2 Samuel 14: Absalom Returns to Jerusalem
This is another of those passages where context is very important to the story, so here’s a recap of what happened in the previous chapter:
- In 13:1–22, a son of David named Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. Absalom—another son of David’s, and Tamar’s brother—was very angry with Amnon, though for a time there were no consequences to Amnon for his actions.
- In 13:23–39, Absalom finally got his opportunity to kill Amnon in revenge for what was done to Tamar, but then Absalom had to flee the country or risk being punished for this action.
And that’s where we stand at the beginning of Chapter 14: Absalom is off in a place called Geshur, unable to return back to Israel for fear of being punished for killing his brother Amnon.
Joab—commander of David’s army—is not happy with the situation, however, so he comes up with a scheme1 to have Absalom brought home. And it is… convoluted. Read verses 2–17 to get the full effect of it, but in summary this is what happens:
- Joab has a “wise woman” brought to him. It feels like the term “wise woman” means something specific, though that’s just an assumption I’m making; maybe the text is being very literal, and Joab just went and found a woman who’s smart/wise.
- He has her alter her appearance to make it seem that she’s in mourning, and then go and present herself to King David.
- She’s to spin a story for the king about how her two sons got into a fight and one killed the other, so now her clan is asking for the murderer so they can put him to death—but if they do, then the woman will have no sons left! As she puts it, “They would put out the only burning coal I have left, leaving my husband neither name nor descendant on the face of the earth” (verse 7).
- Upon hearing this story David tells her to go home and he’ll issue an order on her behalf, but that’s not good enough for her (within the context of this ruse): she wants an immediate ruling from him.
- David doesn’t let himself get pressured into an immediate ruling, but he does say to the woman that anyone who says anything to her should be brought to him, and they won’t bother her again—but she says it’s more urgent than that, and David needs to “invoke the LORD … God to prevent the avenger of blood2 from adding to the destruction, so that my son will not be destroyed” (verse 11). He still doesn’t give an official ruling, but he does tell her that “not one hair of your son’s head will fall to the ground” (verse 11).
- At this point the woman temporarily breaks character. She asks if she can speak a word to the king—this seems to be the equivalent of asking if she can “speak freely,” and/or taking him aside to talk to him privately—and then speaks directly to the situation at hand in verses 13–14: “The woman said, ‘Why then have you devised a thing like this against the people of God? When the king says this, does he not convict himself, for the king has not brought back his banished son? Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.’”
- After this, she immediately gets back into character, continuing on as if verses 13–14 hadn’t happened, and says to David that she felt compelled to come to the king because she was so afraid that the people would kill her only remaining son, and cut off her inheritance.
- David then asks her, “Isn’t the hand of Joab with you in all this?” (verse 19).
- She admits it—though she does so with a lot of flattery included: “The woman answered, ‘As surely as you live, my lord the king, no one can turn to the right or to the left from anything my lord the king says. Yes, it was your servant Joab who instructed me to do this and who put all these words into the mouth of your servant. Your servant Joab did this to change the present situation. My lord has wisdom like that of an angel of God—he knows everything that happens in the land’” (verses 19–20).
This is the end of Joab’s plan. In fact, at this point David turns away from the woman and says directly to Joab that yes, Absalom can come home, and instructs Joab to go get him. Which Joab does: He goes to Geshur, gets Absalom, and brings him home.
However, that doesn’t mean that all is well. David also gives a further command about Absalom: he’s to live in his own house, and never again be allowed to see his father’s face. (That is, he’s not to be allowed in David’s presence.)
The passage then takes time for an aside to tell us how handsome Absalom is, with no blemish from head to toe, and hair so thick and luxurious that he’d get it cut once a year and they’d take off five pounds of hair. We’re also told that Absalom has three sons and a very beautiful daughter named Tamar. (I think it’s obvious who she’s named after!)
But his isolation from the king isn’t pleasing to him. After a couple of years he sends for Joab to ask for an audience with the king, but Joab refuses to see him. (I don’t know if he legitimately isn’t allowed to see Absalom, given David’s ruling, or if he’s taking it too far and it’s only King David that Absalom is not allowed to see.) Absalom sends for Joab again, and is refused again. So he gets a bit extreme, and sends his servants to light one of Joab’s fields on fire, to get his attention.
Which works, because Joab finally comes to ask Absalom why he’s set Joab’s fields on fire, and Absalom is finally able to have the conversation he’s wanted to have: Sure, yes, he’s been brought back to Jerusalem, but now he’s in some kind of legal limbo! He wants to see his father, face to face, and if he’s guilty of anything then David should put him to death.
Joab finally delivers this message to the king, and David has Absalom brought to him. Absalom bows before his father, and David kisses him, effectively restoring the relationship.
A couple of things jump out at me about this passage, related to the woman’s story and Absalom’s restoration.
Why the back-and-forth in the woman’s story?
This is one of the many, many cases in which a commentary helped me figure out what was actually going on. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this passage and not grasped that verses 13–14 were an aside—she tells her bogus story to the king, interjects a specific message to say, “this is what it’s really about,” and then goes back to her bogus story. I’d often get somewhat confused trying to follow the story, especially the part where she goes back to pretending to be a grieving mother.
But there’s a reason for that approach, which is what the commentary pointed out to me: the reason she does it this way—specifically the reason she ends her session with the king by going back to her bogus story—is that she’s (in the words of the ESV Study Bible notes), “thus placing herself on the side of the needy and helpless, not in the position of an accuser of the king.” (emphasis mine).
David’s Weakness as a Father
We’re going to see in subsequent chapters that Absalom is not always a wholly righteous man but I have to say, I’m on his side for Chapters 13 & 14. I don’t know Old Testament Israelite law well enough to know if he was legally allowed to kill Amnon, but given that Amnon wasn’t being punished in any other way we can easily see why Absalom did what he did. But then he gets left in this legal limbo; is he guilty of murder? An avenger of blood? (Except that it’s all happening within his own family, and anytime I read about the concept of the avenger of blood it’s always related to getting revenge on behalf of his own family.) Is he justified in what he did?
Almost all of this, in my mind, comes back on David: he refuses to punish Amnon for what he did, and then when Absalom does it himself David refuses to properly adjudicate Absalom’s case. When Absalom comes back to Jerusalem, David seems to just want to put him away and forget about him so that he won’t be forced to make a concrete judgement on it until Absalom forces him to.
I know I’m not the first one to point this out, but one of David’s biggest weaknesses is as a father. His adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah are dramatic and catch our attention, but there’s a sense in which his failures with his children have longer lasting effects: Amnon rapes his sister Tamar and disgraces her3, but David puts his head in the sand instead of punishing him; because of that, Absalom takes the law into his own hands and kills Amnon; David puts his head in the sand again and refuses to punish Absalom—but also refuses to clear him of wrongdoing; Absalom finally forces David’s hand, and David chooses to simply clear Absalom.
In the coming chapters Absalom is going to rebel against his father and try to claim the kingdom for himself. David is going to flee rather than facing off against Absalom until he’s forced to, at which point Absalom will be killed and David will mourn so deeply for his son that his own troops will feel ashamed for doing what they’re supposed to be doing in fighting on behalf of their king! And in my mind, all of that can be traced back to Chapters 13 & 14, where David didn’t take decisive action against either of his sons.
But let’s not take this as an opportunity to shame David for poor fatherhood. Let’s remember what this led to: Absalom is next in line for the throne, but Solomon is next after him, so Absalom’s death means that Solomon succeeds David to the throne. Which not only leads to the height of Israel’s power and respect in the world, but also leads to the book of Proverbs (or at least parts of it) in the Scriptures. It might also have led to the books Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, though there’s some question as to how much Solomon was involved in writing these books, or whether he just served as partial inspiration. Eventually, it also led to Jesus Christ, who was a descendent of Solomon (though we don’t usually think of it that way, we think only of Jesus as being a descendent of David).
My point—counterintuitive as it might be—is that we should take some comfort from David’s failures in this section of the Scripture. Yes, he should have done some things differently, and I’d say his failure to act in these instances is sinful, but David’s mistakes and sins were used by God to bring about the next king of Israel—the king God wanted to be the successor. Solomon himself also had failures, but God used him to bring about parts of the Scripture we still read and learn from today.
David should have (and probably did) repent of his sins, but God was in control. I should repent of my sins, too, but I shouldn’t fall into despair from them, because God will accomplish what He’s going to accomplish, and my failures can’t stop Him. Personally, I would prefer that God accomplishes what He’s going to accomplish via my righteous actions—I think it’s safe to say He’d prefer that as well!—but He will still accomplish what He’s going to accomplish via my sinful actions if need be.
If I’m a bad father4, or a bad husband, or a bad worker, or a bad son, or a bad friend, or a bad anything else, I need to repent of that and strive to do better. And, at the same time, I also need to praise God, because God is God, and God is going to accomplish all that He plans to accomplish.
In North America the word “scheme” has negative connotations, but I’m mostly using it in a more pure form: “scheme” simply meaning a well thought out plan. There is a certain amount of deceptiveness built into Joab’s scheme, however, so I used the word despite its North American connotations because maybe some of the negative connotations apply as well. ↩︎
“Avenger of blood” is a real term, it’s not just a fanciful term the woman is using. The Old Testament laws provided for an “avenger of blood” who would take revenge on behalf of his family if a member of his family was murdered. There are even rules for “cities of refuge,” for cases where a person accidentally kills someone and needs to flee the avenger of blood. ↩︎
I’m saying this very much in the context of the culture of the time, and the effects that Tamar would suffer due to Amnon’s actions. I’m not saying that Tamar did anything “disgraceful” in the whole situation. I talked about this in more depth when I blogged about 13:1–22. ↩︎
I’m not actually a father at all, I’m just pushing the example to its conclusion. ↩︎