Good morning! In today’s passage (2 Samuel 18-20) we consider questions of loyalty and its rewards, as we see David grieve the death of his enemy son, punish his loyal commander Joab by replacing him with an Absalom general, then show mercy to others who opposed him. We also see the fissures of division between northern Israel and southern Judah threaten civil war in the rebellion of another Israelite, Sheba.
But first we begin in chapter 18, where David organizes his forces to fight Absalom and those with his son. David gives a clear instruction heard by everyone: be gentle with Absalom. In other words, take him alive. The battle is fought in a forest, Absalom is caught hanging in the branches of a tree, and word of it reaches Joab. Unwilling to show mercy, Joab runs Absalom through with spears and kills him. Joab then buries the body in a forest pit under a great heap of stones, and all the soldiers who followed Absalom scattered from the battlefield. So much for anyone who would challenge the king’s authority, Joab must think. It’s a tricky business to tell David, since the king kills messengers who bring him bad news, as we saw when he heard of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths in 2 Samuel 1. Nobody dies at David’s hand though; he goes into a hidden place and laments for Absalom, wailing at the death of another son. If you have 15 minutes and a box of tissue, search for “When David Heard” by Eric Whitacre on YouTube and listen to his breath-taking setting of 2 Samuel 18:33.
As chapter 19 begins, the commander Joab has no patience for David’s grief. In his eyes, it cheapens the sacrifice of the thousands of warriors who fought for David. Absalom merely received the just penalty for his rebellion, and David wrongs the soldiers by carrying on so over Absalom. Joab wants and needs a powerful, confident commander-in-chief, but David is only thinking now as a father who has lost a child. Joab reprimands David, convincing the king to put on his public face for the sake of the troops.
With Absalom dead and David deposed, Israel is without a leader. David sends word to the priests and military commander under Absalom (all David’s kin), indicating that he will have mercy if they call him back to be their king. They lobby the elders of Israel and reinstate David as their king. David shows mercy not only to his kin, but also to other followers of Absalom who betrayed him, including Shimei who berated him and Mephibosheth who stayed behind when Ziba his servant joined David. After showering gratitude on an old and wealthy man who provided for his men in exile, David leads a great throng of people back into Jerusalem and returns to the throne. At the very end of chapter 19, we see bitterness between the people of Judah and Israel—a harbinger of the divisive civil war which will occur under David’s grandson Rehoboam.
We read in 2 Samuel 20 about Sheba, a man from the tribe of Benjamin just like Saul. He foreshadows the later civil war when he leads a short-lived revolt against David. Absalom’s general Amasa (whom David had sought to treat mercifully and use in place of Joab) is slow in rounding up people to quell Sheba’s rebellion. When Joab encounters him, Joab assassinates Amasa with a sword while pretending to give the man he called “my brother” a hug. Joab and the forces that Amasa had assembled then chase Sheba to the city of Abel, where they besiege him. A wise woman from Sheba saves the city—referred to as “a mother in Israel”—from destruction by getting the city’s people to kill Sheba and give his head to Joab. Sometimes being loyal to the king means betraying the laws of hospitality and leading revolt against one who has taken shelter with you. As we’ve seen throughout this whirlwind chapters, loyalty is not a simple matter here. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 2 Samuel 21-22. Thanks for reading!