The Murder of Amnon by his brother Absalom by Bernardo Cavallino

Bernardo Cavallino

The Murder of Amnon by his brother Absalom, 17th century, Oil on canvas, 103 x 133 cm, Private Collection, Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

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Sexually Transmitted Disease

Commentary by

More fish than Amnon sputter on the author’s grill. The rape of Tamar appears in the narrative immediately after Nathan’s double rebuke of David. David is condemned for adultery (perhaps also rape, although the text is silent about whether Bathsheba spared her own life by not resisting; 2 Samuel 11:4). And he is condemned for assassination (2 Samuel 11:15–17).

Some of David’s sons followed their father’s path. If the taking of Bathsheba reveals David’s moral illness and the rape of Tamar reveals Amnon’s moral illness, the assassination of Amnon is about Absalom’s moral turpitude.

After Amnon’s rape of Tamar, David refuses to punish his heir apparent. But Absalom, David’s third son and Tamar’s full brother, sees an opportunity. He begins to plot against Amnon (ostensibly in retaliation for the rape), and therefore also against David. He arranges a banquet where he has Amnon assassinated (2 Samuel 13:28–29). Slier and more ambitious than Amnon, he takes out his rival for the throne.

Bernardo Cavallino’s painting of this assassination is telling. The hit man, accoutred in medieval armour, has his face illuminated—by contrast with the host, the real assassin. The victim is seated at the head table across from the shady Absalom. It is Absalom’s long index finger, not his face, that catches the light as he points at his brother.

The mercenary surprises Amnon from behind, pulling him back by the hair (in what might be a wry anticipation of Absalom’s own future death, caught by his hair in the branches of a tree (2 Samuel 18:9–15)). He reaches for the weapon with which he will turn a convivial feast into the scene of a homicide. 

Thus the fratricidal Absalom (the name means ‘father of peace’!) uses his disgraced sister to advance his dynastic aspirations. Perhaps the various additional figures in attendance here include some of David’s other sons (we know of twenty-one by eighteen women, at least two of whom died in infancy). Their consternation is understandable.

Amnon is a manipulative liar and rapist. Absalom is an equally manipulative liar and murderer. Their father is a recognized adulterer and assassin. David’s monarchy cracks under its own weight.