Interpreting 2 Samuel 13:1-22

“But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad, for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had violated his sister Tamar.” (2 Samuel 13:22 ESV).

I was a little surprised to come across a reference to a Cotterell and Turner’s book ‘Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation‘ in Bill Arnold’s commentary on 2 Samuel 13. In my final year at Moore College this was one of our text books for the course ‘Hermeneutics’. I might have begun studying the subject there but I certainly did not finish it then. Time and again through the ensuing 30 years I have found myself reflecting upon this subject of Hermeneutics (or Interpretation).

2 Samuel 13 is a chapter which raises questions of interpretation and so perhaps it is not that surprising to find it used as a ‘case study’ in Cotterell and Turner’s book. I must have read this section a long time ago (I even had a small note in the margin) but I had no recollection of doing so. Their analysis can be found on pages 248-253 and is meant to be illustrative of typical elements which occur in narrative discourse.

Years ago I found some of the earlier chapters in this book by Cotterell and Turner to be very helpful as I stepped into this field. But, as I returned to read their discussion of 2 Samuel 13:1-22 (the rape of Tamar), I have not found this section helpful. I found it a bit stretched and fabricated, and marred by some aspects which do not fit the biblical account. In 2 Samuel 13:2 the narrative informs us that Tamar ‘was a virgin’, but how does this lead to the extraordinary proposal that ‘the reference to her virginity is a cynical commentary on the morals of the royal court’ (p 250). I do not see any justification for this and it distorts the whole scene (eg 13:12 – ‘what is done in Israel’ loses its weight). Surely it is more significant to note that the ‘virgin’ reference in verse 2 connects to verse 18 and the virgin reference surely needs to be read in light of Deuteronomy 22:13-21.

This is not the only issue I have with their analysis. They have relied heavily on the thesis Conroy (Absalom! Absalom!) and they refer to verses 3-5 as conveying ‘an impression of an unimpressive, easily dominated Amnon’ (p 251). This is because the episode has been ‘quite deliberately crafted in a stolid, unimaginative way’ to create this sense. There is a lot of interpretation happening in describing it this way. Is this really what is happening? Especially, when they themselves go on to note that the ‘easily dominated’ Amnon makes an alteration to Jonadab’s proposal asking not for bread but ‘for a couple of cakes’. It seems to me that more can be made of the theme of deceit and pretence than focussing on the ‘stolid’ nature it is described. (I do find myself wondering what a non-stolid crafting would look like.)

I could go on but, suffice to say, I have not found their analysis very satisfactory. I did sense that they were summing up a lot of Conroy’s material and condensing it (they acknowledge Conroy and have a number of footnote references). The final paragraph they wrote did have some lines with which I had stronger agreement and are worth quoting:

“Here in this minimal story we have an example of great writing. …Although the central event is itself uncomplicated, it is only careful attention to the text, context and context, careful attention that is focussed by some knowledge of linguistics, that enables the reader fully to appreciate the communication being effected.” (p 253).

I’ll continue with some reflections on 2 Samuel 13 in later posts. In terms of interpretation, I have found it a challenging chapter, but, when it comes to Biblical Hermeneutics, I wholeheartedly agree with Cotterell and Turner: we need ‘careful attention to the text’.

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