David and Absalom

Deuteronomy 17:17 [The king] must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.

A little background

David's Sons - David had many wives and concubines, and so naturally, he had many sons. The first-born and heir to the throne was Amnon, whose mother is Ahinoam. Second in line is Absalom*, born to Maacah from Geshur, an Aramean kingdom to the north. A conflict arises between the brothers over a woman, Tamar, who is Absalom's sister and Amnon's half-sister.

* Absalom is the third son. 2Samuel 3:3 lists the second son as Kileab, born to Abigail. Since he is not mentioned elsewhere in the bible, the consensus is that he died young.

Concubines - Concubinage exists in most cultures. A concubine is a marital companion with an inferior social or religious status to a wife. She would have the security of a marriage, but she and her offspring wouldn't share in the same inheritance rights as a wife. Many (most) of the patriarchs had concubines. In our modern culture of live-in-girlfriends, and fiancées, and life-partners (people who can pack up your stuff and leave with your dog) the point to remember is that the old testament role of the concubine was legally binding. The Levitical rules on sexual relations were in full effect and the concubine was as much the husband's property as the wife was.

Ahithophel - Bathsheba's grandfather and wise counselor to David. Also one of the first conspirators against the king. David had a trusted relationship with Ahithophel and took the betrayal personally. David would write of it in Psalm 41:9 and Psalm 55:12-14.

God's Wrath - Because of David's sin, God has proclaimed a curse on his house:

2Samuel 12:10-12 10. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.' 11. "This is what the Lord says: 'Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. 12. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.' "

David confessed his sin and God forgave him, but the consequences are in full effect. There will be personal conflict in David's house for the rest of his life.

The Troubles

Chapter 13 - A year or so has passed since the birth of Solomon and David is around fifty-five years old. Amnon, David's oldest son, has "fallen in love" with his half-sister Tamar. At the prodding of a cousin, Jonadab, Amnon employs a ruse to lure Tamar to his bedroom. He will pretend to be sick and ask his father, the king, to send Tamar to cook for him and feed him. She goes to Amnon's house and prepares food in his sight. Amnon dismisses the servants and asks her to feed him in his bedroom. When she approaches, he grabs her and despite her pleading, Amnon overpowers and rapes Tamar.

2Samuel 13:15 Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, "Get up and get out!"

If you read down a bit, it says, She was wearing a richly ornamented robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar had begged Amnon to not rape her, now she is begging him to not throw her out. Amnon had his servants expel her and bolt the door behind her. Tamar put ashes on her head, tore her robe, and went away weeping. She had been violated and discarded.

When her brother Absalom found out, he consoled her and took Tamar into his house and she lived there, a desolate woman. When the king found out, he became furious but he didn't do anything about it. Absalom hated Amnon for the rape of his sister, but he remained silent saying nothing good or bad... for two years.

Two years passed and Absalom was holding a shearing festival at Baal Hazor, about ten miles north of Jerusalem. He invited the king and all of his sons to attend. David declined the offer, but at Absalom's persistence, allowed all his other sons to attend, in particular, Amnon. At the party Absalom gave orders for his men to wait until Amnon got drunk and then kill him. The did and all of David's other sons fled on their mules. Absalom then fled to Geshur, his mother's homeland where he stayed for three years. David mourned and longed to go to Absalom.

David has lost both of his oldest sons. They have become guilty of sexual immorality and murder, just as their father had. –The sword will never depart from your house– Absalom has avenged the rape of his sister and secured his position as successor to the throne.

Chapter 14 - David is heartbroken. Joab knew that David wanted to see Absalom but David's pride was preventing it so he approached a woman to pose as a mother mourning the loss of her sons. She told David that one son had recklessly murdered his brother and now her clansmen were wanting to execute the murdering son, "putting out the only burning coal I have left,". When David assures the woman that her son should not be put to death and in response, she calls him out on his treatment of Absalom. Gutsy. David recognizes Joab's hand in this and confronts him. Joab confesses his involvement and David relents and gives him permission to bring Absalom back from Geshur. Absalom must go to his own house and not see the kings face, however.

Significant to the story is Absalom's appearance. Verses twenty-five and twenty-six speak of Absalom's beauty and his hair; when he cuts it, it weighs two hundred shekels, or about five pounds. Absalom resides in Jerusalem for two years unable to see his father. He sends for Joab, but Joab will not see him either. After a couple of attempts, Absalom has his men set fire to Joab's barley field which gets Joab's attention. Joab then agrees to go see David on Absalom's behalf and David agrees to see Absalom.

The Conspiracy

Chapter 15 - Approximately a year later, Absalom acquires a chariot and horses and bodyguards to run along with him. This is the first instance of an Israelite using a chariot. Absalom would set up alongside the road "politicking"; persons traveling to see the king would be engaged by Absalom who would listen to their grievances and pander to their desires. Travelers would bow to Absalom and he would embrace and kiss them in return. Like any good politician, he ingratiated himself to his constituents.

When Absalom was about thirty, he asked David to allow him to go to Hebron (where David was first proclaimed king) to worship the Lord. David agrees and two hundred men from Israel accompanied Absalom to Hebron. The bible says they were guests and knew nothing of Absalom's plan. While Absalom was making sacrifices in Hebron, he sent for Bathsheba's grandfather, Ahithophel, who did know of Absalom's intentions.

2Samuel 15:10 Then Absalom sent secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to say, "As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpets, then say, 'Absalom is king in Hebron.'"

When word of Absalom's usurpation reached David, he ordered an abandonment of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a fortress, you could be locked in as well as out and David did not know the extent of Absalom's support. David left ten of his concubines to care for the palace. Everyone else in his household and his officials fled the city, and it was a lot of people. The Levites initially brought the ark and Abiathar made sacrifices until the people left the city. David had the Levites return the ark to the city and for the priests to covertly send news to him in the desert.

As David was going up the Mount of Olives, he heard that Ahithophel was among the conspirators. David prayed to God to "turn Ahithophel's counsel into foolishness." When David arrived at the summit, a friend of his named Hushai was there. David asked him to go down and pledge allegiance to Absalom and in doing so, he could help in frustrating Ahithophel's advice.


Chapter 16 - Just over the summit, David encounters Ziba, formerly the servant of Saul and now the steward of Mephibosheth's estate. Ziba has donkeys and provisions for David. David is cautious and asks where is Mephibosheth. Ziba tells David that Saul's grandson is in Jerusalem in hopes that Absalom will return Saul's kingdom to him. David proclaims that all of Mephibosheth's property now belongs to Ziba.

As David was approaching Bahurim (Nob), just over the Mount of Olives, a man named Shimei came out and started cursing David and pelting his people with stones and dirt. David's guards were with him and Abishai suggested going over and cutting off the man's head. David stopped him.

2Samuel 16:11 David then said to Abishai and all his officials, "My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to.

Shimei continued on with David, cursing and throwing dirt.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Ahithophel's advice was highly regarded by David and Absalom. The bible describes it as priestly (Verse 23.) Ahithophel tells Absalom to reinforce his claim to the throne by sleeping with David's concubines.

2Samuel 16:21-22 21. Ahithophel answered, "Lie with your father's concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench in your father's nostrils, and the hands of everyone with you will be strengthened." 22. So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he lay with his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel.


Chapter 17 - Ahithophel next advises Absalom to immediately assemble twelve thousand soldiers and pursue David while he is vulnerable. If Absalom kills only David, the people with him will return to Jerusalem and submit to Absalom's rule. The advice is well received but Absalom seeks out a second opinion from David's friend Hushai.

Hushai had been tasked with frustrating Ahithophel's advice. He reminds Absalom that David and his men are fierce, battle hardened warriors and David's experience would preclude him from being among his fighting men. Hushai says that if Absalom follows Ahithophel's plan, David would ambush the men and there would be many casualties. Hushai advises Absalom to amass a vast army from all of Israel and lead it personally against David. Absalom accepts Hushai's plan over Ahithophel's. Hushai and the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, get a message to David detailing what has happened and for him to cross the Jordan immediately in case Absalom changes his mind.

Ahithophel, feeling that Hushai's plan will end in failure, goes home and hangs himself. David crosses the Jordan and makes his way to Mahanaim where his people received provisions. Absalom and his army are in pursuit. As you would expect, there is great turmoil. The author describes David's army as "the men of Israel" and Absalom's army as "the Israelites". The people are having to choose sides and concern themselves with picking the winner.

The Death of Absalom

Chapter 18 - The battle takes place in Gilead, just south of Mahanaim, east of the Jordan river. David divided his army into three regiments and fully intended to march with them but his generals, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai protested for the reason that Ahithophel gave Absalom: David is vulnerable (old and weak) and his death is all that Absalom needs to secure a victory. David concedes and waits at the gate while his army marches. As they are leaving for battle, David gives an order, "Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake." All the troops heard the order.

As the battle engaged, it moved into the forest of Ephraim. David's men inflicted twenty thousand casualties on the army of Israel, but in verse eight, it says, "The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest claimed more lives that day than the sword." Presumably, men were getting lost in the forest, but then there is this,

2Samuel 18:9 Now Absalom happened to meet David's men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom's head got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.

Whether by his head or his hair, Absalom was hanging in a tree. When a soldier reported to Joab that he had seen Absalom, Joab took three spears and plunged them into Absalom's heart. Ten of Joab's armor bearers joined in and struck Absalom dead. They sounded the trumpet to end the battle and they buried Absalom in a pit in the forest under some rocks. The surviving Israelites fighting David's men fled to their homes.

The Aftermath

Chapter 19 - When David heard of Absalom's death, he went into isolation and wept and mourned for his son. The men who had won the battle were keeping a low profile as if they had done something wrong. Joab boldly goes to David and rebukes his actions, reminding David that the soldier outside have just saved David's family and kingdom from a traitor and David should go out an encourage his men. David then gets up and goes to sit in the gateway (he's still in Mahanaim) and all his men come before him encouraged.

David returns to Jerusalem and sets about healing the wounds in Israel. He sought no retaliation against those who had sided with Absalom. Even Shimei, the Benjamite who had followed David, cussing at him and throwing rocks, was forgiven. Absalom's general, Amasa is given a command position in David's army that doesn't end well. David allows Mephibosheth's version of events to settle disputes raised by Ziba. David also invited those who showed kindness to his household to join him in Jerusalem. He took the ten concubines violated by Absalom and put them in a house under guard until the day they died. He had no further relations with them. They lived as widows.

Chapter 20 - As David is trying to settle the land, a second insurrection takes place. A Benjamite named Sheba, who wanted no part of David, rallied other discontented Israelites to join him against David. The king had given Amasa Joab's command, but now David commands Abishai to take Joab's men and pursue Sheba to stop the rebellion. While in pursuit, Joab arrives in his military tunic and murders Amasa just as he murdered Abner years before. Taking Amasa's place, Joab and his brother Abishai pursue Sheba.

Sheba had traveled to the extreme north of Dan's territory to assemble his army and took shelter in Abel Beth Maacah. Joab's men lay siege to the city. While they were attacking, a woman called out to send Joab so she could talk to him. She asks him why they are attacking the city and Joab tells her of Sheba hiding among them. She tells Joab, "His head will be thrown to you from the wall." She then went to her people who then seized Sheba and cut off his head and threw it over the wall. Joab sounded the trumpets and they all went home.

The Census

Epilogue - The final four chapters of 2 Samuel for a kind of informational appendix to Samuel. With no particular regard for chronology, there are some interesting accounts, in particular, the census in chapter 24.

2Samuel 24:1 Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah."

The reason for God's anger is not stated. Since the anger is against Israel and not David, general agreement is that God is angry over Israel's support of Absalom and Sheba. That places the census in the last decade of David's reign. 1Chronicles 21:1 indicates that is is Satan that incites David. This is often presented as a biblical contradiction. It's not really a contradiction, but it's fun to debate.

Nevertheless, David issues a command to Joab to "Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are." Joab resists, but David word has precedence and Joab goes throughout the land and counts the men able to handle a sword: eight hundred thousand in Israel and five hundred thousand in Judah.

David is conscience-stricken. He confesses his sin and asks God to take away his guilt. The next morning, the prophet Gad comes to David and tells him that God will give him three punishments and David must pick one to be carried out. They are, three years of famine, or three months of fleeing your enemies, or three days of plague in Israel. David doesn't direct choose his punishment, but tells Gad, "Let us not fall into the hands of men." God sends the plague.

2Samuel 24:15-17 15. So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16. When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, "Enough! Withdraw your hand." The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17. When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord , "I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family."