The Legacy of Lust
“I polluted my life with the sewage of lust.”
The last chapters of 2 Samuel are a doleful chronicle of David’s affair with Bathsheba and the subsequent deterioration of his family. The record is presented in chronological sequence and the incidents are related by cause and effect. Wrong follows wrong like the tolling of a bell.
In the midst of this narration a horrific rape takes place—the violation of Tamar, David’s daughter by her half–brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1–22). It is a lurid portrayal of the effects of lust and stands as a vivid example of the ease with which it can pollute our bodies and ruin the lives of others.
Pascal pointed out that we have two problems: pride and lust. Pride makes us think we can find answers to life by ourselves and lust makes us look for answers in all the wrong things and in all the wrong places. Amnon’s story amply illustrates Pascal’s dictum.
The principal characters are Absalom, Tamar and Amnon. Absalom and Tamar were brother and sister, the children of Maacah, one of David’s wives. According to rabbinical tradition Tamar was the older of the two. The text says pointedly that she was a very beautiful woman.
Amnon, the third person in the story, was David’s first–born, the son of Ahinoam, another of David’s wives and thus Tamar’s half–brother.
“In the course of time,” we’re told, “Amnon…fell in love with Tamar.” It wasn’t love. It was lust. And with Tamar it was nothing doing.
Tamar was, as the text puts it, “a virgin”—a chaste young woman and therefore Amnon couldn’t “do anything to her.” He made himself sick lusting after her because she was “impossible.” She was, with Shulamite of Song of Songs fame, “a closed garden, walled all around.”
Amnon had a friend named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. (With a friend like that Amnon needed no enemies.) Jonadab was a very shrewd man. He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king's son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”
Amnon told Jonadab of his yearnings for his sister, whereupon Jonadab proffered a scheme: “Go to bed and pretend to be ill. When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so that I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”
So Amnon did as he was told: he pretended to be ill and asked his father, the king, to send his sister Tamar to feed him by hand. David indulged him compelling his daughter, the princess, to go to Amnon’s house, prepare a meal and feed it to him.
She went with some reluctance, it seems. She was, after all, a princess and the job she was assigned was beneath her. Also, she must have had some inkling of Amnon’s intentions. Men always signal their lust in some way.
Nevertheless, she did not disobey the king. She gathered up her cooking utensils and went to Amnon’s house. She wisely stayed outside his bedroom—within sight but not in his bed chamber—baked a couple of pancakes and “shook them out” for him as the Hebrew text indicates. (Do we detect a note of petulance here?)
Amnon refused to eat and sent everyone out of the room. Then he commanded Tamar to bring the food into his bedroom so she could feed him by hand. But when she got close enough, he grabbed her and said, “Get in bed with me, my sister.”
“Don’t do this, my brother. Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing,” she begs, using a word for wickedness that in Hebrew refers to acts that only unbelievers would do. Immorality may be acceptable among the Canaanites but not for God’s men.
What about me? “ she cries, “Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you. But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.”
Then, “Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her.” And he said to her, “Get out of here!” “No,” she cried, “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” To throw her out would further disgrace her, making it seem that she had seduced him.
But Amnon’s own shame overwhelmed him. He could not listen to her. He called his personal servant and told him to throw her out: “Get this woman out of here and bolt the door after her.”
Our English versions don’t and perhaps can’t capture the deep contempt expressed in the Hebrew text. The phrase “this woman” is simply “this!” referring to a thing and not to a person. This dehumanizing demonstrative is follow in the Hebrew text with a contemptuous expression, me’alai, used to dismiss those whose presence is offensive and obnoxious.
Odd, isn’t it, how quickly lust turns into revulsion. One rabbinical commentary notes that Amnon simply “projected on to Tamar the hatred which, now that the fever had left his blood, he felt for himself.” There’s wisdom in those words. Lust defiles us and we project that defilement onto others.
Shakespeare makes the same point in one of his sonnets,
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad. . .
—Sonnet 129, 1—8
Shakespeare breaks lust down into its “before” and “after” components and concludes that lust leads to actions that deplete us of “spirit” and then to shame and self–loathing. It’s that blame that we redirect at others. We despise ourselves and detest the objects of our lust.
So, at Amnon’s directive, Amnon’s servant threw Tamar out and locked her out, even though “she was wearing a richly ornamented robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore.” In other words, though she was a princess he treated her like a tramp. Tamar went out weeping aloud, shamed and broken, her life entirely ruined.
Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? (He uses a diminutive form of his half–brother’s name, “Aminon,” to express his contempt for this “little man.”) Be quiet now, my sister; he is your brother. Absalom’s primary concern was to keep the scandal quiet lest it bring reproach on the family. Absalom, it must be said, is revealed in scripture as an utterly self–centered man, dominated by selfish ambition.
He speaks in character when he dismisses her heartbreak with a curt, “Don’t take this thing to heart,” and then moves on to his own agenda—revenge. Absalom did, however, provide a home for Tamar: she “lived in her brother Absalom’s house,” but she lived “a desolate woman.” Though she later married, her life was ruined.
When King David heard about the rape of his daughter “he was furious, but he did nothing.” The Septuagint adds, “He did not trouble the spirit of Amnon his son because he loved him.” I wonder. Perhaps he remembered his own virtual rape of Bathsheba and was paralyzed by guilt. Conscience, as they say, makes cowards of us all.
Absalom also did nothing for a time, but his brooding hated of Amnon grew with every passing day. He bided his time and two years later he killed him an act of treachery for which David banished him, but that’s another story.
A lesson to be learned
Unbridled sexual passion brings ruin to us and to others. Unless it is checked it will work tragic loss. We have to deal with it.
The way to begin is to confess your trust in God and make a vow—as the patriarch Job did: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1-4).
Make a covenant; write it down; give it to a safe friend; stick it on your shaving mirror; tack it on your wall; type it into your computer and back it up.
Then trust God to carry you through because otherwise your vow will go right out the window. “To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing,” Mark Twain discovered. Unaided effort never lasts.
God takes our pledges seriously because he sees the intent of our hearts, but he knows they’re short–lived. He has a way of seeing to it that they come true. Take, for example, his covenant with Abraham.
Abraham was an moon–worshipping Chaldean when God called him out of Ur and sent him off to Canaan. “I will make you a great nation,” God promised, “and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you; and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2,3). “Now you go out and be a blessing,” he said.
God then wrote a contract with Abraham: He said, “Bring a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon”. Abraham brought all these and “cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other” (Genesis 15:11).
That’s the way contracts were made in those days—they were “cut” as the Hebrew idiom puts it. Animals were killed and cut apart and the partners to the contract walked together between the two halves of the dead animals to seal it. No one knows exactly why it was done that way, but the covenant was as binding as any contract we make today.
Abraham did what he was told: he killed and arranged the animals and waited… and waited…and waited. But God didn't show. Finally, “as the sun was setting, Abraham fell into a deep sleep…a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch (symbols of God's presence) appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham” (15:17).
God put Abraham to sleep and then walked between the animals. He negotiated the contract alone. Abraham had nothing to do but believe.
That’s the way it is with God. We make deals with him to do better, but he knows the failings of our flesh. He alone will see to it that the agreement is kept. We vow, but everything depends upon him.
It’s all in your mind
The next step in overcoming lust is to ask the Holy Spirit to purify our thoughts. As sin originates in the mind so the solution originates there.
Our predominant thoughts determine our ultimate actions. Everything comes out of the mind: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:34,35). Or, as the old proverb has it, “As a man thinks in his heart so is he” —all of which means that we must do something with our thoughts.
Sexually stimulating images abound in our world—impressions that prompt instantaneous, spontaneous sexual reactions. It’s impossible to evade them. Even when we do, our memories conjure them up. As the old woman in one of Aesop’s fables reminisced, “Ah, what memories cling ‘round the instruments of our pleasure.”
Simon Stylites, an early Christian monk, spent several years of his life perched on top of a fifty–foot pole to avoid the temptations of the flesh. It was a well–meant but meaningless exercise. He was tormented at night by mental images of dancing girls. C’est la vie!
Initial sexual arousal is not sin; it is temptation to sin. I find it important to say that again and again because many are guilt–ridden by reactions over which they have no control. It’s impossible to avoid the initial reaction to sexual stimuli. Libido is part of our God–given make–up and God doesn’t condemn us when it’s awakened. That’s the way he has wired us.
We will be stimulated through the day, but we can respond to all stimuli by slowing down our thought processes before they become sin. A sexual thought only becomes sin when we bring it into sharper focus, fix on it, imagine it, reflect on it, fantasize about it.
We have sinned only when we have looked at a woman “in order to lust after her.” Martin Luther pointed out to his young men that we cannot stop birds from flying over our heads but we can keep them from building nests in our hair. Here’s where our imaginations come into play. We must have grace to frustrate the thought before it grows into sin.
“Grace” is exactly the right word, because our only course is to turn our thoughts toward God and yield them up to him. Another way of stating the process is to turn temptation into prayer, thanking God for the gift of beauty, giving him the praise for all the lovely things he has created, turning our thoughts into intercession for the woman who captured our attention—that God will protect her from harm and fill her life with beauty of soul and spirit. Prayer changes us: it converts primal lust into a purer love.
Sexuality and spirituality
But perhaps, of all means, the pursuit of God serves best to quiet our more insistent sexual drives. Worship and adoration of Christ sublimates our other passions and begins to subdue them. There’s a close relationship between human sexuality and spirituality. Charles Williams observed, “Sensuality and sanctity are so closely intertwined that our motives in some cases can hardly be separated until the tares are gathered out of the wheat by heavenly wit.”
Sexual passion is in some small way a small representation of our spiritual passion for God, our urge to merge with him. Devotion to Christ serves to assuage our other passions.
Jesus said we cannot serve two masters; one or the other will dominate us. Uncontrolled sexual passions quell our love for God, whereas love for God diminishes lust’s power.
John Donne wrote,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I—
Except You enthrall me—never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.