David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. David sent out his troops, a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under Ittai the Gittite. The king told the troops, “I myself will surely march out with you.” But the men said, “You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city.” The king answered, “I will do whatever seems best to you.” So the king stood beside the gate while all his men marched out in units of hundreds and of thousands.
The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders.
David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.
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 hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going. When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, “I just saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree.” Joab said to the man who had told him this, “What! You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground right there? Then I would have had to give you ten shekels of silver and a warrior’s belt.” But the man replied, “Even if a thousand shekels were weighed out into my hands, I would not lay a hand on the king’s son. In our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Protect the young man Absalom for my sake.’ And if I had put my life in jeopardy—and nothing is hidden from the king—you would have kept your distance from me.” Joab said, “I’m not going to wait like this for you.” So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom’s heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree. And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him. Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops stopped pursuing Israel, for Joab halted them. They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him. Meanwhile, all the Israelites fled to their homes.
Seven days ago we read the story in which David forgave Absalom. An odd story, in which Absalom’s pretty hair was weighed and measured, and Absalom argued to be allowed back into his father’s presence. Back then, he said to Joab “if there is guilt in me, kill me” – at least, that’s what he says in the Greek Old Testament, and perhaps the variation matters for today’s story.
Fast forward one civil war later, and that beautiful head of hair is, unfortunately, lodged in a tree. This is the most absurd death in the Bible, told as though a set of film shots focussing on little details. We start with the mule, we see the tree, Absalom gets caught in the oak, but on goes the mule without him, and he is trapped in a place of judgement – hung between heaven and earth – and surrounded by enemies.
The Bible I have open calls this story “Absalom dies in battle”, but it’s more like summary justice. Joab takes that standing invitation to be the one who will determine Absalom’s guilt and end his life. The death is brutal, prolonged, and shameful. Notice that they drop him deep into an existing hole in the ground, so that his body cannot be retrieved. That grave you’ve heard of in the Valley of the Kings? That was just an act of vanity by a barren prince. Absalom is shamed in his death, as David shamed Saul’s kin by refusing them a burial. In this late stage of a tragedy, we know Joab will have to die for this later. As in most tragedies, even when narrative justice is served, all the death seems pointless and profoundly sad.
Could not the models of forgiveness and repentance which we learn through faithfully following our God provide another ending, in which deep wrong is faced, named, acknowledged and worked through, and no-one murders anyone? Too late for David and his children, but not for us.
God who has forgiven me, may I work to be forgiven and to forgive, for as long as these works take, and when I face Christ at the time of judgement, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr ‘frin Lewis-Smith is Minister to the URCs in Darwen and Tockholes