A Royal Mess in Israel's Royal Family (Part 1 of 3)

2 Samuel 13 records a story filled with moral ugliness. Does it involve the denizens of some pagan city? A bunch of social outcasts? No, the players in this story are members of the royal family of David, king of Israel.

Amnon, the eldest son of David, became infatuated with his beautiful half-sister, Tamar (David’s daughter by another wife). Although the Biblical text uses the ordinary, broad Hebrew word for “loved,” it is clear that Amnon’s main interest in Tamar was sexual. But she was off limits to him. As the king’s virgin daughter, she would have been under careful watch and protection. More importantly, since she was a close relative, Amnon’s desire for her could never be lawfully fulfilled (see Leviticus 18:9,11; 20:17). The prince was sick with frustration over her.

When Amnon’s friend Jonadab noticed his distress, he explained his desire for his sister. Jonadab suggested a plan: Amnon should pretend to be ill in bed and request that Tamar visit and make food for him; that way he could get her alone without arousing suspicion. Amnon did as Jonadab advised, and no one suspected anything improper. Tamar came to her brother’s house and made bread for him. At first he refused to eat, perhaps pretending to be too weak to leave his bed. Then, after ordering everyone else in the house to leave, he told Tamar to bring the food into his bedroom. As soon she was within reach, Amnon grabbed her and demanded that she have sex with him.

Tamar resisted valiantly. She said no. She begged her brother to stop. She tried to reason with him. But her words fell on deaf ears. Amnon overpowered his sister and raped her.

When it was over, Amnon’s infatuation turned in an instant to hatred. He coldly ordered Tamar to leave. She begged him not to heap this further humiliation on her, perhaps fearing that it would make her look like the guilty party. But Amnon, ignoring her pleas, summoned his servant and said, “Throw this woman out and lock the door behind her!”

Tamar was devastated. In traditional signs of mourning, she tore her clothes, put ashes on her head, and covered her face as she left Amnon’s house in tears.

There is no happy ending to this story. Tamar lived “desolate” in the house of her brother Absalom; some interpreters think this means that she remained single and childless for life. Her innocence, her joy, her honor, her self-worth — all were shattered by Amnon’s brutal assault. King David was furious over the incident; but, appallingly, he seems to have done nothing whatsoever to punish his son. Absalom, meanwhile, spent the next two years plotting vengeance for the shameful treatment of his sister, and when the time was right, he murdered Amnon and then fled into exile. Amnon’s sin led directly to the ruin of multiple lives.

There are many important lessons in this sorry episode. For today, consider an important one to learn from Amnon: lust is not love.

Amnon’s feelings toward Tamar certainly were intense. But whatever he felt (or thought he felt) toward her, it was not genuine love. For one thing, he completely ignored Tamar’s will, convictions, and feelings in order to satisfy his own desire. That is not the behavior of love. And of course, what he was asking her to do was morally wrong. That is not the behavior of love, either. I’m reminded of that when I hear of someone pressuring a girlfriend or boyfriend for sex with the old line, “If you love me, you’ll do this.” People are not sexual playthings, and the Bible consistently depicts evil results when they are treated so. (For other examples, see Genesis 34, 38; 2 Samuel 11.)

Then there is Amnon’s immediate about-face in heart: “the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her” (verse 15). He used Tamar for his own gratification and then was ready to discard her like yesterday’s trash. Godly love does not so readily turn to contempt. I’m reminded of that whenever a romantic breakup between two young people results in their despising one another. Could it be that there was never any genuine, selfless love there in the first place?

God says the kind of love we should pursue is not self-focused. It “does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Sin seeks to use others; sexual immorality is just one example. Love serves others, sacrifices for others (Galatians 5:13-14).

Yes, sexual desire is God-given. Yes, it is powerful. But it alone is not love. And unless it is coupled with and constrained by love, that desire is dangerous and destructive. God has provided the venue for its expression and fulfillment in lifelong marriage. We hurt ourselves and others when we choose to let desire lead the way. Let Amnon’s story forever stand as a reminder.

Stay tuned next week for another lesson from this story.