, Leavis campaigned for the recognition of ‘culture’ as the basis of a humane society, but did not believe that this culture should be based on any one objective standard, least of all Christianity. He declared that there was among educated persons ‘sufficient measure of agreement, overt and implicit, about essential values to make it unnecessary to discuss ultimate sanctions, or a provide a philosophy, before starting to work.”
We need to spend more time studying the inevitable consequences of thinking like that. We do need standards outside ourselves that define right and wrong, righteous and sinful, good and evil. Otherwise, we will like Amnon, David and Absalom do what is right in our own eyes and that leads eventually to chaos, civil war and death.