Thanks to the delay caused by following Hushai’s poisoned advice, Absalom has now given David time to properly muster his army and entrench behind city walls. There, David, organizes his troops into groups of 1,000s and 100s, then divides the whole into thirds: One third is under the direction of Joab, one third under Abishai, and one third under Ittai the Gittite (who had insisted in remaining with David in 2 Sam. 15:19-22).
When Absalom has chosen Amasa over his army in 2 Sam. 17:25 instead of Joab, I had assumed this meant that he was setting Joab aside. It seems, however, that I had interpreted this incorrectly. Rather, Joab had to be replaced as the commander of Israel’s army because he has defected to David’s side.
It’s an interesting detail because, as we shall find in this chapter, it’s made very clear that Absalom is now the king of Israel, and that David is once again an enemy of the state on the lam. In fact, David is here described explicitly as fighting against Israel (2 Sam. 18:6), not for Israel. Even when he was fighting Saul, the narration conveniently contrived to ensure that he never actually participated in any conflict against Israel. This is even more interesting because David’s army seems to be largely comprised of Philistines and other non-Israelites (2 Sam. 15:18).
David wants to fight with his men, but they refuse. They know that the civil war will only end if either Absalom or David die, so if they are routed, Absalom’s forces won’t scatter to chase the fleeing men. Rather, they will focus exclusively on chasing down David. This is, if you’ll remember, precisely what Ahithophel predicted in 2 Sam. 17:2. While it makes literary sense to show David’s forces deliberately foiling Ahithophel’s plans, it seems rather odd to have soldiers telling their king that there’s a very strong possibility that they will just run away from the upcoming battle.
Rather, the followers argue, David should stay safely behind walls and “send us help from the city” (2 Sam. 18:3). Its unclear just what sort of help David is supposed to provide them with, except maybe by sending positive vibes their way. Perhaps he’s supposed to keep his hands in the air like Moses in Exodus 17:11. Or, more likely, he’s to stay behind with a reserve force to bring a support of fresh troops if the battle starts to go sour.
As the army marches out to meet Absalom, David stands by the gates to watch them go. He stops his commanders – Joab, Abishai, and Ittai – as they pass to ask them to deal gently with Absalom – a request that the common soldiers overhear. Obviously, this shows that David still loves his son and doesn’t want to have to kill him. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, this conflict is between two individuals, with a whole lot of bystanders about to get killed. It won’t end until at least one of them is dead. By asking that his son be spared, David is asking for the conflict to go on, and for many other people’s sons to die.
That’s assuming that “spare him” is what David means by “deal gently.” He could also mean that the death should be swift, the body not mistreated, and so forth. David is clearly not in the best emotional state, but it’s hard to tell just how affected he is.
The battle itself takes place in the forest of Ephraim. It seems that David’s commanders are able to use the terrain to their advantage – after all, many of David’s loyal followers were with him in his bandit days and must be more accustomed to guerrilla-style fighting over rough landscapes than Absalom’s less experienced forces. All told, the text has 20,000 people die, and Israel’s forces are defeated. There is chaos, and “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword” (2 Sam. 18:8).
Absalom’s fate helps to illustrate just how treacherous forest fighting can be. As he is riding his mule, presumably at a rather high speed, his head gets stuck in the branches of an oak tree. The mule continues to ride and goes galloping off, leaving Absalom dangling.
Tradition has it that Absalom’s hair became tangled in the branches, so that he is hanging by his mighty locks. This is apparently an attempt to find literary meaning in the description of Absalom’s hair in 2 Sam. 14:26. Of course, the Bible doesn’t seem to care too much about obeying Chekhov’s Gun, and the implication here is quite clearly that his head – the whole thing – became stuck. While it’s possible that his hair was involved in some way, that interpretation is not supported by the text.
One of Joab’s men happened to find the dangling Absalom and rushed to tell Joab. Joab is angry that the man didn’t kill Absalom when he had the chance, that he would have rewarded him, but the man is emphatic – no reward would have been enough to go against David’s request that they deal gentle with Absalom. Especially since he knows that Joab would not have defended him if David had found out that he’d been the one to kill Absalom (he must surely know of David’s treatment of the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1:15-16, or of the men who killed Ishbosheth in 2 Samuel 4:12). Joab, it seems, has a reputation for only looking after his own interests.
Frustrated, Joab (sort of) takes matters into his own hands and thrusts three darts into Absalom’s heart. Absalom is a tough bugger, though, so Joab calls on ten of his men to fall in and kill him. Which all seems rather absurd, and makes Absalom out to have Rasputin-level death aversion. Unless we assume that the word “heart” is used to mean “core” – a dual meaning that exists in English as well. In this case, it looks more like a frustrated Joab uses Absalom’s hanging body for target practice then, out of darts, waves his hand for the suffering Absalom to be finished.
Joab blows a trumpet to recall his troops from the pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. Absalom is dead, the battle over, and killing Israelites now would just mean killing David’s soon-to-be-once-again subjects.
Absalom’s corpse is brought down from the oak tree and buried in a great pit, covered with stones.
We’re also given a little tourist’s note that there is a pillar, presumably near Jerusalem, known as “Absalom’s monument.” It had been built by Absalom, presumably to keep alive his memory because “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance” (2 Sam. 18:18). I’ve seen a few sources crying contradiction because 2 Sam. 14:27 gives Absalom three sons. Yet I noted there that the sons are not named, which would be rather unusual unless they had died too young to matter for the historical record. This would provide a satisfactory explanation for both of these passages, both individually and in relation to each other.
The text tells us that this Absalom’s monument can still be seen at the time of writing. There is, actually, a monument called the Tomb of Absalom that still stands today, though it’s style and decorations place its construction in the first century CE, far too late to be the monument mentioned here.
With the battle over and Absalom dead, only one thing remains: Telling David about it. Ahimaaz, son of the priest Zadok, asks Joab for permission to be the messenger. Joab refuses. For a reason, he says only: “because the king’s son is dead” (2 Sam. 18:20). It could be that he fears for Ahimaaz, that David may lash out at the bearer of such news and Ahimaaz is too valuable to lose in this way. It could also be that he knows Ahimaaz, and has accurately predicted his later failure.
Either way, he decides to send a Cushite instead. But after the Cushite leaves, Ahimaaz won’t leave off. Joab expresses his confusion at Ahimaaz’s insistence – after all, there’ll be no reward! So why bother? Is that not just so Joab?
Yet he relents and finally allows Ahimaaz to go. With permission finally in hand, Ahimaaz flies like the wind, quickly passing the Cushite.
Back in the city, David is waiting at the gate for word. There’s a little bit of back and forth there between David and a lookout, and David concludes that a single runner means good news. The logic, I presume, is that a single runner means news, whereas a group is more likely to be the routed remnants of his army.
Yet this explanation has its problems. I had mentioned earlier that the only realistic way in which David could “send us help from the city” (2 Sam. 18:3) is if he waits with fresh troops in case the battle goes badly. Yet that makes little sense here – a single runner might mean victory, or it might mean send help, now! Of course, this is easily explained by David being a little up the wall, emotionally speaking. After all, there is no such thing as good news for him – either he’s lost the battle, or his son is dead.
When Ahimaaz arrives, he tells David that they’ve won the battle, but won’t tell him about Absalom. When David explicitly asks, Ahimaaz says that he saw some commotion, but had no way to tell if it was Absalom or not.
This is plainly false, since Joab told him explicitly in 2 Sam. 18:20 that “the king’s son is dead.” It could be an editorial error, of course. It could also be that Ahimaaz chickened out at the last minute, perhaps just as Joab had predicted (and why Joab hadn’t wanted to send him). It’s also possible that he was trying to ease David into the knowledge – telling him about a commotion, an obvious hint that Absalom was probably caught, and then letting the Cushite tell him the rest of the story when he arrives. It doesn’t seem like it would actually work, but maybe Ahimaaz thought it would.
Eventually, however, the Cushite arrives and breaks the news, and David wails and wishes, as any human parent would, that “I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33)