The Complete Book of 2 Samuel

Absalom, Absalom!
What's really in the Good Book.
Nov. 8 2006 11:59 AM

The Complete Book of 2 Samuel

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The Book of 2 Samuel

Chapter 13
There hasn't been any incest for several chapters, so we're definitely due. David's eldest son, Amnon, falls in love with his gorgeous, virginal half-sister Tamar. (Wait a second! Wasn't one of our last incest victims also named Tamar?) Amnon pulls the old pretend-to-be-sick-so-she-brings-you-chicken-soup trick. (Admit it: When you were in college, you tried it on that pretty sophomore! And it worked, didn't it?) Tamar shows up with the soup (cakes, actually), and Amnon says, "Come, lie with me, my sister"—which, when you think about it, is just about the yuckiest pickup line imaginable. Tamar resists: "Do not do anything so vile!" Apparently trying to buy time, she suggests he hold off because their father, David, might actually let them get married. Amnon doesn't listen and rapes her.

What follows is even grimmer: "Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her." He sends her away. She begs him not to, arguing that sending her away is even worse than the rape. Can someone explain this to me? Why would she want to stay with him post-rape?  Does she think that 1) being sent away is awful because it stigmatizes her as a rape victim—thus spoiled, unmarriageable, and a shame on her family? Or 2) having been raped, at least he ought to marry her—a dismal outcome, but better than being discarded?

Enter the other villain of the piece, Tamar's full brother Absalom. He also seems to be curiously obsessed with her. There's no incest between them, but it definitely seems weird. (Remember Angelina Jolie and her brother? A little like that.) From Tamar's behavior—the torn robe, the ashes she smears on her head, etc.—Absalom figures out that Amnon has raped her. Absalom tells her to keep quiet. She holes up in Absalom's house, "a desolate woman." How heart-rending is that phrase! We hear no more of Tamar after this: Having been raped, she might as well be dead.

King David learns about the incest rape, but because Amnon is his firstborn, he doesn't punish him. Absalom bides his time for revenge. After two years, Absalom invites Amnon to a sheepshearing feast. While Amnon is drunk, Absalom has his servants murder him. (Pretty cowardly not to strike the blow himself, don't you think?) Absalom flees the country, but we are so not finished with him.

Chapter 14
David is a sucker for a good parable. Remember that during the Bathsheba affair, Nathan makes David realize his sin by telling him the parable about a rich man who steals a poor man's sheep? Now David's top general, Joab, has an old woman come to David and tell him a story about how one of her two sons killed the other, and how the rest of the family now wants the killer son to die, too. David assures her that her surviving son should not be harmed. Like Nathan, the woman turns the tables on David, and points out that he's in the same situation with Absalom, whom he won't unbanish.

David dispatches Joab to bring Absalom home. Even so, the king then refuses to see his son. Absalom sulks at his house and fathers several kids, including a daughter whom he names—yes, you better believe it!—Tamar. After two years without seeing David, Absalom gets frustrated. He tries to get Joab to intercede for him, but Joab won't answer his messages. So Absalom burns Joab's field to the ground—that's a nice way to send a message—and Joab finally listens to him. With Joab's intercession, David finally agrees to see Absalom, and they kiss and make up.

Chapter 15
Absalom is one of the most puzzling characters we've met so far. He's full of resentments, and he bears grudges. He craves his dad's approval, yet having regained it, he immediately subverts David. Like a tout, Absalom stands outside the palace door and intercepts everyone coming to David for justice. Absalom issues his own legal decisions instead, and soon "stole the hearts of the people of Israel" from David. I guess one aspect of Absalom's character is utterly consistent: He has the patience of the truly cunning. He took two years to seek revenge on Amnon and waited calmly in exile three years for David to beg him to return. Now, he spends four years undermining David and building his reputation. Finally, Absalom conducts his coup. He travels to Hebron and declares himself king. David flees Jerusalem, leaving 10 concubines behind at the palace—remember these unfortunate ladies. David weeps again. (I've got an idea for a great Bible drinking game. Have a shot every time David cries.) He sends a spy to infiltrate Absalom's court.

Chapter 16 and Chapter 17
Everything falls apart. Saul's grandson Mephibosheth abandons David, believing that he will get his kingdom back from Absalom. Furious, David gives away all of Mephibosheth's land and property. As David travels through the countryside, another relative of Saul chucks rocks at him and screams curses: "Murderer! Scoundrel!" David's men ask his permission to kill the man, but David—weary, doubtful, philosophical—tells them not to. David says the man is cursing him because the Lord told him to curse David, and maybe some good will come of it. David seems a shell of himself, plagued by resignation and doubts he never had before.

The whole Absalom fiasco is a brilliant, pointillist portrait of how a society is disrupted by civil war. We have Saul's grandson expecting to win the throne; formerly obedient subjects cursing and assaulting their king; the king himself beset by doubt and indecision; David's purportedly loyal servants betraying him for Absalom, while Absalom's supposed allies are betraying him for David. All the bonds of Israel are sundered, all laws are broken, all normal behavior is abandoned. Everyone seeks his own advantage.

Those poor concubines are victims of this chaos. When Absalom seizes Jerusalem, he immediately and publicly beds the concubines—thus fulfilling Nathan's prophecy that David would lose his wives to another man.

Chapter 18 and Chapter 19
Absalom and David finally fight their battle. But David isn't allowed on the field. His men think he's too valuable to be exposed. He must be at least 60 years old by now, so he's probably not too handy with a spear anyway. David's last order to his generals is to "deal gently" with Absalom. Uh, nice try. David's men are easily victorious.

Here's the weird part. As Absalom rides on his mule, he hits the low branch of an oak tree. His head gets jammed in the tree, the mule keeps going, and Absalom is left hanging preposterously from the oak by his head, like some Monty Python character. (Could this actually happen? Readers who are riders: Has such a thing ever happened to you?) One of David's soldiers sees Absalom hanging, but, remembering David's order, doesn't kill him. But when Gen. Joab hears that Absalom is hanging out, he races to the tree and thrusts three spears into Absalom's heart.

A messenger brings the news of his death to David, which prompts his famous cry of mourning: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son." Again, we feel the force of repetition in the Bible, though it's slightly different here. Usually in the Bible, the name is repeated. Here it is the "my son" that gets doubled up. The plaint suggests that David is mourning the loss of a son, any son—not that David had a special love for Absalom, who, after all, was nothing but trouble.

Joab has no patience for this sorrow. As David keeps weeping and keening, Joab rebukes him. David cares more for the son who hated him than for all the soldiers who love him so much that they offered their lives in battle. Joab says, "You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased." Joab tells David to pull himself together and start appreciating his loyal soldiers. Joab is an awful man in many ways—violent, impatient, suspicious—but he's one of the Bible's great pragmatists. He is more interested in results than in methods, more interested in rough honesty than foolish sentiment. In this way, he is arguably the first true Israeli.    

The anarchy of the last few chapters is brought under control. David restores order. He pardons the man who cursed and stoned him and forgives the traitorous Mephibosheth. As far as I can tell, the entire Absalom catastrophe has served absolutely no purpose. Lots of people are dead—David is down two sons—and Israel endured months of pointless ravaging. And after the warring and mourning, all that David has achieved is restoring the status quo. What lesson should we draw from the Absalom tale? Incest is bad? Keep your enemies close and your sons closer? Or, perhaps, don't love your children more than you love your kingdom? 

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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