Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The long, violent conflict between David and Absalom has finally run its course.

August 9, 2009

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Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

The long, violent conflict between David and Absalom has finally run its course.

Absalom is dead. David’s kingdom is again secure. And David pours forth his grief: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (33). This is not the long, carefully-composed hymn that David sang to mourn Jonathan and Saul (2 Samuel 1:17-27). It is not the anguished silence with which he mourned the first child he conceived with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:19-23). And David’s words have none of the ambiguity and detachment that marked his plea, just a few verses above, to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (v. 5). This is the anguished torrent of a father. He does not mourn a “young man.” He mourns “my son,” over and over. He mourns Absalom.

But surely he also sings out of guilt at the role he played in Absalom’s death. When he arranged the murder of Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, he consoled Joab, his partner in the crime, by saying that “the sword devours now one and now another” (2 Samuel 11:25). Those words came back to haunt him when the prophet Nathan announced the consequence of David’s taking of Bathsheba: “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Samuel 12:10). Nathan’s words have come painfully true, and David has borne ongoing responsibility for them.

David served as a kind of accomplice when his son Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Even after the rape he did nothing to punish his son. Absalom seethed at this injustice. Eventually he set a trap and killed Amnon. Then he fled, and David refused to see him until Joab and a wise woman from Tekoa worked a kind of reconciliation. Shortly after this moment of reconciliation, though, Absalom started positioning himself to supplant David as king. He won the favor of the people, ascended to the throne, and then continued his war against his father, raping his father’s concubines in full public view (chapters 13-16).

Just as Nathan warned, the sin David tried to keep a secret would be revisited on him in the light of day (12:11). Rivalry between fathers, sons, and brothers has spilled out of its banks and now threatens to drown all involved. Women are swept into this violence as mothers, sisters, lovers, intermediaries, peacemakers, and agents with agendas of their own. David is the victim of all this. But he is also a contributing cause. His river of words at Absalom’s death sings not only of grief, but also of guilt.

David’s guilt comes from his role in these larger processes of violence. But the text hints that it might also have a source much closer to Absalom’s death. Verse 5 underscores the very public nature of David’s command that the troops “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” As a modern commentator has noted, this is “apologetic writing in its most forthright vein.”1  It would absolve David from responsibility for Absalom’s death and attribute it to the rogue actions of his army. It clears the path for Absalom’s followers to show their loyalty to David, and for future readers to continue to revere his name.

David’s words make that apologetic possible. But they also create lethal ambiguity. What would it mean to “deal gently” with the young man? Would it mean to capture him alive? To let him go? To kill him quickly and painlessly? David’s words are open-ended, and Joab does not necessarily misinterpret them when he leads a gang of men in executing Absalom. David has a history of speaking in a code that only Joab can understand. When David wants Bathsheba’s husband killed, he sends a cryptic note to Joab. Joab knows what to do (2 Samuel 11:14-17).

Earlier, when Joab asks David why he let his rival Abner get away, David’s silence tells Joab all he needs to know. He kills Abner without David needing to order it (2 Samuel 3:24-27). Thus David can say — with what those who order torture today might call “plausible deniability” — “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the LORD for the blood of Abner son of Ner. May the guilt fall on the head of Joab, and on all his father’s house …” (3:28-29). David curses Joab for the death of Abner, but he does not remove Joab. Neither does he punish Joab immediately after the death of Absalom. Joab is too useful. He can hear what David wants.

We, too, should hear the layers to David’s speech, even in the song of verse 33. He sings not only of grief, but also of guilt. And he is not only sad, but also satisfied — after all, Absalom wanted to kill him. And surely he is relieved — if this terrible episode with Absalom has ended badly, at least it is over. We might even hear in the depths of David’s song his horror at his own guilt, satisfaction, and relief.

The story of David and Absalom can be preached as a kind of mirror to society. This is what it looks like, a preacher might say, when fathers, sons, and brothers jostle for dominance. It is not that such conflict is inevitable between men. And it is not that women are completely without sin. (Suggesting this only masks the power of women to act and so plays into the hands of powers that would keep women from acting.) But it is the case that deep, sinful patterns of male domination help to order the social structures that fuel and channel human violence.

As this story shows, rivalry often drives men to destroy one another, and we — I write as one who is not above this process — bring others down with us. We often do terrible violence to women in our attempts to damage one another. These struggles play out in dining rooms and conference halls as well as battlefields. Men find themselves caught up in rivalrous violence as both victims and perpetrators. Usually our grief and guilt linger just under the surface, festering and unnamed. Acknowledging this grief and guilt is difficult, because its exposure threatens so much of how we understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives.

The structures of violence cannot survive the light of day. A sermon that could help us hear David’s song and sing it ourselves would let in the light that makes rivalry and violence wither. And a sermon that could remember God’s presence in all of this — suffering it with us, judging us out of it, saving us from it — would surely have some gospel in it.2

1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1984), 405.
2Thanks to Donna Giver Johnston for research assistance and valuable conversations in preparation for this essay.