Joab Kills Absalom

Second Samuel 17:24 to 18:18

DIG: How did David benefit from the delay of Absalom’s attack? With all the betrayal and spying going on, what makes David think he can trust these three generals in particular – Joab, Abishai and Ittai? Why do they want David to stay behind and let others do the fighting? In wanting to spare young Absalom, what does this again say about David? What is significant about the location of the ensuing battle in terms of tactics? Results? Absalom’s fate? What irony do you see in Absalom getting hung up in the oak tree by his hair? How does the man who spotted Absalom respond to Joab’s rebuke? What does Joab’s treatment of Absalom reveal about him? What impact does Absalom’s death have on the rest of his men? What does Absalom’s building a monument to himself say about him?

REFLECT: Why do you believe our King is worth ten thousand of us? What other measures of His worth might you use? Why? As pawns sacrifice for their king in chess, and as David’s men did for him, what will you do to tangibly demonstrate your belief in the unsurpassed worth of Yeshua the King? What brought this hidden truth to light for you? When have you had done to you what you’ve dished out to others? How could you reverse that cycle, so that “what goes around” is good and not evil?

977-976 BC

The scene shifts east of the Jordan to the showdown between David’s loyalists and Absalom’s rebels. The narrative now moves from extended preparation to the actual confrontation. In contrast the previous scene of preparation and negotiation, the account of the battle is terse and makes no theological references. Finally the battle must be fought. Now power, bravery and strategy are all that matter.436

David and Absalom in the Transjordan: David went to Mahanaim where Ish-Bosheth was crowned king (see Ce – War Between the Houses of David and Sha’ul), and this became David’s base. Hushai’s advice gave David time to mobilize his army. And Absalom crossed the Jordan with all the men of Isra’el. Now Absalom had appointed Amasa, David’s nephew and Joab’s cousin, over the army in place of Joab. Amasa was the son of Jether, an Ishmaelite (First Chronicles 2:17) who had married Abigal, the daughter of Nahash and sister of Zeruiah the mother of Joab. The reason for the family history is to enable the reader to appreciate the animosity between Amasa and Joab as they commanded opposing forces.437 The Israelites and Absalom camped in the land of Gilead (Second Samuel 17:24-26).

In one long Hebrew sentence, these verses reveals three “angels” who saw that the king and his troops were adequately cared for. God had prepared a table before David as his enemies were approaching (Psalm 23:5). When David came to Mahanaim, Shobi son of Nahash from Rabbah of the Ammonites, and Makir son of Ammiel from Lo Debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim brought bedding and bowls and articles of pottery. They also brought wheat and barley, flour and roasted grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds, sheep, and cheese from cows’ milk for David and his people to eat. For they said: The people have become exhausted and hungry and thirsty in the wilderness (Second Samuel 17:27-29). But they did so at enormous risk. The battle had not yet been fought. The issue had not been decided. Indeed, Absalom was likely to marshal overwhelming numbers against David. So against all odds, these men chose the one YHVH had chosen. Each one of them had plenty to loose. Nevertheless, they remained committed.

It should take no imagination to see that, as believers today, we are in the same situation. Our relation to Yeshua Messiah, the descendant of David, and the Fathers appointed King, is the same. No matter how heavy the assault upon His authority and rule, no matter how much He is demeaned or despised, we are under orders to be committed to Him: Whoever acknowledges Me before others, I will also acknowledge before My Father in heaven. But whoever disowns Me before others, I will disown before My Father in heaven (Mattityahu 10:32-33). Second Samuel 17 shows God’s Kingdom under attack – but also under protection. Our ultimate security does not rest on any immunity from personal disasters or any guarantee that our own nation will never fall but only in the fact that the God of heaven has set up a Kingdom and it shall stand forever.438

David mustered his troops: Knowing that the battle would begin shortly, David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. The force that had accompanied David on his departure from Jerusalem had been augmented by the accession of many loyal followers and could now be numbered in the thousands. Once again it was Hushai’s advice that allowed David the time to do this. And David sent out his troops, a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under a Philistine, Ittai the Gittie, who wasthe most important of David’s mercenary troops (see Dp – David Flees From Absalom). The king told his army, I myself (in the emphatic position) will surely march out with you, to accompany you for moral support (Second Samuel 18:1-2).

On May 6, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness, Union troops had broken through the Confederate lines, but their success was momentarily stalled by point-blank cannon fire. General Lee himself was there with his cannoneers as they poured double-shotted grape and canister at the Union ranks. Soon, however, Lee knew those cannoneers would be overrun unless reinforcements arrived. Then he saw them – a lead brigade of Texas troops! Lee was ecstatic. As they prepared to counter-attack Lee spurred his horse Traveler forward among them; he was preparing to lead the counter-charge himself. The troops stopped, refused to go forward, and began chanting, “Lee to the rear!” “Lee to the rear!” They cherished a warm affection for their general and recognized that his life was too valuable to their cause to be risked in the thick of battle. And so it was at Mahanaim.439 David’s troops said: You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. They knew that should Absalom’s forces gain the advantage they would zero in on the king. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city of Mahanaim with the rest of the troops left behind as reinforcements. The king answered, “I will do whatever seems best to you” (Second Samuel 18:3-4a)

Acquiescing to their wishes, the king stood beside the gate (where Absalom had once stood plotting against his father) while all his men marched out in units of hundreds and of thousands. The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” Obviously, David wanted the coup defeated in order to retain his throne. Now, however, in the mouth of the commander, the father speaks. He wanted the coup to be settled decisively, but without damage to his son who leads it. A tall order. And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders (Second Samuel 18:4b-5). But what they thought might have been a different matter.

In one sense, Absalom has been the central figure for a long time – ever since 13:23 (see Dj - Absalom Kills Amnon). His presence hangs heavily over Chapters 13-14, all the way to 15:12. In 15:13 to 16:14 the focus is on David, but from 16:15 forward, Absalom is on center stage again. But in the present scene, although Absalom is central he is not in control. He never speaks, he is only acted upon. But, Joab is in control, if any human character can ever be said to be in control. Joab is dominant. He is the one who does “the deed” and calls all the shots. By contrast, David is passive. He is still the king, but he’s not in control.440

The battle between David’s men and Absalom’s men: David’s army marched out of the city of Mahanaim to fight Isra’el, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim, along the eastern plain of the Jordan. But what is known is that David specifically picked the terrain of the battle. There Isra’el’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great - twenty thousand men. This highlights not only the total devastation of Absalom’s troops, but also the key role played by Ha’Shem in their overthrow.The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword (2 Samuel 18:6-8). Natural phenomena are often more deadly than human enemies. The forest of Ephraim, characterized by uneven and dangerous terrain, was a battleground where the numerically superior force of Absalom’s drafted army would be at a disadvantage against David’s more skilled private army, with its considerable experience of guerrilla warfare.441 Removing all sense of direction, Absalom’s soldiers wandered aimlessly, got lost, and eventually were killed one by one.

Now, we are prepared for the resolution of the conflict between the father and son. We cannot determine, however, if the final result was a victory or a defeat for David. The battle is no doubt a victory; the coup is defeated and David returned in power. Yet, David returned in grief, and the grief nearly overrode the victorious power. Victory in grief, power in defeat are left in unresolved tension. There are few narrative episodes concerning David that are more carefully written than this, or more poignantly expressed. The commanders needed to win, but they must deal gently with Absalom. The last sound they heard in their ears was the haunting words of David: deal gently.442

Joab Kills Absalom: By divine providence, Absalom happened to meet David’s royal bodyguard as he was riding his mule. He was leading his men in battle because of Hushai’s advice. As he turned to escape into the thicker part of the forest, Absalom rode full speed upon his mule and looking back, his hair got caught in the thick branches of a large oak tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going. The traitor hung there helplessly. The moment cannot last forever. He must either live or die. David’s soldiers did not harm him, but neither did they rescue him. When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, “I just saw Absalom hanging from an oak tree.” Joab said to the man who had told him this, “What! You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground right there? Then I would have had to give you ten shekels of silver and a warrior’s belt, the symbol of a military promotion” (Second Samuel 18:9-11).

But the unnamed soldier was not intimidated. Not even for money would he violate the king’s command. He replied, “Even if a thousand shekels were weighed out into my hands, I would not lay a hand on the king’s son. The man had heard David’s words about Absalom. Everyone heard. Even Joab heard, even though he now pretended otherwise. In our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Protect the young man Absalom for my sake.’ And if I had put my life in jeopardy – and nothing is hidden from the king – then you yourself would have set yourself against me for disobeying the king’s order.” This soldier knew Joab very well. Joab did not bother to refute the man’s analysis, saying: I’m not going to wait like this for you. The midst of battle was not time to discuss moral implications or political niceties. Joab lived in a world of simple moral choices and decisions. Instead, Joab did what he always did. He acted.443 So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom ‘s heart while Absalom was still alive, hanging from the oak tree. The rabbis teach that the reason Absalom received three javelins in the heart was that he captured three hearts; first, the hearts of the two hundred members of the royal court; secondly, the heart of David; and thirdly, the heart of the people of Isar’el. The wounds were surely mortal, then ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him (Second Samuel 18:12-15). Absalom is spoken of in a completely impersonal way; no wounds are mentioned, no pleas for mercy, just the physical fact of his being caught in the tree.

The part played by Joab here demands an explanation in view of the fact that he was so supportive of Absalom’s only a few years before. What happened to change his mind? Joab had tried to favorably position himself in the likelihood that Absalom would assume the throne after his father passed away. But he never dreamed that the prince would declare war on David or attempt a coup and assassinate his father. Once that became a reality, Joab had no choice. He threw his considerable influence behind David as the rightful king.

The Burial of Absalom: After Absalom’s death, Joab is in complete control. He sounded the shofar. The troops stopped pursuing Isra’el, for Joab halted them. There was no more need for any bloodshed. All that remained was to bury the body of the rebel. This was the burial of an accursed man. Like Achan (Joshua 7:26), they took Absalom, threw him into a large pit in the forest and piled up a heap of rocks over him. It became an unmarked grave. A monument of shame. Meanwhile, all the Israelites fled to their homes. During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, “I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.” He had three sons, but they all died young (Second Samuel 14:25-27). He named the pillar after himself (surprise, surprise), and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day (Second Samuel 18:16-18). This monument is not to be confused with the fifty-two-foot-tall, bottle-shaped, “Tomb/Pillar of Absalom,” a monolith cut out of a cliff in the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem that probably received its name because of its resemblance to a pillar. Its burial chamber is reminiscent of the Hellenistic and roman sepulchers and is to be dated to the first part of the first century AD.444

We must see Absalom’s end as a microcosm. His death as a man under a curse is typical of what will be the lot of all who, at any time, set themselves against God, His Kingdom, His chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6 and First Peter 2:9), or His chosen King. While this is a somber truth, the LORD’s true subjects have no hope unless it is true! How happy is the man whom You correct, YHVH, whom You teach from Your Torah, giving him respite from days of trouble, till a pit is dug for the wicked (Psalm 94:12-13 CJB).445

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