2 Samuel 18: The macabre pinata

2 Comments

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

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).

Biblical SceneAbsalom’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.

Absalom’s Monument

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.

The Runners

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)

Special documentary about Kush

Leave a comment

A friend sent me a link to this National Geographic special about the Cushite dynasty in Egypt (content is US/US proxy only). You can watch the full documentary on the PBS website, here. There’s also a lot of very interesting information about the Ancient Egyptian propaganda machine.

As far as I can recall, we’ve only met the Cushites on two occasions: In Genesis 10, Cush is listed as a son of Ham, and the father of Nimrod, the great hunter. According to my study Bible: “An old fragment of tradition relates how Nimrod, a successful warrior, built a kingdom in Shinar (Babylonia) and Assyria.” In the documentary, they talk about the conflicts between the Cushite dynasty in Egypt and the Assyrians.

The second mention comes in Numbers 12, where Moses’ wife, Zipporah, is described as a “Cushite,” and his siblings don’t seem to like her for this reason. Suggesting, perhaps, that their dislike for her was a race issue.

Numbers 12: Aaron gets away with everything… again

Leave a comment

One day, Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ siblings) approach Moses to complain about “that Cushite woman whom he had married” (v.1).

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, is described as a Midianite in Exodus 2:15-22, not a Cushite. I’m seeing a bunch of attempts at explaining this away, such as my Study Bible saying: “The term Cushite apparently includes Midianites and other Arabic peoples” (p.179). The “apparently” used here seems to mean “that way it’s not a contradiction.”

Davis, who has also often tried to smooth over the Bible’s rough patches, adds: “‘Cushite’ has been interpreted as ‘African,’ although Cush might be another word for Midian. Was Zipporah black? Was there a second wife? The Bible doesn’t really say” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.138).

I find it interesting that both assume that we are not understanding the words correctly, rather than that two separate traditions were melded and the continuity checker was asleep at his desk.

That’s the first half of the first verse discussed. Shall we carry on?

So why were they complaining? Before I read the chapter, I wondered if the complaint was about some personal grievance with Zipporah as an individual, and she is only referred to as “that Cushite woman” as a description. As in, “that woman in the blue dress stole the pineapple.” But then we get the second half of the verse, and it minces no words about why Miriam and Aaron don’t like her: “for he [Moses] had married a Cushite woman.” That’s it. This is a race/ethnicity issue.

But also questions of leadership

Then the race issue is completely dropped and Miriam and Aaron start complaining about Moses being the leader. “Has he [the Lord] not spoken through us also?” (v.2) In other words, they’re getting to chat with God too, they are also spiritual leaders (remember Miriam and the songs of praise?). So why is Moses getting all the recognition?

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

I made a post a few months ago comparing Moses and Abraham, where I mentioned the similarities between Sarah and Inanna. Reading this chapter and, specifically, Miriam’s apparent claim to prophecy makes me think that maybe she and Sarah both have a history in the oral tradition as, if not goddesses, at least some form of cultic archetype. Specifically, my Study Bible talked about the age of the tradition that seems to be behind Miriam’s second song of praise in Exodus 15.

I’ve also talked before about my interest in Aaron as a possible rival prophet (or, at least, a rival tradition) that became amalgamated with the Moses cycle. Now I’m wondering if the same thing might not have happened to Miriam.

But that’s all pretty pure arm-chair speculation, and uninformed speculation at that. So let’s move on.

The narrator starts off by defending Moses, calling him “very meek” – “more than all the men that were on the face of the earth” (v.3).

For most of biblical tradition – and many people still believe this – Moses has been considered the author of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Obviously, verse 3 has long been very troubling. Or, as my Study Bible puts it: “This verse is an age-old stumbling-block to the belief that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch” (p.174). I mean, either the statement is true, in which case we have a paradox (someone who is meek would never say that they are the meekest person on earth), or it’s not true, in which case we have to take a second look at everything else Moses has claimed. Either way, it doesn’t look good.

God then calls all three siblings to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and there he lectures to them about Moses being in a separate class:

If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord. (v.6-8)

So if he talks to prophets in dreams and he talks to Moses clearly, where does that leave Miriam and Aaron? Yes, he’s appearing as a pillar of smoke rather than taking the anthropomorphic form that Moses has apparently seen, but he’s also speaking rather clearly and there’s no indication that Miriam and Aaron are asleep.

What’s going on? Is he rebuking them, or is he agreeing that they really do deserve to be in an elevated class? Because there seems to be a contradiction between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

The punishment

God (or, rather, his smoke pillar) suddenly disappears, and the siblings discover that Miriam is leprous – “white as snow” (v.10). Aaron is conspicuously unharmed.

Still, he begs Moses for mercy and Moses asks God to heal Miriam. But God replies: “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days” (v.14). Spitting in the face is a pretty common curse, so the comparison here is to Miriam having been cursed by her authority figure (or, more charitably, a close family relative).

Because of this, Miriam must be excluded from the camp for seven days. To their credit, the Israelites wait for her to get better before moving out of Hazeroth and going to the wilderness of Paran (which they already did in Numbers 10:12, but whatever).

David Plotz brought up a really interesting point that I wanted to share:

Also, my friend Aryeh Tepper points out that Miriam’s punishment for complaining about Moses’ African wife perfectly fits the crime: She mutters about the wife’s black skin, so God covers her skin with “snow-white scales.”

Well, that’s nice, and it’s certainly an interesting thought. However, as we’ll see later in Numbers, God isn’t too keen on interracial (or, at least, intercultural) marriage either. In fact, an argument could easily be made that Miriam was merely trying to uphold God’s own standards, and not letting Moses get away with being “a law unto himself.”

Also, God never responded specifically to the charge against Moses marrying a non-Israelite. I mean, sure, he blusters on about Miriam and Aaron daring to question Moses in any way, but his response seems far more focused on the issue of leadership than marriage.

And, lastly, nowhere does it say that Zipporah’s skin is black (at least as far as I can recall – correct me if wrong, please), or any darker than Moses’ own skin. We know only that she is a Midianite/Cushite, and the passages I quoted at the beginning of this post make it rather clear that we seem to want to be rather flexible with those designations.

I think that this punishment is much simpler than that. I think that leprosy (including house mold) was simply seen as an outer expression of an inner sin. In this case, Miriam’s sin was in questioning Moses’ authority.

It’s also very much worth noting that, as with the Golden Calf incident, Aaron is at the very centre of a kerfuffle and everyone gets punished except for him. Talk about nepotism!