You are on page 1of 20

A Familial or Political Decision?

Political and Familial Relationships in Shmuel Bet 14 By Akiva Weisinger

One of the more shocking narratives in the Hebrew Bible is that which describes the attempted rebellion of Avshalom against his father, David. Part of its emotional impact comes from the intertwining of familial relationships with political relationships. Avshalom’s rebellion pains David not just because his kingdom is in jeopardy, but because his own flesh and blood has rebelled against him. Obviously, something has gone horribly wrong in this familial relationship, setting up the political intrigue that follows. Thus, in order to understand the reasons for Avshalom’s rebellion, we must investigate the familial relationship between him and his father leading up to the rebellion, not just the political state of David’s kingdom. Investigating what political causes there were for rebellion ignores an important aspect of Avshalom’s character. The question is not why someone would rebel against David’s kingdom. Rather the questions that must be asked are: What prompts a son to rebel against his own father? What kind of father has a son who rebels against him? Doing so will give us a fuller picture of Avshalom’s character and motives, giving us a clearer understanding of his rebellion.

The most logical place to start analyzing this father-son relationship is Shmuel 2, Chapter 14. This chapter has Yoav, David’s general hiring a wise woman from Tekoa in order to convince David to bring back Avshalom, who had been in Geshur for 3 years. Avshalom had fled to Geshur after having his half-brother Amnon murdered to avenge the rape of his sister Tamar. From the fact that Avshalom had run away, and from the fact that Yoav felt the need to intercede on his behalf, we may be able to infer that there had been some sort of breach in the relationship between David and Avshalom, which had been caused by Avshalom’s vengeful murder of David’s son. However, finding such a breach proves to be difficult. The last verse in Chapter 13 contains the only glimpse the text provides into David’s relationship with Avshalom. It reads (13:39) “Va’Tichal David Hamelech Latzet el Avshalom ki nicham al Amnon ki met1”. There are many obstacles to properly interpreting this verse. The verb “Va’Tichal” has a feminine subject, thus cannot be said to be referring to David himself. Furthermore, the verb “La’tzet”, usually translated as “to go out” seems either ambiguous or out of place. What does “going out to Avshalom” mean in this context? Furthermore, what is the nature of the causal relationship between the yet-untranslated action of David in the first half of 39, and the death of Amnon in its second half. The first translation we can posit for this verse is to insert the word “nefesh” as the subject of “Va’Tichal”, which translates as “And it

1

Due to the fact I am unsure how to insert Hebrew into the text in a way that does not mess up the formatting, I have transliterated all Hebrew text. This transliteration does not claim to be in any way systematic or “correct”.

yearned2” , and to translate “Latzet” in its simplest sense as “to go out”. Thus, the verse reads “And David’s soul yearned to go out to Avshalom, for he was consoled about Amnon, because he was dead”. Thus, David’s feelings towards Avshalom are of parental longing, not of anger or negativity. This answer has the advantage of maintaining the cause and effect implied by the verse. Because he has been consoled of Amnon’s death, having realized he is dead, the parental longing for Avshalom returns. However, translating the verse in this manner produces many other problems. First of all, if David longs for Avshalom like a loving father towards a beloved son, why is Yoav needed to intervene in order to bring Avshalom back. Why didn’t David, as a loving father, bring him back himself? This question is further emphasized by the choice of the verb “latzet”. Why doesn’t such a loving father want to actively bring him back, and only wants to “go out” to Avshalom. Furthermore, if David indeed longs towards Avshalom in this manner, when Avshalom why does David command that Avshalom “not see his face”? Locking away a man who you have ostensibly yearned after seems to be nonsensical.

The second reading, presented by Robert Alter, is to read Va’Tichal not as an expression of yearning, but in the sense of “finished”, or “depleted”, and “latzet” as “to sally forth3”. Thus, the verse translates as: “And David’s urge
2 3

Similar to usage in Devarim 28:32 http://concordances.org/hebrew/3616.htm He similarly translates “b’shaat tzet m’lachim” in 11:1. Robert Alter, The David Story (New York, New York: W.W Norton and Company, 1999) 249.

to sally forth against Avshalom was spent, for he was consoled about Amnon, who was dead”4. This translation has the advantage of fitting better with the story to follow. This gives David a negative attitude towards Avshalom, which Yoav can now intercede to change. However, we are still left with a number of issues. Number one, from a purely subjective perspective, it is hard to say that this reading is readily apparent. The interpretation of “latzet” as “to sally forth against”, though fitting better with the narrative, does not seem to be the most readily apparent reading. Second of all, this interpretation, though an improvement, still fails to explain elements of the story. Saying David’s urge to retaliate against Avshalom was spent does not necessarily imply negative feelings, it merely seems to imply a level of indifference. If so, what is Yoav noticing when he sees that David’s heart is still “al Avshalom?” We may answer that now that David’s urge to retaliate is spent, his parental longing takes over, but that brings us back to all the problems we had with the first reading. The third way of reading this verse, presented by Richard G. Smith5 combines the previous two readings for the first half, reading “Va’Tichal” as “And it yearned”, and “latzet” as “to sally forth”, making David’s attitude towards Avshalom wholly negative. In response to the difficulty raised by the latter half of the verse, which seems to imply David being comforted over Amnon, Smith interprets the root “N-kh-m” as “to be aggrieved”, a
4 5

Alter, 274 Smith, Richard G. The Fate of Justice And Righteousness During David’s Reign:Narrative Ethics And Rereading The Court History According to 2 Samuel 8:15-20:26 (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2009) 158-161

deepening of negative emotion, and thus reads the verse “And David’s soul yearned to sally forth against Avshalom, for he was aggrieved about Amnon, for he was dead”. Smith further correctly notes that Yoav’s intervention to David lacks any sort of appeal to parental longing, which might have been expected if David indeed harbored any paternal feelings towards Avshalom 6. While this interpretation fits best with the immediate narrative that follows, it is difficult to say that David had absolutely no parental feelings towards Avshalom at all, from both a realistic view of human nature and moments in the narrative that follow, most notably David’s plea to his army to not harm Avshalom7, and his emotional meltdown after Avshalom’s death8. Furthermore, the explanation of “n-kh-m” as “aggrieved” seems to assume David has a much more positive view of Amnon that might be absolutely necessary. 13:21 has David extremely upset about Amnon’s rape of Tamar; though we do not see David doing taking action in response, David is far from unaware of Amnon’s unsavory character. Thus, to speak of David as being completely negative towards Avshalom, having no hint of understanding of Avshalom’s motives, seems unlikely. Additionally, the same caveats applied to the second reading apply here, that this reading fails to immediately impress itself upon the reader9. The more readings are rejected, the more it becomes apparent that the problem is not the fact that the verse is unclear. The problem is that the
6 7 8 9

Smith, 162 2 Shmuel, 18:5 2 Shmuel 19: 1-6 If it was really that simple, Smith wouldn’t be the only one to say it!

story itself is unclear. There are conflicting elements within the story itself, in regards to the relationship between David and Avshalom. David’s attitude towards Avshalom is complicated, and defies simplistic explanation that can be sorted into neat boxes marked “positive” or “negative.” It is eminently possible that all three readings can coexist, all being subtly implied by the skilled author of narrative. Each of these three readings contain truthful elements of David’s emotional state, and the most effective way to convey this ambiguity and confusion is by describing it in an ambiguous and confusing fashion. David is both the father of Avshalom and the father of Amnon. On one hand, as the father of Amnon, he is filled with anger and wants the death of his son avenged. On the other hand, as Avshalom’s father, he loves Avshalom unconditionally. If Avshalom had not been his son, it would have been easier to take. He could accept the anger and be done with it, perhaps even act on it and avenge Amnon. But now that it is his own son who was the murderer, his parental love prevents his anger from expression. He can’t love his son because he wants revenge, and he can’t get revenge because he loves his son. The two urges wrestle within him, and effectively paralyze him. How does he deal with it? Some ambiguities within the language of the end of Chapter 13 may provide a window to David’s mind. Verse 37, when describing Avshalom’s flight, says regarding David “Vayit’abel al b’no kol hayamim”, which is translated as “and he mourned for his son, all the days.” Now, while the plain meaning of the verse clearly talks about Amnon, there

may be something deeper being implied here. By using “b’no” instead of “Amnon”, not even mentioning Amnon’s name, the author subtly leaves open the possibility that Avshalom is the dead son being mourned for here. This provides an insight into David’s state of mind. David, confronted by conflicting feelings for a murderous son and a murdered son, mourns for both of them. With Avshalom effectively deemed to be deceased, he no longer has to be torn between his desire for revenge and his love for his child. He can get closure regarding Amnon. He can love both departed children, without compromise.

With that in mind, we can look at verse 39 with a slightly adjusted version of the second reading. David wants to avenge the death of his son, but by carrying on as if Avshalom is dead, the desire for vengeance goes away. And just as in verse 37, a verb is left ambiguous to alert us to the subtleties of David’s emotional state, here too, the verb “met” is left ambiguous. Thus, the verse can be read. “And David’s desire to sally forth against Avshalom was spent, for he was consoled regarding Amnon, for he (Avshalom) was dead”. It is the attempted repression of Avshalom’s existence that enables David to move on from Amnon’s death. However, this proves no rest for David. Because if he is comforted about Amnon, and has accepted his death and moved on from its emotional pain, it means the anger at Avshalom has disappeared. With that, Avshalom springs to life in David’s mind. Avshalom is still his son, despite the fact he

has done something wrong. David yearns to be reunited with Avshalom, to turn around and flee this emotional conflict and embrace him as a son again. Yes, he’s mourned for him and written him off for dead, but he knows that’s a lie….”And David’s soul pined to go out to Avshalom, for he was comforted about Amnon, because he (Amnon/Avshalom) was dead. David’s mind reacts to Avshalom’s mental resurrection by snapping him back to reality. Yes, Avshalom is his son. But he killed his other son. Yes, said son was imperfect, and probably deserved it. But what father makes such distinctions? What father fails to feel pain when his son is killed, no matter how bad he’s gotten? Avshalom has caused David great pain, and for this, revenge must be taken. “And David’s soul pined to sally forth against Avshalom, for he was aggrieved about Amnon, for he was dead”. But, Avshalom is his son, too. He can’t love one and not the other. He has to go on pretending that when Avshalom had Amnon killed, he lost two sons. He can’t bear to pick a side in this fight….And then the cycle of emotions repeats itself. Constantly going back and forth between these three modes, David’s attitude towards Avshalom is as confusing and contradictory as the verse that conveys it. All three readings are correct, but inadequate on their own, as the verse conveys all three simultaneously. Once we have established David’s attitude at the beginning of Chapter 14, we can investigate what Yoav hopes to accomplish with his intervention. What problem is Yoav hoping to solve? The text states in 14:1 that Yoav was

moved to action by his knowledge that “the heart of the king was on (“al”) Avshalom”. Alter correctly notes that “al” is ambiguous and can either mean “on”, or “against.”10The text seems to be continuing its theme of describing David’s state in ambiguous terms. This would seem to indicate that Yoav understands David’s emotional state completely. However, as we shall see, Yoav’s intervention fails to take into account crucial elements of David’s attitude towards Avshalom. Rather, we will posit that Yoav has his own, flawed understanding of David’s feelings towards Avshalom, and it is upon this flawed understanding that his intervention is based. In order to understand Yoav’s perception of the situation, let us take a look at the character’s history. If there is anything about David’s situation that Yoav can relate to, it is the desire for avenge the death of a family member. Yoav saw his brother Asahel struck down by Avner Ben Ner, Shaul’s captain11, and though Avner outruns Yoav enough to be able to temporarily call off hostilities, Yoav cannot get the memory of Avner’s spear struck straight through his brother12 out of his mind. So it is only a manner of time before Yoav exacts his revenge, and though he claims to be acting for political purposes, the narrator makes sure to inform us of Yoav’s real intentions: “for the blood of Asahel, his brother13”. Two possibilities emerge from this knowledge of Yoav’s backstory. Number one, Yoav may view
10 11

Alter, 275 2 Shmuel, 2:18-24 12 2 Shmuel 2:23 “Howbeit he refused to turn aside; wherefore Abner with the hinder end of the spear smote him in the groin, that the spear came out behind him; and he fell down there, and died in the same place” 13 2 Shmuel 3:27 Translations from mechon-mamre.org, unless otherwise noted.

Avshalom with some degree of favor, as he understands Avshalom’s motivations to avenge wrong done to a sibling perhaps better than most. Number two, Yoav’s personality tends towards vengeance, and thus, Yoav’s perception of David’s situation may be tinged by his own vengeful personality. As the Talmud Bavli on Yevamot 117a observes, “As water
reflects, so is the heart of one man to man”. Yoav sees David’s struggles as mirroring his own, thus assuming that David must desire revenge on Avshalom for Amnon’s death. While it is true that David is upset at Avshalom, it is but one aspect of his conflicting emotions, as we have seen. Yoav sees David as Amnon’s vengeful blood redeemer, forgetting that David is also Avshalom’s loving parent. What, then, is Yoav’s objection to David taking revenge? To answer this, we may look at the ending of the Yoav-Avner story. David, upon hearing of Yoav’s actions, proclaims his own innocence in regards to Avner’s death, condemns Yoav with some of the harshest invective in all of the Hebrew Bible, and publically mourns for Avner. Does David have an ulterior motive for engaging in such a public display? The text seems to imply so, stating that “all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them; whatsoever the king did, pleased all the people. So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it was not of the king to slay Abner the son of Ner14.” By killing Avner, a presumably popular general (evidenced by “all the people” mourning him in 3:3215), Yoav risked David losing much needed popular support from the people, and where it not for David’s public display of remorse, the text implies that is exactly what would have happened. Yoav’s actions were selfish, putting his lust for blood above the greater good. Avenging the death of a loved one
14 15

2 Shmuel 3:37-38 Though admittedly, that could be referring to all the people that were with David, the stress

may feel as if it is absolutely obligatory, but there are often more pressing concerns that must be attended to. We will posit, for the purpose of understanding our chapter, that Yoav has learned his lesson from this episode, that family grudges must occasionally be put aside for political reasons. Thus, having accepted that Yoav views David as dead set on revenge, the goal of his intervention is clear: Convince David that, although revenge is quite a noble and tempting course of action, there are pressing political concerns that merit his attention. However, in the vengeful state Yoav imagines David to be in, David is unable to see what the potential consequences of such revenge would be. Trying to convince David to bring back Avshalom by way of a discussion is bound to fail16. Thus, Yoav hires someone totally foreign to the King, the Tekoite Woman, to present Yoav’s case to David by way of parable. Yoav’s plan is to use this performance to shift David’s perspective away from his perspective as aggrieved parent to enable him to see his situation from political perspective. Unlike Yoav, who has a personal relationship with David, this woman is an outsider who only relates to David as a monarch. In her speech, she obviously does not refer to David by name, and speaks with a high level of deference, asking permission to make points, and flattering before providing rebuke. Moreover, we see many appeals to the office of the King17 and his responsibilities to the people 18 and to God19, which would serve to put David into that mindset. It is thus hoped that by hearing his case presented in a way that will force him to see it through a political,

16

It is also possible that Yoav has attempted this before, which would explain the necessity for a proxy 17 2 Shmuel 14:9, “The King and his throne” 18 2 Shmuel 14:13 “'Wherefore then hast thou devised such a thing against the people of God?”, 19 2 Shmuel 14:11 “'I pray thee, let the king remember the LORD thy God”

rather than a personal perspective, David eyes will be opened to the political advantages of bringing Avshalom back, which will become apparent in the parable. To accomplish this goal, Yoav has the Tekoite Woman 20 dress up as a widow and present her case before the king, which goes as follows: She is a widow, her husband is dead, and she had two sons, one of which rose up and murdered the other. Now, her family members wish to avenge themselves upon the killer son, leaving the woman with no heir, and thus, no estate in the land. Yoav, through the Tekoite Woman, has presented David with a conflict of two competing values. On one hand, the clan members have a right to enact strict justice and avenge the death of the murdered son. On the other hand, doing so, while seeming to be just, would harm a lot more people than it would help. It would have disastrous effects for the widow in question, who will be left without a provider, and with the loss of her only heir, cause the disappearance of her husband’s name and the loss of her portion of land. To answer the question, David must decide which value has higher priority, the right of the clan to exact justice, or societal stability 21. Yoav wants David to choose the second option, upholding societal stability over the need for justice and vengeance, so that Avshalom can be reinstated on that basis 22. Yoav seems to be implying that removing an heir to the throne from his position is not a
20

The role of the Tekoite Woman in relation to Yoav, as in how much of what is spoken is Yoav and how much is the Woman’s is an interesting topic but beyond the scope of this paper. We will assume that the core message is Yoav’s, and that Yoav instructs her to seek a specific answer, but the form in which it takes (besides for the initial parable) is a product of the Woman’s quick thinking and skilled improvisation. Furthermore, it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explicate the meaning of the often cryptic words of the Woman, and we will follow Smith’s reading unless otherwise noted. 21 Between Kant and Machiavelli, more or less. Yoav’s position is somewhat Machiavellian, as he views the stability of the regime as more important than morality, but Machiavelli would not agree that positions in society are in any way divinely ordained. However, Machiavelli may approve of the political utility of stating such a belief. Kant however, would have justice done even if the world perishes (which is a misquotation but an accurate reflection of his philosophy), and accordingly, would have Avshalom put to death regardless of political expedience. 22 Smith, 165

decision that will just stay within David’s family. Rather, the removal of an heir from his rightful place will have detrimental effects on society as a whole. Yoav sees societal order as a top priority. People belong in their rightful place, like the Tekoite Woman belongs in her family inheritance. And when David removes his son from his rightful place out of a sense of vengeance, as Yoav likely understands the situation, it can only lead to a breakdown of society. However, David does not take the bait. David responds to the Tekoite Woman by telling her to go to her house, and he will give her further instruction. This seems to imply that David will make sure that the woman will keep her house and property, but has made no promises regarding her son. With this, David shrewdly avoids prioritizing one value over the other. The clan will get its vengeance, and the widow keeps her portion of land23. Yoav would interpret David’s answer as refusing to relinquish his right for revenge in light of societal concerns. Just because something will have detrimental effects on society does not mean it becomes morally acceptable to let a murderer go free. David’s answer tries to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. This was not the response that Yoav had hoped for, as David has refused to prioritize societal stability over vengeance. Accordingly, the Tekoite Woman presses David further. She places all liability on her and her father’s house, absolving the King and his throne of all liability. This implies that the King may have been concerned that he would be liable for letting a murderer go unpunished, but he should not be concerned about doing so, as she is willing to take full responsibility for the murder, as long as her place in society is assured24. This responds specifically to David’s previous point. Just like the widow is willing to forgo justice because the effects of such an approach would ruin her, the
23 24

Smith, 165 Smith, 165

nation will be able to accept the consequences of letting a murderer go free, if it stands to benefit in the long run.25 David responds that “the one who speaks to you, bring him to me and he will not touch you anymore.” Though it is unclear what David is referring to, as the Tekoite Woman has said nothing about herself being placed in physical danger26, the essential point here is that David once again refuses to protect the fratricidal son, only giving further assurance to the widow that he will do the best he can to protect her 27. The woman responds to David’s second refusal by appealing to divine authority and David’s role as king. She pleads with David, “'I pray thee, let the king remember the LORD thy God, that the avenger of blood destroy not any more, lest they destroy my son.'28” She links the issue of the king’s responsibility to establish societal order and prevent outbreaks of violence to the King’s religious obligations to his God. In effect, she tells David not to shirk his role as King by letting the clan murder her fratricidal son. Finally, David says what Yoav wants him to, that “'As the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of thy son fall to the earth.” He has proven himself willing to prioritize a stable, if unjust peace over a bloody justice. Now that David has taken the bait, the Tekoite Woman springs the trap on him. After respectfully asking David for permission to speak, she asks the king how he is willing to issue such a ruling in her case yet do the opposite to God’s people, by failing to return his banished one. We see from the fact that she presents
25

Alternatively, She contrasts two social institutions, the house of her father and the King’s throne, a familial institution and a political institution. She implies that the murder was a crime that that can be dealt with within the family, but allowing her son to be killed in revenge is a societal issue that is the King’s responsibility to attend to. In this distinction is a coded jibe at David, insinuating that he should have the good sense to prevent his family disputes from becoming potential political issues, and if he doesn’t act in his role of King soon, things will get out of hand. 26 A weak point in Smith’s reading, but it works well otherwise. 27 Smith, 166 28 2 Shmuel 14:11

David’s situation as a crime against the people that she (and by extension, Yoav) is not concerned about David’s unfairness to Avshalom. Nor is this an appeal to David’s parental feelings towards his banished son. It is solely a political point, that a failure to return Avshalom will be a crime against the people. There is no moment analogous to Natan’s “You are the man29” because it is not Yoav’s goal to get David to identify emotionally with the widow’s situation. On the contrary, the point is to remove him from an emotional stake in the matter and introduce some objectivity to David’s perspective, and make him see things from a king’s point of view rather than a family member’s. She calls him an angel of god, able to discern between good and bad30, presumably not bound by emotions and familial biases. On that basis, she wants David to return Avshalom to his “inheritance of God 31” for, while God does not revive the dead, we can still return the banished, 32 thus it is useless to remain mad about something you can do nothing about (Amnon’s death) while not fixing a repairable situation (Avshalom’s banishment). 33 David’s reaction to the Tekoite Woman’s speech is curious. Before announcing his decision, he first correctly guesses that Yoav is the origin of this speech, almost as if he cannot contain his pride at having figured this out. What tips David off? As we have seen, Yoav has a penchant for enacting revenge, as seen by his actions with Avner Ben Ner. But that is only half the picture. What makes Yoav’s desire for revenge interesting is that he sincerely believes that he is acting solely for political interests, despite the fact his ulterior motives are obvious to anyone around him. In the story of his revenge against Avner, after Avner comes to David

29 30 31 32 33

2 Shmuel 12:7 2 Shmuel 14:17 2 Shmuel 14:16 2 Shmuel 14:14, Smith’s reading Smith, 167-175

offering his services, Yoav comes to David alleging that Avner is a double agent, an accusation so ludricous and so transparently biased that the text seems to imply that David ignores it. Yet Yoav kills Avner believing he is doing something politically expedient, even though the verse tells us the real reason: “for the blood of Asahel his brother.34” Yoav’s fundamental flaw is he places too much stock in his ability to separate personal interests and intelligent political analysis. He believes that the two can be separated totally. He does not realize the immense difficulty of such a task. The advice of the Tekoite Woman, advising David put aside all his personal feelings and accept Avshalom back for no other reason than its political advisability, must have smacked of Yoav’s naïve faith in the ability of man to place mind over matter. Nevertheless, David attempts to take Yoav’s advice, perhaps at his wits end. He instructs Yoav to bring back “et hana’ar et Avshalom”, impersonalizing Avshalom, pretending him to be some random lad who it is merely politically expedient to return. But once Yoav actually gets up and does so, and Avshalom is back in Jerusalem, he realizes he cannot act this charade. He cannot pretend life has returned to normal just because it is politically advisable to do so. He cannot look at Avshalom’s face and pretend nothing has happened, that Avshalom has caused him no pain. He can’t totally get rid of his conflicted emotions for political expedience. He issues a command that he not see Avshalom’s face, thus evading the negative emotions that would arise every time he does. He has accepted Yoav’s political argument in theory, but cannot bring himself to put it into practice. The text now directs our attention to Avshalom. Who is he, and what motivates him? What does he do in the years that his father refuses to go see him?
34

2 Shmuel 3:27

What is his attitude towards his father? Our first description of Avshalom is an impressive one, a physically peerless specimen with almost parodically extravagant hair that weights 200 Shekalim (5 pounds 35). He has 4 children, three sons and a daughter, and despite his physical attractiveness, there is no indication of any hedonistic flaws. At this point in the narrative, Avshalom looks absolutely perfect in every sense. But then the text sly clues us in to his inner demons. His daughter’s name is Tamar, the same name as the raped sister he avenged. Just like the tragic figure she shares a name with, this Tamar is also described as “woman of a fair countenance36. It appears that the injustice done to Tamar still bothers him. Beneath that flawless exterior, lurks a dangerously uncompromising soul. He believes in a simplistic, black and white justice, with no mitigating factors ever entering into the discussion. If he were a judge, he tells the people at the start of his rebellion, “every man who hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice!37”, as opposed to every other judge who presumably is swayed by other issues. He thinks his father should be completely fine with the fact he has dispatched with such a despicable human being. But yet, the verse continues, he sits in Jerusalem for two years and the King, his own father, will not acknowledge his existence. He cannot understand why. Why else would he bring Avshalom back from Geshur, if not an admittance that Avshalom was right to kill Amnon? But then, why would he refuse to see him? Avshalom, therefore, attempts to force the issue and get a definitive answer. He asks Yoav repeatedly for an audience with the king. Yoav, perhaps now more aware of David’s state of mind, refuses to do so. So Avshalom commands his
35

Figure provided by http://www.convertme.com/en/convert/units/weight/weight.bibshekel.en.html. 36 2 Shmuel, 14:27 37 2 Shmuel 15:4

servants to set Yoav’s portion of land on fire. Yoav, who had been so concerned for the political implications of denying Avshalom his portion in the land, watches as his portion literally goes up in smoke38. Avshalom does not care for politics or societal order, and seems to be mocking, intentionally or not, the value Yoav places in such ideas. Yoav asks Avshalom incredulously, what motive he could possibly have for burning down a field. Avshalom eloquently speaks out his dilemma. Why would the king bring me back from a comfortable life in Geshur to treat me like a stranger? If I’m right, see me, but, “if there be iniquity in me, let him kill me 39”. Avshalom does not care or recognize David’s emotional ties to his other son, and does not understand Yoav’s political perspective. Either I am right, or I am wrong. If I am right, I should be accepted back as if nothing happened, emotions be damned. If I am wrong, kill me, politics be damned. Let justice be done, though the world perish. Although Avshalom does get his audience with his father, he does not get either of his two wishes. His actions are not vindicated by David, nor is he castigated and condemned for death. Though David’s emotions may be still conflict within him, and he preferred not to face them head on, when he is forced to confront face to face, he takes Yoav’s advice. He forgets he has any feelings towards Avshalom, for good or for bad, and he acts like they’ve never met 40. When confronted with Avshalom, David treats him as a regular subject. No father son relationship exists. The text describing Avshalom’s encounter with the king betrays no special relationship. Avshalom comes before him and bows, like any other subject. The King kisses him, but there’s no fatherly affection behind it; it is “The King” who kisses Avshalom, not “David, his father”. If one were to take that verse
38 39 40

Smith, 179 2 Shmuel 14:32 To paraphrase a great Jewish poet

and replace Avshalom’s name with any other citizen, the scene does not seem out of place. This is the worst possible outcome for Avshalom. Not only is not vindicated, the king, his own father, no longer cares enough about him to be upset at him. He would prefer the king condemn him to death, because then at least Avshalom knows he is willing to act and is not compromised in pursuit of justice. Because of the events of the last few chapters, Avshalom comes to see his father as both weak and corrupt, both for letting off Amnon without punishment, and paradoxically, for not condemning Avshalom himself. Having now gone through Chapter 14 in all its intricacies, we can now answer the questions we started off with. David’s relationship with Avshalom is a conflict between his love for Amnon and his love for Avshalom, and he cannot fully integrate those two roles into a sensible whole, thus effectively paralyzing him. Both Avshalom and Yoav do not understand this, from opposing directions. Yoav thinks that political evaluation should be able to allow David to overcome his conflicted feelings, while Avshalom thinks that an evaluation of what is just should allow David to overcome his love for Amnon. Neither of them are correct, and they both underestimate the power of such emotions. In Avshalom’s case, this lack of communication proves tragic, as Avshalom concludes he can and must overthrow his weak and corrupt father, who clearly no longer loves him. But David’s love for Avshalom never totally leaves, even in the height of the rebellion. He commands his soldiers, even in the final battle, to not hurt Avshalom, and when he find out that Avshalom has indeed been killed, he becomes highly emotional, crying “'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!41'”. Clearly, David still retains a paternal love for Avshalom, and always has,
41

2 Shmuel 19:1

something which Yoav, true to form, does not understand, berating David for the political implications of expression of such feelings. 42Yoav does not understand that despite what Avshalom has done to him, Avshalom remains his son 43. It is this emotional realism and complex characterization, masterly woven into the intertwining of various political and familial relationships which makes the Avshalom narrative one of the most gripping in all of the Hebrew Bible.

42 43

2 Shmuel 19: 6-7 On a personal note, I always used to read that passage and side totally with Yoav, until I expressed this view to someone who told me “You cannot judge David until you yourself have children”. I cede the point to them