Amnon and Thamar by Jan Steen

Jan Steen

Amnon and Thamar, c.1661–70, Oil on oak panel, 67 x 83 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud; Acquired in 1936 as part of the Carstanjen collection, WRM 2536, © Rheinisches Bildarchiv, rba_c010936

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Testosterone’s Toy

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Ellen T. Charry

Rape is a vile wrong in ancient Israel. In a society that lacked the rule of law, it prompts revenge killing through war in one instance and civil war in two other cases.

The rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) led to war against the Shechemites. The gang rape and slaughter of a wife of a Levite (Judges 19) ended in a protracted and vicious civil war. The duplicitous rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, both children of King David (2 Samuel 13), also led to civil war. Sexual incontinence becomes an excuse for self-serving political ends. Women are both abused (by our standard) and instrumentalized.

Rape is about the instability of male sexuality unleashed by unbridled testosterone. It is about female vulnerability to male physical strength and sexual lust. Male sexual instability concerned the biblical authors. Yet, these rape stories are about more than male self-indulgence. In the case of Amnon, the instability of male sexual lust is shown to go far beyond the gross violation of a woman’s mind and body. It is pernicious socially, politically, and religiously.

Amnon’s rape of Tamar, abetted by David and secured by lying to his comely half-sister, discloses this instability. Having gratified himself momentarily he reveals himself further by turning on his victim. His hatred of Tamar is interpretable as self-hatred at his own weakness projected onto her. She begs him to marry her to restore her place in society when women were believed to be dishonoured by rape. He retorts, ‘Get out of here’ (2 Samuel 13:15 own translation). She continues to beseech him but he orders his servant: ‘Get this thing out of here and bolt the door behind her’ (2 Samuel 13:17 own translation).

The biblical author’s blatant moral point about Amnon seems lost on the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan Steen. He insensitively depicts the servant as mocking the incident, distracting our attention from the unstable predator with a vaudeville comedy act. Sex is male amusement. Women are toys to Amnon and perhaps also to Steen.

Yet as bawdy as Steen’s painting is, there may be an element of truth here that women disregard at their peril.