Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
8th of August, 2021
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
During my recent holiday I kept myself amused by reading nine and a half books of the Bible, from the First Book of Samuel to halfway through the Book of Job, because what else was I going to do when most of my holiday coincided with Lockdown Five? Despite being sure that I had read every part of these books before I discovered some new stories. I knew the story of the she-bears who ate the rude children who called the Prophet Elisha ‘baldy’ (2 Kings 2:23-25), but I did not remember the story of King Uzziah getting leprosy because he was angry with the priests, (2 Chronicles 26:18-21), or the story of Governor Nehemiah pulling out the hair of those Jewish men who refused to repudiate their foreign wives and children. (Nehemiah 13:23-25)The Bible is a fascinating and strange collection.
At the centre of most of the books I read was, of course, David, the great king who ruled over a united Judah and Israel; the one who brought the Ark back to Jerusalem; the father of Solomon. All later kings are compared to David; and those who do wrong are told that they are not behaving ‘like David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my sight’. (1 Kings 14:8) But the Bible itself tells us that David absolutely did not keep all the Lord’s commandments and do only what was right in God’s sight. So we come to the story of David’s third son, Absalom.
David’s firstborn son was Amnon, and the only thing that the Bible tells us about Amnon is that he raped his half-sister Tamar, who was Absalom’s full sister. Tamar refused to hide that Amnon had assaulted her. As she left Amnon’s rooms we are told that: ‘she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times … Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went’. (2 Samuel 13:18-19). Nothing happened for ‘two whole years’. Absalom then invited all his brothers to a feast; got Amnon drunk; and had him murdered by his servants, before fleeing into exile. Three years later David’s general, Joab, convinced the king to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem, although not back to David’s presence. This continued for another two years and then finally, seven years after Tamar was raped, five years after Amnon was killed, David sent for Absalom: ‘So he came to the king and prostrated himself with his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom’. (2 Samuel 14:33)
We are told of Absalom:
Now in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. When he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight. (2 Samuel 25-27)
We know that the people of Israel had chosen kings for their looks before. When Saul became king it was said: ‘There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else’. (1 Samuel 9:2) So Absalom, beautiful and potent, is a rival to David, the old king. Absalom now begins a campaign, telling the people that he would be a more just and righteous king than David. He gets up early and waits at the gate for people coming to see King David for judgement, saying to each of them: ‘your claims are good and right; but there is no one deputed by the king to hear you … If only I were judge in the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice’. (2 Samuel 15:3-4) After four years of this Absalom goes to Hebron, David’s first capital, and raises an army that forces David to flee Jerusalem, crossing the Jordan River.
When David flees he leaves behind ten concubines to take care of his house and, says the author: ‘they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel’. (2 Samuel 16:22) This makes clear to us that at least in part Absalom’s rebellion against his father is God’s response to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. The prophet Nathan told David that:
the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun. (2 Samuel 12:10-12)
And so it happens.
In today’s reading David tells the leaders of his army that he does not want Absalom killed. But Absalom’s luxurious hair is his downfall. As Absalom flees from David’s army he is caught by his hair and is found by general Joab’s men. Joab knew that David wanted Absalom protected. But might Joab have remembered what David said to him about Uriah: ‘Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another’? (2 Samuel 11:25) It is cut out of the lectionary reading, but it is Joab who first thrusts three spears into Absalom’s heart as he hangs in the oak, before Joab’s ten men finish Absalom off. Incidentally, this does not end well for Joab. The very last thing David says to his son Solomon, as David lies dying, is that he must kill Joab. (1 Kings 2:5-9).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this Reflection, David is the great king, the man who united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and made them wealthy and feared throughout the region. It is understandable that the authors of the Bible looked back on his reign as a golden age and compared his successors unfavourably with him. It is more surprising that we do read about his assault on Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. But what do the creators of the lectionary want us to take from his story? Over the past three weeks the lectionary has given us first the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah; then the prophet Nathan’s condemnation of David’s actions; and today the death of David’s son Absalom after his rebellion. This sequence makes me suspect that the lectionary wants us to see in Absalom’s death and David’s grief the Lord’s punishment of David as prophesised by Nathan. And I wonder if, as Christians, we are expected to see in David a punished and forgiven sinner, and in the Lord’s commitment to David and his house despite David’s sins the faithfulness of the Lord to his chosen ones. Howard Wallace, who taught me Old Testament at Theological College, says of this story, ‘the wonder, and the hope of it all is that the people of this story are portrayed as the people of God, who continues to work with, and through them’. But as I have said before, while that answer makes sense if we are reading the books of Samuel through the eyes of David, it does not if we read them through the eyes of Tamar or Absalom, or through the eyes of the ten concubines that Absalom raped, who were subsequently shut up in a house under guard by King David to live as if they were widows. (2 Samuel 20:3)
The deaths of Amnon and Absalom might be part of the Lord’s punishment of David, of the sword never departing from David’s house. But they were brought on by the sons’ own actions, by Amnon raping Tamar and Absalom rebelling against his father. If we only focus on how their deaths affect David, we are left with a God who kills the children to punish the parents, and we know that is not who God is. Absalom’s murder of his brother is a direct result of Amnon’s rape of Tamar. David mourns over Absalom’s death, but it is a direct result of Absalom’s rebellion. The Lord has condemned David’s actions, but David’s sons die for their own sins.
One thing we might take from David’s incredibly mixed-up soap opera of a story is comfort if our own families are dysfunctional. Churches tend to expect that all their members live in perfectly-loving families, but there is no such thing as a perfect family. We are gradually learning more about the abuse that can occur in families, but even in families without any sort of violence there can be hurts and jealousies, and those who are not speaking to other members. It is unlikely, however, that any of our families are quite as dysfunctional as the family of the great King David.
Most importantly, today’s story is a story of grief in the face of death, and of the strength of love. When Jonathan and Saul died, David wrote a beautiful lament for them. Now he can only repeat his son’s name over and over. David’s grief is beyond performance, beyond poetry, almost beyond expression. Today’s reading begins with David speaking of ‘the young man Absalom’. It ends with the cry of utter devastation: ‘O Absalom, my son, my son!’ Absalom had rebelled against David, threatened the kingdom, but at the news of Absalom’s death David is the father, not the king. No matter what Absalom had done, his father continued to love him. You will have sensed that I have little respect for David, but here he speaks for everyone who has lost someone they love, and especially for parents who have lost a child.
In David’s agony, we see a father who continues to love even the most rebellious and sinful of sons. David cries out ‘Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ but for David that was impossible. Not even as a king could David take Absalom’s place. This story reminds us, though, of the Father who continues to love even the most rebellious of children, even us!, and who is able to die in our place.
I think today’s passage is in our lectionary because in the depths of David’s love for Absalom we get a hint of the love God feels for us. Amen.