Friday, June 29
Second Samuel 13: David, it seems, is not the ideal father, and this chapter presents us with first evidence that all was not going well on the home front. Incestuous rape and murder are not favorable signs. Indeed, the tragedies in the present chapter put the reader in mind of David’s own actions with respect to Bathsheba and Uriah, a sexual offense followed by a murder.
Ammon himself was the crown prince of the realm, David’s heir apparent, and the devout reader will discern the hand of God in his removal from the scene. A man who rapes his half-sister is no fit heir to the throne. Unlike his father, Ammon does not repent; indeed, he does not even perform the minimum obligations toward Tamar required in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
Arguably worse in the context, however, is David’s response, when he refuses to deal with the terrible situation. David becomes angry, but that is all (verse 21). This failure to deal discipline with his son puts the reader in mind of Eli at Shiloh, who also was indulgent toward his sinning offspring. David’s own moral failures have evidently deprived him of the moral authority to chastise his own children, and this failure eventually leads to rebellion and civil war.
Having waited two years in vain for David to deal with the situation (verse 23), the frustrated Absalom, Tamar’s full-brother, decides at last to take charge of the matter himself. He is able to do this because he senses a vacuum of authority in the realm, a vacuum that will tempt him, we know, even further in the near future. David’s kingdom will soon come unraveled.
In its story of David’s double sin, the Bible describes certain theological aspects of all sin, by portraying David’s offense through a series of striking parallels with the earlier account of Adam’s Fall in the Garden.
First, regarding the circumstances and immediate consequences of David’s infidelity, there are several points of correspondence with the offense of Adam. Thus, both Adam and David are tempted by women, Eve (Genesis 3:6) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2–4). Likewise, in both cases the two men are abruptly confronted with the gravity of their sin: “Have you eaten from the tree . . . ?” (Genesis 3:11) and “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Next, judgment is pronounced on the house of each offender in the shape of death (Genesis 3:19; 2 Samuel 12:14). Indeed, Adam and David is each preceded to the grave by a son born of that same woman (Genesis 4:8; 2 Samuel 12:18). That is to say, in both instances sin leads immediately to death (cf. Romans 5:12). On the other hand, in each example, a new son is born as a sign of promise and renewed hope (Genesis 4:25; 2 Samuel 12:24). Thus, in the circumstances of Adam’s and David’s sins, we see a narrative sequence of fall, judgment, curse, and mercy.
Second, with respect to the more extended effects of their transgressions, both Adam and David become the fathers of fratricides, Cain (Genesis 4:8) and Absalom (2 Samuel 13:29). Their fall, that is to say, leads to hatred and murder. Indeed, there is a remarkable similarity between the description of Cain’s murder of Abel and the parabolic portrayal of Absalom’s killing of Amnon. In each instance the murderer rises up and slays his brother in a field (compare Genesis 4:8 and 2 Samuel 14:6). We observe, moreover, that in each case, the murderer himself is initially spared (Genesis 4:15; 2 Samuel 14:11), though a restricting curse still hangs over him (Genesis 4:16; 2 Samuel 14:24). Thus, even though in neither instance is the murder punished by death, guilt remains as an active element in the story, a source of continuing narrative tension.
Third, the biblical text goes to some length to demonstrate the long- term consequences of the sins of Adam and David, which intensify through the fratricides committed by Cain and Absalom. Both of the latter act in hatred, which in turn provokes the fear of vengeance (Genesis 4:14; 2 Samuel 14:7). The consequences of these offenses eventually include full-scale rebellions. In the account of Adam this rebellion is indicated both before and after the Flood (Genesis 6:5; 11:3, 4), while in the case of David the resulting rebellion takes shape in Absalom’s civil war (2 Samuel 15—18).
Saturday, June 30
Second Samuel 14: When Nathan narrated the story of the ewe lamb, we saw how readily David listened to—and became involved in the plot of—a good narrative. The present chapter gives another instance, the yarn spun by the “actress” complicit in Joab’s plot to bring Absalom back from exile.
The narrator does not assign a motive to Joab’s effort in this respect, but the reader suspects it has nothing to do with friendship for the young murderer. More likely, surely, is a well-founded suspicion, on Joab’s part, that Absalom represents a danger of revolution against David. If this is the case, Joab believes, Absalom can be better controlled within Israel than abroad.
Unlike Joab, however, David has very mixed feelings about Absalom, and as we shall see, Joab will eventually feel obliged to deal with David’s son is a more decisive way.
This “actress” is described as a “wise woman,” one of several so described in the present book. Listening to her, David becomes emotionally involved in the story. As in the case of Nathan’s parable, David makes an executive decision on the basis of that involvement. Once again, the trap is sprung on him, and the lady makes Joab’s point: “Why then have you schemed such a thing against the people of God? For the king speaks this thing as one who is guilty, in that the king does not bring his banished one home again.” Here “the king speaks this thing as one who is guilty” corresponds exactly to Nathan, “You are the man!”
David immediately espies the hand of Joab in this encounter, a discovery Joab surely wished for. Prudently, the “actress” praises David’s sagacity, though it is obvious to the reader that David has, in fact, been duped! Whatever qualities David displays during this entire Absalom episode, wisdom is not among them. Joab, who shows David a similar deference, is charged to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, David is burdened with ambivalent feelings about his son. Though the young man lives within walking distance of the palace, he is not permitted to see his father; this strained situation lasts two years.
Absalom’s frustration is of no concern to Joab, who is content to have him close, in order to keep tabs on him. Further frustrated, Absalom decides to put more pressure on Joab—by burning his fields. Joab finally approaches the king, and Absalom is restored to court and to his father’s favor.
The reference to Absalom’s unusual growth of hair serves to prepare the reader for the circumstances of his death in chapter 18.
Sunday, July 1
2 Samuel 15: Absalom, so easily forgiven by a vacillating father, is now determined to replace that father. He lays the groundwork carefully by befriending those already dissatisfied with the current political arrangements. As the son expected, David does nothing about it.
In due course it is too late, for Absalom has garnered considerable support throughout the realm and developed a revolutionary network. If it is true—as the woman from Tekoa testified earlier—that David “knows everything in the land, the king’s failure to act is truly astonishing.
Eventually, Absalom makes his move against his father. Indeed, he even secures David’s blessing to travel to Hebron (the earlier capital), there to consolidate his power and move directly to assume command of the kingdom.
After he describes the origins of Absalom’s rebellion, the author’s attention turns more directly to David’s flight from Jerusalem. This king, traveling eastward across the Jordan and up the Mount of Olives, rides a donkey. Betrayed to the enemy by one of his inner circle, repudiated by his people and mocked by a scoundrel, David has ever seemed to Christian readers a type and foreshadowing of Jesus. In making this association, they have been inspired by the prophet Zechariah, who wrote of the coming Messiah, “ Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! / Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! / Behold, your King is coming to you; / He is just and having salvation, / Lowly and riding on a donkey, / A colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
The imagery of Zechariah is taken from the description of David’s flight in the present chapter. The king leaves in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge. He portrays the outlines of a “suffering anointed one.”
Even in the present description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving “a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him.” Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.
Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet to come, Zechariah prophesied the messianic entry of Jesus into Zion. In the Gospel story, the Savior arrives by the very path David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, Jesus comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.
Monday, July 2
Second Samuel 16: This chapter tells of David’s second sojourn in the wilderness; as he earlier fled to the southern desert to escape Saul, so now he flees to the eastward wilderness to escape the forces of Absalom. This move away from the capital is both strategic (because the king could be trapped inside Jerusalem) and humane (because many citizens might perish, if Jerusalem were besieged).
This resolution is typical of the narrative as a whole, in which political decisions are made on the basis of plain political calculation. Nonetheless, this is more than a political narrative; it is the story of the Lord’s fidelity of His promise to David. It is a story about God’s providential guidance of history, a guidance which makes use of fallible human decisions. In this story, God’s power is perfected in man’s infirmity.
Thus, Hushai, who will be instrumental in thwarting the traitor Ahitophel, appears on the scene immediately after David’s desperate prayer: “O Lord, I pray, turn the counsel of Ahitophel into foolishness!” (15:31)
Instead of permitting Hushai to travel with him, David sends him back to Jerusalem to act as a counter-agent against the conspiracy. That is to say, God’s help is invoked, but the prayer is answered in a way that invites a human political decision. This is a story of both providence and politics.
The same comment is warranted with respect to the priests who want to flee with David. He makes them stay in the city with the Ark of the Covenant. This decision is based on political calculations—it was a sign to everyone that David expected to return—but it also provided the king with extra eyes and ears in the city. That is to say, the political decision becomes part of the providential plan.
Given David’s earlier protection by the Philistines (when he was pursued by Saul), it is ironical that once again he relies on the support of Philistine mercenaries when he flees from Absalom (15:18).
The chapter begins with David’s meeting with Ziba, to which we made reference earlier. David takes Ziba’s testimony against Mephibosheth at face value, but he will be obliged to reconsider the matter later (19:24-30).
In the encounter with Shimei (verses 5-14) we understand how much Saul’s relatives—even so many years after David’s accession to the throne—resent the downfall of the earlier king. David, in the words of the Prophet Zechariah, comes in meekness, sitting on the foal of an ass.
David’s nephew, Abishai, wants to cut off Shimei’s head—the sort of response we have come to expect of Abishai (First Samuel 26:6; Second Samuel 2:24; 10:10). Just as David, during his earlier exile, had forbidden Abishai from using violence on Saul, so here, in his second exile, he prohibits Abishai from dealing violently with Shimei.
Tuesday, July 3
Second Samuel 17: Since Absalom’s revolt took shape at Hebron in chapter 15, the narrative has moved rapidly. The scene changed immediately to Jerusalem, where David, informed of the rebellion, took stock of his scant military resources in the city. This inventory prompted the king’s decision to flee. From that point on, David became the narrator’s point of attention. Absalom was mentioned only within the dialogues of the characters until David fled (15:14,3134). After David’s flight, Absalom’s arrival in the city was barely noted—“And Absalom came into Jerusalem” (15:37)—because the narrator wanted to maintain the theme of David’s flight.
In 16:13 he turned his attention to what was happening (“Meanwhile”) in Jerusalem while David fled. First, there was Absalom’s public assumption of his father’s harem. This bold step, taken on the counsel of Ahitophel, symbolically testified to Absalom’s seizure of the throne. It was certainly a point-of-no-return in the course of the revolution. It also had the effect, moreover, of giving David and his party an extended time to get further away from Jerusalem.
As we move into chapter 17, Ahitophel, now conscious that this delay is not helping the revolution, offers to pursue David while he may still be within striking range of a surprise attack (verses 1-4).
At this point Hushai speaks up. This is the truly decisive moment in the whole story. David’s determination to keep Hushai at Jerusalem—to serve as a spy while posing as the king’s adversary—leads directly to the story’s most important factual development: Absalom’s decision to strengthen his position in the capital before pursuing David. This decision, taken on the counsel of Hushai and directly against the advice of Ahitophel, permits David and his company to escape. Humanly speaking, this counsel of Hushai is what determines the providential outcome favorable to David, because “the Lord had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahitophel, to the intent that the Lord might bring disaster on Absalom” (verse 14).
The next episode, involving two pro-David spies employed by Hushai (verses 15-21), further demonstrates the Lord’s “intent” against Absalom. At their warning, David crosses the Jordan during the night (verse 22).
Leaving David, the narrator turns his attention once again to Jerusalem. Here, it does not take long for the worldly-wise Ahitophel to size up the situation and realize that he has backed a loser. He removes himself from the coming disaster by taking his own life.
Meanwhile, Absalom, apparently informed about the two spies, senses the need to hurry. He marches his army across the Jordan in pursuit of David, whom he could have overtaken the previous day if only he had followed the advice of Ahitophel.
Wednesday, July 4
Second Samuel 18: After his flight to the other side of the Jordan, it appears that David’s little army receives increasing support from new volunteers, as word of the rebellion spreads. By the time Absalom crosses the Jordan, a huge opposition has gathered to support David, a force large enough to be broken into three contingents.
We know of Absalom’s love of military display (15:1), but in the course of his career he has shown no sign of military ability. Consequently, he marches his forces straight into the trap set for him. The few tactical details mentioned in the story suggest that Absalom is hit from both flanks, as he advances on what he believes to be David’s entire army. The double flanking tactic used against him is all the more effective because it is deployed in a wooded area, which provides concealment for David’s forces. The result is a complete rout of the revolutionary army.
David, prior to the battle, is so confident of victory that he gives instructions about how Absalom is to be treated, once he is captured. Even now, he is concerned about the safety of his rebellious son.
The Bible’s dramatic description of Absalom’s fate would be sufficiently memorable by itself, but it has been rendered even more unforgettable through its representation in the works of such artists as Francesco di Stefano, William Brassey, Georges Rochegrosse, and Gustave Dore. Absalom’s luxuriant hair, already established in the story as a symbol of the young man’s unbounded self-absorption, now becomes the instrument of his humiliating defeat. His very “elevation” is his downfall.
Suspended by his hair from the overhanging limb of a terebinth tree, helpless Absalom is discovered by soldiers under Joab’s command, and Joab, in contravention of David’s order, executes the rebel, putting three spears into his chest. The reader senses in Joab’s literal “overkill” his response to a great frustration. He has strenuously worked to keep Absalom in the royal favor, and to what avail? Absalom, who burned Joab’s fields, certainly showed no gratitude. And now the young man has thrown the whole country into civil war. As for as Joab is concerned, enough is enough. He has no intention of honoring David’s plea for gentle treatment for his rebellious son.
The fast-paced narrative of Absalom’s death is followed by a very slow account of how the news of it comes to David. The pace of the story reflects the reluctance everyone in his army feels about sharing the news with the king. (The reader already knows, after all, how David reacts to bad news and how dangerous it was to be the bearer of such news!) When he does learn of it, David’s lament for the death of Absalom is even more poignant than his dirge about the death of Saul and Jonathan.
Thursday, July 5
Second Samuel 19: Six parts comprise this chapter: David’s conversation with Joab, his return trip to Jerusalem, his mercy to Shimei, his encounter with Mephibosheth, his meeting with Barzillai, and a quarrel between the citizens of Judah and the other Israelites.
In the first part (18:33—19:8), Joab objects to David’s continued public mourning over the death of Absalom. Not only is this lamentation excessive and unseemly, in Joab’s view, it also demoralizes David’s supporters, who recently risked their own lives and fortunes by coming to the king’s assistance during the rebellion. Joab, the no-nonsense general who actually took Absalom’s life, accuses David of loving his enemies more than his friends.
Joab’s words yank David’s attention back to the present moment. David must put a stop to the mourning; this is a new day, and there are things to be done in order to restore order and settle the fortunes of the realm. Within just two verses (5 & 6), Joab uses the word “today” five times.
If one thing has been made clear about David in the immediately preceding chapters, it is his vulnerability. Joab, in speaking to the king so strongly and frankly here, is confident that David is aware of this vulnerability. Humanly speaking, David owes the maintenance of his throne to Joab. He is unable to gainsay the stern counsel of his chief general.
Joab’s private exhortation to the king leads to the second part of the chapter, David’s return to the capital to secure the realm and restore order. Along the way, he has time to think about Joab, the man who dared to ignore his order that no harm should come to Absalom. He resolves to replace Joab as chief general.
Exhausted from the events of the past several days, David is in no mood to seek revenge on Shimei—at least not “today” (four times within verses 20-22). This resolve does not include the future, however, and Solomon will be released from any obligation to show continued mercy to Shimei (cf. First Kings 2:8-9,36-46).
Nor does David feel confident, just now, of settling the old business between Ziba and Mephibosheth. Unable to adjudicate their conflicting claims, he determines on a compromise.
David is in the mood, however, to reward his friends, especially Barzillai, whose assistance was invaluable during the recent conflict. The story in verses 31-39 served, in ancient days, to explain the prominence of Barzillai’s family at the royal court.
The final part of the chapter (verses 40-43) describes a rivalry of loyalty to David. This episode indicates a continued dissension between north and south, a dissension that will break out presently in the rebellion of Sheba.
Friday, July 6
Second Samuel 20: Absalom’s revolt is barely suppressed before another is started by a Benjaminite named Sheba. This rebellion provides the context for several dialogues, through which the drama of the chapter is advanced:
First, there are the commands given to Amasa, the new military leader, and to Abishai, the brother of Joab. There appears to be some breakdown in communication. Amasa, summoned to meet with David, charges off to pursue Sheba at once. David, who seems to panic, not certain where Amasa has gone, dispatches Abishai to go after Sheba. Meanwhile, the reader has no idea where Joab is. Probably the others in the story did not know either.
Second, when David’s two forces are joined at Gibeon, the displaced Joab greets Amasa and treacherously murders him, very much as he earlier had Abner. De facto, David signed the death warrants of both Abner and Amasa by favoring them over Joab.
Amasa’s men, now deprived of their leader, are persuaded to join the other group, led by Joab and Abishai, in pursuit of Sheba.
Third, there is the conversation—or negotiation, perhaps—between Joab and the “wise woman” of Abel Beth Maachah, who speak to one another over the wall of the city. Joab, who is quite prepared to besiege the city for as long as it takes, is questioned by this woman with respect to his intent. When he assures her that he would much prefer not to destroy the city, the lady offers to toss Sheba’s head over the wall. With this guarantee from Joab, she then persuades the town elders to comply. Once he has Sheba’s head in hand, Joab honors his part of the commitment and retires his army back south to Judah.
The description of this final conversation puts the reader in mind of Joab’s earlier “wise woman” from Tekoa. These anonymous women are described in exactly the same way—“wise woman”—and both serve to avert the threat of further vengeance. As the first woman helped Joab resolve the problem between David and Absalom, the second assists him to resolve the problem of the siege. Both, that is to say, are women of wise counsel. Both women want to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The first exhorted David, “do not permit the avenger of blood to destroy anymore, lest they destroy my son” (14:11), and the second tells Joab, “You seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel” (20:19).
The chapter closes with the adjustment of David’s staff after the two recent revolutions. Nothing is said, for now, about David’s personal feelings with respect to the treacherous Joab, who has a good deal of blood on his hands and has given the king every reason to distrust him.