Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Tragedy of Tamar"

Text: 2 Samuel 13:1-19

Revelation 21:1-8


     This morning, we’re going to deal with an Old Testament story that if made into a movie would be rated at least PG-13. Carol Bechtel Reynolds, a professor at Western Theological Seminary, has called this “one of the Bible’s neglected texts.”

I’ve drawn upon Professor Reynold’s scholarship in helping develop this sermon. You’ll need to buckle your seat belts as this episode from the book of 2nd Samuel is a rough ride, presenting a dark reality of life then, and of life today. The characters in this drama are a father, two sons and a daughter, and a nephew. Let’s now turn our attention to the historical book of 2nd Samuel, and the sort of story we seem to hear of daily.

                 (Read 2 Samuel 13:1-19)

            We have spoken in the past about King David’s great sin, sleeping with the wife of one of his most faithful and devoted soldiers, then having that soldier killed in battle to cover up the affair; an affair from which came a son who died shortly after birth. This morning, we read from the Davidic “succession narrative” which follows the ensuing history of David’s family. Herein lies the first point of the sermon. The sin of David had a ripple effect of sorts. We can call it reaping what one sows. We can call it what goes around comes around. Those of Far Eastern religions might call it yin and yang or karma. The violation and injustice which were perpetrated against Uriah and Bathsheba are played out again in the lives of David’s children. The point here is that sin doesn’t just affect the one committing the sinful act. Sin has social and wide-ranging ramifications. Sin by its nature has a ripple effect within every community. Family members, friends, neighbors, associates, even strangers; all are in some way touched by the fallout of sin.

            The story begins innocently enough. We learn that David has a son Absalom, his third son in fact, born to a wife of David named Maacah. This is the son who would later try to dethrone his father. We’re also introduced to a daughter Tamar – also born to David and Maacah -- who is described as beautiful. Then we meet Amnon, David’s eldest son, who is a half-brother to Tamar. The Bible doesn’t tell us who his mom was. What the Bible does tell us is that he has the hots for his half-sister, but felt helpless to do anything about it. In stepped a son of David’s brother named dab, moving things from innocent to sinister. Like his uncle David, Jonadab was good at concoct- ting schemes. He came up with a way for Amnon to satisfy his lust. Fake illness. Convince dad to send sister Tamar to prepare him a meal in his chamber. Send everyone else away so as to have privacy. Then strike. And that is precisely how it played out. Tamar tried to resist, even reasoning with Amnon that this would besmirch the family name. But we’re told that “(Amnon) would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.” A classic story of abuse of power. A classic story of rape.

            After Amnon had satisfied his sexual cravings with Tamar, he rejected her. “…indeed, his loathing (for her) was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get out!’” Again, Tamar tried to reason with him. She appears even willing to marry himto save her- self and spare the family further grief. But Amnon was resolute, kicks her out, and bolts the door. We think to ourselves, “What a scumbag!” And we’re right. So Tamar was out in the cold. She removed her long robe with sleeves signifying her virginity, put ashes on her head, and wailed inconsolably. We’re told a few verses later that Tamar revealed all this to her brother Absalom. Tragically, “…Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house.” We can presume that Tamar’s life as a woman of worth was effectively over. She would live and die, forever marked by the sin of her half brother. That brings us to a second point which closely follows the first. Sin ruins lives; not just of the person committing the sinful act, but of those in the wake of it. Tamar did nothing to bring this upon herself. She was just following her father’s instructions and trying to do good. But that one moment set in motion a life of desolation, stigma, loneliness, and utter dependence.

            We stopped reading at verse 19. I hope you’ll go back and read the rest of this 13th chapter for the rest of the story. Just to give you a preview, Absalom spent two years smoldering in anger over the violation of his sister. During that period, he didn’t speak again to Amnon. “After two full years,” Absalom concocted a scheme of his own. He planned a great feast for all his brothers, and convinced his father David to have Amnon on the guest list. “Then Absalom commanded his servants, ‘Watch when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, “Strike Am- non,” then kill him.’” As with Jonadab’s scheme two year earlier, it played out perfectly according to plan. Tamar’s rape was avenged. Here then is point number three: Sin perpetuates yet more sin. Yes, we may applaud Absalom’s actions as righteous and just. But the truth is, in scheming and killing his half-brother, Absalom heaped sin upon sin. These days, we call what he did “premeditated,” “murder in first degree.” We also have a motto: two wrongs don’t make a right. Part of the complexity of sin is that it is self-perpetuating; viral; moving through communities; affecting both perpetrator and victim from one generation to the next. And in the end, the consequences of his sin landed right back in David’s lap as he deeply grieved his son’s death, and was estranged from his living son Absalom who fled for his life. Now whoever said the Bible was not a book about real life?


            I quote Professor Bechtel Reynolds: “Sin is complicated business. What started as a story about unrequited love ends up looking more like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And the carnage does not end on the individual level. The entire course of Israel’s history took an irrevocable turn when love turned to lust and a brother violated his sister’s and society’s trust.” Mary Ann Evans, 19th century novelist, better known by her pen name George Eliot, once wrote this about sin: “Our deeds carry terrible consequences…. consequences that are hardly ever confined to our- selves.” So true! The story of the tragedy of Tamar offers a case study in the communal and perpetual nature of sin. The effects of sin ripple across the still ponds of countless innocent lives and generations. Professor Reynolds concludes her analysis with this: “Until we can come to grips with the awful complexity of sin, we can never really appreciate the enormity of God’s act of love for us in Jesus Christ.” So true! Such is evidenced in the fact that from the house of David; from the broken house of David; from the devastated house of David came our Savior and Redeemer.

  These days, folks in the church don’t like to talk much about sin. It’s certainly not my favorite subject matter. But we ignore it, minimize it, wink at it, sweep it under the carpet at our own risk. Knowing that sin is social, wide-ranging, and self-perpetuating, ruining lives, families, homes, and communities, we must speak and stand against it; not from a posture of self- righteousness or sanctimony, for we all have sin in our lives. May we rather be truthful and humble, giving the horror and complexity of sin over to the gracious hands of Almighty God, and trusting God’s promise as articulated in Revelation 21: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away….. See, I am making all things new.” In other words, the days of sin – in all its horror and complexity – are numbered.