2 Samuel 17:24–18:18: Absalom’s Death
David’s son Absalom has declared himself king, and the people of Israel are behind him—or at least enough people that David got scared and fled for his life—so now David is on the run from Absalom. He has crossed over to the other side of the Jordan river from Jerusalem, to a city named Mahanaim, which is in the region of Gilead1. In the previous passage one of David’s spies purposely gave Absalom some bad advice, which delayed Absalom’s pursuit, but he’s now on his way. He has appointed someone as the head of his army (since the “former” head of the army, Joab, is still serving David), and he and his army have now also crossed the Jordan, and are encamped in Gilead.
I don’t know if it’s important or one of those things I read too much into, but verse 17:26 says that…
The Israelites and Absalom camped in the land of Gilead.
Is it important that “the Israelites” and Absalom are called out separately? I see it as reinforcing that “the Israelites” are now with Absalom, instead of David; the Israelites used to be with David, but now they’re with Absalom.
Regardless, we’re told that David is met in Mahanaim by a number of people—the author is diligent to point out their names—who have brought bedding, bowls, pottery, food, and milk, for David’s people to eat.
David then musters the troops and gets ready to send them out to fight Absalom’s men. His original intent is to go with the men, but they hold him back:
But the men said, “You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city.” (verse 18:3)
David agrees, and stays behind.
As the men are heading out, however, David gives instructions to the commanders that they should “be gentle” with Absalom, for David’s sake, and the soldiers all hear it.
The two armies end up fighting it out partially in a forest and David’s men come out the winners, with about 20,000 men being killed, but we’re told that more men are killed by the forest than are actually killed by the sword. “Killed by the forest?” you ask. “How are they killed by the forest? Forests don’t kill people!” And my assumption is that what the author means is that men are riding their horses through the trees and running into them and getting killed.
And I make that assumption because that’s almost exactly what happens to Absalom himself: he’s riding his mule through the forest, goes under an oak tree, and ends up hanging from the tree by his hair when it gets caught in the branches! (We were told in an earlier passage about Absalom’s luxurious hair; maybe we should have considered that foreshadowing…)
One of the men sees Absalom hanging there and goes to tell Joab, who’s angry to the point of confusion: if the man saw Absalom hanging there, why didn’t he kill him? Then Joab would have been giving the man a reward, instead of yelling at him! But the man replies that no reward would be great enough for him to lay a hand on the king’s son; he heard David giving instructions to Joab and the other commanders to be gentle with Absalom, so there was no way the man was going to kill him!
Joab essentially says to the man he’s not going to wait around, he’ll just do it himself. He goes and finds Absalom, still hanging from the tree, and plunges some javelins into his heart. Then, ten of Joab’s men surround Absalom, strike him, and kill him. (The way verses 18:14–15 are worded it seems like three javelins through the heart weren’t enough to kill Absalom, so they had to keep striking him until he was dead, which is impressive.)
Joab then sounds a trumpet, indicating that the battle is over. By this point David’s men are chasing the men of Israel, so when they hear the trumpet they stop chasing them, but the Israelites—the ones who had been following Absalom—flee to their homes.
I almost feel I shouldn’t talk about David’s weakness as a father again, because I’ve been harping on it for passage after passage.
One could argue—and I’ve been doing so for a few chapters now—that much of what we’re seeing is caused by David’s weakness as a father. His son Amnon raped his daughter Tamar, but he didn’t punish Amnon; his son Absalom then took matters into his own hand and killed Amnon in revenge, but David didn’t punish Absalom either. I don’t want to draw too straight of a line, but it could very well be that Absalom has grown up his whole life seeing that his father David simply won’t discipline his children—at least not the male ones—and so was much more inclined to go to war with his father. Because, after all, what’s David going to do? Kill him? Yeah right!
If this is in Absalom’s mind, the events of this passage definitely line up with his way of thinking: he has gone to war with his father, and sent his troops after him, and meanwhile David is telling the commanders of his troops, “please be gentle with my boy!”
Absalom Riding a Mule
One might ask why Absalom was riding a mule to battle instead of a horse. The ESV Study Bible notes indicate that a king’s sons would normally ride mules, which is half an answer, but not a full one: Didn’t Absalom consider himself king by this point? Why is he still riding a mule? Perhaps he didn’t consider himself fully king until he’d completely finished his father’s reign?
Killed by the Forest
Regardless of the specific mechanics of how men are being killed by the forest, I think we should read this as divine intervention. God is fighting on David’s behalf.