Ancient History, History

Absalom the Usurper

For bedtime reading, our family has been reading through the David cycle in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course, this part of the Scriptures is my bread-and-butter. One day, I will write a book on David and it will sell like five copies – AT LEAST.

But I digress.

The other night, we started reading about Absalom, David’s third son, in 2 Samuel 13-15. Without getting into details you can read for yourself, David’s oldest son Amnon raped and shamed his Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom waited for years for an opportunity, then he tricked and killed Amnon. To escape David’s retribution, Absalom fled into exile in the city-state of Geshur and stayed there until David’s cousin and counselor Joab talked David into recalling him.

Once Absalom was back home, he patiently planned and executed a coup and drove David into exile. Ultimately Joab killed Absalom and reinstalled David as king. The whole story spans over six chapters of 2 Samuel and involves quite a bit of intrigue – some real cloak and dagger stuff.

It is like an episode of Jersey Shore: Iron Age.

The Geshur Connection

Absalom was David’s son through a woman named Maacah, the daughter of the king (Hebrew MLK) of Geshur, which was probably a neo-Hittite city-state in what was known as Bashan. This was the region north of Israel in what is today the Golan Heights. During the time of Solomon, the region was absorbed into Israel’s domain, but appears to have broken free shortly thereafter and was absorbed into the kingdom Aram (or Syria).

Last week, I posted some thoughts about Uriah the Hittite and the relationship between the Hebrews and the neo-Hittites. After considering Absalom and his mother, I have a feeling that the relationship between these two people groups was stronger than I originally supposed.

A Little Bit about the Name

Absalom is not strictly a Hebrew name. It arises from two root words: Av or “father” and Shalom or “peace.” It could mean “my father is peace” or “my father’s peace.” The second is more likely, as Absalom was born from the treaty marriage of David and Maacah.

Hebrew writers love irony, and while shalom means peace a very similar word shilluwm means “revenge”. In ancient Hebrew, there are no written vowels so both words appear as שלום. Consider that the Absalom cycle is preceded by the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and that Absalom’s life was defined by killing his own half-brother in retribution for his sister’s rape.

The idea that someone named “my father’s peace” would attempt to usurp his father’s kingdom as retribution for his treatment of others was something worth writing about. The literary value of the entire cycle is enormous.

Absalom Had Like SIX Stepmothers!

If I read the book of Ruth right, David himself was descended from some powerful chieftains in Moab. A number of David’s first wive’s came from powerful people as well.

  • Ahinoam, his first wife, was relatively insignificant and he probably married her before ascending the throne. (Amnon’s mother)
  • His second wife, Abigail, was the widow (and we assume the successor) of Nabal – a powerful man in Carmel, which is in northwestern Palestine.
  • Absalom’s mother was the daughter of the MLK of Geshur, which I have already noted.
  • His fourth and fifth wives, Haggith and Abital are unknown; and his sixth wife, Eglah, is simply called “David’s wife. (2 Samuel 3:2-5)
  • He also recalled Michal, Saul’s daughter who had been betrothed to him, but married another man. David reclaimed him as a wife, although whether he ever consummated that relationship could be a matter of discussion. (2 Samuel 3:12-16, 6:21-23)

Out of his first seven wives, David married at least three women of influence in the region. He married a number of other women, bedded even more concubines and had many other children. David was a playah.

His marriages were primarily about treaties with neighboring powers, consolidating strength in the vacuum left by the weakness of Egypt’s New Kingdom, the collapse of the Hittite state, and the disorganized but rising threat of the Assyrians to the northeast. David was attempting to build a significant power in the Levant, and you did that by extending peace to your neighboring city-states.

We often read and translate the Hebrew word מלכ or MLK as king, and rightly so. King is the closest English word that we have for it, but we should be aware that MLK was applied to the rulers of great empires as well as the chieftains of small people groups and essentially the mayors of city-states.

Absalom’s Play

When Absalom killed his half-brother Amnon, he was making a move to claim David’s throne. Amnon was the oldest brother son. That Amnon was an incestuous scumbag who raped his own sister and then abused her simply gave Absalom an excuse to act. (I think most translations handle this passage badly, but no matter how you read it, raping your sister was considered a detestable thing then just as it is now.)

There is no absolute indication that Amnon was David’s chosen successor, in fact the text of 2 Samuel seems to indicate that David had already chosen Bathseba’s young son Solomon (or Jedidiah as Nathan the prophet called him) as successor. But if you were going to seize power in a household with as many royal sons as David had, you started with the oldest son; and it is worth noting that when Absalom kills Amnon, David fears that Absalom has killed all of his sons (2 Samuel 13:30).

Today, we think of monarchy through the lens of the European idea of primogeniture – the oldest son inherits everything. It is a bit shocking to discover that this practice is a relatively recent innovation. In ancient Palestine, a son would be chosen to receive the BECHORAH, which is often translated as “birthright” in English translations. This was not necessarily the oldest son. It could be the oldest son of a chosen wife (as in the case of Joseph and Isaac), or the youngest son even (as in the case of David). It could also be bought and sold (as in the case of Esau and Jacob).

BECHORAH was a place of honor, but it was not necessarily for the first son. We could translate it as “made first among” and we would not be far off from the meaning.

If you were going to attempt to take the BECHORAH by force, you would have to start with your oldest brother. Killing the chosen successor (Solomon) would just bring down the king’s wrath and guarantee that one of your other brothers would take the throne. But if you killed your oldest brother with a valid excuse, you would be allowed to live and continue your work. This is exactly what happens with Absalom.

He kills Amnon and then claims he was acting as Tamar’s kinsman redeemer (which technically was David’s job as her father). That gives him the moral high ground against David, at least in the eyes of the people. Absalom then leveraged his position to solidify his place as a “righteous” man and overthrows his father who the people perceive as somewhat unrighteous.

This is hard for us to grasp because we think of David as this fantastic guy. In reality, his personal life was erratic at best. In this particular situation, it is pretty obvious that he has lost his grip on what is happening, and he is practically allowing Joab to run the kingdom for him.

Why Include This Narrative?

The narrative is far from flattering to David, and we must pause to realize that there is no religious reason to include it in the text. It certainly does not cast David in a positive light. So, why include it?

This is not a case of the righteous suffering for righteousness’ sake, but rather a king weakened by his own personal sins being ousted by a man who believed he was doing what was right. Absalom was not acting wickedly when he ousted David – not in his mind at any rate. David had failed the kingdom, and even he realizes that perhaps this is judgment upon him for his failures (2 Samuel 15:25-26).

Set aside all moralistic and religious interpretations, and you realize that this narrative serves a vital purpose in the story of God’s people. This narrative as well as the later Adonijah narrative (1 Kings 1-2) serve to explain why Israel was not a dominant nation at the time of its foundation. The alliances that could have ultimately created a strong nation with allies at its borders fell apart. Instead, Israel was the plump fruit waiting for the right usurper to pluck it, and this is exactly what happens in Israel and Judah. The nation divides after Solomon and remains two competing principalities for most of the next two centuries.

Judah particularly would struggle to find a foothold in the international scene until several centuries later. This would not have happened if the internal strife of David and his sons had not occurred. Although Solomon sought out other alliances (like his alliance with Egypt) to compensate, they ultimately failed him.

2 thoughts on “Absalom the Usurper”

  1. I’d buy one of the five copies. I genuinely enjoy reading your posts. Usually they are very insightful and I love the way you weave the known history into the storyline. Always interesting stuff.

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