Home > 2 Samuel 15, Absalom, David, Judgment > 2 Samuel 15 Part 4 – Absalom’s case

2 Samuel 15 Part 4 – Absalom’s case

Why did people listen to Absalom? What led to the conflict between David and Absalom? Did Absalom have grounds for his claim? A brief overview of the background will follow based on the text of 2 Samuel 13-14.

The background to these charges of Absalom lies in the failure of the king to bring about justice for his own daughter, Tamar, who is Absalom’s sister.[1] Absalom’s confidence in his own ability to make a righteous judgment is manifested in the drama of 2 Samuel 13. After Amnon’s rape, it is Absalom who comforts his sister, Tamar, and who waits two full years during which time King David did nothing (13:20-23). In Absalom’s judgment, justice demanded the death of Amnon, David’s firstborn son. King David judged otherwise or at least he took no action, so it was Absalom who took justice into his own hands. The narrative of 2 Samuel 13 takes great lengths to indicate that Absalom’s action is directed only against Amnon and that not one of the other king’s sons is harmed (13:30-33). In other words, there are good grounds for arguing the case that Absalom’s action is not a random and ruthless lust for power, but a calculated and courageous stance for righteousness (13:28). The cost of that stance for Absalom is his exile to Geshur (13:34-39). 2 Samuel 14 relates Joab’s intervention which results in the return of Absalom to Jerusalem.

If a primary role of the king of Israel is to judge his people, then Absalom’s claim stems from his personal dissatisfaction with the king’s judgment of his own actions. Absalom spent three years in exile and then another two years unable to draw near the king’s presence (2 Sam 13:37, 14:28). At the end of that long delay, he virtually demanded, via Joab, for judgment of his actions:     

‘let me go into the presence of the king, and if there is guilt in me, let him put me to death.’ (14:32).[2]

2 Samuel 14 closes with the restoration of the once exiled and alienated son, Absalom, to the king’s presence. Absalom is duly acquitted as indicated by the king’s kiss of the son who had prostrated himself before the king. But, by this decision, the king’s position as judge has been undermined since Absalom has placed his demand to see the king in justice terms: ‘if there is any guilt in me’ (14:28). This is not a plea for mercy, but a claim to be innocent, that is, to have made the right judgment.[3]

From Absalom’s viewpoint, the king’s kiss vindicates his own judgment in murdering Amnon for his rape of Tamar. But it took two long years after a three year self-imposed exile, before a judicial decision was made by the king about the matter. That only occurred through the son’s forceful dealings with Joab, barley field and all, and Absalom’s determination to lay his life on the line if there was any wrongdoing on his part (14:28-33). And the final verdict was acquittal. A similar period of ‘two full years’ passed without any delivery of justice from David for Tamar – the very cause of Absalom’s own exile (13:23).[4] Little wonder that Absalom felt frustrated at his father’s judicial process. The narrative accentuates Absalom’s personal grievance by drawing attention to the homage and kissing of the men who draw near to Absalom which parodies his own treatment by the king in 14:33.[5] Absalom knows all too well the discontent associated with an inefficient judicial system, and his campaign picks up on the delay and discontent of those awaiting justice (15:3).[6] Absalom identifies with and appeals to the frustration the men of Israel have with delays in justice and by so doing he is able to win their loyalty. Already disenchanted by their own matter of perceived injustice, they quickly identify with Absalom’s cry and decide that he is a man who can be trusted, a man who is on their side. Absalom’s conspiracy plot against the king is fuelled by the perceived failure of the present judicial system, and by this strategy Absalom is able to commit the theft of the very hearts[7] of the men of Israel (15:6). The success of Absalom’s stealth is an indicator of the crumbling of David’s authority to judge Israel.

[1] 2 Samuel 13.  It was Absalom who defended Tamar and delivered his own justice through the murder of the king’s first-born son, Amnon, who perpetrated the rape. Tamar’s namesake in Genesis 38 is closely associated with the issue of righteousness as Judah painfully discovered (Gen 38:26).

[2] It will be Joab who later kills Absalom, so it is to be noted that this is spoken to Joab and not to the king.

[3] The phrase echoes that used by David himself who protested his innocence in 1 Samuel 20:8.

[4] The phrase translated ‘two full years’ in 13:23 is echoed in 14:28. The phrase is not used frequently and elsewhere emphasizes the drawn out nature of the waiting period. This is particularly the case in Gen 41:1 as Joseph languishes in prison. Compare too Ps 90:10 and Eccles 6:3. The use in Jeremiah 28:3,11 does seek to convey a short period of time, however, that usage is by the false prophet, Hananiah, who is condemned for precisely that interpretation. It is interesting that Acts 28:30-31 has a similar time reference as the book’s closure point as Paul proclaims the message of the kingdom of God in the city of Rome. The author of Acts may be hinting at the vindication of the apostolic message, namely the destruction of Jerusalem, would soon follow.

[5] 2 Sam 15:3 focusses the issue on the delay in justice being given and Absalom blames the king for this time lapse. It is this delay in justice which is the initial basis for hostility between the father and the son.

[6] The ‘delay in justice’ theme is often connected to a widow’s plight and is directly associated with the coming of the Son of Man and the presence of faith in Luke 18:1-8. See also footnote 9. The Lukan parable and its conclusion expresses one of the fundamental challenges to faith throughout Scripture, namely, does the hearer believe that God is a righteous Judge who will bring justice on the earth? This time theme comes to prominence with the appearance of Hushai the Arkite and the later commentary on 15:34 proposes that this delay theme provides insight into understanding why the son does not have the Father’s knowledge of time (Matthew 24:36).

[7] The phrase ‘stole the hearts’ (15:6) is used to refer to Jacob’s departure from Laban in Genesis 31:20, 26,27. ‘And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee.’ (ESV footnote). This allusion to the Jacob-Laban episode is developed elsewhere in the narrative especially at Absalom’s death (18:17-18). The Genesis account is significant for interpreting that death.

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