Wibble Wednesday: A House Divided (2 Samuel 17–18)

Damn, apparently I’ve flaked for upwards of 2 months. Yargh. It’s been one of those years.

Short snarky summary: Absalom takes bad advice and ends up routed and killed. In a flourish of dramatic irony, it’s his good looks that get him in trouble.

So, where were we? In our last installment, Absalom launched a coup against his own loving father, who, rather than go to war with his own son, withdrew from Jerusalem, which Absalom immediately occupied, sealing the deal by fucking his father’s harem. Unfortunately, withdrawing for his son doesn’t seem to be enough: definitely not enough for David’s loyalists, who kind of want back into the graces of power, and, surprisingly, not enough for Absalom. It seriously looks like Absalom won more or less by default at the end of the last chapter, because, after all, his father refused to fight and faded out quietly. But that’s not enough and apparently Absalom wants to crush this last pocket of resistance, and summons his advisors to give their plans.

Ahitophel, who’s been part of Team Absalom since the beginning, advises a hard, fast strike against David’s camp with the hope of sowing confusion and, ideally, bringing David out from cover to be killed, and after David is dead, Israel will form up behind his rebelious heir. Absalom likes this idea but wants a second opinion, and calls for Hushai, who David planted as a mole in Absalom’s court two chapters ago. Hushai ridicules Ahitophel’s advice, suggesting that an early defeat for Absalom would weaken the people’s confidence, so he needs to marshal his strength, and, besides, David probably isn’t with the main body of the army anyways; Absalom goes with Hushai’s plan, and calls for reinforcements. Meanwhile Hushai sends out word (through the priests loyal to David, and a few other spies) to David’s camp that he needs to move fast on Absalom. There’s a slight bit of intrigue with the couriers having to hide from Absalom’s search party, but it doesn’t reveal much except that loyalty to Absalom is kinda patchy and fleeting.

Anyways, two events follow from Absalom’s war council. The first is that David, acting on the information from his spies, crosses the Jordan in advance of Absalom’s troops. The second is that Ahitophel, who doesn’t bear disappointment well, takes not having his advice followed as a personal slight, and goes home to hang himself.

Chapter 17 closes out with some logistics relating to people we’ve never heard of and probably won’t hear about again: Absalom crosses the Jordan himself and designates a cousin of Joab’s as his own army commander, and meanwhile David is provisioned by Barzillai the Gileadite, who hasn’t been mentioned before, but whose role here I’m filing under the general heading of “ways Absalom really does not have the complete loyalty of Israel”.

In Chapter 18 we finally get the big battle, and it’s a bit anticlimactic. David wants to ride out with his army, but is counseled to stay in safety, since there’s no point to winning if he dies. He concurs but instructs his generals not to hurt Absalom, if possible.

As mentioned, the battle itself is anticlimactic, described in a mere 3 verses as occasioning the death of 20,000 Israelites (i.e. Absalom’s people) and even more desertions. Most of the rest of the text is devoted to the tragic end of Absalom and the reporting thereof. See, Absalom himself was riding a mule (which seems an odd choice of war mount, but never mind), and because he was so very talland so very handsome with long flowing locks, his hair got stuck in the branches of a tree and he hung there like an idiot, until one of David’s men saw him and reported it to Joab.

I suppose this end is supposed to be fittingly ironic for Absalom, but it’s kind of incoherent. What was he doing riding alone? None of his own men were with him to rescue him? Anyways, this man reports to Joab, who asks “Damnit, why didn’t you kill him? I have a nice fat reward for anyone who kills him!” and the soldier says, “Uh, David pretty explicitly told us notto kill him,” and Joab then says,”Damnit, I have to do everything myself around here,” and stabs the fuck out of Absalom. Joab’s career already seemed on pretty thin ice to me, although the fallout from this particular choice isn’t really going to enmerge until the next chapter.

Anyways, with the day won and the foe slain, someone needs to bring the bittersweet news to David. There is a somewhat mystifying exchange between Joab and Zadok’s son Ahimaaz on the subject (Ahimaaz already having done valiant service as one of Hushai’s couriers in the last chapter); Ahimaaz wants to report the victory to David, but Joab will have none of it, because the king’s son is dead, and he delegates a random Cushite to give the news. The logic chain here is murky: why does Absalom’s death prohibit Ahimaaz, specifically, from carrying news? If the deal was “we won’t carry glad tidings to the king at all”, then, yeah, I’d get that, but the fact is, the news is still being carried, so somehow there’s some confusing Ahimaaz-specific prohibition here. Ahimaaz doesn’t seem to get the logic either, because he says he’s going to run to the king anyways, behind the designated envoy. As it turns out, Ahimaaz is actually faster than the designated newsbearer, making the whole interchange somewhat moot except for giving me something to be bewildered by.

So Ahimaaz arrives, and reports victory. David asks about Absalom, and Ahimaaz says he doesn’t know, and didn’t actually see him in the confusion. That seems a weird logical hole, because Joab explicitly told him that Absalom was dead. That was his bizarre stated rationale for not dispatching him with the news in the first place! So I don’t get this part either, and am starting to think that the whole two-messengers bit ended up interpolated from an entirely different version of the story, seeing as how the Cushite gives the real news: that Absalom has been dispatched for once and for all.

So, yeah, the battle ends up being surprisingly anticlimactic. The early stages of Absalom’s rebellion were frankly more interesting, with the return from exile and the scheming. And now it’s all over but the mopping up, which we’ll see next week (no, really, the actual next week, not 2 months this time).


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

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