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2 Samuel 18:5-33 – Absalom’s Death and David’s Dirge

Summary

The military forces of David and Absalom meet in a conflict that results in widespread casualties. Absalom, riding on a mule in the forest, becomes entangled in a tree, making him an easy target for Joab and ten of his armor-bearers. Upon hearing the news of his son's death, David is overcome with grief.

Analysis

This poignant tale falls into three episodes, each with a point to make.

(1) David prepares his forces for battle (vv. 1-5). While David musters the troops, the main point of this introduction is to make it transparently clear that he had nothing to do with the death of his son. David was not allowed to be present at the battle (v. 3) and pleads with Joab to "deal gently with my boy Absalom" (v. 5 in NJPS, my italics), displaying his fatherly love for his rebellious son (see v. 12).

(2) The forest battle (vv. 6-8). Forest and battle (vv. 6, 8) frame the scant account of the momentous battle for the rule of Israel. The text is relatively unconcerned with this outward set of circumstances, preferring to concentrate on the relationship between David and Absalom, despite the notice that David "won" (v. 7).

(3) The forest "devours" (see v. 8--the Hebrew root translated "claimed" actually means "devoured") Absalom (vv. 9-18). Symbolic representation abounds in this section besides the devouring of Absalom by the forest:

  • Absalom's mount, a mule, is symbolic of royalty; losing his mount symbolizes the loss of his kingship (v. 9b).
  • A form of the word translated "thick branches" that caught fast his head appears in Job 18:8, where it means "net" or "mesh," suggesting that Absalom's luxuriant hair (2 Samuel 14:26) and his vanity were at the "root" of his demise (v. 9b).
  • Being suspended "between heaven and earth" may also symbolize his fate as king, now very much in doubt (v. 9c).
  • One of Joab's men has to remind him of David's plea to "protect" Absalom (v. 12), a military term (shamar). David had said, "Deal gently…" (v. 5).
  • Joab's "thrusting" of three spears into the heart of Absalom (v. 14) employs the same verb as his "sounding" the trumpet (v. 16) and contrasts his killing of Absalom with his "sparing" (not "restrained," as in NRSV) the troops.
  • The pitiful "heap of stones" piled over Absalom's grave, though described as "very great" (v. 17), hardly compares with his own massive monument to himself in the King's Valley, named in the next verse.

All of this comes to a climax in verses 32-33, where David's despair at the news of Absalom's death vastly outweighs what little joy he may have experienced at the news of his victory. Once again the king asks about "my boy" (v. 32 NJPS; see vv. 5, 12) and, upon hearing the news, goes into mourning with his heart-wrenching cries and self-imprecations.

2 Samuel 18:5-33

5The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

9 Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging* between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. 10A man saw it, and told Joab, ‘I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.’ 11Joab said to the man who told him, ‘What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.’ 12But the man said to Joab, ‘Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom! 13On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life* (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.’ 14Joab said, ‘I will not waste time like this with you.’ He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. 15And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

16 Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained the troops. 17They took Absalom, threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones. Meanwhile all the Israelites fled to their homes. 18Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance’; he called the pillar by his own name. It is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.

David Hears of Absalom’s Death

19 Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said, ‘Let me run, and carry tidings to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies.’ 20Joab said to him, ‘You are not to carry tidings today; you may carry tidings another day, but today you shall not do so, because the king’s son is dead.’ 21Then Joab said to a Cushite, ‘Go, tell the king what you have seen.’ The Cushite bowed before Joab, and ran. 22Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said again to Joab, ‘Come what may, let me also run after the Cushite.’ And Joab said, ‘Why will you run, my son, seeing that you have no reward* for the tidings?’ 23‘Come what may,’ he said, ‘I will run.’ So he said to him, ‘Run.’ Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the Plain, and outran the Cushite.

24 Now David was sitting between the two gates. The sentinel went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he looked up, he saw a man running alone. 25The sentinel shouted and told the king. The king said, ‘If he is alone, there are tidings in his mouth.’ He kept coming, and drew near. 26Then the sentinel saw another man running; and the sentinel called to the gatekeeper and said, ‘See, another man running alone!’ The king said, ‘He also is bringing tidings.’ 27The sentinel said, ‘I think the running of the first one is like the running of Ahimaaz son of Zadok.’ The king said, ‘He is a good man, and comes with good tidings.’

28 Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, ‘All is well!’ He prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground, and said, ‘Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.’ 29The king said, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ Ahimaaz answered, ‘When Joab sent your servant,* I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.’ 30The king said, ‘Turn aside, and stand here.’ So he turned aside, and stood still.

31 Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ 32The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’

David Mourns for Absalom

33 *The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

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10 February 2011

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