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