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DAVID AND ABSALOM
2 Samuel 15-19

 

Dear reader, the last story (Madonna, Nov/Dec 2002) was abominable. While this one may delight us with detail, I am afraid that the central question is just as unpleasant. Absalom, David’s heir, runs a rebellion against his father and is killed in battle. The question: was David involved in the killing of his son? The issue: whether David was coldly ruthless or besottedly naive. A credible soft option does not seem to exist.

Overtly, the text is quite explicit on the subject: David did not want his son Absalom killed. Very publicly, as the troops were going out to battle, he gave specific orders to the three commanders, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom’ (18:5). All the army heard.

As overtly, according to the narrative, Absalom was happy to have his father dead (17:1-4) and David knew it: ‘my own son seeks my life’ (16:11). Fathers put up with these aberrations from their sons; oriental despots are not so tolerant of their rivals. There was a middle road, but David had abandoned it when, under Joab’s urging, he brought Absalom back from exile.

The text of 2 Samuel 15–19 is extraordinary. It portrays one of the decisive moments of Israel’s national existence: will King David fall victim to his son? What will become of God’s vision if he does?

The biblical narrative is detailed either side of the encounter; it follows David down to the Jordan and it follows David back. What happens across the Jordan is of little importance. The battle between the king’s men and Absalom’s rebels is given three verses (18:6-8). The actual killing of Absalom is given seven (18:9-15). The carrying of the message of Absalom’s death to David and his reaction to it are given twenty-six verses. The statistics here do not mislead.

The detail provided is intensely focused; the gaps in the information given us are vast. We know Absalom spent four years fomenting and organising the rebellion; we know almost nothing about what he did and how he did it. The news of the revolt was brought to David and he decided instantly to abandon the allegedly impregnable city of Jerusalem—and we are not told why.

David sent the ark back into Jerusalem with total trust in God; in the same breath, through the priests of the ark he planned a communi-cations network to keep him informed. David prayed to the LORD to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel and promptly instructed Hushai to be his double-agent against Ahithophel. For David, prayer and politics went hand in hand. David’s faith: leave nothing to God except trust.

The biggest gap of all is why the LORD’s anointed came so close to being overthrown. David and his mercenaries fled across the Jordan. Absalom had the unwitting support of two hundred notables from Jerusalem (15:11); he had well-informed supporters ‘through-out all the tribes of Israel’ (15:10). We do not know why. We may suspect neglect of justice (15:1-6); we know no details. With Absalom dead and the revolt crushed, debate is reported raging in Israel and Judah as to whether to bring David back as king.

In all of this, politics was at work; in all of this, the narrative claims God was at work (‘the LORD had ordained’, 17:14b). Human action and divine action are inextricably interwoven. This David was a great king; he is God’s chosen, Israel’s model. He was a skilled politician, an inspirer of men—and a flawed human being. The Bible holds together both aspects. God may well write straight, but certainly with crooked lines.

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