In 2 Sam 13, Tamar attempts to persuade Amnon not to rape her, entreating him (v. 12):

Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.

My impression was that Tamar was Amnon's half-sister, assuming her parents are to be equated with Absalom's (v. 1). This relationship would be considered incest according to Lev 18:9, etc., so I'm wondering whether statement was meant as a plausible offer. I recently heard the claim that they were actually step-siblings, which would make such a marriage legal. This seems to detract from the nebālāh / nabal (ESV: "outrageous thing / outrageous fool") of vv. 12-13, but perhaps rape itself qualifies.*

  • What was the family relationship between Amnon and Tamar?
  • Should we expect the Mosaic laws on incest to have been observed within the royal family at this time?
  • Did Tamar actually expect that David would have been willing to grant such a marriage?

* As in the Dinah story, widely cited as a parallel. It's hard to believe that such a thing was "not done in Israel", but perhaps this is just a manner of speaking. Her claim that "this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other" also seems to indicate that she thinks marriage is possible, indeed preferable.

3 Answers 3


Family Relation

Absalom was the son of Maacah (2 Sam 3:3), while Amnon was the son of Ahinoam (2 Sam 3:2), both by David, so they were half-brothers.

Tamar is said to be explicitly Absalom's sister (2 Sam 13:1, 32), in a way that Amnon recognizes she is not to him (2 Sam 13:4); yet she is viewed still as all the brothers' sister (1 Chr 3:9), as David calls Amnon her brother (2 Sam 13:7), both Amnon and Tamar recognizing a brother/sister relationship during the actual proposition (2 Sam 13:11-12), and Absalom recognizing and even emphasizes the brother/sister relation after the fact (2 Sam 13:20). These indicate a strong argument that she is truly Amnon's half-sister, not a step-sister.

Further, while the text never explicitly states she is David's daughter, most often being referred to with respect to her sister relations to the brothers, the text does obliquely state she is his true daughter through the wardrobe reference in 2 Sam 13:18 (NKJV):

Now she had on a robe of many colors, for the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel. And his servant put her out and bolted the door behind her.

While David clearly had no qualms about marrying women who's husbands were deceased (i.e., Abigail) and so could have acquired step-children through that, there is nothing in the text to indicate Tamar is such a child from a previous marriage/relation of Maacah (making her a half-sister to Absalom, and a pure step-sister to Amnon), and numerous strong hints that she is truly the daughter of David and Maacah, and so half-sister to Amnon.

The Law

Being a half-sister, Lev 18:9 and 11 applies. But did they know this and/or did they care?

  • David: expressed some ignorance of the law at least once before, in the manner in which the ark was to be transported, resulting in Uzzah's death (2 Sam 6:1-11). He also has evidenced disregard for the law at certain times himself, most notably in the case of adultery with Bathsheba and the arranged murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11).* So it is possible that David is either ignorant or disregarding of some laws, perhaps including these. Perhaps more importantly, how well was he training his children in those laws, even if he was aware of them. Certainly some of his example was not instructive to them.

    * This incident with Bathsheba almost immediately precedes the incident with Amnon/Tamar, which itself is undoubtedly part of God working to bring about David's punishment for the Bathsheba debacle, in that "the sword shall never depart from your house" and "I will raise up adversity against you from your own house" (parts of 2 Sam 12:10-11). Amnon/Tamar becomes the root cause in a series of rifts in the household (Amnon against Tamar, 2 Sam 13:16; Absalom against Amnon, 2 Sam 13:22-29; David angry with Amnon, but indecisive to act toward his firstborn, 2 Sam 13:21; etc.).

  • Amnon: for him, it does not matter if he knew about the Levitical prohibition or not; he clearly lets his lust overrule any care for the Law or Tamar.
  • Tamar: may not be aware of those Levitical laws, especially if not taught well by her parents—David, was noted above and then Maacah was the daughter of the king of Gesher (2 Sam 3:3), which is a Canaanite people not driven out by Israel (Josh 13:11, 13). However, some points of the Law do seem to be known from Tamar's references.

    Tamar's statement about the disgrace and shame in v.12-13 appears to relate more directly to rape itself:

    • She is stating not to "force" her (v.12a), as that would be shameful to her (v.12c) chiefly because she was a virgin (v.18), not a harlot.
    • She is stating "no such thing should be done in Israel" in respect to the "not forcing" her, i.e. rape, which could be a capital offence of the Law if she is betrothed (Dt 22:23-27) and at the least a lifetime decision if not (Dt 22:28-29). In this case I think the idea is more a disgrace of Israel because it occurs in the king's household. That is, her follow-up statement is Amnon "would be like one of the fools in Israel" (v.13b) if he did this, which implies others in Israel had done so, but it is a foolish way for him to go, and a shameful way for her.
    • She makes a relative statement in v.16 that sending her away is "worse" than the what Amnon has already done. If this were in reference to Lev 18 violations, the statement actually does not make much sense. But in the context of Dt 22:28-29, it makes perfect sense, because in that passage, it is not the rape itself that is against the Law, but rather that if a man forces an unbetrothed woman, that he is to marry her and "he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days." So the rape was foolish and shameful, but the sending away would be a direct violation of Dt 22:28-29.

The above analysis indicates some pattern that may be instructive to answer the question:

Should we expect the Mosaic laws on incest to have been observed within the royal family at this time?

It seems that David and his household were more intimately aware of Deuteronomy than some of the other Pentateuch laws. Note these points:

  • In 2 Samuel 6, David seems aware the Levites were to bare the ark (found in Dt 10:8, 31:9), but how that transport was to be done—with the poles by walking it—he appears to be ignorant of. Those specifics are in Exodus (Exo 25:13-16; 37:5) and Numbers (4:3, 15; 7:9).
  • The incest laws, in detail, are found only in Leviticus. In Deuteronomy 27:22, there is just this statement, part of the cursing Israel was to do on Mt. Gerizim (Dt 27:12):

    Cursed is the one who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.

    That would be enough to possibly add to the idea of foolishness and shamefulness for what Amnon was proposing, as it would bring a "curse" upon them, but it lacks the details of Leviticus and emphasis of Leviticus, being but one verse amidst a variety of other types of laws, and so may also have been missed in Tamar's knowledge.

  • Tamar appears to be making reference to the rape laws of Deuteronomy by her statements, rather than the Levitical laws of incest.
  • The law that the king was to copy the law is found in Deuteronomy 17:18, which could have been interpreted as being a copy of Deuteronomy, not the entirety of the other books. This would account for why he and his family may be more familiar with the laws relayed in there.
  • Patriarchal history records near relation marriages/sexual relations, which were all banned by Lev 18: to daughter-in-law (Judah/Tamar, Gen 38:11ff.); to wife's sister (Jacob/Rachel, Gen 29:18); to aunt (Amram/Jochabed, Exo 6:20); to half-sister (Abraham/Sarah, Gen 20:12). So it could be a case of the narrative stories, particularly Genesis, being more influential than the Law that later banned such activities.

God clearly requires all His Law to be upheld by Israel, but whether king David and his household fully knew all that law is questionable, especially with respect to the incest issues. Nevertheless, I'm not sure one can be dogmatic about that ignorance, especially on David's part (perhaps more on Tamar's).

Tamar's Expectations

So if Tamar was in ignorance of those Levitical specifics, then there is no reason to assume her doubting David's approval for her to marry Amnon; though how sincere she was could still be very questionable on similar grounds to if she did know about the Law on this matter.

If she did in fact know the Law on incest, then her sincerity seems almost certainly unlikely. In that case, she probably appealed to the marriage idea as a way to "buy time" so that she could get out of the dangerous situation she was in and back to protection of the rest of the family (David and her brother Absalom). If so, she is lying about her belief of David's acceptance, considering that lie better than the consequences if Amnon follows through on his desires. This might also be grounds for why Amnon did not heed her voice (2 Sam 13:14), for he may have known that David would not give her to him, and so he determined it was now or never, and foolishly went for the now.


I am not sure one can be wholly dogmatic about Tamar's knowledge here. I lean from the evidence to believe that she may have been in ignorance of the specific Levitical incest laws, and was instead coming from a frame of reference related to her pagan mother, Patriarchal narrative examples, and the Deuteronomy laws of rape. Her statements appear sincere as far as that she believed David would have given her to Amnon and that after the fact, Amnon should have kept her as a wife rather than sending her away; whether she was repulsed by Amnon's initial advance other than the folly of it being an unmarried sexual relation for her as a virgin daughter of the king is hard to tell (i.e., that Amnon desired her may not have specifically repulsed her—Amnon was the firstborn, and assumed to be slated to be king). That Amnon forced her and then failed in his duty to her, she was clearly repulsed by.


The story of the rape of Tamar by David's son, Amnon, is clearly contrary to the biblical law and entirely out of character. Although Amnon was attempting to rape his half-sister she offers to marry him if he obtains David's approval, which she must know would be impossible for David to give. It is David's role as king to uphold the law, not to be seen to break it. Amnon is next in line to the throne and must be aware of the law, and of the importance both of his relationship with David and of having the respect of the people.

Even in the unlikely event of a royal princess being unaware of the law, it is unrealistic to suppose Tamar is calmly offering to marry her rapist. Perhaps she is merely trying to dissuade Amnon from his immediate moment of lust, but if so does not make much of an attempt and is predictably unsuccessful. Worse still, Amnon is unsatisfied and sends Tamar away, to her great distress. Surely Tamar's distress when Amnon sent her away means that she was sincere in her offer to marry him. She had struggled to resist the rape, yet offered to marry Amnon and, after the apparently violent rape (being stronger than she, forced her), became greatly distressed when he wanted no more to do with her!

This need more analysis to see what is really behind the story. We start with Absalom. 2 Samuel 14:27 reports Absalom as having three sons and one daughter, whose name was also Tamar. In total contradiction, 2 Samuel 18:18 says that Absalom raised an obelisk in the king's dale, or valley of the kings, saying that he had no sons.

2 Samuel 14:27: And unto Absalom there were born three sons, and one daughter, whose name was Tamar: she was a woman of a fair countenance.
2 Samuel 18:18: Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom's place.

If the story of Absalom is as old as the time of the United Kingdom, the obelisk in the king's dale points to its origins in other nations, since David was only the second king of Israel and there could not yet have been a 'valley of the kings' in the land. If we accept that these stories were written long after the time of David, then they were not first-hand accounts and probably not even based on actual events in the time of David. With examples like this, we should begin to see that mythology lies behind at least some of the stories of Tamar, Absalom and Amnon. Digging deeper, there is evidence of the story's origin in Egyptian mythology.

When Amnon was preparing to rape Tamar, she objected that he would bring shame on her, but that if he would speak to the king, David would not withhold her from him. This was certainly the rule in Egypt, where a king would encourage a marriage between his son and daughter. If the heir to the Egyptian throne were to send his sister away and refuse to marry her, this would have been a disgrace she could never live with.

An alternative view is given by George R. H. Wright (As on the First Day: Essays in Religious Constants, pages 50-51), who believes the origins lie with the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar.

A full examination of the subplots involving Absalom, Amnon and Tamar would take pages, but I believe the evidence for Egyptian influence is greater than that for the Mesopotamian myth of Tammuz and Ishtar. From a historical-critical perspective, the story is not a record of actual events in the court of King David.

  • Hi Dick, thank you for your input. I'm guessing you have a source for the idea of Egyptian influence? You give a source for the "alternative view" but not for the one you're proposing, although I'm sure you're not making it up.
    – Susan
    May 11, 2016 at 9:06
  • @Susan I read this quite a good many years ago and now find I'm not sure where to find my source. Because of this, I had to use my memory and direct exegesis of the text. Also, as you know, Egyptian royals were expected to marry their brothers/sisters to avoid diluting the divine descent of the royal.line. May 11, 2016 at 21:02

Perhaps Tamar would have said ANYTHING at that moment to get Amnon not to commit the act of rape. It would have given her time to tell their father David (or even Absalom) and get them to assign body guards to her so that Amnon could not attempt another act of violence on her later. He took her by surprise and it sounded like she was begging in desperation for Amnon to consider any reasoning that would stop the act then and there.

  • Welcome to BH.SE, and thank you for your post! Feel free to explore the site, take a tour, or chat with others in Biblical Hermeneutics Chat. Looking forward to seeing you around! Consider clarifying your answer by editing in relevant sources/arguments, but thanks for the answer!
    – user22655
    Feb 12, 2019 at 4:40

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