2 Samuel 13-14

Good morning! We have two linked stories today in 2 Samuel 13-14 that introduce us to King David’s son Absalom and lead us to consider the dynamics of vengeance (God-commanded) and mercy (God-modeled). We see David indulging the wrongdoing of one son, yet later forgiving and reuniting with another son who enacts cold revenge. One note before we go further: this reading contains a detailed description of rape which might be especially troubling to those who have been sexually abused.

Chapter 13 gives us the situation: David’s son Amnon falls in love with Tamar, but as his virgin half-sister, she’s unavailable to him. Nevertheless, Amnon’s cousin Jonadab schemes with Amnon to trap and take advantage of her. The trickery works and Amnon is alone with Tamar, when he communicates his intent. There’s no ambiguity that this incest is wrong: they refer to each other as “my sister” and “my brother”. Tamar suggests instead that Amnon honorably ask their father David for her hand in marriage, lest she be shamed forever and he become a notorious scoundrel. But this reasoning does not work on him: he overpowers and rapes her, then ejects her from the room. (I can’t help but think here of women raped in the close quarters of college parties by men they used to feel comfortable around.) She calls attention to the violation by tearing her clothes, putting ashes on her head, and crying aloud. Absalom hushes his sister and tells her “do not take this to heart”, a form of re-victimization that is familiar to anyone who has been raped but told that it’s “no big deal”. Absalom shelters Tamar from then on, however, and plots his revenge against Amnon. David declines to punish his favored firstborn, but Absalom holds his tongue and bides his time.

Absalom’s opportunity comes several years later, when David consents to have Amnon and all the rest of the king’s sons go with Absalom for the shearing of sheep, a festive occasion. Once Amnon is drunk at the party, Absalom’s servants kill him and let the rest of the king’s sons flee. Absalom goes into hiding, while his (half) brothers return to Jerusalem to tell David what has happened. After three years of the king’s mourning and Absalom’s exile, we hear that David has recovered from his grief over Amnon  and longs to be reunited with Absalom.

Joab (the king’s ever-useful general) figures out a way in chapter 14 to persuade David to reunite with Absalom. He instructs a woman to act in grief and tell a parable-like story about two sons, one of whom kills the other. Despite the loss of one son, she laments that the other one—her only heir and namesake—is now marked for destruction as well (according to God’s commanded retribution against murderers). She asks for the king’s pardon and protection on her surviving son, that those who would avenge the dead man might not succeed. Once she has this promise, she calls him to account for not acting in the same way with his own estranged and banished son Absalom. David is acting as an unreasonable “avenger of blood”, sticking to the letter of the law which demands bloodshed for bloodshed, and thereby depriving Israel of its rightful next heir. Imagine the audacity of this woman of Tekoa, who accepts Joab’s challenge to reprimand a king in this way! It’s one thing for Nathan the prophet to do this—all the more impressive that she steps up in the same way! The woman is a theologian as well, arguing that “God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished for ever from his presence” (14:14). Her theology suggests a divine preference for (undeserved) mercy over (deserved) punishment—one that we can see all the way back in early Genesis, when God protects the fratricidal Cain from revenge.

David agrees to have Absalom restored to Jerusalem from exile, though he must remain outside the king’s presence. Beautiful and well-regarded Absalom fathers four children, one of whom he names Tamar. Years later, Absalom finally persuades Joab to bring him to the king when he sets the general’s barley field on fire—one sure way to get attention! This reveals Absalom as a cunning, direct, and ruthless character, which we’ll see more of in upcoming chapters. Absalom tells Joab to take him before David to face his punishment, whatever it may be. Once Joab persuades David to let Absalom enter, the son lays on the ground before his father in an act of contrition. David kisses Absalom, suggesting that all is forgiven. Mercy (even for the vengeful Absalom) has won out over revenge. Happy reading!

Read 2 Samuel 13-14.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 2 Samuel 15-17. Thanks for reading!

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