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Absalom


“In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom,” and for the abundance of his hair (2Sam.14.25-2Sam.14.27). He had three sons and a daughter, whom he named Tamar after his sister. Absalom now began to act like a candidate for the kingship (2Sam.15.1-2Sam.15.6), parading a great retinue and subtly indicating how he would improve the administration of justice in the interests of the people.

At the end of four years (2Sam.15.7; see niv text and footnote for uncertainties surrounding the Hebrew text at this point), Absalom pretended a proper motive for visiting Hebron, the capital of Judah when David began his reign and Absalom’s birthplace (2Sam.3.2-2Sam.3.3). There Absalom proclaimed himself king and attracted the disaffected to his standard (2Sam.15.7-2Sam.15.14). David realized at once that this was a serious threat to his throne. He plainly could have chosen to remain in the safety of the all-but-impregnable fortress city of Jerusalem, but this would have been both strategically a mistake and practically a needless involvement of an innocent population in the harsh realities of a prolonged siege. David did not explain his decision to depart hastily from the city, but what we know of him from the Bible suggests these two motives: first, out in the open country he was in his natural element both as a man and as a soldier; second, he could rally troops to his cause and, as a commander actually in the field—not confined in the city—he could direct operations. But it was a sad and hurried flight, marked by partings from friends and the defection of valued counselors such as Ahithophel. David sent back to the capital the intensely loyal priests, Zadok and Abiathar, that with their sons as messengers they might keep David informed of events. Hushai the Arkite also was asked to return and feign loyalty to Absalom, and so help David by “frustrating Ahithophel’s advice” (2Sam.15.20-2Sam.15.37).

Ahithophel advised Absalom to attack David at once, before he could gather a large following (2Sam.17.1-2Sam.17.4). Hushai advised delay until all the military power of the realm could be gathered under the command of Absalom himself, to make sure they had a force large enough to defeat the warlike David and his loyal soldiers (2Sam.17.5-2Sam.17.14). Absalom actually followed a compromise plan. The armies met in the wood of Ephraim, where Absalom’s forces were disastrously defeated (2Sam.18.1-2Sam.18.8). Absalom was caught by his head in the branches of an oak, and the mule he was riding went on and left him dangling helpless there. Joab and his men killed him, though David, in the hearing of the whole army, had forbidden anyone to harm him. Absalom was buried in a pit and covered with a heap of stones in the wood where he fell (2Sam.18.9-2Sam.18.17).

David’s great and prolonged grief over the death of his son nearly cost him the loyalty of his subjects (2Sam.18.33-2Sam.19.8). Absalom’s rebellion was the most serious threat to David’s throne, but its significance for the future lay in the weakness already existing in the kingdom in David’s day. Plainly David’s administration was faulty. The ease with which Absalom detached the northern tribes from allegiance to David not only exposed the fact that as a Judahite David was guilty of neglecting the Israelite section of his kingdom, but also, more seriously, showed how fragile were the bonds between Judah and Israel. Solomon’s more rigorous administrative methods staved off the inevitable division that needed only the ineptitude of his son and successor Rehoboam to make it a reality (1Kgs.12.1-1Kgs.12.19). In these ways, as much as in its more explicit predictions, the OT prepared the way for Christ. It records the golden days of David; yet the flaws in David’s character and kingdom give rise to the people’s yearning for great David’s greater Son.——ER and JAM


Absalom's Pillar in the Kidron Valley. It was built around the time of Christ.

ABSALOM, ABISHALOM, ab sə ləm, ə bĭsh e ləm אַבְשָׁלֹ֣ום, father is of peace; אֲבִישָׁלֹֽום in 1 Kings 15:2, 10; Apoc. ̓Αβεσσάλμος, ̓Αψάλωμος, ̓Αβεσσάλωμος). 1. The third son of David born at Hebron to his third wife Maacah, the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur (2 Sam 3:3). The person of Absalom is described in 2 Samuel 14:25-27 in great detail. All Israel praised his beauty, for there was not a blemish in him from “the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” So heavy was his hair that the weight of that gathered from his occasional cuttings would run at four and half pounds (LXX—two and a quarter pounds).

His sister, Tamar, was a beautiful girl (2 Sam 13:1) and this was to be the beginning of misery and grief in many Israelite lives. David’s first son by Ahinoam of Jezreel, named Amnon, fell in love with Tamar. One day he became ill (2 Sam 13:1, 2). Since his half sister was evidently kept in close guard, there was no way in which to gain access to her. Amnon’s friend, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, named Jonadab, suggested a crafty way of realizing Amnon’s objective: the custom of preparing a special meal for the sick in which the sick could request the dish his heart desired (2 Sam 13:4-6). Soft-touch David allowed Amnon’s request to have Tamar perform this custom and Amnon seized the opportunity to force Tamar. She tried to talk sense and offered counter proposals, but the fool would not listen. When sin had borne its fruit, Amnon hated her with a stronger passion than with which he had just previously loved her. Tamar was promptly dismissed to lead a solitary life as a widow even though she had never been a wife.

Absalom, as Tamar’s brother, waited in a rage to see if their father David would act against Amnon, but it was useless. After two years had elapsed, Absalom planned his revenge for the dishonor of his sister at a royal feast on the occasion of the sheep-shearing festivities. Apparently, Absalom owned some estates and pasture land N of Jerusalem (13:23) in the territory of Benjamin. This was similar to such a festival in connection with Nabal and David (1 Sam 25:1-8), so Absalom planned to celebrate his sheep-shearing by inviting the king and the king’s sons. The king had to decline, but he gave his consent to Amnon to attend (2 Sam 13:25-27). A plan was laid whereby the servants would openly murder Amnon at a given signal from Absalom. No attempt was made at concealment, for the princes were to be forced into being witnesses to a just revenge to give it due legality. Amnon had come to the feast feeling that the invitation was a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation; but he was wrong. In the pandemonium that followed, everyone mounted his mule (signs of nobility) and rode off; Absalom himself decided to hasten across the Jordan to Talmai, king of Geshur, where he stayed for three years in exile (2 Sam 13:28, 29, 37). In this incident one sees the character of Absalom: tender, jealous and fierce in his love for his sister Tamar; crafty, false, and sinister in his success in inducing David to allow Amnon to join the feast; daring, reckless, and foolhardy in his murder of Amnon; and ambitious, covetous, and heady in his designs on the throne of David now that his elder brother was rightfully put to death. Nothing was said of Chileab, the only other older brother. Should not he be the next legitimate king to reign since he now was the eldest son, and prob. the first son to be born to David after he began to reign in Hebron? Did he not also have royal blood in his veins from his mother’s side?

The news was a shock David didn’t forget for years, for even after Absalom was restored at the end of three years (13:38), it took an additional two years before he was admitted to the king’s presence (14:28). Actually, even Absalom’s return from exile was brought about by the clever engineering of Joab, David’s chief of the military. Joab employed a wise woman from Tekoa (the village from which the prophet Amos came) and together they devised a story ostensibly to secure the king’s help in the woman’s personal domestic life, but actually to involve the king psychologically because of the parallelism between his own son Absalom and that of the woman’s case. The story involved the case of two sons in which one smote the other and now the woman stood in jeopardy of losing the other son because of the custom of blood revenge. Craftily she repeatedly obtained the oath of the king that no one may kill the brother until finally she introduced the Lord God’s name in the repeated assurances given to her by David. David then even swore to her by the name of Yahweh that there would be no new killing (14:11). Instead of leaving satisfied, the woman pressed for one more objective and boldly substituted the “people of God” for the family and “the banished one” for her ficticious son in her parable. She named David the king as “the guilty one” (14:13). Sensing that the king was catching on too quickly, the woman tried to do a type of double-talk and make it appear that she was still describing her own case, when in fact David knew better. David, knowing Joab’s views on the matter, asked the woman, “Is the hand of Joab with thee in all this?” (14:19). Quickly the woman revealed the truth and praised the king’s wisdom in extravagant terms (14:19, 20). The permission was given to Joab to restore Absalom, but Absalom remained unhappy because he had not been restored to a full reconciliation. When Joab refused to do anything more for Absalom, his temper flared and he ordered his servants to set Joab’s field of barley on fire. Joab quickly came to see Absalom and the arrangements to see David were completed (14:28-33).

Reinstated, Absalom lost no time in going after his father’s throne. With his retinue of horses, chariots, and fifty retainers to run before him he began to capture the imagination of Israel (15:1). Early each morning he arose to see the people who had come to see the king for adjudication. With innuendo and insinuation, he intimated that if he were king things would straighten out in a hurry (15:2-4) and so he “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (15:6). While the present text reads that it was after a period of “forty years” that Absalom made his move for the throne by asking the king to allow him to go to Hebron to pay an old vow to the Lord (15:7) most authorities including the LXX and Syr. agree it should read “after four years” from his return from his grandfather’s home in Geshur. This excuse revealed the same Absalom who once before had asked David to allow Amnon to attend a feast. He retreated to the old capital of David in Hebron with two hundred men. He then called for the wise counselor of David named Ahithophel to be his strategist (17:23).

When David learned of the planned rebellion, he immediately left Jerusalem. Apparently the opposition of the Saulist party and the defection of the tribes was so serious that the aging king decided to escape to Mahanaim, E of the Jordan with the Cherethites, Pelethites, Gittites, Zadok the priest, Hushai the counselor and Ahimaaz, Zadok’s son, and Jonathan, Abiathar’s son (15:13-30). Absalom was proclaimed king in Hebron and he took Jerusalem without any opposition at all. Nevertheless David was able to upset and defeat the wise counsel of Ahithophel by the spy infiltrator Hushai (15:32; 17:14). The messengers for David’s spy network were the sons of the two priests, Ahimaaz and Jonathan (17:17-24).

Ahithophel counseled Absalom to publicly violate the harem of David left behind in Jerusalem and thus establish his legitimacy to the throne (2 Sam 16:20-23). Next he counseled the usurper to attack David immediately before he could gather support (17:17), but fortunately for David, Hushai’s counsel was heeded instead and David had the time he needed due to the elaborate story which Hushai improvised and which contained great eulogies built to cater to Absalom’s vanity and pride (17:5-13).

When the battle finally took place, David’s forces had been neatly divided into three groups under Joab, Abishai and Ittai (18:1, 2). Absalom was caught by his hair in the branches of an oak tree while his mule rode out from under him and there a certain man found him (18:9-14). Joab had promised ten shekels of silver and a wrestling belt to the man who slew Absalom, but the man declined the offer. Joab, refusing the soft-hearted king’s request for mercy, thrust three darts into Absalom and thus the curtain fell on his career. He was buried on the spot and a heap of stones marked the rebel’s grave (2 Sam 18:15-17). During his lifetime, Absalom had erected a pillar to his name in the king’s valley (2 Sam 18:18, Jos. Antiq. VII. x. 3), since his sons prob. had died in their youth (2 Sam 14:27). Nothing is known with certainty about this monument.

David did not rejoice in the death of his son, but lamented over and over, “O my son Absalam, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33; 19:1).

2. Abishalom, another name for Absalom, is the grandfather of Maach, the wife of Rehoboam, and the word “daughter” in 1 Kings 15:2 prob. means “granddaughter,” and “mother” of Asa in 1 Kings 15:10 means “grandmother.” (See Abijah.)

3. An ambassador in the army of Jonathan Maccabeas and father of Mattathias and Jonathan (1 Macc 11:9, 70; 13:11 and 2 Macc 11:17). There is some question about the equation of the messenger in 2 Maccabees with the one in 1 Maccabees.

Bibliography

C. H. Gordon, “Belt-Wrestling in the Bible World,” HUCA, 23 (1950), 131-136; H. W. Hertzberg, I and II Samuel (1964), 253, 254, 320-362; R. N. Whybray, The Succession Narrative: A Study of II Samuel 9-20; I Kings 1 and 2 (1968).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

David’s third son by Maacah, daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur, a small territory between Hermon and Bashan.

1. A General Favorite:

Absalom was born at Hebron (2Sa 3:3), and moved at an early age, with the transfer of the capital, to Jerusalem, where he spent most of his life. He was a great favorite of his father and of the people as well. His charming manners, his personal beauty, his insinuating ways, together with his love of pomp and royal pretensions, captivated the hearts of the people from the beginning. He lived in great style, drove in a magnificent chariot and had fifty men run before him. Such magnificence produced the desired effect upon the hearts of the young aristocrats of the royal city (2Sa 15:1 ff).

2. In Exile:

When Amnon, his half-brother, ravished his sister Tamar, and David shut his eyes to the grave crime and neglected to administer proper punishment, Absalom became justly enraged, and quietly nourished his anger, but after the lapse of two years carried out a successful plan to avenge his sister’s wrongs. He made a great feast for the king’s sons at Baalhazor, to which, among others, Amnon came, only to meet his death at the hands of Absalom’s servants (2Sa 13:1 ff). To avoid punishment he now fled to the court of his maternal grandfather in Geshur, where he remained three years, or until David, his father, had relented and condoned the murderous act of his impetuous, plotting son. At the end of three years (2Sa 13:38) we find Absalom once more in Jerusalem. It was, however, two years later before he was admitted to the royal presence (2Sa 14:28).

3. Rebels against His Father:

Absalom, again reinstated, lost no opportunity to regain lost prestige, and having his mind made up to succeed his father upon the throne, he forgot the son in the politician. Full of insinuations and rich in promises, especially to the disgruntled and to those having grievances, imaginary or real, it was but natural that he should have a following. His purpose was clear, namely, to alienate as many as possible from the king, and thus neutralize his influence in the selection of a successor, for he fully realized that the court party, under the influence of Bathsheba, was intent upon having Solomon as the next ruler. By much flattery Absalom stole the hearts of many men in Israel (2Sa 15:6). How long a period elapsed between his return from Geshur and his open rebellion against his father David is a question which cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. Most authorities regard the forty years of 2Sa 15:7 as an error and following the Syriac and some editions of the Septuagint, suggest four as the correct text. Whether forty or four, he obtained permission from the king to visit Hebron, the ancient capital, on pretense of paying a vow made by him while at Geshur in case of his safe return to Jerusalem. With two hundred men he repairs to Hebron. Previous to the feast spies had been sent throughout all the tribes of Israel to stir up the discontented and to assemble them under Absalom’s flag at Hebron. Very large numbers obeyed the call, among them Ahithophel, one of David’s shrewdest counselors (15:7 ff).

4. David’s Flight:

Reports of the conspiracy at Hebron soon reached the ears of David, who now became thoroughly frightened and lost no time in leaving Jerusalem. Under the protection of his most loyal bodyguard he fled to Gilead beyond Jordan. David was kindly received at Mahanaim, where he remained till after the death of his disloyal son. Zadok and Abiathar, two leading priests, were intent upon sharing the fortunes of David; they went so far as to carry the Ark of the Covenant with them out of Jerusalem (2Sa 15:24). David, however, forced the priests and Levites to take it back to its place in the city and there remain as its guardians. This was a prudent stroke, for these two great priests in Jerusalem acted as intermediaries, and through their sons and some influential women kept up constant communications with David’s army in Gilead (2Sa 15:24 ff). Hushai, too, was sent back to Jerusalem, where he falsely professed allegiance to Absalom, who by thins time had entered the royal city and had assumed control of the government (2Sa 15:32 ff). Hushai, the priests and a few people less conspicuous performed their part well, for the counsel of Ahithophel, who advised immediate action and advance upon the king’s forces, while everything was in a panic, was thwarted (2Sa 17:1 ff); nay more, spies were constantly kept in contact with David’s headquarters to inform the king of Absalom’s plans (2Sa 17:15 ff). This delay was fatal to the rebel son. Had he acted upon the shrewd counsel of Ahithophel, David’s army might have been conquered at the outset.

5. Absalom’s Death and Burial:

When at length Absalom’s forces under the generalship of Amasa (2Sa 17:25) reached Gilead, ample time had been given to David to organize his army, which he divided into three divisions under the efficient command of three veteran generals: Joab, Abishai and Ittai (2Sa 18:1 ff). A great battle was fought in the forests of Ephraim. Here the rebel army was utterly routed. No fewer than 20,000 were killed outright, and a still greater number becoming entangled in the thick forest, perished that day (2Sa 18:7 ff). Among the latter was Absalom himself, for while riding upon his mule, his head was caught in the boughs of a great oak or terebinth, probably in a forked branch. "He was taken up between heaven and earth; and the mule that was under him went on" (2Sa 18:9). In this position he was found by a soldier who at once ran to inform Joab. The latter without a moment’s hesitation, notwithstanding David’s positive orders, thrust three darts into the heart of Absalom. To make his death certain and encouraged by the action of their general, ten of Joab’s young men "compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him" (2Sa 18:15). He was buried in a great pit, close to the spot where he was killed. A great pile of stones was heaped over his body (2Sa 18:17), in accordance with the custom of dishonoring rebels and great criminals by burying them under great piles of stone (Jos 7:26; 8:29). Thomson reforms us that Syrian people to this day cast stones upon the graves of murderers and outlaws (LB, II, 61).

6. David’s Lament:

The death of Absalom was a source of great grief to the fond and aged father, who forgot the ruler and the king in the tenderhearted parent. His lament at the gate of Mahanaim, though very brief, is a classic, and expresses in tender language the feelings of parents for wayward children in all ages of the world (2Sa 18:33).

Little is known of Absalom’s family life, but we read in 2Sa 14:27 that he had three sons and one daughter. From the language of 18:18, it is inferred that the sons died at an early age.

7. Absalom’s Tomb:

As Absalom had no son to perpetuate his memory "he reared up for himself a pillar" or a monument in the King’s dale, which according to Josephus was two furlongs from Jerusalem (Ant., VII, x, 3). Nothing is known with certainty about this monument. One of the several tombs on the east side of the Kidron passes under the name of Absalom’s tomb. This fine piece of masonry with its graceful cupola and Ionic pillars must be of comparatively recent origin, probably not earlier than the Roman period.


(Apocrypha) (Codex Vaticanus, Abessalomos and Abessalom; Codex Alexandrinus, Absalomos, the King James Version Absalon):

(1) Father of Mattathias, a captain of the Jewish army (1 Macc 11:70; Ant, XIII, v, 7).

(2) Father of Jonathan who was sent by Simon Maccabee to take possession of Joppa; perhaps identical with Absalom (1) (1 Macc 13:11; Ant, XIII, vi, 4).

(3) One of two envoys of the Jews, mentioned in a letter sent by Lysias to the Jewish nation (2 Macc 11:17).