Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Absalom, Absalom! (II Samuel 13-19)

All is not well with the house of David. His oldest son, Amnon, has his eye on his half-sister Tamar. With the help of a friend, he arranges for her to be alone in his room. Amnon then wrenches Tamar to the bed and rapes her. King David is furious with his son, but he doesn’t punish Amnon because he’s his firstborn and heir to the throne (and also perhaps because David is ashamed of compromising his own integrity).

This injustice plants the seeds of rebellion in the heart of Tamar’s brother Absalom. In defense of his sister’s honor, Absalom treacherously murders Amnon. David then banishes Absalom, who bides his time for many years. He eventually comes home to Jerusalem, and begins plotting to overthrow David himself.

Absalom is a handsome, charming man, with long flowing hair, riding around the city in a chariot. As newcomers arrive at the city for the king’s judgment, Absalom makes a habit of greeting them at the gate:
Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.
Absalom soon declares himself king and raises an army at Hebron. David is forced to abandon Jerusalem, leaving only ten concubines to keep the palace. Once again, he is in the wilderness fleeing for his life. When Absalom arrives, he sets up a tent atop the palace and ravishes David’s concubines for all to see.

This crafty deception, casting doubt on the character of the rightful king and urging the people to rebellion, is absolutely primeval – reminiscent of the serpent himself. Absalom has murdered his brother (Cain) and uncovered his father’s nakedness (Canaan).

David, on the other hand, goes into exile, tears dropping onto the mount of olives as he leaves the holy city. The true king is rejected by his people and by God. A Benjaminite named Shimei comes out and pelts David and his entourage with stones, cursing the whole way. Though his generals suggest killing the insolent fool, David lets him keep harassing him. He is bearing his own shame and sin before the Lord for taking the wife and life of Uriah. His son is visiting his own sin upon him.

Absalom pursues David across the Jordan where the armies meet in a great battle. David's forces crush the rebels, scattering them in all directions. In a stroke of poetic justice, Absalom, in his haste to get away, ends up dangling from a tree by his long hair. Joab lands three spears in his chest, while his men hack the prince to death.

A messenger brings news of victory to David, expecting a reward. But when David hears the news, he bursts into tears, bawling:
O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!
Joab quickly lays into David. His grief is an insult to the men who risked their lives to fight for him. Joab is right, of course, so David does his best to composes himself and honor his loyal soldiers.

Yet there is something worth mentioning even if it is couched in one of David’s flaws. Here is a father who loves his son passionately, even though he is in a state of rebellion against him. How he would gather his son under his wings, like a hen with her chicks, if only Absalom were willing!

And so, as he returns to his city, pardoning even the sin of Shimei who had cursed the Lord’s anointed, David is more than a representative of Israel exiled for his sin. He is an image of the God who loves them, willing to give his own life for them, even as he reluctantly crushes their rebellion.

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