Christian interpretations of David typically stem from and return to the idea that David is “a man after God’s own heart.” Scripture itself says so, in both testaments (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22). What does that mean exactly?
If you ask someone this question, they may tell you, “David trusted God enough to slay a giant. David trusted God to make him king. Yes, there are actions of David that were not godly, but through repentance he provides us with an inspirational example of forgiveness.” Seldom heard from pulpits, however, is David’s cry of “Oh Absalom, Absalom, my son!” as a chief example of his heart being aligned with God’s (2 Sam 19:4; cf. 2 Sam 18:33). When David’s lament is discussed, it is too often a brief addendum that David was being ungrateful and foolish in weeping for Absalom.
Reading the stories of David with the assumption that his victories, as opposed to his grief, reveal God’s heart is a triumphalist view. It surely has its appeal, for it is easy to believe God wants us to defeat giants. It is less easy to accept that God wants us to spare our enemies even when their continued lives would be a threat to our own power, perhaps even our lives.
The ultimate son of David, Jesus, subverted messianic expectations by not being a heroic revolutionary overthrowing Roman oppression. He was instead a non-violent teacher who spoke about leaving the flock to seek the one sheep who was lost (Luke 15:3–7). Jesus’s invitation to his followers was not to conquer, but to take up our crosses, to weep with those who weep, and to welcome home the son who wished us dead (see Luke 15:12).
The story of David and Absalom is as skilled in its use of tragic irony as any Shakespearean tragedy. Even when read in translation, every detail weaves into the rich tapestry of the chapters that convey the literary climax of David’s life as told in the books of 1–2 Samuel and 1 Kings. If readers understand this story as a climactic moment for David, portraying the refined message of what it means to be a person after God’s own heart, we find hope in a story that, at the outset, appears to be one of the ugliest and most tragic in Scripture.
Encountering the Story
This article takes a literary approach to the story itself and ultimately prioritizes Christology, taking Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the interpretive lens. Reading stories as literature presents a paradoxical mirror that is both timeless and also a window into its own time. It offers readers the chance to learn about themselves and about the values of the past. In appreciating the complexity of David, Absalom, and Joab, Christians can see themselves and draw closer to God.
Father of Peace
Absalom’s name means “father of peace” or “my father is peace(ful).” It is certainly an ironic name, for the story of his life is not peaceful. Furthermore, David himself is not a peaceful king.
Prior to Amnon’s rape of Absalom’s sister Tamar (who was also Amnon’s half-sister), we have little insight into David as a parent other than that he loves his children deeply (evidenced, for example, by his fasting over the terminal illness of his first son by Bathsheba in 2 Sam 12:15–20). However, what the Amnon and Tamar story depicts is a father who cares enough to visit his son when the son feigns a grievous illness, but a father so distant he does not recognize Amnon’s pining for Tamar or even that Amnon’s request that she feed him by hand is absurd behavior for a sibling. Amnon uses David’s indulgence and authority to put Tamar in a position vulnerable to Amnon’s assault. Even so, afterwards, David takes no responsibility for his being deceived. He shows no willingness to punish his child.
Why would he take responsibility? Learning from mistakes is key to emotional and spiritual growth. As if to reinforce to the reader that David has learned nothing, David then repeats the same mistakes. Absalom follows Amnon’s example when plotting to kill Amnon: as Amnon had used David to set up Tamar, Absalom uses David to set up Amnon.
And Absalom came to the king and said, “Your servant has had shearers come. Will the king and his attendants please join me?”
“No, my son,” the king replied. “All of us should not go; we would only be a burden to you.” Although Absalom urged him, he still refused to go but gave him his blessing.
Then Absalom said, “If not, please let my brother Amnon go with us.”
The king asked him, “Why should he go with you?” But Absalom urged him, so he sent with him Amnon and the rest of the king’s sons.(2 Sam 13:24–27 TNIV)
This scheming could be indicative of Machiavellian cunning on Absalom’s part, or simply of messy, complex humanity. Is Absalom flattering David by inviting him when he could not come? Quite possibly. Given David and his absentee indulgent parenting, however, it is equally possible (and not necessarily contradictory) that Absalom’s first desire is truly to try to speak to his father alone, to spend time with him. After all, it is likely Absalom has lobbied David for justice for years after Tamar’s assault, but David’s answer has always been the same: it would be a burden for Amnon.
After killing Amnon, Absalom flees to Geshur, where his mother’s father is king.1 Absalom, despite seeing his father’s indulgence toward Amnon raping their sister, does not count on David indulging him with the same leniency. Thus, we see a fracturing of trust in the father-son relationship.
However, David does “long . . . to go out to Absalom” despite his grief for Amnon (2 Sam 13:39 TNIV). Yet David does not go, even when Joab convinces David to bring Absalom back after three years. In fact, David does not actually meet with Absalom for two more years.
Absalom attempts to see David numerous times during these two years and even expresses that he wishes he had died in Geshur rather than be kept from his father’s presence. Manipulation? Perhaps. There is also genuine pain in this: a son who deeply wants his father yet is denied again and again. Every time we have seen Absalom reaching out to David thus far, he has been rebuffed. This is the case even before Absalom kills his brother.
Only when Absalom does something violent does his father acknowledge him. Absalom burns Joab’s fields, and David capitulates. If David had responded earlier, in a fatherly manner, could he have avoided the coming rebellion?
David receives Absalom, but in public. Again, David puts kingship above fatherhood. He also prioritizes the image of kingship over enacting justice in his own household. It is precisely this attitude—prioritizing the image of a powerful, strong, masculine king who responds to violence—that endangers both his rule and his family.
Son of War
The narrative takes a downward turn: from this moment, Absalom starts gathering support to become king. People come to him with their complaints, and he arbitrates for them. Certainly, Absalom’s words are manipulative, but there is a deeper layer to them as well: “your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you” (2 Sam 15:3 TNIV).
Absalom’s words are his own logical conclusion. Consider not only his father’s distance but David’s refusal to enact justice for Tamar. Of course, Absalom empathizes with people who do not feel heard by their king. For that matter, what reason is there for Absalom to believe David cares about justice? David fails not only to be a father to Absalom and Tamar; he fails to be a king for Tamar. If he does not act like a king, why should Absalom treat him like one?
This desire for justice is expressly stated to be at the root of Absalom’s appeal to the public. Second Samuel 15–16 describes Absalom not treating the people of Israel as if they are beneath him, and it is precisely this that wins them to his side:
Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel. (2 Sam 15:5–6 TNIV)
Surely the writer of 2 Samuel intends the reader to see manipulation. However, most manipulators are not self-aware. Could it be that Absalom genuinely thinks he would be a better king? Could it be that Absalom genuinely seeks justice for those who cry out for it?2
While some interpreters assume Scripture says nothing about Absalom’s devotion to the Lord, implying he has none, this conclusion is uncertain. The context, in fact, suggests Absalom might have been deeply religious.
The only time Absalom directly mentions the Lord is when he requests to go to Hebron to fulfill a vow to the Lord (2 Sam 15:7–9). The narrator notes that Absalom goes through with this vow, including offering sacrifices (2 Sam 15:12).
This could be merely a performance, a way of winning the religious to Absalom’s side. But considering the repeated tenet of Scripture that religion involves caring for the vulnerable, could it be that Absalom believes himself justified in the sight of the Lord, albeit deceiving himself?
Further evidence that Absalom may have been devout is his long hair. The customs described in Absalom’s vow are akin to those of Nazirite vows. While 2 Samuel never directly calls Absalom a Nazirite, scholars throughout history, including Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi many centuries ago (AD 137–217) and Gregory Spinner in recent years, have concluded that he was.3
David and Bathsheba, Amnon and Tamar
Let us examine the origin of Absalom’s grudge against Amnon and how it pertains to David.
David’s misogyny is a recurrent sin that no one, not even the writers of 1 and 2 Samuel, would deny. In particular, David’s treatment of victims of sexual assault, including his own daughter and concubines, is abhorrent.4
Despite inaccurate condemnations of Bathsheba as a temptress bathing on the roof, Bathsheba is innocent in David’s taking of her. David had sexually violated Bathsheba, first as a voyeur as she performed her post-menstruation ritual, and then by “taking” her. The word translated “take” or “get” in 2 Sam 11:4 (“David sent messengers to get her” TNIV) is the Hebrew verb laqakh, which God had used to warn the Israelites through Samuel of what will come should they have a king: “He will take your sons. . . . He will take your daughters. . . . Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take” (1 Sam 8:11–16 TNIV). Indeed, Scripture never once places any blame on Bathsheba.5
It is worth noting that, according to the Torah, a man who rapes a woman is expected to marry her. As morally repulsive as that seems today, Deut 22:28–29 states:
If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.(TNIV)
This law serves the purpose of providing for a woman in a patriarchal society, as is argued by Jessica Stefick, Sara Milstein, and Robert Heibert.6 In such a society, an unmarried woman who has lost her virginity would likely remain unmarried. She would then become a burden to her parents and, upon their deaths, have great difficulty supporting herself. This law specifically pertains to unmarried women, and David fulfills it by marrying Bathsheba—who by the time he repents is, tragically and ironically, a widow.
Furthermore, 2 Samuel shows us exactly what can happen to a woman whose rapist does not take responsibility and marry her. After Tamar’s attack, she insists Amnon marry her, their half-sibling relationship notwithstanding. However, Amnon commands his servants to turn her out, an act Tamar herself claims is worse than assault: “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me” (2 Sam 13:16 TNIV).
David is furious, but he does not punish Amnon. Punishment is not the only action David should have performed, however. Another dereliction of duty is that David does not force Amnon to marry Tamar, according to the standards of the day. Despite how antithetical it seems to our moral code, this is expressly stated to be what Tamar wants (2 Sam 13:16).
In contrast to David’s concession to the culture’s apathy for women survivors of rape, Absalom’s words stand as somewhat countercultural: “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Do not take this thing to heart” (2 Sam 13:20 TNIV). He assures his sister that the assault does not affect her value, a perspective his society, his father, and his half-brother clearly do not share.
However, society is a powerful force. Tamar remains “desolate” in Absalom’s household (2 Sam 13:20 TNIV). No one marries her, presumably because she has been raped. David does not intervene, though he could—if not to Amnon, then he surely could use his power to marry her to someone.
In response, Absalom again moves against the misogynistic culture. He names his own daughter after Tamar, thereby ensuring that even if Tamar has no children, her name will continue through his daughter (2 Sam 14:27).7
David’s responsibility is to enact justice. Quite possibly, as many speculate, David feels too guilty over his own similar sin to impose a strict punishment on Amnon. But David at least had married Bathsheba and provided for her; Tamar is abandoned.
After two years of waiting for justice, after two years of David not doing his job as king and father, Absalom kills Amnon. Much like when David had killed Uriah, Absalom has others do the actual murder for him; however, Absalom tells his servants that he is responsible for the crime and that they will not be punished.
This is murder, not justice. But that, perhaps, is the point: true justice cannot exist without mercy, and justice demands atoning for a crime as much as is humanly possible. While Absalom cannot be excused, what he does is, in our human hearts with our longing for justice in response to assault, more understandable than David’s murder of Uriah.
David and Michal, Absalom and the Ten Concubines
Absalom undergoes a tragic fall. Absalom will become like Amnon, but ten times over. He orchestrates a bloody civil war and rapes—in public—ten of his father’s concubines.
To understand how Absalom has come to this point, let us look at other key players. David’s former advisor, Ahithophel, gives advice considered equivalent to the word of God in the eyes of both David and Absalom (2 Sam 16:23). Why, then, does Ahithophel turn on David? Second Samuel 11:3 states Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam, whom 2 Sam 23:34 names as Ahithophel’s son. Even though David has married Bathsheba and had more children with her, in her grandfather Ahithophel’s eyes, that does not erase what has happened.
There is no justice for murder, and there is no way to un-rape someone. The fact that Ahithophel joins with Absalom strongly indicates what is at the root of this rebellion: neither Ahithophel nor Absalom trusts David as king because of his mistreatment of women close to their hearts.
Ahithophel’s motive in advising Absalom to rape ten women is to erase any possibility of reconciliation with David. Ahithophel states that it would make Absalom “a stench,” “odious,” or “abhorrent” to his father (2 Sam 16:21, ESV, KJV, NRSV, respectively). No doubt it is also revenge on Ahithophel’s part: as he has had to endure his granddaughter being assaulted and married to her rapist, he afflicts David with the knowledge that his concubines are raped in public. What is done in private will be shouted from the rooftops, which is also an ironic indictment of David’s performatory reception of Absalom.
However, this revenge is a blasphemous mockery of the concept of justice.8 It only harms more people, and it transforms Ahithophel and Absalom into exactly what they condemn. Additionally, this proves Ahithophel has not understood God’s heart or David’s: David does not find Absalom “odious” or “abhorrent,” even if his deeds were.
There is another reason for Ahithophel’s abhorrent, odious advice: Claiming a previous king’s harem or daughters was a way to legitimize rule.
Because a king’s chief wives and secondary wives [concubines] were such a symbol of his political connections and authority, a usurper could manifest his displacing of a reigning king by sleeping with members of the king’s harem. . . . To claim a king’s harem was tantamount to claiming his throne.9
In fact, David himself has used a woman to legitimize his claim to kingship: he demands his first wife, Michal, be returned after he ascends the throne (2 Sam 3:13–14). David has several wives by this time. Does he bring Michal back because he loves her? More likely, David demands Michal back because it is a matter of pride and of culture: pride, in that the woman who loved him had been married off, and culture, in that marrying the daughter of a former king legitimizes his claim to the throne.
David and Michal had been apart for years. David’s lack of affection for Michal is clear, particularly when contrasted with David’s treatment of Ahinoam and Abigail: “The narrative . . . recounts how David’s second two wives were taken captive and how David risked a serious battle to recover them. Yet David appeared to do nothing when Michal was given to another man.”10 Saul giving Michal to Palti, her second husband, is intended to wrong David, and quite possibly Michal as well, but evidently Palti adores Michal and follows them weeping when Michal is returned to David. As Palti weeps, humiliating himself because he loves someone, so David will later weep in a manner deemed unseemly by Joab and be urged to “man up” for the sake of the kingdom.
Some commentators are quick to condemn Michal’s scolding of David for dancing (2 Sam 6:20).11 While the scolding itself is surely not framed as righteous, three key points must also be considered. First, while the author is silent on Michal’s feelings towards Palti, Michal does not appear pleased with her forced return to David. Second, her father and brothers had been killed, and grief leaves few in good humor. Third, she likely resents her return because she knows the implications for her future.12 What implications? While Michal may well have been barren physically (as her marriage to Palti is not noted to have produced children), the likely subtext of Michal’s lack of children with David (that it follows an argument with David) is not that of a divine punishment, but instead that David does not have intercourse with Michal ever again. He wants her back in his harem as a political token. It is a sad fate that she has no descendants and no intimacy ahead of her.13
David’s dealing with the ten concubines after Absalom’s assault shows a lack of change in how he views women. The concubines’ fates are even worse than Michal’s: they are separated from the others in the harem and “kept in confinement” until their death (2 Sam 20:3). While David provides for these women, he still views them as tainted for a sexual assault that was not their fault.
We should also consider why David leaves ten concubines to care for the palace. What Absalom does is preventable. Wartime sexual violence has been around as long as war. Either David truly believes Absalom would not allow something like this to happen, meaning this is exceedingly out of character for Absalom, or David has sacrificed these ten women.14
Nevertheless, Absalom’s rape of these women is his decision. He does not have to listen to Ahithophel. He does not have to take any bait David may have left. He makes this choice, and in doing so becomes, much like Ahithophel, a parody of the desire for the justice for which he started the rebellion. Somewhere in looking for justice and falling into revenge, Absalom forgets to look in the mirror and see that the eyes staring back at him are not just his father’s, but Amnon’s. This is possible because of the tragic flaws of pride and self-righteousness.15 What is the antidote to self-righteousness? Awareness and repentance. We do not see this from Absalom—not explicitly. Consider Ahithophel’s next piece of advice:
I would choose twelve thousand men and set out tonight in pursuit of David. I would attack him while he is weary and weak. I would strike him with terror, and then all the people with him will flee. I would strike down only the king and bring all the people back to you. The death of the man you seek will mean the return of all; all people will be unharmed.(2 Sam 17:1–3 TNIV)
Absalom is not sold on this plan. Instead, he takes the advice of Hushai, a spy of his father’s. David had prayed: “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness” (2 Sam 15:31 TNIV). David then takes steps to subvert Ahithophel’s advice by sending Hushai. Rather than God simply putting blinders on Absalom’s eyes, it is more likely that Absalom’s already-established character traits are responsible for him trusting Hushai.
Absalom is likely persuaded by his own vanity to join the attack: “He counselled that which he knew would gratify Absalom’s proud vain-glorious humour.”16 However, keep in mind that 2 Sam 11:1 indicates David did not always go out to war with his army, so this may have been another way of Absalom asserting that he is not like his father. In reality, of course, Absalom has become just like his father in all the wrong ways, and not in the right ones.
Siding with Joab?
It is curious that many interpreters side with Joab. Politically, Joab’s rebuke might be appropriate, but the gospel is often countercultural, resistant to falling in line with political narratives. Perhaps that is what God means when he warns about what would happen should Israel receive a king: even the chosen king, a man after his own heart, would find it impossible to mix justice and mercy in a world so opposed to both.
The books of Samuel and Kings never indicate piousness in Joab; indeed, there is more implicit evidence for Absalom’s piety than for Joab’s. The text rarely even indicates love or respect for David on Joab’s behalf; while commentators cite loyalty, Joab outright tells David he will leave David’s side and rebel if David keeps crying over his son.
Joab’s actions and advice are not what Scripture challenges Christians to do in the light of Christ, the ultimate revelation of who God is. Christians are to love enemies and to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38–45, Luke 6:27–29). Joab is never afraid to profane what is precious to God—not the king’s son, not the altar (1 Kgs 2:28).17
Power and Control
Joab, in modern terms, is the embodiment of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is cultural pressure on men to behave in certain ways, at the expense of how women are treated and at the expense of the toll that repressing emotions and glorifying violence takes on men. Joab is a good warrior, decisive and strong. Men often desire to be like powerful male characters in fantasy stories, who are ultimately in control of the narrative even when they make mistakes: they slay a giant, they rule as king, sometimes they even repent, which is their personal choice.
When interpreters praise David, it is usually when he is in line with Joab or the military or political wisdom of the day, not when he is in line with Jesus. It tends to be when David is the male power fantasy, subservient to the cultural pressures of how a man behaves: sexually satisfied with multiple women, a warrior, even a man overcoming his own worst sins and maintaining his power throughout. Yet the moment where David’s control is thwarted, where Joab chooses to take control through violence, commentators from Matthew Henry in the eighteenth century to Paul Borgman in the twenty-first tend to side with Joab.18
The narrator, too, likely sides with Joab, as Borgman notes. However, the narrator would also represent this ancient Near Eastern culture that often viewed rape as a financial crime against a woman’s male relatives rather than a crime against a person created in the image of the Divine. We can acknowledge this framing and still wonder how this portrayal of what seems like classic, even stereotypical (“men don’t cry”) toxic masculinity fits with Jesus, a man who was not afraid to weep even when he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead (see John 11).
The question of why the “after God’s own heart” epithet is applied to military success, but not to a father devastated precisely because of said military success, needs to be asked. Grief fundamentally involves a loss of control, a humbling reminder that we are all subject to the limits of mortality on this side of eternity. When David does not get what he wants, even the church turns on him and sides with Joab—a character who is never once framed positively.
Again, we can acknowledge the political realism of Joab’s rebuke and also see the cruelty. Secular political and cultural wisdom do not always fit with God’s heart. Interestingly, David immediately decides to replace Joab—with Absalom’s men, such as Amasa. Yet Joab will go on to murder Amasa.
Death on a Tree: Absalom and Jesus
David commands his men not to harm Absalom, and we see how much his men respect David in that Joab offers ten shekels of silver and a warrior’s belt to do so, yet they refuse. Joab murders Absalom and, much like David with Uriah via Joab and also Absalom with Amnon via his servants, Joab uses ten armor-bearers to kill him after Joab makes the first move.
Absalom dies hanging from a tree, which for Christian readers may bring Jesus’s crucifixion to mind. Absalom was a rapist and murderer who led a military rebellion; Jesus is none of these things and is a friend to women. But does this not remind us why Jesus died: to conquer sin and death, to take revolting crimes upon himself?
David then weeps over his son. There is no political or military wisdom in leaving Absalom alive. Yet David’s heart yearns for his son. Perhaps David sees all he has done playing out in Absalom, sees that he could have prevented this tragedy, and knows justice will never come fully in this world.
In David’s cry, “Oh Absalom, Absalom, my son,” can we not hear God’s cry for his own Son as he hangs upon a cross, as he dies a common criminal’s torturous death, as he is stripped and mocked and tortured? Instead of seeing David as weak here, this cry highlights a barrier between aligning with God’s own heart and the intricate realities of ruling a fallen world this side of eternity.
The death of Absalom recalls another link to Christ: Jesus’s own recounting of a rebellious, prodigal son in Luke 15:11–32. Absalom also journeys to a far land and then returns, but David does not act like the father in this story until it is too late. David spends two years refusing to see his face; it is unlikely this is anger entirely, but more likely a result of exactly the mindset Joab espouses after Absalom’s death: politics and image above fatherly love. In David’s coldness towards his son, bitterness and rebellion grow. When it is too late, when he is unable to do anything himself, David realizes how wrong he has been.
Beyond David and Absalom
If Absalom had lived, had been imprisoned, would David have visited him? Would he have embraced him with tears? We will never know, because Joab kills him in a wise political move that was morally wrong and personally cruel. The limits of political and even personal wisdom are a theme more fully explored in the life of David’s successor, Solomon (along with continued misogyny).
David never forgets Absalom. Even on his deathbed, he promises his kingdom to Solomon and, in the presence of Bathsheba, orders Solomon to beware of Joab. It is clear David does not forget Joab’s transgressions, including those against his son. Of course, this saga then ends with the death of David’s fourth son, Adonijah, for wanting to be king instead of Solomon and requesting his father’s concubine, Abishag (despite David never consummating this, 1 Kgs 1:4) as wife. Violence cannot stop a cycle of violence, and a new way, a subversive way of love for enemies, is needed.
However, Adonijah’s death occurs after David passes away. In the story of David’s waning days, we can see that David has grown as a person and as a father. He is much more aligned with God’s heart at this time than on the battlefield: David listens to the plea of a woman whom he has wronged, and as a result finally steps up as a father by saying no to a son.19 He grants Bathsheba her request and stops Adonijah’s coup in favor of Solomon (1 Kgs 1).
Absalom may not have had a son to carry on his name (it is possible he erected the monument mentioned in 2 Sam 18 before the births of his three sons, or it is possible they died early). However, he has a daughter who bears the name of a sister he had loved, a sister violated but not forgotten.
It is through Tamar, daughter of Absalom, that the ultimate Son of David comes: this Tamar either has a second name, Maacah (the same name as Absalom’s mother) along with Absalom having a second name of Uriel, or, as Josephus reports, Tamar herself marries a man named Uriel and has a daughter also named Maacah.20 This Maacah, the daughter or granddaughter of Absalom, is noted in 2 Chron 11:21 to be the favorite wife of King Rehoboam, Solomon’s son and successor, and the mother of King Abijah and grandmother of King Asa. According to Matthew, the ancestry of Jesus the Messiah, and thus the story of redemption, includes Abijah and Asa, and therefore Maacah and Tamar as well.
1. One stream of rabbinic interpretation records that Absalom’s mother, Maacah, was a captive whom David took during war in accordance with the practices laid out in Deut 21:10–14. David is criticized for marrying a foreign woman, and blame for Absalom’s subsequent rebellion is placed on his mother’s ethnicity more than on character flaws. It further says, “Whenever anyone marries a ‘woman of pretty form,’ there results from it a defiant and rebellious son. Thus we find it so in the case of David, because (as suggested by II Sam. 3:3) he had desired Maacah bat Talmai king of Geshur, while he had gone to war; so Absalom came out of him” (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 1, https://sefaria.org/Midrash_Tanchuma%2C_Ki_Teitzei.1.1?lang=bi).
2. Erin Fleming, “The Politics of Sexuality in the Story of King David” (PhD Diss., John Hopkins University, 2013) 218.
3. Gregory Spinner, “Absalom Gloried in His Hair: On the Midrashic Transvaluation of Nazirites” (paper presented at the SBL Annual Meeting, San Diego, Nov 2007).
4. It may not be fair to judge David by twenty-first century standards. However, the narrative itself criticizes David for his treatment of women. In addition, we can acknowledge that David is both acting in an expected way for his day and acting in a way that is rightly repulsive to our modern sensibilities. Comparing David to Christ’s treatment of women is also helpful for Christians, and critiquing David’s misogyny is not saying there is nothing godly or good about him.
5. The debate over whether David raped Bathsheba has exploded in recent years. See Richard M. Davidson, “Did David Rape Bathsheba?,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17/2 (Autumn 2006) 81–95; Amanda Pence, “Vindicating Bathsheba,” Priscilla Papers 36/4 (Autumn 2022) 3–7, and the editorial in the same issue of Priscilla Papers (p. 2). According to most modern understandings, David was guilty of rape. Ancient understandings, however, are harder to assess. This is another example of how we can acknowledge the nuance in the previous note: our repulsion exists for good reason—Bathsheba was in no position to refuse, and has been unfairly maligned throughout history for bathing in accordance with Jewish customs—yet we recognize that the narrative may assess David’s and Amnon’s actions differently. For more on “take” connecting Samuel’s words in 1 Sam 8 with David’s actions in 2 Sam 11, see https://cbeinternational.org/resource/he-will-take-david-and-bathsheba/.
6. Jessica Stefick, “The Case of Virgin Rape: Deuteronomy 22,” Priscilla Papers 34/1 (Winter 2020) 3–6, reprint 37/1 (Winter 2023) 10–13; Sara J. Milstein, “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Independent Logic of Deuteronomy 22:25–27,” JBL 137/3 (Fall 2018) 625–43; Robert J. V. Heibert, “Deuteronomy 22:28–29 and its Premishnaic Interpretations,” CBQ 56/2 (April 1994) 203–20.
7. The Israelite royal families seem to rarely, if ever, reuse names. It is possible this was a custom from Geshur.
8. Parts of the Torah are based on the “eye for an eye” version of retributive justice. However, Jesus called his followers to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:38–39; Luke 6:29), indicating a far more restorative justice.
9. Jo Ann Hackett, “1 and 2 Samuel,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., ed. Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, and Jacqueline Lapsley (Westminster John Knox, 2012) 161.
10. Scott Monsma, “(Re)telling the Fragmented Story of Michal,” Journal for the Sociological Integration of Religion and Society 3/2 (Fall 2013) 22.
11. Matthew Henry, in 1706, said of Michal: “To have abused any man thus for his pious zeal would have been very profane, but to abuse her own husband thus, whom she ought to have reverenced, and one whose prudence and virtue were above the reach of malice itself to disparage, one who had shown such affection for her that he would not accept a crown unless he might have her restored to him (ch. 3:13), was a most base and wicked thing, and showed her to have more of Saul’s daughter in her than of David’s wife or Jonathan’s sister.”
12. One need not think Michal was in the right to acknowledge pity for her situation. Even without their argument, it was likely David would never have “go into” her again, given how women are treated in the narrative and the culture. She may have wanted a final verbal slap. Who among us cannot relate?
13. Monsma, “(Re)telling the Fragmented Story of Michal”; Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury, 2015).
14. See Andrew E. Hill, “On David’s ‘Taking’ and ‘Leaving’ Concubines (2 Samuel 5:13; 15:16),” JBL 125/1 (Spring 2006) 129–39. Hill’s reasoning for David leaving the concubines behind lies in the argument that these women were Jebusites, original inhabitants of Jerusalem, who were given to David for political reasons after he conquered Jerusalem. They would then be considered, to an extent, property of Jerusalem. Perhaps David thought they would be protected because of their families, or perhaps leaving these women behind would have been deliberate, a way of handing power over to Absalom.
15. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses hubris, or pride, which is a tragic flaw that ensnares a tragic hero. Hubris involves an outrageous act that inflicts shame upon someone else. It was also a legal term for acts of desecration and sexual assault. According to these definitions, David, Absalom, and Joab are all guilty of hubris. Greek playwrights and poets such as Aeschylus and Sophocles often craft tragic heroes with hubris as a spiritual offense, shaming a god by purporting to be above them. Recall the serpent’s words in the Garden of Eden: “You will be like God” (Gen 3:5). Hubris is believing the world should work how we want it to. It is believing you are the ultimate moral authority. It is judging others instead of cleaning planks out of your own eye. It is overconfidence in self-justification. It can be rooted in a righteous desire for justice that can lose sight of actual justice
16. Matthew Henry, Samuel, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (1706).
17. Alastair Roberts notes parallels between Joab’s interactions with David and those of the snake with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Roberts describes Joab’s ploy to get David to welcome Absalom back, during which Joab lies to the king, as parallel to the fall in the garden: “Employing deception, the serpent Joab used a woman to get to David, the new Adam. The woman’s account of her two sons closely paralleled the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and the woman was implicitly aligning herself with Eve. Significantly, just as she springs the trap of the parable, she speaks of the discerning of good and evil, recalling the tree in the garden (14:17). David hearkened to the voice of the woman and to the voice of the snake behind her.” Roberts, “The Reopened Wounds of Jacob” (March 19, 2019), https://theopolisinstitute.com/the-reopened-wounds-of-jacob/.
18. Henry, Samuel; Paul Borgman, David, Saul, and God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story (Oxford University Press, 2008).
19. Borgman notes, “David has finally said no to a son, heeding the news from Nathan and Bathsheba of his son’s malfeasance. The great twist in the pattern tells the important tale. David the king rises above David the indulgent father. . . . David’s communally dispiriting cry on hearing news of son Absalom’s death is seen as a turning point, an immediate prelude to the king’s about-face with son Adonijah.” I agree with Borgman that David’s turning point is the death of Absalom, but I would argue that David the father is prevailing here as much as David the king. To separate the two creates a troubling dichotomy. Of further note: Borgman argues that the chiastic arrangement of David’s fatherly responses pivots on Absalom’s death: his helplessness in the face of his unnamed son with Bathsheba parallels the conclusion of this arc, which is Bathsheba’s son Solomon on the throne. His subsequent chosen helplessness with Amnon contrasts with his intervention to stop Adonijah from killing Solomon, and his grief at Absalom is at the center of the chiasm and therefore what provokes change.
20. Josephus, Ant. 10.1.