Monday, June 16, 2008

David's Sons are Worse than Jacob's: 2 Samuel 13 - 19:8

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

As usual, David is a Biblical hero, and therefore he's a horrific father figure. Years later, he has at least two adult sons - Amnon and Absalom - and a very attractive daughter, Tamar. As usual, the name "Tamar" spells trouble. This is a major clue, because actually the chapters covered here are a creative re-telling of the story of Jacob's kids at the end of Genesis. David doesn't have as many, mind you, but there are some obvious similarities (all the acts of evil have to be compressed onto the heads of only two brothers instead of 11, mind you).

The story initially makes it seem like the villain is brother Amnon. Egged on by his frat brothers, Amnon rapes his sister. He actually uses David to get at her, feigning illness and asking his father to tell Tamar to bring him some "special bread." In what has got to be one of the creepiest pickup lines of all time, he openly tells her, "Come to bed with me, my sister." Very subtle, Amnon. Tamar protests, but "he was stronger than she." Afterwards, Amnon is disgusted and furious - perhaps more with himself than her - and tries to send her away, but she begs him not to, arguing that to send her away afterwards would merely add insult to injury. Absalom quietly vows vengeance; David hears about it but does nothing.

Despite the trauma she suffers from being raped, this story isn't really about Tamar. The fact that she's Amnon's sister makes the incident obviously evil, but aside from that she could have been anyone. The fact that this is really a story about duelling brothers becomes clear from the fact that Tamar plays no further part in the narrative: sent by David, then raped by Absalom, she takes refuge in Absalom's house, where she lives as "a desolate woman." We don't hear from her again.

Two years later, at Ephraim, Absalom calls out Amnon and has his men-at-arms kill him (it helps that Amnon is drunk). Implausibly, Absalom orders his assassins to "be strong and brave" as they murder the drunk Absalom. Initially, the news gets garbled and David is told that all of his sons have been killed, but his nephew Jonadab soon arrives to correct the record. David doesn't seem all that comforted, though - even one dead son is too many. Worried about what his father might do, Absalom flees and lives in exile for three years.

Time passes, and General Joab, David's favourite killer and pretty loyal if occasionally deceptive, finds "a wise woman," dresses her in "mourning clothes," and sends her before David to tell him a parable which convinces David to summon Absalom to return. Absalom now has children of his own, one of whom he names Tamar, in memory of his sister.

Absalom is not a particularly likeable individual. David, embittered by the murder of Amnon, refuses to see Absalom in person. Joab is the unfortunate middleman who's willing to talk to both, and as punishment for this, an infuriated Absalom sets fire to Joab's barley fields. Joab finally agrees to bring the two men together, but Absalom hasn't had enough yet. He buys a chariot and an honour guard, then rides around Jerusalem dispensing summary justice and proclaiming that things would be different if he were king. Eventually, he becomes king - sort of, anyways: he goes to Hebron and announces to the people of Israel tha the is now the king. All of Absalom's time delivering stump speeches and judicial decisions has made him quite popular with the people, many of whom flock to his cause. Time for another civil war!

Concerned by Absalom's growing popularity, David and his advisors flee Jerusalem, leaving the palace to be administered by ten of his concubines. (This leads one to wonder just how many concubines he has.) David initially has his original six hundred companions from the rebellion against Saul, but gradually he dismisses all of his retinue until he is alone, wearing rags, on a pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives. In a particularly bitter moment, he learns that Jonathan's son Mephibosheth has deserted him, so he instantly frees the man's slave Ziba, and gives all the properties to Ziba instead. Presumably this isn't going to be an easy decision to enforce, at least until the civil war is over.

Some of David's other meetings in his wanderings are less friendly - he is attacked by another descendant of Saul's house, Shimei, who actually tries to stone him. Some of those present are willing to kill Shimei in retaliation, but David tells them not to, admitting that he deserves his current "distress." He only hopes that the Lord "will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today." He's very serene in his suffering.

Absalom, meanwhile, marches on Jerusalem and takes the palace. On the advice of one Ahithophel, whose advice "was like that of one who inquires of God," Absalom carries out a rather crude and disgusting ritual to symbolize his supremacy over David: he brings the ten palace concubines up onto the roof and has sex with each of them in turn, "in the sight of all Israel." Then he makes some effort to summon the army (under a new general, Amasa, who replaces Joab) and apprehend his father, but David is clearly a superior commander, even now that he's been reduced and demoted.

David gathers a new army under Joab and proclaims his intention to lead it personally, but his men tell him to stay back, suggesting his life is more valuable than theirs. Uh-huh. Very convenient, having a "God-breathed" text saying monarchs' lives are so worthy. At any rate, it's interesting - his men clearly still respect him, despite all that has happened. An enormous pitched battle occurs, which David's forces win.

The battle also leasd to the death of Absalom. In another example of the twisted sense of humour of the author of 2 Samuel, Absalom is riding to the battle on a mule when he fails to duck low enough while racing under an oak tree. His head is "caught" on a tree branch and he is left dangling from the tree while his mule goes on without him. Joab, ever the loyal soldier, immediately hurries over and kills Absalom. David is disconsolate at the loss of his son, even though were fighting a war just the day before. This is another example of how the lives of the "little" people of the kingdom seem totally irrelevant in these clashes of kings and nobles - and in this, for a rare moment, I actually agree with Joab, who tells precisely that to David in hopes that it will encourage the king to resume his duties.

In some ways the story of Joab is as interesting as that of David. Joab isn't exactly honourable, but he unfailingly does what he thinks will be best for the state of Israel, and for the status of David as rightful king. The fact that he's willing to kill, even to assassinate, political rivals might say something about the dubious moral code he follows - but at least he follows one. Unlike his king, he's not being regularly distracted by cute girls.

It's telling that God basically vanishes at this point in the narrative. After the final warning to David, delivered via Nathan, God appears to wash his hands of the new Israelite state. He tried to warn them that kings wouldn't work out, and now he's had enough. Whatever shreds of unity and kinship Israel still had have basically been destroyed through years of civil war. David sets about to restore the monarchy, but in the meantime his country has been devastated.