As the Tender Grass Springing out of the Earth by Clear Shining after Rain
Reading the Second Book of Samuel otherwise called, The Second Book of the Kings chapters 15-24
In this newsletter, I am reading the approx. 850 authors and works of Harold Bloom's Western canon, from cover to cover, from the Epic of Gilgamesh of ca. 1200 B.C. to Tony Kushner's 1991 play Angels in America. For today I’ve continued the third item on Bloom’s list, the Holy Bible.
David, who acceded the Israelite throne after wandering the wilderness with his army, in continuous retreat from Saul, is sent into exile once again when his handsome and charismatic son Absalom, recently returned to Jerusalem and reconciled with his father after killing his half-brother Amnon, amasses his own army, complete with chariots, and starts hearing lawsuits outside the city’s gate, and later goes to Hebron to proclaim himself king of Israel:
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But Absalom sent spies throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, As soon as ye hear the sound of the trumpet, then ye shall say, Absalom reigneth in Hebron. And with Absalom went two hundred men out of Jerusalem, that were called; and they went in their simplicity, and they knew not any thing. And Absalom sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counsellor, from his city, even from Giloh, while he offered sacrifices. And the conspiracy was strong; for the people increased continually with Absalom.
And there came a messengers to David, saying, The hearts of the men of Israel are after Absalom. And David said unto all his servants that were with him at Jerusalem, Arise, and let us fee; for we shall not else escape from Absalom: make speed to depart, lest he overtake us suddenly, and bring evil upon us, and smite the city with the edge of the sword. And the king’s servants said unto the king, Behold, thy servants are ready to do whatsoever my lord the king shall appoint. And the king went forth, and all his household after him. And the king left ten women, which were concubines, to keep the house. And he king went forth, and all the people after him, and tarried in a place that was far off.
The high priest Zadok and the Levites are ready to leave Jerusalem too and take the ark of the covenant with God with them, but David bids them to say behind, saying that he will leave it to the LORD to decide who is the rightful king of Israel and the proper keeper of his ark, showing once again David’s respect for the Israelite throne as an institution that is legitimate regardless of who occupies it, whether it’s held rightly or wrongly, and the holder’s relationship to David’s own person. Furthermore, David intends to use the priests Zadok and Abiathar, and their sons Ahimaaz and Jonathan, as spies. While crossing over Mount Olivet David also runs into Hushai the Archite who is in mourning, having rent his coat and placed earth on his head, over the king’s exile. David sends Hushai to Jerusalem as well, to serve as one of Absalom’s advisers, intentionally giving him bad suggestions to oppose the good advice of Ahithophel, as very wise counsellor.
Passing through Bahurium, David gets harassed by a man of house of Saul named Shimei:
Come out, come out thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.
But David declines to execute Shimei for his insolence:
Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjaminite do it? let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD hath bidden him. It may be that the LORD will look on mine affliction, and that the LORD will requite me good for his cursing this day.
David here shows an unusual disinterestedness regarding the substance of the conflict between himself and the Benjaminites, the tribe of Saul: he finds Shimei’s behavior excusable because it’s natural that a son of Benjamin would hate a king who dethroned his Benjaminite predecessor, and imagines the LORD himself taking a high-minded view of this affair and wishing for each side of the dispute to play its proper role. Perhaps this detached outlook is a fitting one for a king to have.
Hushai does succeed, with the LORD’s help, in overcoming Ahithophel’s wise counsel with his own bad advice, and Absalom, instead of immediately attacking David while he and his men are still in disarray, delays going out against the Judahite king in order to raise up a sizeable army, buying David time to cross the Jordan and organize his forces. When Ahithophel’s advice is ignored, he hangs himself in disgrace.
David’s and Absalom’s armies finally meet in the wood of Ephraim, where the people of Israel are defeated by David’s servants: twenty thousand men are slain, though it’s written mysteriously that “the wood devoured more people that they than the sword devoured.” Maybe we’re to think that soldiers got eaten by wild animals, or got lost. At any rate, we see exactly how the wood indirectly kills one Israelite, Absalom himself:
And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away. And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak. And Joab said unto the man that told him, And, behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle. And he man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king’s son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai1, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom. Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no mater hid from the king, and thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me. Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak. And ten young men that bare Joab’s armour compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him.
Ironically, Absalom’s hair, which in chapter 14 verse 26 is described as weighing two hundred shekels, about five pounds, and which was presented as a token of his beauty, has now become his undoing.
As the savvy soldier who witnessed Absalom’s death predicted, David is in no mood for celebrating when messengers arrive to deliver him what they think is the joyful news that his son has died:
And, behold, Cushi came; and Cushi said, Tidings, my lord the king: for the LORD hath avenged thee this day of all them that rose up against thee. And the king said unto Cushi, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Cushi answered, The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is.
And he king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!
I think there are two ways to assess David’s lament for Absalom: we can connect it to the irony of the messenger Cushi’s wish that all of David’s enemies will meet the same end as Absalom, and see it as a further instance of David’s tendency to high-mindedness in matters that concern his personal safety or status; or we can see his grief as a time when David actually fails to take the kingly view of things, for he wishes that he himself, the properly anointed king of Israel chosen by the LORD himself, had died in the place of his son, a pretender to the throne with no signs of divine favor. As king David ought to generically condemn uprisings than the political intrigue that can weaken nations and waste lives and resources in civil war, and wish that all traitors be put to death. David is, at any rate, a complicated man who has moments of both nobility and baseness.
David’s more honorable tendencies can certainly be seen in how he conducts himself while recrossing the Jordan and returning to Jerusalem to rule once more:
And there went over a ferry boat to carry over the king’s household, and to do what he thought good. And Shimei he son of Gera fell down before the king, as he was come over Jordan; And said unto the king, Let not my lord impute iniquity unto me, neither do thou remember hat which thy servant did perversely the day hat my lord the king went out of Jerusalem, that the king should take it to his heart. For thy servant doth know that I have sinned: therefore, hold, I am come the first this day of all the house of Joseph to go down to meet my lord the king. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah answered and said, Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the LORD’s anointed? And David said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah, that ye should this day be adversaries unto me? shall there any man be put to death this day in Israel? for do no I know that I am this day king over Israel? Therefore the king said unto Israel, Thou shalt not die. And the king sware unto him.
Even though the question of whether David or Absalom is the LORD’s chosen king, the uncertainty of which was one of David’s stated reasons for not punishing Shimei the day they met in Bahurium, has been decided in David’s favor, David forgoes any exaction of personal satisfaction.
Other than yet another civil war between Judah and Israel’s northern tribes, this time led by a Sheba of Belial, which comes to an end after David’s captain Joab tracks him down to a city called Abel in the extreme north of Israel and negotiates for Sheba’s head to be cut off and tossed to him other the city walls, Absalom’s death ends the major narrative thread of the Book of Samuel: the closing chapters narrate in episodic fashion a famine that is ended after David delivers seven of Saul’s grandsons to the Gibeonites, resident aliens who had made a peace treaty with Israel back in the Book of Joshua after pretending to be visitors from a distant land, but whom, it is written in the Second Book of Samuel, Saul oppressed, to be hanged; the exploits of David’s mighty warriors against the Philistines, including, curiously, an account of a Beth-lehemite named Elhanan who slays Goliath’s brother, who also wields a spear like a weaver’s beam;2 and a national census that, for some unclear reason, for the LORD himself commands the king to count the people, makes God mad at David, who, when offered a choice of three possible punishments3, chooses the one that would be carried out by God’s hand, shrewdly calculating that the LORD will have mercy on David and suspend at least part of the sentence. As the angel has his arm stretched out toward Jerusalem, ready to destroy the city, God commands him to relent, and, once David has erected an altar on the threshingfloor of a Jebusite named Araunah, the future site of Solomon’s temple, and made burnt offerings on it, all is forgiven.
Like Isaac and Moses before him, King David utters an oracle on his deathbed:
The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue. The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain. Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow.
But the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands: But the man that shall touch them must be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear; and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place.
Up to now it’s seemed as if the children of Israel stood or fell together when it came to maintaining a relationship with the LORD: if the Israelites kept the covenantal statutes revealed through Moses, then God would continue to live among them, defend them, and bless them; if not, not. But David suggests that there will be some Israelites, identified here with Sheba who led the final rebellion against David and got his head chopped off at Abel, who fall outside of the LORD’s ordered covenant with David, the promise that his dynasty will live on forever, and will only be handled with weapons or with fire. David, speaking for God, seems to be warning that these disfavored Israelites will suffer conquest, and the authors of the Book of Samuel might have intended for us to think of the Neo-Babylonian Empire’s defeat of Israel and Judah around 600 B.C., about four hundred centuries after David’s death, a major crisis with theological implications that will color the accounts of Solomon’s and future Israelite and Judahite monarchs in the First Book of Kings, which I will start reading next week.
Joab, Abishai, and Ittai are each the captain of a part of David’s people.
The King James Version has brother of Goliath, the New Revised Standard Version says that Elhanan killed Goliath himself, and my Oxford Annotated Bible doesn’t suggest that “brother of Goliath” is a possible alternate reading of the manuscripts. I think it’s probable that King James added “brother” solely for the sake of internal coherence, since David also kills Goliath in the First Book of Samuel. In reality, what we have are two versions of the same story.
seven years of famine, three months of fleeing before Israel’s enemies, or three days’ pestilence: I would have chosen the pestilence, as David does for a different reason, purely because it has the shortest duration.