Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
The tension of this text begins with the enigmatic order of David to his commanders: “‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom’” (5a).
It’s not the sort of order one expects from a king about to send soldiers into the heart of conflict and perhaps that is why “all the people heard” (5b) — it touched something deeper than military strategy. Perhaps David’s parting word, more the plea of a helpless father than the command of a powerful king, went to the heart of a divided nation and, indeed, a divided house.
The description of the battle between the forces loyal to David and the men of Israel is short: “The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword” (7-8). It almost appears as a side-note to David’s conflicted relationship with Absalom, the narrator’s primary concern; yet to view this text as marginal would miss the symbolism and foreshadowing it contains.
Earlier, the soldiers prevail over David’s desire to enter into battle with them, saying that if he were killed in battle, it would be as if “ten thousand of us” were killed (3). So David remains back, behind the lines of battle. According to the narrator’s summary of the conflict, twenty thousand were killed that day, one of whom, we will soon discover, was David’s son, Absalom. Otherwise known as a traitor, Absalom was David’s son and David was Absalom’s father — both would perish that day.
This text also chronicles something other than the total kills of rival powers: “. . . the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword” (8b). This expression struck my ear as odd, since these are not “victims” but combatants. Moreover, armies inflict casualties, not forests. Yet within the narratives of Absalom’s death one detects echoes of previous events in David’s reign, in particular the story of David’s murder of Uriah the Hittite, a victim by way of his favorite commander, Joab. It is almost as if the writer is saying that there is more going on here than simply strategy, that this is a conflict that has a darker and more complex ecology than the stratagems of commanders and armies.
Likewise, the fate of Absalom seems almost accidental, an odd moment of battle where happenstance rather than clever military tactics yields the upper hand: “Absalom happened to meet the servants of David” (9a). The image of the suddenly helpless Absalom remains in our mind’s eye: “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. A man [one under Joab’s command] saw it. . . .” (9b-10a).
Like other parts of this text, the description of Absalom’s condition, “hanging between heaven and earth” suggests, according to Walter Brueggemann, his liminal status: “Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly vulnerable, but he is not dead.”1
At this point, the enigmatic command or plea of David the father or king makes its tortured appearance: the soldier who happens on Absalom hesitates, does not do what his hand is trained to do, does not strike as he has been accustomed to striking. Ambivalence, doubt, pause, uncertainty.
Joab represents a contrast: he does not pause. Maybe he forgot David’s words; maybe he only remembered Absalom as a traitor who needed to be destroyed; maybe amid the swirl of battle the sanitized and unrealistic niceties of the “command center” could be disregarded: Who can judge what happens in the heat of battle? Whatever happened to be his thinking, Joab views the soldier’s reasoning in verses 12-13, a waste of time (14a). Ingrained with the habits of war and perhaps rage, he plunges not one but three spears “into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak” — and his armor guard joins in an act that the narrator conveys as exceedingly violent in nature (14b-15).
If the heart of David was riven between being a father and a king, Joab’s actions suggest the unambiguous character of the remorseless king, full of vengeance.
But this lection gives the father the last word, albeit a word none should desire. Hearing the “good tidings” of the Cushite, the king responds without anger, without a raw display of power, or deceit: he responds not as a king, but as a father suddenly and decisively bereaved. David weeps: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (33b).
The king who pleaded with his commanders to “deal gently with the young man” (5) now weeps openly, unambiguously, and publicly as a father for his son. And for a time, at least, the grief of a father and not the victory of a king defines that day as well as our image of David: “So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, ‘The king is grieving for his son‘” (19:2).
1Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 319.