Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why the First Two Sons Do Not Become King

2 Samuel 13-20

David's first son, Amnon, does not become king, because he falls in love with his half-sister, Tamar, rapes her, and thereby becomes hated by Tamar's full brother, Absalom, who ends up killing Amnon.

Absalom is the second son. He flees after killing Amnon, but David forgives him and calls him back, and yet initially will not see him. Resentment brews, and Absalom plots to overthrow David and gain power. David hears of this and flees. Absalom pursues. A battle ensues. Although David does not want Absalom killed, Joab does kill him. David's mourning the death of his second son now creates confusion and more resentment. Judah is happy to call David king again, but the rest of Israel is not so sure.

David returns to Jerusalem, but someone else, Sheba, tries to take control of Israel. In the end, he is defeated. David is fully back in power.

Throughout this story (much longer and more interesting than my summary here!) are other stories of complex relationships and tales of loyalty and betrayal.

First of all, it is interesting that for all of David's displeasure with Joab's harshly violent and vengeful ways, they stay together in alliance. At times, David places others in higher command, but Joab continues to play a major role, taking it upon himself to kill those he finds problematic, even when he knows David will be displeased. It seems that Joab is just fierce and scary, and manages to hold on to a prominent place because of a mixture of his being too dangerous to ignore but also because these characteristics make him a valuable fighter and commander. Joab and David often argue, yet David never actually fires him, as such.

David's wise adviser, Ahithophel, does betray him and sides with Absalom in Absalom's revolt. The notes suggest that it may be that Ahithophel was Bathsheba's grandfather (see 11:3 and 23:34), and maybe he was displeased at how David took Bathsheba and had her husband killed. Ahithophel's good advice to Absalom gets bypassed in favor of Hushai's advice. Dismayed, Ahithophel leaves and kills himself.

Hushai is a "good friend" of David who pretends to defect to Absalom, but really plots to turn things around to give David the advantage. He counters Ahithophel's advice with advice of his own while meanwhile sending a warning to David, giving David and his army a chance to regroup and plan for the attack. So, Hushai does stay loyal to David.

Most interesting of all is a little side-story: As David flees from Jerusalem, a man named Shimei comes out of his house cursing at David and throwing stones (16:5-6). Joab's brother, Abishai, offers to kill him, but David stops him. "If he is cursing because the Lord has said to him, 'Curse David,' who then shall say, 'Why have you done so?'" (16:10). "Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on my distress, and the Lord will repay me with good for this cursing of me today" (16:11-12). So the man trails along for a while, continuing to curse and throw stones.

Later, after David is victorious, and is returning to Jerusalem, the same man meets them again. Now he is contrite and begs for David's forgiveness (19:16-23). Abishai again wants to kill him, but David says no, and allows him to live.

Often David's position of refraining from killing is set against Joab's and Abishai's tendencies to kill whoever displeases them or gets in their way. So there emerges a picture of a new kind of leadership, grounded in a new ethic: one that involves some restraint. David wields a kind of power that comes from not killing when he could, and this power is shown to be superior than that of Joab and Abishai. After all, it is David who is king. For all of Joab's fierceness and mercilessness, still, even his position as chief commander of David's army is not stable. His kind of power only gets him so far.

David has the capacity to show mercy and even affection. He is not naive. He keeps a strategic eye on all of his relationships. But he appears to be able to transcend just a strategic stance and is alert to real loyalty and affection wherever it may appear. While not naive, he is also not cynical. He seems to hold the relational complexity in an effective balance.

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