2 Samuel 18:5-33

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2 Samuel 18:5-33

Background to the Book of Samuel

History: The story contained in the books of Samuel tells of the extraordinary change in the way Israel is governed. Up to this time, there had been various tribes who on occasions had come together to combat a threat from other nations. In each instance in the book of Judges, we are told how a person was raised by God to lead the tribes on this particular occasion. The Spirit of God settles on the person and even when this is not overtly mentioned in the story we are clear by the way the story progresses that we know God's hand is directly involved in the successful consequences.

1 and 11 Samuel tell us about the immense political and new government structures, which take place around the end of the 10th century BCE. The centre of government during the time of the judges was at Shiloh and by the time we get to the beginning of 11 Samuel, the centre of what is now an empire, has moved to Jerusalem.

The voices for setting up a monarchy became stronger and it fell to Samuel, the last of the judges, to be instrumental in the forthcoming tussle between those who wanted a monarch and those who believed that God would continue to raise up leaders as required.

The amount of material, which focuses on Samuel, Saul and David compared with the space given to the remainder of the Kings of Israel, is quite disproportionate. A total of fifty-five chapters are given to these three people and forty-seven chapters to all the remaining kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms.

We read in the books of Joshua and Judges about the gradual settlement of the Israelite tribes into Palestine, some encroaching from the south, others from the east and the north. It was clear there was fighting with other tribes and we become familiar with the names of the Edomites and the Moabites. However, the greatest threat became the Philistines who were settled in the west of Palestine along part of the coast. Because they had achieved the art of iron casting, they were able to make wheels and other tools that gave them superiority in war. The settlement process took at least two hundred years from the time the tribes started to enter into Palestine.

One of the ancient traditions tells of the conquest of Canaan by slow stages, with each tribe fighting alone or, at best, in coalition with other tribes. Another tradition tells about the invasion, which attacked first the southern hill country, where Judah and Simeon defeated Adonibezek, took Hebron, Debir, and Hormah, but could not gain control of the coastal plain. The house of Joseph invaded the central highlands and captured Bethel. To the north, the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali settled among the Canaanites, and, as they grew stronger, gradually forced them into slave labour. To the west, the tribe of Dan was hemmed in against the highlands and could not conquer the plains.

The books of Samuel tell us how first Saul became king and was commissioned to defeat the Philistines that were a very real threat to the survival of Israel. Second, we follow the narrative as it tells of the gradual disintegration of Saul's mental and physical health and the rise of David after his defeat of Goliath. David is portrayed positively as he saves Saul's life and negatively as he betrays his own people and fights for the enemy, although never against Israel itself. The Philistines thought he was doing this, but David was fighting other tribes and killing everyone so there was no one alive to tell the Philistine commander what David was doing. Some of the negative qualities of David's actions and character are omitted in a later telling of his story (Books of Chronicles). It is well that we remember he was a person of mixed motives, great faith, courage, love, greed, need for power, who killed those in opposition to his desires, he was cruel and had fits of anger. His grief at the death of Saul and Jonathon is beautifully portrayed in the lament of 2 Sam 1:19ff.
In the second book of Samuel we read of the rise and fall of David's reign. There was quite a protracted war between Saul's son Ishbaal and David. The outcome was triggered by Ishbaal's stupid accusation against Abner and the consequence was that all the tribes of Israel accepted David as King at Hebron. 2 Samuel continues with the narrative of David's consolidation of power and the unification of the tribes into what became a very powerful kingdom. David's reign and extension of the territory to include many of the surrounding countries is the only time in history in which Israel occupies such a large area until the 20th century Six Day War. David defeats the Philistines soundly after he has taken Jerusalem and this removes them as a serious threat to the Davidic Empire. 2 Samuel continues with the story of David's deeds both good and bad.

After David realised he was living in a more luxurious place than that of the sacred Ark he told Nathan, the prophet, he wanted to build a temple in which to house it. Nathan agreed initially, but after God spoke to Nathan he came back to David and told him that he would beget an eternal line of kings and his "house" and kingdom would be forever. His progeny would build the temple.

Dates of the first 3 Kings of the United Kingdom


c.1020 - 1004 BCE


1004 - 965


965 - 928

Context of 2 Sam 18:5-33

David has defeated the armies of all the surrounding countries (2 Sam 8) and the empire is at its greatest zenith until the time of the Six Day War in the 20th century. David is not the one to build the temple, but has been promised an eternal house and kingdom. He is condemned for his cold blooded murder of Uriah and the punishment forecast for is family begins to come true from 2 Sam 13 onwards. It begins with the horrible story of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon. David was told of Amnon's behaviour and chose to do nothing because he loved his eldest son. Absalom does nothing at that point but keeps his revenge for 2 years later. After ordering Amnon to be killed , Absolam hides and is allowed to return to his house in Jerusalem after 3 years with some manipulating by Joab and the woman from Tekoa.
Absalom gradually gets himself back into favour with David and becomes politically active so that it is said he stole the hearts of the people of Israel (2 Sam 15: 6). We then read of the treachery and rebellion of Absalom against his father David as prophesied in 2 Sam: 12.

Why David decided to flee a fortress such as Jerusalem seems peculiar. David has a foreigner, Ittai who is faithful and goes with him into exile and is the contrast to his own blood who is against him. When Zadok and Abiathar want to go with David taking the Ark and the serving Levites, David sends them back into the city. He appears to go to the summit of the Mount of Olives which is very close to the city and Absalom enters Jerusalem. David goes away in to Jordan and refuses to kill a man who curses him on his way suggesting that he does it by command of God. 2 Sam 16 demonstrates in two places the explicit fulfilment of the prophecy from 2 Sam 12. First, his household will be divided by the sword and second, a public display of disrespect will happen when his concubines are used in a public place. This appears to be a personal insult, the concubines are the property of the king and when they are used by another it is as though the king himself is shamed.

The chapter immediately prior to 2 Sam 18 is the discussion about when to confront David in battle and the conflicting advice given by the servant loyal to Absalom versus that given by the servant loyal to David.

David's army defeats Absalom's army and Absolam is killed by Joab. The following chapter has a number of stories about people who come to David after he has grieved for Absalom. It seems a little strange that after two instances of disloyalty David still appears to want Absalom alive. Behind the stories is a thread which demonstrates that the division of Israel (northern tribes) and Judah (southern tribes) is much wider than we think. In fact 2 Sam 20 makes overt this separation between the tribes and a rebellion of Israel is led by Sheba a Benjamite against David. Joab, got rid of the newly appointed army commander whom David had appointed in his stead and then with the aid a wise woman defeated the rebel Sheba before too much blood was spilt.

Insights/Message of 2 Sam 18:5-33

Literary: I am filling in the gaps missed by the lectionary readings because it distorts the reading quite badly in this truncated form.

The verses from the lectionary reading are part of section 2 Sam 18:1-19:8a (English transl) which presents the story of the battle between David and Absalom. Vv.1-4 give details about the how the army is divided and who commands which section. In this part is the conversation between David and his men who tell David he is not to lead in battle but stay at the gate because he is worth ten thousand of them.

Vv.5-9 (the verses chosen for the lectionary are quite peculiar) begin with the order of David to Joab to deal gently with 'the young man Absalom". The narrator males the comment that all the people heard David's order thereby ensuring that later Joab has no excuse for what he does.

The section after Absalom is caught in the tree and how Joab finds him is omitted in the lectionary readings and we have v.15 included which describes the armour bearers as the ones who killed Absalom. However, we have the curious act of Joab in v.14 in which Joab puts 3 darts into Absalom. The troops can be held responsible for his death, although David in later actions appears to hold Joab responsible. The lectionary readings then omit vv.16-30 which give the detail about how David is told of the death of his son. Joab sends a Cushite, but the son of Zadok wants to tell David and after Joab initially resists he capitulates and gives his permission. Ahimaaz, son of Zadok is the first to arrive and when David asks after Absalom he denies seeing anything. Vv.31-33 describe what happens when the Cushite arrives soon after and in answer to the same response about Absalom gives this response, "May the enemies of my Lord the King, all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man." David understood the meaning and gave way to deep grief for his son.

2 Sam 19:1-8a begins with the outpouring of grief until Joab came and it is apparent that David is aware if not at this point, later of Joab's role in the death of Absalom. However, Joab is there to tell David he needs to think of his people and not only his own grief because after all the people did fight and need to see their king. David listens to Joab and returns to the gate. Later we find that David replaces Joab with another army commander which was not a popular move.

2 Sam 18 begins with David at the gate giving instructions to treat Absalom gently and ends at the gate after hearing of his death in 2 Sam 19:8a.

We have set up in this section the concern of David for his son who has behaved badly and is a threat both to David and his kingdom. On the other hand, we have the concern of Joab, who believes the death of Absalom is necessary for the welfare of the kingdom.
Message: David is shown as caring and deeply grieving the loss of his son. The narrator makes sure that David has no hand in the death of Absalom. Brueggemann makes a big issue about the fact David refers only to the "young man" and doesn't name his son. This point cannot be sustained because the Hebrew text and English translations all have Absalom in apposition to the young man and so reads at the end of v.5 as, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man, Absalom". We note that it is for David's sake the request is made.

Maybe it show some weakness in the leadership of David when he puts his own needs first and Joab has to tell him how to behave as a leader. This does not mean that he forgoes his grief for Absalom, but as King he needs to behave appropriately as leader.

The present monument to Absalom in the Kidron valley has been there since the 16th century. Whether this is built on an earlier monument we don't know.

The theology behind the dialogue related to who will be the person to run and tell David the news of his death is interesting and not immediately obvious. Does Ahimaaz want to go and tell good news because on a previous occasion he had bad news to tell (2 Sam 17:17)? Is Joab's reluctance to send him because he is the son of a priest and doesn't want to put him in danger (2 Sam 1)? As previous readings have demonstrated a person bearing news is very vulnerable to the whims and responses of the king and can easily lose his life. In fact on this occasion Ahimaaz refrains from telling David about the death of his son, only the result of the battle. He, in one sense, fails to carry through his task.

The Cushite chosen by Joab arrives after Ahimaaz and realises David does not know about Absalom and tells David in a very circumspect manner. David understands and does not punish the Cushite. One can ask the questions about a foreigner who appears to be in the Judean army: how did he get there? What status do they have? Is a slave or mercenary?

There are a number of theological points we can take for ourselves from this story. The first is the deep grief at the loss of a son, even one who has betrayed his father and tried to kill him, as well as take over his kingdom. Furthermore, Absalom deliberately shamed David indicated by the story of the concubines. In spite of that David is in deep grief. David expects to be left to deal with his grief.

The second theological issue is when a person is a leader and needs to give leadership alongside the need to grieve personally. This is the issue for Joab who can see the broader repercussions. It doesn't mean forgoing grief, but there are times when those in leadership have to grief at a later time. The Psalm 130 is a beautiful expression of a person's feelings of loss and despair.

The eagerness of the Ahimaaz to run and tell the news reminds me of Peter who can be so confident and yet when it comes to the moment of truth fails, as did Ahimaaz. He did not have the courage to tell David of Absalom's death. Human beings are portrayed in all their frailty in the Hebrew Scriptures.

He calls on passages from Isaiah and Joel. Isaiah 54:13 which predicts that all the offspring will be taught by the Lord and who is now that person standing standing before them teaching. Those who have eyes to see this, will be part of the kingdom as the servant was honoured by God, and those who refuse to see Jesus as the Messiah will be cast away. Jesus clearly sees himself as the fulfilment of the servant but goes beyond what is spoken of in the book of Isaiah. The teaching ministry of Jesus is the fulfilment of Isa 54:13. Ephesians 4:25-5:2 is ethical instruction about appropriate behaviour between one another. Ephesians 4:26a,"Be angry but do not sin" is a direct quote from Ps 4:4a while Ephesians 4:25 has very close instructions about behaviour in Zech 8:16. Further references to grieving the Holy Spirit may reflect sentiments in Isa 63:10. It is clear that Paul has a very good command of the Hebrew Scriptures which he draws upon frequently in his letters.

Resources/Worship for 2 Sam 18:5-33

Worship: When this reading is presented there must be some way of filling in the gaps. A second reader could précis the gaps in the lectionary readings.

If the emphasis in the sermon is going to be on the grief of David, the Psalm 130 is an excellent response and is helpful to anyone who is feeling low and in despair.
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the books of Samuel, eg. If you want to know more about the Philistines there are details given of several articles/chapters in books that can help with this topic.  The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the 1990's is more up to date than some earlier works.

Anderson, A.A. 2 Samuel. WBC. Dallas: Word Books, 1989
Birch, B. The First and second Samuel. NIB. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Brueggemann,W. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990
Gordon, R.P. 1 & 2 Samuel. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984
Gunn, D.M. The Story of King David. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978
Hertzberg, H.W. 1 & 11 Samuel. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1964.
Klein, R. 1 Samuel. WBC. Waco., Texas: Word Books, 1983.
Mauchline, J. 1 and 2 Samuel. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971.
Schniedewind,W.M. Society and the Promise to David: The Reception History of 2
Samuel 7:1-17. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: http://nat.uca.org.au/TD/worship/Orders_of_Service/index.html