Now in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. When he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight. There were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman. So Absalom lived two full years in Jerusalem without coming into the king’s presence. Then Absalom sent for Joab to send him to the king; but Joab would not come to him. He sent a second time, but Joab would not come. Then he said to his servants, ‘Look, Joab’s field is next to mine, and he has barley there; go and set it on fire.’ So Absalom’s servants set the field on fire. Then Joab rose and went to Absalom at his house, and said to him, ‘Why have your servants set my field on fire?’ Absalom answered Joab, ‘Look, I sent word to you: Come here, that I may send you to the king with the question, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to be there still.” Now let me go into the king’s presence; if there is guilt in me, let him kill me!’ Then Joab went to the king and told him; and he summoned Absalom. So he came to the king and prostrated himself with his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom.
This intricate story could have been said in fewer words: “Having been brought back to Jerusalem from safety abroad, King David’s son Absolom lived for two years in internal exile in Jerusalem, before being forgiven by his father for killing his half-brother Amnon.” Such summaries would make the Bible much shorter but strip it of its ability to confront us with the human reality of wrestling with forgiveness and revenge, justice and injustice, responsibility and choices, patience and impatience.
So we’re told that Absolom was handsome, with a wonderful head of hair – nearly 3kg produced on his annual trip to the barber. There’s the detail of what he called his daughter, continuing in her the memory of his sister whose rape he avenged when his father David was slow to act against the perpetrator. Joab the army commander, acting with his characteristic mixture of cool pragmatism, political shrewdness, and loyalty to his king and his people had earlier enabled David to bring Absolom back to Jerusalem. But Absolom wants more – being in limbo isn’t enough and his impatience to be re-integrated grows. Joab is keeping him at arm’s length, and not returning his calls. With the summer we’ve had it’s particularly alarming to think of setting a field on fire, but it certainly attracts Joab’s attention. Absolom gets the result he sought – closeness to David, forgiven by a man who loves him and who is also aware of the need to preserve a potential heir.
The years in external and internal exile have given Absolom space to start contemplating a coup. Will his father’s forgiveness be enough to stop the wheels that have been set in motion?
Gracious God Help us take responsibility for our thoughts, words, and actions. Give us the courage to choose forgiveness over revenge. Show us the way to be reconcilers in families and communities. When we find ourselves lost in the bigger picture bring us home to our best selves and to you. Amen
The Rev’d Fiona Thomas, Secretary for Education & Learning of the URC and a member of Christ Church, Bellingham.