David, Amnon, Tamar and Absalom – narcissism and its family consequences

Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone

The murder of Amnon at the Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone (17th century Flemish artist)

According to the book of Samuel, David’s family life was a mess! The biblical records don’t hide the facts that David was an adulterer, a murderer, a terrible father, a lousy husband and not much of a king either. On the positive side, it seems he was a pretty good musician and song-writer, but not much else is said in his favour. In this post I want to comment on a major incident which devastated David’s family, and relate it to my personal knowledge of what it’s like being in the family of a narcissist.  I should emphasise that as far as I’m aware there are no narcissists in my immediate family, and my understanding of what may have been going on in David’s life is based on my experience as the friend of a narcissist, and my knowledge of how he interacted with his family. I’d love to co-operate with a psychologist/psychiatrist to explore this further, so if you’re reading this and have professional qualifications dealing with NPD I’d like to hear from you.

Amnon, David’s eldest son and heir, has been described as “a chip off the old block” [1]. He was one of six sons born at Hebron to six different wives. Most of what we know about Amnon comes from one incident, but the story provides several important details which indicate that he was very similar to his father. Amnon was in love (or infatuated with) his half-sister Tamar and connived with a cousin (Jonadab) to get Tamar, with David’s knowledge and consent, to visit him while he was “sick” in bed. When Tamar visited Amnon in his bedroom Amnon raped her, but then his “love” – or lust – turned immediately to disgust and hate and he sent her away. We learn that when David heard about this he was incensed, but did nothing. Interestingly, two ancient versions of the story – the Septuagint and a scroll from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) – adds a note to the story that David did nothing because he didn’t want to upset Amnon whom he loved. With or without this note, David is portrayed as weak and this sets the stage for Tamar’s full-brother Absalom (David’s third son and Amnon’s half-brother) to conspire to murder Amnon two years later in an act of vengeance for his sister. (The full story is in 2 Samuel 13 and has been described as a “masterpiece of drama, suspense, and irony … The literary and dramatic climax … is approached with a drawn-out, suspense-building account of the scene and the dialogue in Amnon’s bedroom.” [2])

The parallels between this story and the earlier account of how David lured Bathsheba to his bed, and then murdered her husband Uriah, are striking. Both father and son were driven by lust, both crossed legal and moral boundaries, and both stories end in murder. It’s not unusual, apparently, for a narcissistic parent to have a narcissistic child (although the opposite can also be the case – having a narcissistic parent can drive a child to the other end of the spectrum – and it can also happen that one child of a narcissist also turns out to be a narcissist while their sibling is the opposite). One of the major characteristics of a narcissist is their belief that the rules don’t apply to them, and both David and Amnon ignored the rules about adultery and incest. Probably related to this is the fact that narcissists are generally impetuous and reckless (and it’s not unusual for them to die as the result of committing a crime). Their recklessness and attitude to rules is particularly the case with respect to sex and they are often known to be promiscuous. It seems that Amnon was very much a chip off the old block. Perhaps this is why the record in Samuel hints that David had an idea of what Amnon was planning, but ignored it.

The second part of the story – which is contrasted with the suspenseful and dramatic account of the rape by being markedly matter-of-fact – describes Absalom’s plot to murder Amnon at a banquet to which all his brothers were invited. Significantly, David was also invited to the banquet but declined. In an interesting article about ancient near eastern customs of hospitality, Anne Gudme notes that it was polite to first decline an invitation to a meal, but then to accept the invitation when pressed. [3] Declining the invitation on David’s part was therefore not unexpected, but then continuing to decline would have been insulting. If he had attended we could speculate about how things might have been different and if Amnon would still have been murdered in the presence of the king. However, perhaps Absalom expected David to decline. Anyone who knows a narcissist would also know that if it isn’t their idea they will either avoid it, or try to change the plan. In my own experience, it was almost humorous but I came to expect my narcissistic friend to change the arrangements for meeting up even when I was well on my way there. If I suggested eating Thai, he would say he’d prefer Italian. If I suggested Italian he’d want Indian. I remember once, soon after my birthday, he said he wanted to take me out for dinner and because it was my birthday I could choose to go anywhere. On our way to the venue of my choice (a place with a lot of good food options that suited my preferences), he changed the plan and we went somewhere that had nothing I could eat! David’s response to Absalom’s invitation therefore doesn’t surprise me. It wasn’t his idea, so he wasn’t going! His excuse was that it would be a “burden” on Absalom to have him and his entourage attend, but then the story is careful to point out that Absalom prepared a feast, as the Septuagint puts it, “fit for a king” (v. 27). It clearly wasn’t a burden at all; David simply didn’t want to go because it wasn’t his party.

After Amnon’s murder Absalom fled to Geshur (his maternal grandfather was king of Geshur) where he stayed for three years to avoid any consequences. But David’s response was passive and he is portrayed as detached. Absalom was later persuaded by David’s general to return from exile, althoug even then David refused to see him for two years (a typical narcissistic “punishment”). Thereafter Absalom became a popular leader and obtained a great deal of support when he attempted a coup against his father David. Absalom was killed during the attempted coup and on hearing the news of his death the story includes a poignant lament by David: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I have no doubts that David’s grief was genuine. The poignancy of these words, however, highlights for me how inadequate he was as a father, and how he could be detached and uninvolved in the lives of his children except to punish them (ironically by being even more detached!), yet yearned for a relationship with them. Again, this is typical of narcissists. They expect their children to love them, while being detached except to punish them. It’s sad, and difficult for a friend to watch them saboutage their relationships. In a later post I may write about David’s friend Joab, and how he tried to “fix” the mess that David created around him, but failed, and how even this loyal friendship eventually ended.

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[1] For example, by Gray, Mark. “Amnon: a Chip Off the Old Block? Rhetorical Strategy in 2 Samuel 13.7-15 the Rape of Tamar and the Humiliation of the Poor.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 23, no. 77 (1998): 39-54. Gray cited an earlier use of the expression by J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Assen:Van Gorcum, 1981), p. 99.

[2] Howard, David M. “Amnon” in Freedman, David Noel ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992, volume 1, 196.

[3] Gudme, Anne Katrine de Hemmer. “Invitation to Murder: Hospitality and Violence in the Hebrew Bible.” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology  (2019): 1-20. 

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