Tuesday, June 10, 2008

2 Samuel 13 - 19: Absalom, Absalom – A Squalid Tale of Dynastic Dynamics

Amnon and Tamar

In the course of time, begins 2 Samuel 13, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. (1) If you apply the transitive property to this phrase, you realize that Amnon has in fact fallen in love with his own sister, or at best his half-sister. Which is not cool.

The second sentence is perhaps even more memorable: Amnon became frustrated to the point of illness on account of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. This may be referring to the social segregation of the royal daughters, not to the physical evidence that would be left by “doing anything to her,” but still, it’s a remarkably crass sentiment. The "to" is a remarkably crass preposition.

Amnon solves his little dilemma by employing trickery to get his sister alone, and then – despite her pleas for him not to destroy both of their lives, and despite her offer to marry him so they can have a proper incestuous relationship – he rapes her. Having raped her, Amnon finds satisfaction elusive: Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. (15) He has the servant throw her out of the house. She goes to live in shame and disgrace, a desolate woman, at Absalom’s place, and Absalom and King David seethe silently.


You could structure a whole seminar in gender relations around this little family tale. I will just highlight a few of the more basic points here, as an exercise in fish-barrel shooting:

If you are frustrated to the point of illness because you have the hots for someone, it’s really your own damn fault. Go for a run or something.

If you are really “in love,” your consideration for the feelings of your intended ought to keep you from raping him or her.

Amnon may not hate his sister as much as he hates himself for what he has done.

Gratifying your desires at the cost of harming someone close to you is not likely to be very satisfying, really.

Silent anger about problematic family dynamics will only make things worse, in the end.


A few years later, Absalom holds a big sheep-shearing up in the hills. He invites all of his brothers. At a signal, he has his men kill Amnon, and then flees to a neighboring kingdom, Geshur.

The text never says anything about David putting Absalom in exile, but it is implied that Absalom can’t come back without his permission. David wants his favorite son to come home, but refuses to send for him until he is tricked into it a few years later by General Joab. Absalom comes home to Jerusalem, but is never allowed to see the king.

Chagall, 'David and Absalom'Things seem like they are going well for Absalom – he’s good looking, healthy, four kids, servants – but he is very sad that he can’t talk to his dad. He calls for Joab to discuss the situation, but Joab refuses to talk to him. He calls for Joab again, but he refuses again. Then he has his servants set Joab’s barley on fire, and now Joab comes to talk to him. Absalom knows how to get a guy’s attention.

So, Joab agrees to set up a meeting. Absalom goes and meets with his father the king, and they seem to kiss and make up. You would think that the storm is over, that everything is going to be fine. But you would be wrong!

Absalom in Rebellion

A thing about the Bible, it doesn’t always make clear what peoples’ motivations are. Absalom seems to have reconciled himself with his father, but before long he begins building his own connections with the Israelite movers and shakers and making innuendo about his father’s abilities. After a few years of this, he enacts a coup, and David and his followers are forced to flee Jerusalem. There is a lot of detail about who flees with him, and who stays behind to try to get in good with the new regime, and who stays behind to spy on Absalom and report back to David, and so on. Ten concubines are left behind, oddly, to take care of the palace. (16)

Absalom and his army takes the capital. Many Israelites seem to be on the fence, still hoping that there will be some kind of reconciliation between father and son. Wanting people to take sides, Absalom pitches a tent on top of the palace and lay with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. The theory seems to be that, once you’ve publically raped all of your dad’s girlfriends, it’s clear that things aren’t going to be patched up between you. Which seems pretty plausible, actually.

Eventually, Absalom marches against David with a vast army. David very publically tells his generals to take it easy on Absalom, to bring him back alive. It doesn’t seem like this would make a good pre-battle pep-talk, but in any event David’s forces win the day. Which brings us to the only detail from the Absalom story that I already knew.

Absalom Takes His Last Mule Ride

Fleeing from the rout of his army on a mule, Absalom gets caught in a tree. What I remember from Sunday School is that his head got wedged between branches, but the Wiki, which is always right, says he gets caught by his hair. The text doesn’t specify, saying only that the mule keeps going and leaves Absalom hanging there in the tree.

A soldier reports to Joab on Absalom’s predicament. “Why didn’t you kill him?” asks Joab. “No way,” says the soldier, “you heard what the king said.” But Joab – the same Joab who followed David’s dodgy orders (to make sure Uriah got killed) so unflinchingly a few years ago – is having none of it. He and his bodyguard go and kill Absalom where he hangs. This seems to reflect a certain contempt for David’s affection for his rebellious son, but I’m not sure.

If this really is an issue, David’s reaction to the news that his armies have won the day isn’t going to help anything. Does he give thanks to God? Does he praise his mighty generals? Does he join the exultant triumph of the common soldiers? Does he mourn the 20,000 who died on the field? No, he does not. Instead, he keeps asking what happened to his son -- you know, the enemy commander. And when told that Absalom is dead, he bursts into tears and loud public lamentations. If only I had died instead of you, he wails. (33) Perfectly understandable, but perhaps not the finest display of wartime leadership.

Next Week: It’s really hard to write these teasers anymore. I never have a clue what’s coming next week.


Jennifer said...

You may not think you're doing it with the teasers, but at least your titles leave nothing to be desired!

gl. said...

man, this makes me really sad! the first part almost made me cry.

i'm sure the barley incident factored into joab's decision to kill absalom: i wonder if there will be repercussions from david.

Anonymous said...

Wow, a riveting tale, well-told!
I wasn't quite sure how you got the moral that keeping feelings bottled up about family problems always led to bad things; was there a cause/effect? Seems like not bottling up the feelings would've just lead to instant revenge in your tale. Maybe Absaolom needed a better cork! or some absinthe to help him chill out.

Michael5000 said...

@jen: I was pretty happy with "Absalom Takes His Last Mule Ride."

@gl.: D'oh! The barley incident connection didn't occur to me!

@anon: Well, what situation does a little absinthe not help? But certainly, instant revenge would have set things on a different and perhaps better course than seething resentment followed by sneaky, skulking revenge and years of exile. And maybe a formal accusation followed by a fair and transparent legal process would have been even better. Absalom might have been still riding mules decades into a happy, active retirement.

Nikki said...

Michael who reads the bible....I found your re-story telling funny and entertaining (particulary the wiki observation) (;