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Déverbaliser – reverbaliser

Svetlana Vogeleer
Laurent Béghin

The rape of Tamar in translation: Reformation renderings of the corruption of wisdom at king David’s court

Paul Arblaster


Les traducteurs des XVIe et XVIIe siècles qui traduisaient la Bible en langues vernaculaires disposaient de plusieurs outils, tels que le texte et le paratexte, pour rendre les anciens textes compréhensibles à leur public. Un point controversé de l’interprétation biblique était le mot wise employé pour caractériser Jonadab, dont le conseil avait aidé Amnon, le fils du roi David, à violer sa demi-sœur Tamar. Certains traducteurs utilisèrent wise (wijs en néerlandais, prudent en français, weise en allemand), sans autre explication ; certains autres ajoutèrent une note en marge ou une autre indication pour signaler le problème que posait ce mot ; d’autres encore optèrent pour un mot à connotation moins positive, tel que subtle, rusé ou gescheit. Ces différentes approches n’étaient pas déterminées par l’appartenance confessionnelle du traducteur. Cependant, les traducteurs de tradition réformée se montraient plus sensibles à cette difficulté que les traducteurs évangéliques ou catholiques. Ils avaient aussi une tendance plus marquée à interpréter la réponse de Tamar qui suivit le viol comme transgression de l’interdiction de l’inceste dans Lévitique, au lieu de la prendre à la lettre ; mais ils n’étaient certainement pas les seuls à le faire.

Texte intégral

Certain biblical texts are seldom read,

and never on a Sunday.

(West et al. 2004, p. 36)

1. Introduction

1The theme of this volume is translation as an act of violence, but the topic to be addressed here is the translation of an act of violence, or at least of the narrative of an act of violence. The violence of the story quite eclipses any violence on the part of the translators, but it will nevertheless reveal something of the ways in which Reformation-era translators of the Bible sought to make their texts transparent to their readers.

2. The story

2Chapter 13 of the Second Book of Samuel recounts one of the more striking of the many striking episodes in the history of King David: the story of how David’s daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon, David’s firstborn. Violence begetting violence, the repercussions of this crime had within a few years come close to tearing the royal house of David apart, setting brother against brother and son against father in murder and a civil war that ended with David’s famous cry of woe, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” The dynastic debacle, as presented in 2 Samuel, follows closely upon the better-known story of David’s abuse of the kingship to sleep with Bathsheba and have her husband murdered (2 Samuel 11-12). The story of the rape itself is a complex interplay of dialogues and actions, among these the giving of advice, the cooking of food, the bolting of doors, the tearing of clothing, ending in the triple silence of the inconsolable Tamar, the angry King David, and the hating Absalom (Trible 1984, p. 36-63; Bar-Efrat 1997, p. 239-282; Alter 2011, p. 100-101).

  • 1 Excerpt from The New Jerusalem Bible, copyright 1985 (cf. NJB 1985). Reprinted by Permission.

3The New Jerusalem Bible, a modern English translation based on work at the École Biblique in Jerusalem, renders the account in 2 Samuel 13:1b-22 as follows:1

Absalom son of David had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; Amnon son of David fell in love with her. Amnon was so obsessed with his sister Tamar that it made him ill, since she was a virgin and Amnon thought it impossible to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend called Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother, and Jonadab was a very shrewd man. “Son of the king,” he said, “tell me why, morning after morning, you look so worn? Won’t you tell me?” Amnon replied, “I am in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” Then Jonadab said, “Take to your bed, pretend to be ill and, when your father comes to visit you, say, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat; let her prepare the food where I can see. What she gives me I shall eat.’”

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. The king then came to visit him and Amnon said to the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a cake or two where I can watch. What she gives me, I shall eat.” David then sent word to Tamar at the palace, “Go to your brother Amnon’s house and prepare some food for him.”

Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon who was lying there in bed. She took dough and kneaded it, and she made some cakes while he watched, and baked the cakes. She then took the pan and dished them up in front of him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, “Let everyone leave me!” So everyone withdrew.

Amnon then said to Tamar, “Bring the food to the inner room, so that I can eat what you give me.” So Tamar took the cakes which she had made and brought them to her brother Amnon in the inner room. And as she was offering the food to him, he caught hold of her and said, “Come to bed with me, sister!” She replied, “No, brother! Do not force me! This is no way to behave in Israel. Do not do anything so disgraceful! Wherever should I go? I should be marked with this shame, while you would become disgraced in Israel. Why not go and speak to the king? He will not refuse to give me to you.” But he would not listen to her; he overpowered her and raped her.

Amnon was then seized with extreme hatred for her; the hatred he now felt for her was greater than his earlier love. “Get up and go!” he said. She said, “No, brother! To send me away would be worse than the other wrong you have done me!” But he would not listen to her. He called his personal servant. “Rid me of this woman!” he said. “Throw her out and bolt the door behind her!” She was wearing a magnificent dress, for this was what the king’s unmarried daughters wore in days gone by. So the servant put her out and bolted the door behind her. Tamar put dust on her head, tore the magnificent dress which she was wearing, laid her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you? Sister, be quiet; he is your brother; do not take the matter to heart!” Tamar, however, went back to her brother Absalom’s house inconsolable. When King David heard the whole story, he was very angry; but he had no wish to harm his son Amnon, whom he loved because he was his first-born. Absalom, however, would not so much as speak to Amnon, since he hated Amnon for having raped his sister Tamar.

3. Renaissance and Reformation renderings

4The twenty-first-century epigraph above suggests that this episode is today little known. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the story was a familiar theme in art and literature. Depictions in church carving and in manuscript illumination go back to the Middle Ages (Kaske 1989-1990), and in the period under consideration two print series depicted each episode of the narrative, from Amnon’s conversation with Jonadab to his murder by Absalom. One of these series, published in 1540, was produced by the German engraver Heinrich Aldegrever, and one print from this series was copied in the seventeenth century by Christoffel Van Sichem the Younger. The other series, engraved after designs by Maarten van Heemskerck, was published by Hieronymus Cock in 1559. Aldegrever’s figures look like Renaissance royalty, with nothing but the captions to indicate that the events depicted took place in ancient Judea. Conversely, the Amnon of Heemskerck’s design is first seen sporting a plumed turban, symbolizing an Asiatic setting, and other figures are shown in a mishmash of Greek and Roman styles of dress, conveying that this is Ancient Times. Both series, in their different ways, make much of the “magnificent dress” that Tamar would come to rend. The problems of the translator are in some sense analogous to the problems of the artist: how to convey an ancient story in a different, modern idiom.

5At least two popular versions of the story were circulating in print around 1500: that in the life of David as recounted in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, which was available in a number of Western European vernaculars, including an English translation by William Caxton, and that in a sensationalizing collection of Old Testament narratives known in English as The ix. drunkardes, itself the translation of a now lost Dutch work. In the seventeenth century the story was adapted for the stage by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina as La Venganza de Tamar (1621). But artistic renderings and popular retellings aside, the concern of the present paper is how Bible translators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conveyed the meaning of the passage to their readers.

4. Biblical paratext

6This was a period in which a wide variety of competing Bible translations were produced from different confessional or denominational perspectives. It was also a period that saw the rise to prominence of a claim that the Bible, taken as a whole, was a self-explaining text. Those building upon Luther’s ideas, in particular, held that the meaning of Scripture was plain to the eyes of faith, with any lack of understanding being a defect in the reader rather than in the text. While an individual passage might be thorny, another passage, perhaps in a different book of the Bible, would always clarify. Oddly, for a text that was taken to be self-explaining, translators went to considerable trouble to add explanatory apparatus. Various types of paratext adorn the pages of Reformation Bible translations (Genette 1987). These include chapter summaries to tell the reader what the main point of a passage might be, marginal annotations to explain a particular word or phrase, and most importantly, given the principle that one part of the Bible could always be explained by another, marginal cross-references to parallel, similar, or elucidatory passages in other parts of the Bible. Most also included illustrations, so that readers could more easily visualise the events or items described.

7The three types of paratext – chapter summary, marginal gloss, and cross-reference – can be illustrated from the English translation known as the Geneva Bible, published in Calvin’s Geneva in 1560 by Reformed refugees from Marian England. They summarised 2 Samuel 13 (with the verse numbers of the key events) as:

  • 2 Cf. Geneva Bible 1560.

14. Amnón Davids sonne defileth his sister Thamár. 19. Thamár is comforted by her brother Absalóm. 29. Absalóm therefore killeth Amnón.2

8The various explanatory annotations include one for verse 3 (“she was a virgin”) explaining that she was “therefore kept in her fathers house, as virgins were accustomed” (a cultural difference from Renaissance Europe, where unmarried princesses might ride to hounds or hunt with the crossbow). The cross-reference “Levi.18.9.” is provided to verse 12 (“do not force me, for no suche thing oght to be done in Israél”), giving the relevant elucidatory passage as the incest prohibition of Leviticus 18:9: “Thou shalt not discover the shame of thy sister the daughter of thy father, or the daughter of thy mother”.

5. Rendering wisdom

9While I hope soon to complete a thorough comparison of the procedures or strategies adopted in early-modern translations of this passage, at this preliminary stage, the analysis is limited to the translation of a single word used to characterise the incidental figure of Amnon’s friend Jonadab in 2 Samuel 13:3. This word is ākām. It occurs 51 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated either as wise (when used, for example, of Solomon), or as skilful (when used of artists or craftsmen). It was a well-rehearsed crux in rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that Jonadab is introduced as very wise (ākām mĕ’ōd), but then goes on to devise a scheme that puts Tamar in Amnon’s clutches. The standard rabbinical solution was to gloss very wise as clever in evil-doing (Bar-Efrat 1997, p. 247-250). Consulting the translations produced in major Western European languages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shows that a number of the translators were sensitive to the irony of describing Jonadab as wise, given the outcome of his plan. Some modern commentators have argued that the irony is deliberate (Moore 2015, p. 176), but for several early-modern translators it created a dissonance that made intervention necessary.

10The earliest English Bible translations in print all use the word wise to characterise Jonadab: the Coverdale Bible of 1535, the Matthew Bible of 1537, the Great Bible of 1539 and the Taverner Bible, also 1539. Nevertheless, that sixteenth-century readers were not unperplexed by this is attested by the Great Bible of 1539, which retains Coverdale’s phrasing but brackets “Jonadab was a” with manicules, a paratextual indication that the reader should pay special attention. As is explained in “A prologue, expressynge what is meant by certayn signes and tokens that we have set in the Byble” (sig. *5v):

  • 3 Cf. Great Bible 1539.

We have also (as ye maye se) added many handes both in the mergent of thys volume, and also in the text, upon the which, we purposed to have made in the ende of the Byble (in a table by them selves) certen godly annotacions: but for so moch as yet there hath not bene soffycient tyme minystred to the Kynges moost honorable councell for the oversyght and correccyon of the sayde annotacyons, we wyll therfore omyt them, tyll their more convenient leysour. Doing now no more but beseke the moost gentle reader, that when thou commest at soch a place where a hande doth stande (or any other where, in the Byble) & thou canst not attayne to the meanynge and true knowledge of that sentence, then do not rashly presume to make any pryvate interpretacyon therof: but submyt thy selfe to the judgement of those that are godly learned in Christ Jesu.3

11We are left guessing what the annotation would have said. Perhaps this is one of the places that led the 1542 Convocation of Clergy to include sapientia on a list of the words to be treated with special care in any future translation (Wilkins 1737, p. 860-862). The 1539 Taverner Bible, that makes up for the Great Bible’s missing appendix with a number of marginal glosses, allows very wyse to stand unmarked and unglossed; but instead Jonadab becomes Amnon’s companion, rather than frende, suggesting doubts as to how well-meant his advice might have been.

12The next generation of Protestant English Bible translations abandoned the word wise and instead opted for subtle to translate ākām in this passage. The 1560 Geneva Bible was the first to do so. The mainstream Anglican translations, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 and the King James Bible of 1611, on this point followed the Geneva Bible’s lead. Modern English translations continue to do so, the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB 1985), quoted at length above, has very shrewd, while the Revised Standard Version, for example, uses very crafty. A deliberately subversive rewriting of the passage that seeks to “fill in the silences” of the biblical text manages to get in sneaky, clever and crafty (Cooper-White 1995, p. 2; cf. Bertrand 2009). While ākām occurs fifty-one times in the Hebrew Bible, subtle occurs only three times in the King James Bible, most memorably in Genesis 3, where it designates the craftiness or cleverness of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The choice to use the same word in 2 Samuel 13 transforms Jonadab into an analogue of the serpent, holding out a way to forbidden fruit – giving him a much darker prominence in the story than he might otherwise hold.

  • 4 Cf. Bible de Genève 1588.

13The one later English translation to stick with wise was, oddly, the Douai Bible of 1609. This was produced by Catholic scholars in exile at Rheims and Douai, and is a translation explicitly based not on the Hebrew text but on the Latin Vulgate, which has Jonadab as vir prudens, reserving sapiens for the wisdom of Solomon. It is uncharacteristic of the Douai version’s almost literal faithfulness to the Latinity of the Vulgate that it does not have prudent here. Most French translations consulted, both Catholic and Protestant, do have prudent (Stapulensis 1530; Stapulensis 1534; Olivétan 1535; Louvain 1550; Estienne 1567; Port Royal 1730). The Calvinist Bible qui est toute la Saincte Escriture (Estienne 1567) offers the marginal alternative ou rusé, and the 1588 Bible de Genève, Theodore Beza’s translation, takes this a step further by moving rusé into the text itself, and providing a marginal annotation to explain that the original Hebrew word meant wise but could also be used in a negative sense: “Heb. sage car les Hebrieux prenent ces mots de sage & sagesse aussi bien en mauvaise qu’en bonne part”.4

14The Dutch translations consulted, both Catholic and Protestant, all stick with wijs (Liesvelt 1526; Vorsterman 1528; Liesvelt 1542; Leuven 1548; Biestkens 1560; Deux-aes 1562; Statenvertaling 1637). The 1637 Statenvertaling, commissioned as a new and rigorously Reformed translation at the Synod of Dort in 1618, adds a relatively lengthy marginal annotation explaining that the word wise here should be taken to mean crafty, clever in thinking up evil schemes, since a truly wise person would have rebuked Amnon and perhaps even warned the king:

  • 5 Cf. Statenvertaling 1637.

hier, seer listich ende kloeck, om eenen quaden raet te vinden, gelijck hij hier gedaen heeft in plaetse dat hy Amnon behoorde bestraft, ende dit feyt afgeraden te hebben, jae selfs den Coninck, des noot, daer van gewaerschouwt.5

15The tendency does seem to have been for Reformed translations, in particular, to be nervous about the use of wise to refer to Jonadab. There is no single confessional line, however. Among German translations, influential Lutheran, Reformed and Catholic translators all used some form of weise in reference to Jonadab (Luther 1534; Zürcher 1534; Dietenberger 1534; Piscator 1603). The exception here is the Catholic Johann Eck, who opted for gescheider – a word closer to cleverness than to wisdom. The Spanish Bible translator Casiodoro de Reina, a Protestant but an anti-Calvinist, drew heavily on the Ladino Ferrara Bible of 1553 for his own 1569 translation (Wilson 1963), but nevertheless rejected its use of sabio mucho, going with muy astuto instead. The one Italian version consulted, Antonio Brucioli’s translation, has sapiente.

6. Listening to Tamar

16That the Reformed were more sensitive than others to the difficulty of the word wise and its cognates in this particular passage – either not using it, or glossing it when using it – might be related to Calvin’s own difficulty with it (Parsons 2002). He preached two sermons on the text in the late summer of 1562 (Calvin 1992, p. 613-643). In the first he condemns Jonadab for abusing his mental gifts by using them to lower himself to the position of a pimp. In the other he manages to portray Tamar as the worst sinner in the story. Calvin was certain that a marriage between Amnon and Tamar would have contravened the laws both of nature and of God (given the incest prohibition in Leviticus 18). This made Jonadab doubly at fault, for facilitating a union that would by its nature have been sinful even had Tamar been willing. And Tamar, shockingly – in Calvin’s view, inexcusably – twice pleads with her half-brother to marry her. Before the rape she tells him to speak to the king to ask for her hand, asserting that the king would not withhold it. After the rape, when Amnon has her put out of the house, she asserts that “to send me away would be worse than the other wrong you have done me”. In this reading, Amnon’s revulsion after the rape does not compound his crime but mitigate it.

17There is a biblical text that explains Tamar’s perspective, but it is not one that any of the translators reference. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 reads (in the New Jerusalem Bible):

  • 6 Cf. NJB 1985.

If a man meets a young virgin who is not betrothed and seizes her, sleeps with her and is caught in the act, her ravisher must give the girl’s father fifty silver shekels; since he has exploited her, she must be his wife and, as long as he lives, he may not divorce her.6

  • 7 Cf. Coverdale 1535.

18The way that a man was expected to do right by a maid he had raped was to pay bride price to her father and to marry her, with even the usual provisions of the Mosaic law for divorce inapplicable in his case. Could the usual provisions on the permissible degrees of kinship also be suspended in such a case? According to some rabbinical interpreters, they could. To post-Mendelian eyes Amnon and Tamar were genetically related, but in terms of the social categories of their time they belonged to different “houses” – hence the need for Jonadab’s subterfuge to bring them together in one room in the first place. Later rabbinical commentary even argued that they belonged to different peoples, Tamar having been born to a mother who was not Jewish (Bar-Efrat 1997, p. 239-240). Hence, a marriage was perhaps a real possibility. Even before the rape, Tamar pleaded (in Coverdale’s translation of verse 12-13): “Speake unto the kynge, he shal not withholde me from the[e]”.7

19Although contrary to the Mosaic law, there was no less a precedent than Abraham and Sarah for half-sib marriage (Hepner 2003), and such a marriage would not have contravened the dynastic customs then prevalent, influenced as these were by the regional dominance of the Egyptian Pharaohs (Černý 1954). On this reading, with a marriage between Amnon and Tamar a legitimate possibility, the question of Jonadab’s wisdom becomes more complex: had things worked out as Tamar twice requested (either a betrothal instead of a rape, or no repudiation after the rape), the encounter would have united two separate branches of the royal family in a single house, strengthening rather than dividing the dynasty. In this reading it is Amnon’s folly that undoes Jonadab’s wisdom, the main question mark against which then becomes his failure to foresee just how bad an outcome could result from having a beautiful young woman visit a besotted young man unchaperoned.

20At least one early sixteenth-century commentator was sympathetic to Tamar’s request. Martin Luther specifically cited Tamar’s suggestion of marriage when remarking that in the Old Testament “the kings, priests and heads of the people often transgressed the laws boldly, at the demand of faith and love” (Parsons 2002, p. 136). This perspective, however, had no impact on the ways that translators, even including Luther himself, sought to guide readers to the meaning of this passage. None of the Bible translations under consideration give marginal cross-references to Deuteronomy 22 (the requirement that the rapist of an unbetrothed virgin marry her), as a passage elucidating Tamar’s final claim; those that do give marginal cross-references all link the passage to Leviticus 18 (the incest prohibition). Twice in the course of the narrative – before the rape and after it – we are told that “he would not listen to her”. Ironically, by electing to read this biblical passage in the light of a different biblical passage that was taken to be more binding, early-modern translators were themselves unable to give Tamar’s words their plain meaning and due weight.


Alter (R.), The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York, Basic Books, 2011.

Bar-Efrat (S.), Narrative Art in the Bible, translated by Shefer-Vanson (D.), Sheffield, Almond, 1997.

Bertrand (I.), « Filling in what was left out. Voices and silences of Biblical women », in Voices and Silence in the Contemporary Novel in English, edited by Guignery (V.), Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars, 2009, p. 112-129.

Bible de Genève 1588 - La Bible, qui est toute la saincte Escriture du Vieil et du Nouveau Testament : Autrement, l’Anciene et la Nouvelle Alliance. Le tout reveu et conferé sur les textes hebrieux et grecs par les Pasteurs et professeurs de l’Eglise de Geneve, Geneva, 1588, en line,, accessed 30 May 2018.

Calvin (J.), Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1-13, translated by Kelly (D.), Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1992.

Černý (J.), « Consanguinous marriages in Pharaonic Egypt », Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 40 (1954), p. 23-29.

Cooper-White (P.), The Cry of Tamar. Violence against Women and the Church’s Response, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1995.

Coverdale Bible 1535 - Biblia. The Bible, that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New Testament, faithfully and truly translated out of Douche and Latyn into Englishe, translated by Coverdale (M.), published anonymously, 1535, online,, accessed 30 May 2018.

Genette (G.), Seuils, Paris, Seuil, 1987.

Geneva Bible 1560 - The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament. Translated according to the Ebrue and Greke, and conferred with the best translations in divers langages, Geneva, Rouland Hall, 1560, online,, accessed 30 May 2018.

Great Bible 1539 - The Byble in Englyshe, that is to saye the content of all the holy scrypture, bothe of the olde and newe testament, truly translated after the veryte of the Hebrue and Greke textes, by the dylygent studye of dyverse excellent learned men, expert in the forsayde tonges, London, Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch, 1539, online,, accessed 30 May 2018.

Hepner (G.), « Abraham’s incestuous marriage with Sarah. A violation of the Holiness Code », Vetus Testamentum, 53/2 (2003), p. 143-155.

Kaske (R.E.), « Amnon and Thamar on a misericord in Hereford Cathedral », Traditio, 45 (1989-1990), p. 1-6.

Moore (J.), « Baby, it’s cold outside: coercive and persuasive discourse and hegemony (a dialogue between the United States and the Netherlands) », in Bible and Transformation. The Promise of Intercultural Bible Reading, edited by de Wit (H.), Dyk (J.), Atlanta GA, Society of Biblical Literature, 2015, p. 167-184.

NJB 1985 - The New Jerusalem Bible, edited by Wansbrough (H.), London/Paris, Darton, Longman & Todd and Les Éditions du Cerf, 1985.

Parsons (M.), « Luther and Calvin on rape. Is the crime lost in the agenda? », Evangelical Quarterly, 74/2 (2002), p. 123-142.

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Trible (P.), Texts of Terror. Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1984.

West (G.) et al., « Rape in the house of David. The biblical story of Tamar as a resource for Transformation », Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 61 (2004), p. 36-41.

Wilkins (D.), Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, vol. 3, London, Gosling, Gyles, Woodward and Davis, 1737, online,, accessed 30 May 2018.

Wilson (E.M.), « Spanish versions », in The Cambridge History of the Bible. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, edited by Greenslade (S.L.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p. 125-129.


1 Excerpt from The New Jerusalem Bible, copyright 1985 (cf. NJB 1985). Reprinted by Permission.

2 Cf. Geneva Bible 1560.

3 Cf. Great Bible 1539.

4 Cf. Bible de Genève 1588.

5 Cf. Statenvertaling 1637.

6 Cf. NJB 1985.

7 Cf. Coverdale 1535.


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