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Commentary on Tanakh Discussion January 18, 2021: King David’s Palace Intrigue

Don Perlmutter

David: A Tarnished Icon  
The discussion began with an account of the rape that was perpetrated by Amnon, David’s first-born son. The victim was his half-sister, the modest and beautiful Tamar. He lusted after her and was frustrated until a friend advised him to trick her into a scenario in which he could over-power her. After satisfying his lust, he rejected her, presumably because she was no longer the virgin with whom he was obsessed. We can speculate that this rejection also revealed some glimmer of conscience in Amnon, which prevented him from confronting his own cruelty.   

Biblical Justice
This launched a fascinating discussion of the legal system in Biblical times. There was no system of policing or law enforcement. The primary deterrent was the threat of punishment after judgement by village elders or the king. There were prescribed punishments for specific crimes. In David’s time, rape was a capital offense. (Death as a penalty was not considered a contravention of the Ten Commandments, which literally only prohibit “murder.") This was so, not only because rape is a violent act of physical cruelty, but more importantly (in the thinking of the day) because of the “damage” to the woman's honor. She was “spoiled” as a potential wife and mother to a new line within the tribe.  

David Fails His Own Test of Leadership 
When David became aware of Amnon’s crime, he never acknowledged the crime publicly. Doing so would have obligated him to render justice: death to his beloved son. We are reminded of Psalm 101, which was examined in an earlier class. In this verse, David proclaims “I will sing of mercy and justice." He described these quintessential qualities of leadership; and yet, when tested, he could not honor his own pledge. David was angry with Amnon, to be sure, because his own daughter was the victim but also because he recognized that his failure to judge him compromised his leadership.  

Another component of Biblical justice is “Redemption by Blood,” which holds that the brother of a rape victim is charged with executing the perpetrator. Accordingly, Avshalom, who was fourth in line to the throne and Tamar’s full brother, orchestrated a ruse in which he arranged to have his men assassinate Amnon. This is yet another example of The Law of Consequences. (See Commentary of Tanakh class January 11.)

David was a great figure in our history. He united the tribes, founded the Judean Dynasty, and contributed to our liturgy. As a man, however, he was deeply flawed. He may have agonized over Amnon’s crime in part because they mirrored his own immorality. 

This is an appropriate lesson for our times: Our leaders should be honored when they inspire us, but not idealized. 

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784