Amidst the many trials of King David over the course of his storied career, none was more tumultuous than the civil war instigated by his third son, Absalom. Handsome without peer, Absalom stole the hearts of the Israelites and nearly unseated his father, before his shameful demise and burial under a “great heap of stones” (2Sam 18:17).
Who was Absalom?
Born in Hebron during David’s reign over Judah, Absalom was distinguished with a royal bloodline. His mother was Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur (2Sam 3:3), and the household relocated to Jerusalem at some point after the conquest of that city. Absalom formally enters the narrative stage when his sister, Tamar, is raped by David’s firstborn son Amnon. No punishment is meted out by the king for this crime, but after two years Absalom deceptively organizes the murder of his older brother Amnon at a sheepshearing festival, and in the aftermath flees to Geshur to take refuge with Talmai. His actions are clouded by ambiguity: is his primary motive vengeance for his sister or the removal of Amnon from the scene? Regardless, Absalom is now apparently David’s oldest surviving son. (Kileab, the second born, is not mentioned beyond a brief genealogical note. This suggests that he died prior to Amnon.). Absalom was thus the putative heir to David’s throne.
What led to Absalom’s downfall?
Joab—the military leader—evidently does not trust Absalom in Geshur and takes initiative to bring him back to Jerusalem where he remains under house arrest and estranged from his father. A modest reconciliation occurs only after Absalom torches Joab’s barley field and forces the issue. In the middle of these scenes is a lengthy digression (2Sam 14:25-26) that outlines Absalom’s flowing mane and unblemished outward beauty that attracts the admiration of the nation. Descriptions of this sort are not overly frequent in biblical narrative, and in this context it prepares the way for Absalom’s skyrocketing popularity.
Patient plotting seems to be a hallmark of Absalom, and at the outset of 2Sam 15 he takes position at the city gate and gains the people’s confidence with a series of political promises. Asking for the king’s permission to fulfill a vow at Hebron, Absalom actually stages a coup that results in David’s evacuation of Jerusalem with civil war looming. The march out of the city is surely the lowest point in the king’s life, and he utters a desperate prayer in the vicinity of the Mount of Olives. A crucial moment occurs in 2Sam 17:14 when Absalom rejects the counsel of the famed Ahithophel and opts for the advice of Hushai who argues for delay and the gathering of a sizable army. The subsequent delay allows David to regroup on the other side of the Jordan and prepare for the climactic battle.
As the tide of battle turns against him, Absalom meets his own demise in a memorable way: “Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him kept going” (2Sam 18:9). Finished off by an angry Joab and his retinue, Absalom is cast into a great pit and all that remained of his legacy was a lifeless monument (2Sam 18:18).
Why is Absalom important?
Absalom’s name means “my father’s shalom,” yet he ironically brings fracture and instability into the story line. This perhaps foreshadows later strife that will mark the Davidic house until the final Babylonian invasion and the dismantling of the institutional monarchy in 2Kgs 25. Yet the Absalom episode may also foreshadow the restoration of the Davidic line. Back in 2Sam 7:16 Nathan the prophet delivered an astonishing divine message to David, promising him a lasting dynasty (“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever”). Abaslom’s actions seem to threaten this promise. Yet, David is able to overcome the attempted coup. So, too, can the people of God. Despite the destruction of Jerusalem and the formal end of kingship, the Davidic promise will endure and in due course become part of the messianic expectation in emerging Judaism.