YEAR B: PENTECOST 10
August 9, 2009
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
In last weekís reading Nathan told David that as a result of the affair concerning Bathsheba and Uriah the sword would never leave Davidís house, that trouble would arise within it and that Yahweh would take Davidís wives and give them to his neighbour. There is a bit of tit for tat involved in this. What David did to Uriah in forcefully taking his wife, Bathsheba, will in a way be returned in kind to David (2 Sam 12:10-11). Nathanís words find fulfillment over the next chapters.
The trouble starts when Davidís daughter, Tamar, is raped by one of his sons, Amnon. Absalom, Davidís third son (2 Sam 3:3), takes revenge by killing all his older brothers (2 Samuel 13). Solomon, who has only just been born to Bathsheba (12:24), is left alive. We then hear of how Absalom at first flees from his father. Davidís feelings for Absalom are mixed. After three years he yearns for him (13:39) and Absalom returns to Jerusalem (14:21-24). However, while David forgives his sonís actions (14:33) Absalom is plotting to usurp his fatherís throne. After four years Absalom had gained majority support in Judah and he secretly planned to be crowned king in Hebron (15:1-13). David flee from Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15-17). Jewish tradition relates Psalm 3 to these events and idealizes Davidís trust in the Lord. The narrative of Samuel suggests that David is resigned to the loss of his throne and entrusts his future to the Lord (2 Sam. 15:24ff). However, he is cunning enough to plant his own man, Hushai, in Absalomís court (15:34) so that he may spy on Absalom and destabilize his court from afar. As a sign that he had supplanted his father, Absalom made a public display of sleeping with Davidís concubines (16:21-22), a detail that fulfills Nathanís earlier prophecy (12:11). The intrigues of the Absalomís court are narrated in 2 Samuel 16-17.
By the start of chapter 18, David has finally abandoned his so far rather passive policy toward Absalom. He appoints loyal men to lead his army divisions (18:1-5). He still bears some feelings toward his son for when all preparations have been made and in the hearing of all the troops, he instructs his generals: ĎFor my sake, deal gently with the young man Absalomí (2 Sam 18:5). Now the scene is set for Davidís great tragedy, the death of Absalom, which is the subjecty of todayís reading.
The fighting between Davidís army and that of Absalom takes place among the forests of Ephraim, later the northern kingdom of Israel. Davidís forces are successful and many of his opponents die. Irony is a key tool of the writers throughout this story of Davidís reign. Just as the son had fled the father, so the father had had to flee from the son. Now an even more dreadful sense of irony enters in the way Absalom dies. He is caught in the branches of a tree by his beautiful hair (2 Sam 18:9). His hair was one of the features that confirmed Absalomís suitability for the throne for all kings were described as handsome in the ancient world (14:25). Their appearance was understood to confirm the other qualities of leadership and skill that fitted individuals for kingship. Now in the story of his death, an aspect of Absalomís beauty becomes the means of his downfall. Contrary to the clear instructions of David, Joab, one of his generals, wastes no time in having Absalom killed, taking the lead in stabbing him through the heart (18:10-17).
The drama in the rest of todayís reading centres around how David hears the sad news of his sonís demise. Two runners with different intentions compete to reach him first. The second messenger, a Cushite, reveals the true story. The story teller has injected a good deal of drama into the episode. We wait to see Davidís response. The Cushiteís report leaves no doubt in Davidís mind that Absalom is dead: ĎMay all your enemies both now and in the future be as that young man isí (18:32). These words have significance far beyond the fate of Absalom, as the subsequent chapters show, for they raise the question of who actually are Davidís enemies, and how will he treat them. David shows himself of a mind to be forgiving to some characters (Shimei and to Mephibosheth; 2 Samuel 19). Others, however, who have been close to him for so long and upon whom he has depended, he condemns to death for certain of their actions (Joab; 1 Kgs 2:5-6). In many ways, David did not really know whom he could trust.
The story of Davidís reign is truly one of tragedy. He is a tormented character in the latter stages. The story is marked by intrigue, murder, theft, abuse, and no small lust for power on the part of many. All these things are manifest in the inner family circle of David and it is all traced by the writers to Davidís own abuse of power. Davidís own lust for Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 shape the rest of his life and reign in the eyes of the writers of Samuel. The story is a magnificent illustration of the intricate interweaving of sinful acts and their consequences. It is also a tragic reminder of the way such things pervade the most intimate connections in a life, destroying all before them and bringing to even the perpetrators themselves despair that is like death itself: ĎThe king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ďO my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!Ēí (2 Sam. 18:33). And yet 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. The depth of tragedy on the human plane is surpassed only by the irony of Godís overwhelming grace.
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