Thibble Thursday: Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth (2 Samuel 15–16)

It’s been snowing and I’ve gotten cabin fever. At least I got to go to work yesterday and might even get to go to work again tomorrow. In the meanwhile, here’s some more bible-bits

Short snarky summary: David really, really shouldn’t have brought that son home. He’s a kingdom-stealing asshole and David ends up fleeing to the hills with his entire retinue.

The ugly Amnon-Tamar-and-Absalom story was really just the prologue, it seems, to the much longer tale of Absalom’s rebellion. Really, it’s several chapters long, and we’re going to barely get into the beginning of it here. It’s surely the single event of David’s reign with the largest pagecount. To recap: David’s beloved son Absalom was just recalled from his fratricidal exile by David at the behest of power-behind-the-throne Joab. Joab quickly learns to regret this when Absalom, feeling slighted at court, torches Joab’s fields to get his attention for a formal presentation to David’s court. That’s where things stand at this point, with Absalom more-or-less violently working his way back into David’s good graces.

In this chapter, we’re told that “sometime afterwards” (the chronology gets very fuzzy), Absalom, having equipped himself with a princely retinue, takes to hanging around outside Jerusalem’s gates and talking shit about the king’s justice, telling visitors from other tribes who have petitions to the king that their suits are bound to fail because they have no advocates in court, and how if he were in charge things would be different.

A couple of interesting comments about this particular strategy: first, this kind of plays into a fairly obvious (if you know what you’re looking for) schism between Judah and the Ten Tribes of Israel. I’ve advanced the hypothesis earlier, and I’ll put it forward again, that the unified Twelve-Tribe state is a historical fiction advanced by the Deuteronomists, who had a pretty explicit Judahite agenda: that trial cohesion was never particularly strong, and that the Saul-David conflict (if Saul is indeed a historical figure at all) was merely the early phases of a long struggle between an imperialistic Judah and a Ten-Tribes coalition. Absalom as the leader of the Ten Tribes doesn’t actually work too well, seeing as he’s a scion of the Judaic monarchy, but I’d be willing to believe that Absalom’s rebellion is actually a fictionalization of an actual Israelite uprising; certainly Absalom’s particular playing on the sense of marginalization of the outlying tribes looks to be taken from the Israel-Judah conflict playbook.

The other thing that jumps out at me is that this is a pretty audacious move which wouldn’t work in the real world. I mean, Absalom is a public figure, here. We’ve seen several verses now about his personal beauty, his reputation among the people, and the entourage he’s acquired. This isn’t some random dude offering advice to travelers; pretty much everyone who sees him will know exactly who he is. Now, in an absolute monarchy, if I were on business to the court and was accosted by the son of the king talking shit about his father, my immediate impulse would not be to take the kid’s side. I would think, in no particular order, that (a) this was some sort of loyalty test cooked up by the court, and (b) if it’s not, I could score some big points with daddy by telling him about this. Hell, you’d think David wouldn’t even need a petitioner willing to inform on Absalom, seeing as how this would pretty quickly become a spectacle attracting attention by the residents as well.

So the idea that this rebellion could be fomented while things just go on as usual seems kind of implausible to me. Particularly since verse 7 gives us a very weird timeline, indicating that then forty years pass. A footnote indicates that some manuscripts say “four” instead, which seems a hell of a lot more plausible, but we kind of have to work with the script we’re given. However many years it is, after all this time Absalom is ready for his coup, so he heads off for Hebron, ostensibly on a pilgrimage, but really to declare his kingship. The choice of location is kind of a blow against my Israel-Judah conflict theory, because Hebron is pretty much entirely associated with Judah and specifically with the Davidic dynasty (of which, yes, Absalom is a part, and that detail doesn’t really fit the Israel/Judah conflict either). Apparently two hundred loyal Davidians go with Absalom, as well as David’s counselor Ahitophel. The latter becomes Absalom’s advisor, but what happens to the former isn’t clear: do they turn traitor, flee, or get slaughtered. Any of those three could fit the narrative, but instead they disappear from the story, while Absalom builds his support base in Hebron.

Somewhere along the line, someone decides to actually tell David that his own son is fomenting rebellion. Or maybe David looks outside his window and sees Absalom’s war party—Hebron is pretty much in the suburbs of Jerusalem, after all. However it goes, it eventually gets brought to David’s attention that his son is actually becoming a pretty big problem, whereupon David decides to pack court up and flee Jerusalem, leavign behind ten concubines to keep an eye on the palace. That last bit is really weird when you get down to it because it’s hard to imagine David imagining the presence of those concubines to be useful in any way. They end up having some narrative function, but it’s hard to reconcile them with any sane sort of evacuation plan.

Incidentally, the evacuation itself is pretty bizarre. Nothing we have seen so far suggests Absalom’s rebellion is credible. It seems to possess a very specific level of threateningness. It’s terrifying enough that David has to pack up and move, but not threatening enough that anyone noticed this army massing less than 20 miles from the palace. It’s widespread enough in support that David is absolutely certain they’ll overrum the city, but not so universal that the retreat of David’s court isn’t everywhere met with the weeping of their disconsolate subjects, dejected to see their king in disgrace. The only way I can see to make sense of this is to make it more personal than political or military: David’s not fleeing from certain defeat, but fleeing from having to kill his son. This isn’t a great long-term solution, since Absalom isn’t a problem that’s just going to go away, but let’s assume David isn’t thinking very clearly here.

Speaking of not thinking clearly, there’s a peculiar incident involving David’s own entourage. It includes Cherethites, Pelethites, and Gittites. The last of these is a kind of odd group, because they’re residents of Gath, or ethnic Philistines. Remember David’s sojourn in Gath? Back when Saul was king, and David signed on with the Philistines, and then systematically massacred everywhere he raided, just so word of his activities with the Philistines wouldn’t get out? These guys are from then. So they’re first-off of an ethnicity which is kind of marginal in Israel, and second, they’ve seen the king at his worst. Their loyalties have to be kind of complicated,a nd David pulls over one of them, Ittai, who we can only imagine is the leader of that band, and tells him that, as a newcomer to Israel and his service, he doesn’t owe David any loyalty and ought to go back to Jerusalem. Ittai courteously refuses, David accepts his continued company, and this incident is never mentioned again.

I can’t make any sense of this episode. Leaving aside the bizarre myopia of David spurning loyalists, why he suggests that they return to Jerusalem to swear fealty to Absalom is quite beyond me. He’d be giving the opposition extra men, and, more to the point, the opposition probably wouldn’t take them anyways, since they are foreigners whose most recent loyalty was to David. If David really wants to spare his Gittites, he shouldn’t be sending them to Jerusalem, he should be sending them pretty much anywhere else. Anyways, the retreat continues, with all the people mourning. David does manage to convince the priests Zadok and Abiathar to return to the city, which makes a lot more sense than trying to send the Gittites back: the priesthood has an established function in the city not easily displaced, even if (as Absalom surely knows) they’re loyal to David. They’re useful in Jerusalem, and actually pretty well protected by their own status.

At long last David withdraws to his refuge on… the Mount of Olives. One fascinating aspect of this war is the tiny area it’s taking place over. Reading about Absalom’s rebellion, one might think it was this enormous, Israel-spanning conflict, when in actuality it’s much closer to a palace coup. Practically the whole action thus far has taken place inside what would these days be regarded as Jerusalem’s metropolitan area.Having reached a camp, David takes stock and realizes thatAbsalom has the advice of his former advisor, Achitophel. To combat this, he sends back an agent of his own, Hushai, to give Absalom bad advice, specifically offering to throw over David’s loyalty for Absalom’s service. For once Team David serems to be thinking strategically, and with Hushai, Zadok, and Abiathar in the city (along with presumably other loyalists, like all those weeping crowds watching him retreat), he’s actually not in a bad position. None of this really solves the central dilemma of David’s position, though, which is that to win that battle, he’s going to have to at the very least depose, and possibly kill, his own son.

Chapter 16 deals with two significant little stories involving the house of Saul. First of all, the servant of Mephibosheth brings gifts to David. You might not remember Mephibosheth: he’s Jonathan’s crippled son who David honored as the last remnant of the House of Saul and treated with kindness. This servant, Ziba, tells that Mephibosheth has turned to “the House of Israel” which he believes will give him back Saul’s throne. The reference to Absalom as “the House of Israel”, and Mephibosheth’s belief that he can be made king by this rebellion, tips the scales back in favor of my previous contention that this is a fictionalization not of a schism in the House of David, but between the old Saulite Kingdom of Israel, and the new Davidic dynasty of Judah. As it turns out, Ziba is lying, but we won’t learn that for a while, and in the meantime, David strips Mephibosheth of his possessions in absentia and awards them to Ziba.

In addition to disinheriting the last remnant of the house of Saul, David is also encountered by Shimei, a mocking clansman of Saul, come out to jeer at him, throwing both abuse and stones at David. His court encourages him to kill the rebel, but David demurs, hoping his suffering and penitence will be repaid by God. I’d suggest that all the recent events have kind of unhinged David, because this isn’t his normal behavior (his normal behavior would, of course, be to have someone kill Shimei and pretend that he really hadn’t wanted Shimei dead).

For the very end of Chapter 16, the scene shifts to Absalom’s camp, where Hushai’s attempt to inveigle his way into Absalom’s confidence succeeds. Meanwhile, Absalom, having taken Jerusalem, turns to Ahitophel, who suggests that a good way to cement his rulership is to publicly take over his father’s harem. I suppose the harem was one of the signs of kingship: both the power and riches to support that many women, and the specific act of seizing the previous king’s harem as a sign of ascension. So, anyways, Absalom fucks his dad’s concubines “before the eyes of all Israel”, according to the text. Give the people a show, I suppose. It’s entirely possible the “before the eyes” is meant to be metaphorical, conveying the idea that he let everyone know he did it. But on the other hand, the verse also claims that they set up a tent on the roof for the exhibition, so I’m totally on board with the notion that the new king of Israel is putting on a public orgy for the edification and entertainment of his subjects.

Next time: the short and bloody reign of Absalom comes to an end.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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