1 & 2 Samuel Week 11
David, Tamar, and Absalom: The Sword in David’s House: 2 Samuel 13–20
Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: 2 Samuel 13–20
It took my husband a long time before he watched the movie Schindler’s List, the 1993 Oscar-winning film about a Polish man who tries to protect his Jewish factory workers during World War II. I saw the movie in the theater and was haunted and heartbroken by it, but my husband was overseas at the time and missed it. Even after the movie was available to rent, Schindler’s List was a hard choice on a Friday evening when there was always something more pleasant or fun to watch.
These chapters in 2 Samuel are neither pleasant nor fun: In them, the consequence from 2 Samuel 12:10 — that “the sword shall never depart from [David’s] house” — gets played out in cycles of family violence that include rape and murder. I understand why someone would skip over this section in favor of something less tragic. I also understand that these chapters are challenging to read. The Church sometimes avoids the unpleasant sections of the Bible. For example, some of the more difficult texts are not included in the Revised Common Lectionary. But if we refuse to pay attention to the ugly sections of Scripture, we have fewer faith resources when ugly things happen in our broken and violent world [see Author’s Note 1].
This Lectio will consider some of the characters in these chapters, beginning with David’s daughter, Tamar. Tamar gets raped by her half-brother Amnon in a horrifying account. Though she attempts to dissuade Amnon, she is unsuccessful. After the rape, Amnon throws Tamar out of the room even though she again attempts to stand up to him. As 2 Samuel 13:16 says, “he [will] not listen to her.” Tamar refuses to be silent about what happened, but instead cries out and tears her robe.
The current statistic provided by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network is that 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to officials. Certainly tearing one’s robe and putting ashes on one’s head are acts of grief, but in Tamar’s case they signify something more. When Tamar tears her robe — the garment that marked her status as a virgin (13:18) — she is symbolically communicating that her status as a virgin has been destroyed.
Pamela Cooper-White provides a list of the ways that Tamar’s story resembles instances of sexual assault today, including the following:
Tamar is raped by someone she knows, not by a stranger.
The assault happens not in a public space, but in a home.
Tamar is exploited because of her kindness and willingness to take care of another.
Tamar says no, but her refusal is not respected [see Author’s Note 2].
When an average of one in six women [see Author’s Note 3] is a victim of sexual assault today, it is all the more important that we not ignore these biblical stories. When we read about Tamar’s pain, it may help us be more sensitive to the pain experienced by women today. Additionally, if the Church is a place where such readings happen, the Church might also act against these patterns of violence against women and support those who have been victimized [see Author’s Note 4].
Absalom is David’s son and Tamar’s full brother. After Tamar gets raped, Absalom takes Tamar into his house and also takes revenge on Amnon by having him killed. The details are given as follows: David gets angry at Amnon when he hears what happened, but David refuses to punish him “because he love[s] him, for he [is] his firstborn” (13:21) [see Author’s Note 5]. Absalom waits for two years after the rape before ordering his servants to kill Amnon while he is at a feast (13:28–29).
Two things follow from this act: Absalom flees from Jerusalem and stays away for three years; and because Amnon is dead, Absalom is now the oldest and the one in line to succeed David on the throne. We are told that David’s heart longs after Absalom (13:39), but David does not act on those feelings until he is convinced to do so by a wise woman of Tekoa (2 Samuel 14:1–21). However, when David has Absalom returned to Jerusalem, David refuses to allow Absalom to come before him for another two years. After a total of five years, David finally sees his son and kisses him (14:33), but it appears to be too little, too late.
In 2 Samuel 15, Absalom attempts to seize the throne from David. He gains popular support by critiquing his father’s system of justice, and the text tells us that he “[steals] the hearts of the people of Israel” (15:6). It likely does not hurt that Absalom is attractive; 2 Samuel 14:25–26 describes his beauty and his long hair, which will play a part in his eventual death. In 2 Samuel 15:7–10, Absalom plots to go to Hebron — the place where David was anointed king over Judah, and then over all Israel. While in Hebron, Absalom commands messengers to announce that he has taken the throne.
When David hears about Absalom’s attempted coup, he and those who are still loyal to him flee Jerusalem. Once again David is on the run in the wilderness. This time his nemesis is not Saul, but his own son. As before, he still is a leader, and he gives commands to men who will fight for him. Those loyal to David engage in battle with the Israelites who follow Absalom. David’s soldiers win, but the casualties are steep, with 20,000 killed (2 Samuel 18:7). In that battle, Absalom is caught by his hair in the thick branches of a tree. While Absalom is hanging there, David’s general Joab kills him.
David’s response when he hears about Absalom’s death is one of utter grief. In contrast with his stoic and resigned response when his son dies in 2 Samuel 12:19–23, David is now “deeply moved” and repeatedly cries, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!” (2 Samuel 18:33; 19:4). David even goes so far as to say, “Would I had died instead of you!” (18:33). The Hebrew text, which so often does not describe feelings and emotions, here clearly depicts David’s agony and grief at the death of this beloved son, who killed another beloved son.
Joab has been in David’s service ever since David was on the run from Saul in the wilderness. It was Joab who carried out David’s command to have Uriah killed (2 Samuel 11), and now Joab plays a significant role in these chapters. Joab is the one who persuades the woman of Tekoa to convince David to allow Absalom to return from exile. Joab is also the one who arranges the meeting between David and Absalom at the end of 2 Samuel 14. Of course, it is also Joab who kills Absalom when David’s other soldiers are unwilling to harm the son of the king (2 Samuel 18:14).
In David’s grief over Absalom, Joab confronts David and convinces him to return to his position of authority (19:5–8). Joab also leads the pursuit against Sheba when Sheba rebels against David in 2 Samuel 20. Though there are different and intriguing elements to Joab’s character, above all he is utterly loyal to David and does whatever it takes to support David as king.
Ahithophel and Hushai
Ahithophel, Absalom’s advisor, plays an important role in Absalom’s attempted coup against David and is renowned by all for his advice (2 Samuel 16:23). He is also Bathsheba’s grandfather. The text only makes that connection indirectly, when Bathsheba’s father is named in 2 Samuel 23:34, many chapters after the narratives about Bathsheba and Ahithophel. Because the connection is not explicit, we can only wonder if part of Absalom’s motivation to oppose David is his sister Tamar’s rape, and if Ahithophel is similarly motivated against David by David’s treatment of Bathsheba. It is on Ahithophel’s advice that Absalom sleeps with David’s concubines in 2 Samuel 16:21–22 [see Author’s Note 6], which is a fulfillment of God’s judgment against David in 2 Samuel 12:11–12 that David’s wives will be taken in public by another.
The other person who gives advice in these chapters is David’s friend Hushai, who appears immediately after David prays, “O LORD, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Samuel 15:31). Hushai, on David’s request, goes to Jerusalem pretending to support Absalom, but ultimately gives Absalom advice that contradicts Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:7–14). We are told that God is behind this, as 2 Samuel 17:14 explains: “the LORD had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the LORD might bring ruin on Absalom.” After Absalom’s followers approve of Hushai’s advice over Ahithophel’s, Hushai sends a message to warn David about Ahithophel’s plan. David safely escapes, and when Ahithophel sees that his advice is not followed, he hangs himself. A number of people have noted connections between Judas and Ahithophel, both of whom betray God’s anointed one and subsequently commit suicide by hanging.
Mephibosheth and Ziba
Mephibosheth, who last was seen sitting at David’s table in 2 Samuel 9:13, appears two times in this section of text. First, when David flees Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 16, Mephibosheth’s servant Ziba tells David that Mephibosheth wants to stay in Jerusalem because he wants to regain the kingdom that belonged to his grandfather Saul. Notice how it is Ziba who relays this message, not Mephibosheth himself. David’s response is to tell Ziba that he can have everything that belongs to Mephibosheth — not an unsubstantial amount according to 2 Samuel 9:9.
When David returns to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 19, Mephibosheth comes to meet David. He looks disheveled, having neglected to take care of his appearance “from the day the king left until the day he came back in safety” (2 Samuel 19:24). When David asks why Mephibosheth did not follow him, Mephibosheth explains that his lameness prevented him, and that what Ziba had told David about Mephibosheth was slander. David, perhaps unable to decide which one spoke truthfully, divides the land between Ziba and Mephibosheth. But Mephibosheth has the final word, and it is a magnanimous one. Mephibosheth says that Ziba can have everything, because David has returned home safely (2 Samuel 19:30) [see Author’s Note 7]. The son of Jonathan, to whom David showed kindness, now shows that kindness to another.
Shimei and Sheba
Not everyone is as pleased as Mephibosheth at David’s return to Jerusalem. Shimei had cursed David when he was retreating from Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 16:5–8, and when David returns, Shimei asks for mercy (19:18–20). In 2 Samuel 20, Sheba declares secession from David, and others follow his lead. Both Shimei and Sheba are connected with Saul: Shimei had proclaimed that “the blood of the house of Saul” (2 Samuel 16:8) was on David, and Sheba is a Benjamite, Saul’s tribe (20:1). David does show Shimei mercy (19:24–30), while Sheba is killed when a woman cuts off his head and throws it over the city wall to Joab (20:20–22) [see Author’s Note 8].
In addition to the characters discussed above, these chapters are populated with others, including Jonadab, Ittai, Zadok, Barzillai, etc. Of course, the main character continues to be David. In this section of the text, David is not a model of how to parent. He is a tragic reminder of how painful and ugly are the consequences of sin. The “sword” in his house destroys three of his children — Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom — with far-reaching effects for the entire nation, such as those 20,000 who die in the civil war.
David is, however, a model of lament. He weeps as he leaves Jerusalem, and he mourns over his son Absalom. Incidentally, I would have liked to read that he laments over what happens to Tamar; perhaps he does, and it is not recorded. The text is honest about David’s brokenness. Additionally, David still turns to God. While he is fleeing for his life after he is cursed by Shimei, David says, “It may be that the LORD will look on my distress, and the LORD will repay me with good for this cursing of me today” (2 Samuel 16:12). This is no mere platitude, but a stunning example of trust in God in a context of pain.
Questions for Further Discussion
- 2 Samuel 13 tells the tragic story of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom. How is Amnon portrayed? How does David respond to Amnon’s actions against Tamar? Why does David choose not to punish Amnon? How do David’s actions affect Tamar and Absalom? What is the role of Jonadab? How does David respond to the death of Amnon and the exile of Absalom?
- Because of David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11, God tells him that “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Sam 12:10-11). How does this play out in these chapters of 2 Samuel?
- There are some very difficult stories in chapters 13-20. Why should we not avoid such texts? Why is it important to read disturbing or challenging parts of Scripture?
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