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.


[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. 

Did David really care for Mephibosheth?

00000mephiboshethI tentatively suggested in my two prior posts that David may have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). As I understand it, narcissism is a spectrum and NPD is at one end. In the middle, or at the other end depending on how you devise the spectrum, is where the majority of people sit, with a healthy level of self-esteem and self-confidence. (Most of the information I have on narcissism and NPD comes from the excellent book by Dr Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism [1]). David, I think, was further along the spectrum than most people, heading towards the end where it becomes a personality disorder, or he was right there. It’s not uncommon for leaders, such as Presidents, Prime Ministers and monarchs, to have NPD. It’s their overblown ego which helps to get them there.

I suggested earlier that David’s ignorance of Mephibosheth’s existence – particularly surprising because his father Jonathan was supposedly one of David’s best friends – is a sign of David’s narcissism. However, a friend asked if that could be right seeing David seemed to genuinely care for Mephibosheth, who was disabled, “crippled in both feet” (2 Samuel 9:13). My initial reaction was that narcissists can be kind and caring, and it depends where they sit on the spectrum as to how much this will motivated by self-interest. My narcissistic friend, for example, was a really nice person most of the time and was a good friend to me at a time when I needed one. But as time progressed I learned that this is the typical modus operandii of a narcissist, and that they will often use kindness as a means of making you indebted to them so that you “owe” them your loyalty. I’m not sure that they do this consciously – it may very well be a learned subconscious mechanism. My friend, for example, would sometimes say “Remember I did such-and-such for you? Well, now I need you to do something for me.” They are good at keeping track of favours they’ve done, and will call it in when they need something in return.

Interestingly,  since I started exploring this angle, Dr Virginia Miller has sent me something she has written in her forthcoming book about David [2]. Dr Miller writes: “It is more likely that David only offered חסד [ḥesed usually translated mercy, but see below] to Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so and not because he was doing goodwill to Mephibosheth.” She makes the excellent observation that ḥesed is mentioned three times within a short space in 2 Samuel 9, referring to the covenant that David made with Jonathan, and the repetition has the effect of overstating it. This word, often translated as “mercy” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew Bible and Miller argues that from its context here it has the sense of covenant loyalty. She argues that the over emphasis on David’s pledge of loyalty suggests that David only offered to help Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so, making a display of honouring a covenant he made with Jonathan some twenty years earlier. The political situation at the time warranted a display of loyalty on David’s part but, as Miller suggests, he honours the covenant with Jonathan in word but not in spirit.

David’s “kindness” to Mephibosheth – giving him a place at David’s royal court – was effectively a means of keeping the grandson of the previous king under house arrest and under control, incapable of being a threat to David’s succession. David’s lack of genuine concern is revealed later in the story when, on the say-so of a servant who profited by telling lies about Mephibosheth, David handed all Mephibosheth’s property to the servant without questioning Mephibosheth or giving him an opportunity to defend himself (2 Samuel 16:1-4). When confronted about this later (2 Samuel 19:24-30) he still couldn’t admit to making a mistake (narcissists never do!) and in a face-saving gesture offered to return only half the confiscated property, allowing the lying servant to keep the rest.

Such duplicity is not uncharacteristic of David. One of the most famous incidents from his life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba who was married to Uriah, an officer in David’s army. David ordered for Uriah to be sent to the front lines in a battle, ensuring his death, and therefore demonstrating that even arranging the death of an innocent man was just a means to his narcissistic ends. As I see it, making a show of being kind to a potential threat to his throne, while also keeping him tightly under his control, is also characteristic of narcissism. Narcissists will use people in any way that suits their purposes. They are resources, means to an end. David’s treatment of both Uriah and Mephibosheth indicates this pattern of behaviour.

But narcissists are not necessarily thoroughly bad people, although they are generally deeply troubled. As many experts argue, their personality disorder most likely developed in response to childhood circumstances which produced in them a fear of abandoment and a lack of self-esteem. Their narcissism is a cover for feelings of inadequacy. There are some hints in the Bible that David’s childhood may have been troubled. In the story where the prophet Samuel went to the hometown of Jesse to find and anoint the future king of Israel (1 Samuel 16), Samuel invited Jesse and his sons to a communal event. After all Jesse’s sons were introduced to the prophet, Samuel asked “Are all your sons here?” to be told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (16:11). We never learn why David wasn’t invited along with his brothers to the event. Surely a worker could be found to look after the sheep! It makes me wonder if there was a reason why David wasn’t considered to be quite equal with his brothers. Then, in Psalm 51:5 [v.7 in the Hebrew], written (according to its title) by David after his adultery with Bathsheba had been exposed, he says “In sin I was born and in sin my mother conceived me.” Is there a hint here that David was conceived out of wedlock? Was he sent to keep the sheep when his brothers were invited to a party because as an illegitimate son he wasn’t regarded as fully one of them? If David was rejected as a child by his own family this could explain why he needed to prove himself and why he developed a personality disorder in order to convince himself that he was worthwhile, or even better than everyone else.


[1] Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Harper, 2016.

[2] Miller, Virginia, A King and a Fool? The Succession Narrative as a Satire. Biblical Interpretation Series 179, general editors Paul Anderson and Jennifer L. Koosed.  Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2019, 44-47 (forthcoming, due for publication in October).

David and Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection, c. 1594-96

I ended my previous post by suggesting that David exhibited classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). (Narcissism was named after a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.) I’m not a psychologist and don’t claim to have any qualifications to diagnose NPD, but I have had the misfortune of being the victim of a narcissist so I am somewhat qualified by virtue of my own unpleasant experience to be able to recognise narcissism when I see it. I won’t attempt here to detail all the clinical signs of NPD, but will simply outline those narcissistic characteristics which I detect in the story of King David.

The first thing that alerted me to the possibility, and which I mentioned in my previous post, was that Jonathan seemed to have become infatuated with David from the moment he met him. Narcissists are charming people. They collect friends easily. They are often the life of the party and love to be the centre of attention. Everyone loves them, initially, and it’s easy to become infatuated with one. If David was a narcissist I’m not surprised that Jonathan thought he was amazing: they are, or at least that’s what they want you to believe, and they are pretty good at winning people over almost immediately. In time, however, if you have become a part of a narcissist’s network (a lot of people call it their “web”) you will discover that although they initially seemed to be genuinely interested in you it was only part of a strategy to obtain your loyalty and devotion. They are not genuinely interested in anyone other than themselves, but they will show an interest in you in order to draw you into their network because they need admirers and “resources”, people who will loyally do their bidding. I noticed in the story of Jonathan and David that after Jonathan’s death, well after it seems, David had to make enquiries about whether Jonathan had any offspring. True friends would know that! You know if your friends have children, you know their names, you know about their school or career, and if they play a musical instrument. But David knew nothing about Jonathan’s children: he didn’t even know if he had any!

Because they are so focussed on themselves narcissists inevitably clash with friends and family. Often there will be one drama after another, one relationship breakup after another, and it will never be their fault! Narcissists have an inability to handle any criticism, so if you say or do something to upset them they will find a way to punish you. Typically they will give you “the silent treatment”. In my experience, my narcissistic friend would refuse to speak with me for months on end; no replies to emails or messages, and wouldn’t answer phone calls. They will decide when the punishment has gone on long enough, and often they will make contact again (and “forgive” you) when they need something from you. We get a hint that David was like this in the story about when he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and danced in the streets in celebration. His wife Michal (who, incidentally, was Saul’s daughter and Jonathan’s sister) thought he was making a fool of himself, and said so. Big mistake! The account of this incident ends with the chilling line that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:16-23). In the context that line gives the impression that David didn’t sleep with her ever gain. Typical narcissistic punishment.

One by one a narcissist’s friends will leave them, or try to. Narcissists are simply too demanding, there will be constant drama, tension and friction, and you have to get away, for your own sanity. They will never understand why but will act as though they have been betrayed, as though their closest friend had put a dagger through their heart. This is almost certainly what happened when David’s friend Ahithophel sided with David’s son Absalom when Absalom attempted, with a great deal of popular support, to seize the throne from his father. I personally think Psalm 55 – about the betrayal of a close friend who became an enemy – may have been written by David bemoaning the betrayal by Ahithophel. Read it and see if you think it fits.

David’s family was disfunctional. His children attempted coups against him; his friends abandoned him. At the end of his life his courtiers had to find a young woman to sleep with him to keep him warm, suggesting none of his wives would do it. He died alone, and cold. This is what often happens to narcissists. Often even their own children steer clear of them. They sometimes die in prison cells, or while committing a crime (they tend to be reckless); often alone and lonely.

Perhaps I’m reading the story of David through the lens of my own experiences with a narcissistic friend (ex-friend now – I was finally able to end the friendship on my own terms). I may be misjudging David. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who is qualified or who has had experience dealing with a narcissist.

David and Jonathan


Frederic Leighton, Jonathan’s Token to David, c. 1868

I am in two (or three) minds about the story of David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel. On one hand the description of their friendship is unique in the Hebrew Bible and displays an uncharacteristic intensity. I can understand why many writers have concluded that it was a homosexual relationship. Their relationship has been explored and commented on in scores of commentaries and articles, and it is well beyond the scope of this post to examine the history of scholarship on the matter, or to summarise all the arguments. When I say I am in two (or three) minds about the story it is because I see merit in three interpretations of the account of their friendship. They are not necessarily contradictory, and all three may be right, or at least contain elements which are harmonious. I will briefly summarise these three positions and am happy to provide references or further details in the comments section.

1. There are several elements in the D&J story which suggest an intensity beyond any other friendship between two men in the Bible. It begins with what seems to be their first meeting, at least as far as the record in 1 Samuel portrays it. Having just killed Goliath, and with Goliath’s severed head still in his hands, David was summoned to meet King Saul. He had barely introduced himself (“I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” 1 Sam. 17:58) when Jonathan appears to have been immediately smitten.

“When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul“ (18:1-3).

Twice in three verses we are told that Jonathan loved him, but not why. We don’t even get any hint from the record that they had even spoken to each other at this point, and the repetition of “Jonathan loved him as his own soul” seems intentionally designed to emphasise that just seeing David and hear him speak was enough for Jonathan to fall head-over-heals in love with him. In addition to telling us that Jonathan loved David, the writer uses a variety of terms to describe the attraction: “Jonathan took great delight in David” (19:1), and David “found favour in his [Jonathan’s] eyes” (20:3). After Jonathan’s death David lamented that “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). These words, perhaps more than any others, have convinced many readers that theirs was a homosexual relationship.

Some commentators read 1 Samuel 18:4 as homoerotic  – “Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” – while others see it as an act of allegiance, Jonathan seeing himself as a subordinate treaty partner. The use of the terms “servant,” “brother,” and even “love” would be appropriate in the context of a treaty, especially as 20:7-8 later describes a covenant between them. Joab’s speech to David (2 Samuel 19:6 [v.7 in Hebrew]) refers to David’s army as those who love him, so it is argued that Jonathan’s love for David was of the same type, that is, one of loyal devotion to a charismatic leader.

2. This leads to the second interpretation of the D&J relationship which I think has considerable merit. Lieut. Cmdr. Nathan Solomon, a military chaplain with the US Navy, wrote about the special bonds that often develop between soldiers in combat situations in “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship” [1] and argues that “no existing study of the relationship between David and Jonathan takes seriously their combat experience as a key to the friendship.” He writes:

It is in the chaos of combat and loss that friendships are forged that are unwieldy and intrusive in civilian life.  The language used to describe friendships in the civilian world simply cannot carry the freight these relationships ask them to bear.  Lacking the ability to verbalize the intensity with integrity, cultures default to language and categories with which they are familiar. The result is that the vocabulary of romance and kinship is often appropriated to describe what arises between comrades on the battlefield because no other suitable language or category exists.

Based on his work as a military chaplain working with men who have experienced the trauma of combat and the close bonds that are forged on the battlefield, he suggests that the friendship of David and Jonathan was not a homosexual relationship, but rather it “might be fruitfully analyzed as an intense friendship of the type forged in trauma, for it is the trauma that seems, in large part, to create and cement the friendship.” I personally think that Nathan Solomon’s perspective has a lot of merit.

3. We also need to consider the D&J story from a literary perspective and consider the role that it plays in the overall context of Samuel. What is the writer’s reason for writing the book, and what role does this friendship play for the writer in making his point, whatever that “point” is? There are a couple of things we need to note here about the D&J story within its overall context. First, we should note that the writer of Samuel reports a number of times that Jonathan loved David (adding in 20:17 that “he loved him as he loved his own life”), but never that David loved Jonathan. Was it a one-sided infatuation?  Interestingly, Patricia Tull notes that the Bible doesn’t actually describe David and Jonathan’s relationship in terms of “friendship.” [2] Even in David’s lament on the death of Jonathan, he says that it was Jonathan who loved him, not that he loved Jonathan – “your love to me was wonderful”. The closest he comes to mirroring Jonathan’s love was to say נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד “You were very nice to me” which hardly seems to be the kind of thing you’d say to your lover! Elsewhere in 1 Samuel we are given details of Jonathan acting rashly (for example, he is introduced to the reader when he attacked the Philistine garrison at Michmash prematurely without waiting for his father, in 13:2-3). It is part of a narrative which depicts Saul’s rejection as king, and Jonathan’s unsuitability to succeed him. The purpose of the story about Jonathan falling in love with David after the briefest of encounters may have been to further highlight his unsuitability as a future king, because he was impetuous and driven by emotions, while also serving the dual purpose of showing why David was so suitable for the job – even the heir to the throne loved him!

We learn another interesting thing about David from this relationship. Later in the story, long after Jonathan’s death, David enquired “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1). The story goes on to provide details of a surviving son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth (aka, Meribaal). What strikes me as particularly odd about this is that if David and Jonathan were lovers how likely would it be that he knew nothing about Jonathan’s son, and did not even enquire about him until what seems to be a considerable time later? This could further support the theory that Jonathan was infatuated with David, but that it wasn’t reciprocal. It could also imply that if D&J were indeed close friends, or even lovers, that David was a narcissist and didn’t care much for Jonathan beyond the fact that he enjoyed having him as an admirer. That would make sense of many of the other details of the story in which David seems totally incapable of forging “normal” or enduring relationships. His family is disfunctional, close friends eventually abandon him, and he dies alone and lonely; classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. That, however, would open another can of worms. Perhaps another time.


[1] “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship,” in Probing the Frontiers of Biblical Studies (ed. J. Harold Ellens and John T. Greene; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 111; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 21–32. See also Solomon, Nathan. ““Only God Can Judge Me”: Faith, Trauma, and Combat.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69, no. 1 (2015): 63-75.

[2] Tull, Patricia K. “Jonathan’s Gift of Friendship.” Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology 58, no. 2 (2004): 130-143.