Absalom, Absalom!

Fathers and sons, sons and fathers: it’s a central theme for men of all ages, so it’s hardly surprising that it forms an important motif through mythology and folklore (as do the tales of mothers and daughters).

Cronus ate his children so they wouldn’t usurp his power, which is exactly what his son Zeus did. Zeus himself had strained relations with several of his offspring, in part due to his many illicit relationships, none of which sat well with his wife, Hera. In Hinduism, the elephant headed God Ganesha was decapitated by his (adopted) Father Shiva, in no small part because he was keeping Shiva from defiling his mother.

The complicated relations between fathers and sons runs through the Abrahamic traditions as well: from Yahweh’s decision to exile his children from Paradise to Jesus’ plaintive exhortation, “Father, why have You forsaken Me?”, there is clearly a sense of tension between generations. That brings us to David.

The second king of a Unified Israel, David is remembered as both a just leader as well as a poet – the Psalms are ascribed to him. David had multiple wives, and many children – the most famous of whom was Solomon, born of Bathsheba. However, it through his often-overlooked wife Maachah that the story of Absalom, Solomon’s half-brother, unfolds.

Maachah bore David two children: a boy, Absalom, and a girl, Tamar. Absalom was born in Hebron, before his father moved the capital to Jerusalem. He was by all measures beautiful, and like his father, was known for being just and kind. He had three sons, all of whom died early (2 Samuel 18:18), and two daughters, one named for his mother, the other for his sister (2 Chronicles 11:20), Tamar.

Tamar is a key figure in Absalom’s story, as is another of David’s children, Amnon.

Amnon was David’s oldest male son and was therefore heir apparent. However, he would not live to see the throne. His sexual appetites would be his undoing, especially given the object of his affections: his half-sister, Tamar.

Pretending to be sick, he lured Tamar into his quarters on the ruse that he wanted her to cook for him. Once she was inside, he proceeded to rape her. Then, adding insult to injury, he banished her from the kingdom.

Depiction of the rape, by Eustache Le Sueur (c. 1640)

While David was upset, he didn’t fight for his daughter, Tamar. Amnon was forgiven.

Nothing, however, was forgotten, at least for Absalom.

He took his time. He waited two years, and then threw a giant feast for all of the sons of David – all of his half-brothers. It was a grand party, filled with food, revelry, and wine. Amnon ate, laughed and drank with his brothers. As the night went on, Amnon continued to drink.

Once he was sufficiently intoxicated, Absalom’s servants carried out his orders. Before morning broke, Tamar was avenged, Amnon was dead, and Absalom was a fugitive (2 Samuel 13).

Absalom spent three years under the protection of his maternal grandfather. However, David’s heart eventually softened, and he allowed Absalom to come home. After being publicity forgiven, Absalom went on to earn the hearts of the populace by acting as a lawmaker, known for his just ways. In this manner, four years passed. As his reputation grew, so did his aspirations; this meant usurping the throne and banishing his father.

David fled, but Absalom didn’t pursue (in part because of David’s cunning, but one suspects that Absalom had no real desire to kill his father). David used this time to rebuild his forces; however, he made his men swear not to harm his son, regardless of the costs.

Unfortunately for David, his commander, Joab, held a grudge. Absalom had spited him twice, and Joab was determined to get his revenge. So, when the armies of David and Absalom finally did meet, west of the river Jordan in a forest known as Ephraim’s Wood, Joab extracted his revenge.

As Absalom charged through the woods, his long hair was snagged in the limbs of an oak tree. Hanging by hair but still alive, Joab came up him, and shot him with three darts, straight in his heart.

14th-century German miniature of Absalom’s murder

David didn’t know how Absalom met his end, only that he been killed in the battle. Consider the depth of David’s lament, given the culture at the time; there is nothing empty about his grief, especially his invocation of God.

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

And then there’s Tamar, whose story ends on just as bleak note: she is a “desolate woman in her brother Absalom’s house” (2 Samuel 13:20). Per the customs of the time, a raped woman could only be married to her assailant; however, even if Amnon had wanted to wed her, he legally couldn’t marry his half-sister. Tamar was essentially an untouchable, a pariah.

As far as the rest of her fate, we are given nothing; her narrative ends as abruptly as the life of Absalom.

There is no solace in this tale, no happy ending, which is probably why the story persists. David’s son through Bathsheba, Solomon, would go on to inherit the kingdom, though he be the last ruler of a Unified Israel. While David’s legacy would persist, his heart would remain broken, and his empire would come undone.

Absalom, O Absalom…

Fathers and sons, sons and fathers. Maybe someday we’ll get it right.

Top Image: The Banquet of Absalom attributed to Niccolò de Simone, circa 1650

One thought on “Absalom, Absalom!

  1. Absalom’s long hair getting caught in the tree – could this be a reversal of the same thing in Apollo and Daphne? Apollo of the unshorn locks chasing Daphne’s unkempt hair until it forms branches.. she dies as pitifully trapped as Absalom. There’s something here..

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