Wibble Wednesday: Et tu, Brute? (2 Samuel 13–14)

Man, I’ve fallen off the wagon here. Oh, well, back in with another cheery chapter of murder and sexual misdeeds.

Short snarky summary: David’s sons engage in self-destructive follies. One rapes his half-sister, and is murdered by his brother for his trouble. Said brother is exiled, but Daivd misses him so he comes back home.

In the last chapter, David committed adultery and murdered the inconvenient husband. This chapter is kind of part of the same theme inasmuch as there’s a lot of sexual misbehavior and bloodshed, but somehow it’s a lot worse. There are two episodes in the Bible which are typically explicitly labeled as “rape”: there’s the rape of Dinah, back in Genesis 34, which is a kind of bizarre story with a contentious interpretation vis-a-vis matters of consent, and then there’s this one, which is in some ways uglier (and in some ways less ugly. There’s no genocide in this one). The rape victim this time around is David’s daughter Tamar (not to be confused with the completely different Tamar in Genesis 38, embroiled in a different sexual scandal with her father-in-law Judah; since the line of David is descended from Judah, the two Tamars are presumably related, albeit at many generations’ remove). Our rapist is, o this occasion, not a gentile but a Jew, David’s son Amnon. The introduction of the whole episode is kind of creepy to modern sensibilities, dwelling on Tamar’s virginity and Amnon’s mooning lovesickness. Anyways, Amnon’s cousin Jonadab basically advises him to get Tamar alone with him under the pretext of being ill and needing his half-sister’s care. Apparently this rather simplistic plan works: Tamar, for whom invalid care is just a household duty, I suppose, is willing to be alone with Amnon to feed him, and then he grabs her and commands her to sleep with him. Her response is somewhat indicative of the state of sexual relations at the time: it’s not about consent but about scandal, and how neither of them will ever be able to show their face again, and how working through the proper channels (i.e. petitioning David for her hand) will work better, but, nope, Amnon’s not having any of it.

The next few verses kind of ring true with the whole Madonna-whore complex endemic to masculinity: afterwards, Amnon is disgusted with his paramour and kicks her out, over her entreaties not to be discarded. This sort of dynamic still rings true today: the hope to somehow “normalize” what happened is not unheard of among rape victims, and in a society where women’s consent was regarded as irrelevant but their alliances paramount, the apparent best option for a rape victim was to have the relationship legitimized. This is all icky beyond belief today, but it’s within the realm of comprehensibility yet.

Anyways, Tamar goes into an attitude of ritual mourning and goes to her brother Absalom, who advises her to keep the matter quiet and that he’ll deal with things. Absalom’s way of dealing with things, apparently, is to stab them until they cease to be problems. This particular aspect of the story has some echoes to me of the Roman tale of the Rape of Lucretia, which ends similarly with the victim’s grief stimulating family revenge, but I don’t think there’s any actual literary connection between the two cultures, just a common motif. Before Absalom’s revenge, there’s a tantalizing reference to David’s own role in the matter: in verse 13:21, it’s explicitly stated that David was grieved by Amnon’s misconduct, but did nothing. This is sort of the beginning of David’s dwindling as a character: for the rest of his life, he’s going to be an increasingly passive figure, with his sons and courtiers coming into focus.

Absalom sits on his grudge for two years, until he brings all the family in for festivities in the sheep-shearing season, and decides the time is ripe to get Amnon dead drunk and kill him. This, as you might expect, kind of breaks up the party, with Absalom’s other half-brothers fleeing in terror of their suddenly homicidal brother, and Absalom running off into exile. A slight miscommunication is provided, where David, receiving the initial rumors, is told that Absalom killed all his half-brothers, and he’s only later given better info. In a nice twist of the knife, the correct intelligence is provided by David’s nephew Jonadab, who, if you page up a ways, you’ll remember was the dude who gave Amnon the advice to rape Tamar in the first place and was arguably responsible for all this badshit. Nothing bad apparently happens to him, even though he surely deserves it.

Chapter 14 opens with a continuation of this drama. David’s gotten over Amnon, but he’s extremely sad that Absalom is still away, but can’t bring himself to actually pardon his son for murder. Meanwhile, Joab, who I continue to think of as basically the Dick Cheney of Israel, has decided that he needs to kick things back into action. I’m not sure exactly what Joab’s motivation is here: does he just want David to stop moping, or does he have a vested power interest in Absalom? I kind of assume Joab doesn’t do anything out of the goodness of his heart, because it’s not been his MO previously. Anyways, Joab figures that a nice little parable will help David see things clearer (apparently he wasn’t around when David completely missed the point of Nathan’s parable about the rich man and poor man and had to have it explained to him in agonizing detail), and hires a woman to tell David an allegorical little tale about her two sons who got into a fight where one killed the other, and then had to flee from local justice, and how sad her heart is that she now has no sons at all, and that the death of one has resulted in the loss of both. David is moved by her plight and promises her living son amnesty. That would be great news for her if she actually had any sons, but unfortunately David has managed to respond the way she wanted and still miss the not-actually-all-that-subtle allegorical purpose of her tale. So she has to get all explicit, pointing out that the justice she wants for her son should be likewise applied to the king’s own banished son.

David still has occasional moments of not-dimwittedness, because he recognizes the hand of Joab in this subterfuge, to which the woman confesses when directly asked. David then tells Joab to bring Absalom home. I’d like to think he also says, “And next time you have something you think I should know, just tell me,” but that’s not in the Masoretic text, alas. David isn’t completely done with his anger, and there’s a subtextual message in that he orders Joab to bring Absalom to Israel but not to bring him to court. Absalom may be pardoned, but he is still definitely in disgrace.

However, Absalom doesn’t let his official snub get in the way of his promising career as a rockstar. OK, the text doesn’t say “rockstar”, but it talks about his beauty and the fawning of all the people and the lushness of his hair, so I’m totally going with rockstar here.. It also goes on about how he started a family, with three sons and a daughter named… Tamar. ZING!

Finally, after another two years (apparently Absalom sits on every grudge for exactly two years) of not being summoned to court, and being ignored by his neighbor Joab when he sends messengers asking if maybe he could come to court some time soon, Absalom decides that he needs to take matters into his own hands. Because he likes to change up his style occasionally, he doesn’t give Joab the gift of stab-wounds to get his attention, but simply sets his fields on fire. Joab notices this and is far more civil than I would be to an arsonist; Absalom convinces him that he needs to talk to David. I can see Joab’s point of view here: dude burns your property, something’s got to be done. But apparently what he says to David isn’t nearly strongly-worded enough. I’d like to imagine it’s something along the lines of “Seriously, take your kid off my hands. I can’t handle him any more.” For, as a result of this colloquy between the king and his inexplicably-still-trusted general, Absalom is summoned into David’s presence, where David does not say, “I understand your frustration with your brother, but you really shouldn’t have killed him,” nor does he say, “Why’d you burn Joab’s fields, you ungrateful little shit?” No, instead of calling him to account for himself, he sobs and embraces his long-lost son.

Next time: the ungrateful little shit lives up to my characterization.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Et tu, Brute? (2 Samuel 13–14)

  1. gsanders says:

    Man, you’re on a tear. I’m really wondering if I could actually read Arthurian lore at this point without having a roughly similar experience (obviously even less history there, such as it is). On the other hand, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court already set me down that path.

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