Saturday, March 21, 2009

Absalom, Absalom: a rebellion incubates while no one repents.

We saw earlier that Absalom killed Amnon for raping his sister, an act over which David was nothing more than furious. We are told earlier in 2 Samuel 8 that David was a just ruler who gave justice to the people but after his sins of taking Bathsheba and having Uriah murdered David displays what seem like either characteristic or uncharacteristic weakness about disciplinary action within the family.

Rape, technically, did not require capital punishment, though arguably the rape of one's sister would warrant capital punishment and yet David didn't lift a hand to harm his son or punish him. Eventually Absalom takes the law into his own hands. We saw that Absalom bided his time for two years and then ordered his servants to kill Amnon. Absalom fled and David heard an initial, erroneous report that all of his sons had been slain. Eventually this is corrected by none other than Jonadab, the man who gave the terrible advice to Absalom. The spectacularly bad advice that could be given to the sons in the royal court might as well be a leitmotif in Samuel and Kings if you think about it but that's just an aside. I am here thinking of the beginnings of the divided kingdom which I have written about elsewhere in this blog.

Absalom waits around for three years, so to speak, in Geshur. He is evidently in exile. David longs for his son because he had been comforted after Amnon's death. David can clearly miss those whom, we may infer, were under the punishment of banishment. Given what Mosaic law prescribed about premeditated murder this is arguably still too lenient a punishment and yet to Absalom this must have seemed absurdly unjust in light of David's paradoxically furious inaction in 2 Samuel 13. Why did David take no action to punish Amnon for raping Tamar yet, as the arguments go in 2 Samuel 14, banish Absalom for killing the incestuous rapist? We see in chapter 14 that Absalom is brought back by means of a rather elaborate ruse set up by the crafty and frequently unscrupulous Joab. It is through the ruse we are told that Absalom is banished which seems fairly likely. The narrator parcels out details to gain certain effects and drops hints early on of things that come later. In other cases we are given information just at the point where it is considered significant, in this case that seems to be what has happened regarding the banishment of Absalom.

David, seeing that he has been tricked complies with Joab's machination to bring Absalom out of exile. Joab saw that David missed his son and came up with a plan to force a reconciliation point. David agrees to have Absalom brought back but decides not to see him. Absalom spends two years living in Israel without seeing his father's face and eventually burns Joab's field to force JOab to arrange a meeting with his father. "Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to still be there. Now let me see the king's face adn if there there is iniquity in me let him have me killed." Absalom considers it worse to be brought back from a state of banishment in Israel but to never see his father's face than to have been in Geshur under banishment (whether self-imposed or formally imposed is not particularly moot here as Absalom makes his statement). So Absalom forces Joab to arrange a meeting with the king by dispatching his servants to go destroy Joab's barley field.

It is here more than elsewhere earlier in the text that we can see that Absalom's quest for what he considers true justice includes destroying the welfare of even the person who advocated on his behalf earlier. This does not look like a whole lot of gratitude on Absalom's part for David's change of heart. Perhaps it is even possible that David's leniency toward Absalom for murdering his brother hardened Absalom's heart. If so then while David might be blamed at some level it is an indication of Absalom's character that he takes such a vindictive approach to having his concerns heard. He's willing to destroy what belongs to someone else so that he can have his day before the court.

We can also see that Absalom sees nothing wrong in anything he has done, whether in arranging the murder of his brother Amnon or in having his servants set fire to Joab's field. It is interesting that in these actions Absalom never does the deed himself but has his servants do it. It is curious that Absalom spends years getting other people to do the work he wants done himself. We can surmise his servants are loyal indeed! They kill people for him and they burn the property of the head of David's armies for him! They may need coaching to remove their fears (see 2 Samuel 13) but after that initial murder they seem pretty fearless. Absalom, by contrast, does not seem to be much of a fighter himself and prefers to use his social position as a member of the royal family to have other people accomplish his will. He's some kind of big man on campus who has people do things for him because of his royalty. When it comes to accomplish his own actual plans and ideas he seems far less successful.

What is curious is that we are not told that any real reconciliation, confession, or repentence seemed to happen between David and Absalom. No one has apologized for anything, no one has admitted to having done anything wrong. David kisses his son as a way of demonstrating that things have been settled when in fact nothing has been settled at all. Absalom will go on to argue that he, unlike his father, will be an advocate of justice for the people and wishes that he were established as a judge. Since earlier in the book we are told that David was a good king who did accomplish justice for the people this may have been a case where Absalom saw only flaws and not the good qualities of his father. Given how times and narratives are in our culture this is perhaps a sign that every age has people lamenting the children who have gone to seed or the old people whose character flaws have ruined society or individual lives.

David did seem to have a significant weakness of not speaking against the sins of his children. Saul, by contrast, seemeed controlling and eager to punish his children for even perceived breaches of loyalty when hewas acting foolishly against the will of God or in some cases the benefit of the people.

From Absalom's perspective it might seem spectacularly unjust to not punish Amnon for raping his sister and then sending him into exile for taking justice into his own hands by doing what David should have done, defending the honor of Tamar and punishing the incestuous rape. This would become a point from which Absalom could argue David was not a good ruler. People would have known Absalom went into exile for killing his rapist brother and he could parlay that into a case that he was willing to enact justice when David was either afraid to or unwilling to discipline members of the royal family.

David may really have been quite just in handling all kinds of other things but in failing to discipline the royal family and court he revealed a critical weakness. First he declines to punish the rapist; then exiles the man who kills the rapist; then does not admit to wrong-doing or require the murderer to admit any wrong-doing and refuses to let the man come into his presence; finally when tricked into meeting with Absalom he simply acts as though everything were swept under the rug and bygones could be bygones. Absalom could have been serious or sarcastic in saying that if there was any fault in him let the king kill him. It was a lose/lose proposition. If David didn't kill Absalom for his murder Absalom could STILL see that as an injustice for which David was no longer fit to be king over Israel.
I find it striking how much Absalom relies on his clout and influence to get his way or to let Joab accomplish things for him.

I also believe that all things considered Absalom's statements later that David was not someone who enacted justice for the people could be both sincere and specious. You don't need the whole truth to foment a rebellion against a king when a half truth will do. In this case the injustice of David disciplining the royal family was the half truth taken a whole truth. The whole truth was that David, though he was a very sinful man, was still a man after God's own heart who loved the Lord completely. Despite the multiple wives, despite the concubines, despite his leniency toward the thuggery of Joab, despite his unwillingness to punish the wickedness of the royal house, despite his flip-flopping in exiling a murderer over punishing a rapist; despite his reluctance to get things on the table and admit his faults to Absalom and to confront Absalom about his faults; despite all of this and more David genuinely loved the Lord and was appointed by God to his position of leadership. The real and profoundly troubling sins of David do not change who he was appointed to be by God's providence. Absalom, perhaps, forgot this.

Absalom, as we'll see, had an agenda of his own that included erecting a monument to himself. While David's sins of omission here in chapter 14 are pronounced we have to remind ourselves that not everyone who claims to be an advocate for justice and righting the wrongs of the leader is really in it for justice. Some people can appear to be for justice when they are finally in it for themselves, their own glory, and their own ideas of how God's people should be led. This becomes more apparent when we get to chapter 15.

Absalom, Absalom: the start of things that fulfill Nathan's prophecy

All that comes about in the life and death of Absalom began with David's adultery and murder but the catalyst in the events that unfolded which eventually fulfilled Nathan's prophecy began with a rape. Amnon, quite possibly the only person in all of Scripture described as being "in love" with a woman, is in love with his half-sister Tamar. He makes himself sick due to all his sighing and desiring. In his dejection he comes to the attention of a friend who advises him in a most dastardly way, pretend to be sick and request that your sister make a special dish for you so that you may eat from her hand. This is conniving advice if there ever was such advice. It is doubtful that even Amnon's associate anticipated that Amnon would do what he actually did, though where the text is silent it is hard to speculate. We know what happens next, Amnon rapes his sister and then hates her more than he ever loved her. Her brother Absalom says, "Have you been with your brother? Be quiet and do not take it to heart." Tamar spends the rest of her life in Absalom's home, a desolate woman, and Absalom names one of his daughters after her.

IT is hard to imagine a more miserable life, frankly. To be raped by your half brother and cloistered away at the advice of your full brother and to live out your days desolate and known for what your royal family has done to you sounds miserable.

We read that David was furious when he learned what Amnon had done ... yet David apparently did nothing, absolutely nothing. This failure to punish sin in his own household would have far-reaching consequences. Absalom hated Amnon for what he had done to Tamar and said not a word to the man for two years. I have seen a few people suggest that David found it hard to discipline a sin in his son that was the next level of his own sin in sexual immorality. David had many wives and committed adultery but I honestly don't know if David was a rapist. Perhaps this infers too much from David sending for Bathsheba? Now perhaps he did see in Amnon an evolved form of his own sexual sin since he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and since he also had by now acquired many wives. I don't know. I do know that David's willingness to marry various wives, some from King Saul's house, suggests that while he did marry for love he was also able and willing to marry for political gain, at the risk of reading a bit into David's motives. In any event the pattern here does seem to have been set for Solomon, about whom I'll write quite a bit later.

Despite all that, I think a broader reading of 1 & 2 Samuel as the single book that it is may give us some clue as to David's fury coupled with a curious inaction regarding Amnon. Notice how loyal David is and how patient he often is with people he believes he should show mercy to, like Saul. Sin is such a thing that it can bring a dark side to even our strengths and our noblest qualities. Interestingly, in the Septuagint the text seems to indicate that David was furious at Amnon for what he had done but loved him because he was firstborn. David, perhaps, had a weakness for playing favorites and withholding just punishment out of that favoritism. As we'll see later Joab rebukes the king for lamenting Absalom's death so extravagantly the people will feel he is more grieved at the loss of a treasonous son than for the suffering of his own people. I tend to think that David's strong sense of loyalty and love for his friends and family is more likely an explanation. It is true, certainly, that we can see our legacy of sin magnified in our children but since I don't know this from any experience it is simple speculation to me what might be painfully true to parents.

This is, we must remember, the David who prayed that God would destroy his enemies and who takes hyperbolic emotional flights on his feelings of abandonment or betrayal. When David feels betrayed he is able to pray that God would break the teeth of the wicked in Ps 58 and also Ps 3, which was written in reflection of David's escape from his own son. All this is to propose that when David acts in wrath he is swift to punish and when he shows compassion he is extravagant. The king was in a position to enact justice on behalf of his daughter and does nothing, it seems. She is taken into the care of her brother who tells her, for reasons we can't quite grasp, that she should not make too much of being raped by her own brother and to be quiet about things? Why would Absalom have said such a thing? Perhaps he thought his father would quickly bring a stern discipline upon his brother Amnon. Since later we will see that Jonadab explains to the king Absalom had plotted for two years to murder Amnon perhaps it was possible Absalom was waiting to see whether David himself would take disciplinary action and when this did not happen Absalom began plotting a way to destroy his brother. Or perhaps Absalom had simply been plotting murder from the beginning. I'm not sure, I'm just starting to get into this narrative and contemplating it.

It seems as I read this story more and reflect on it more that it can be easy to fixate on Absalom's character flaws. They are numerous. He could be remarkably callous, calculating, dishonest, bitter, self-serving, and conspiratorial. He feigned an obsession with justice and to identify with ordinary people even though he saw himself as better than all of them. But he was shrewd and able to see weakness in David's dispensation of justice and David's failure to correct injustice. Rather than advocate for just action in the royal court Absalom spent years devising his own scheme to get the justice he wanted and perhaps also considered David's failure to punish Amnon as a legitimate reason to rise up against his father and attempt to take the kingdom from him. For a man like Absalom to turn against his own father, a renowned warrior and beloved king, would require Absalom to believe he was in the right and David was wrong. And perhaps what we should consider, in light of Nathan's prophecy in 2 Samuel 12, is that this chaos and bloodshed did arise as the consequences of David's sin. David committed sexual sin and murder and sexual sin and murder were the things that catalyzed the rebellion within his own house.