King David Of Israel
11 Amnon and Tamar 2 Samuel 13- 14
The story of Israel's most famous King
Intrigue, rebellion, treachery, outrage, murder; this is the sad catalogue of happenings which was to fill David's life for the remaining years of his reign following the episode of Uriah. Almost every year brought a fresh calamity; David must have wished at times that he had never forsaken his simple life as a shepherd for the chequered career of a king. And yet, despite the dark shadows of that same chequered career, he had been the Lord's choice for the founder of a royal dynasty that is eventually to culminate in Jesus Christ as ruler over the Divine kingdom on earth, and the Lord never makes mistakes. Despite his evident weaknesses and failures, David's heart was right with the Lord and his loyalty never wavered. The Lord never had to say of David, as He did say of Saul "I am grieved that I made Saul king"(NIV).
Less than a year after Nathan's condemnation of David, and the subsequent birth of Solomon, and the end of the war with Ammon, and David's settling down to a hoped-for peaceful life in Jerusalem, disaster struck. The tragic story is related in 2 Sam. 13. Amnon, eldest son of David and prospective heir to the throne, became violently infatuated with his half-sister Tamar, daughter of David by another wife. Amnon was just about twenty-one years of age and Tamar seventeen. His mother was Ahinoam of Jezreel, the third of David's wives and almost certainly a woman of Israel. Tamar's mother was Maacah, daughter of the King of Geshur, an independent people of Amorite extraction on the northern borders of Israel whom neither Joshua nor any subsequent leader had been able to subdue. In marrying Maacah, David had transgressed the Mosaic Law. Now there was this incipient scandal threatening the serenity of the royal house. The story goes on to relate how Amnon inveigled Tamar into his house and, despite her resistance, violated her. In her distress the girl went to her own brother, Absalom, third son of David, and there found refuge. In the ordinary way such an outrage would be avenged by the shedding of blood, starting a murder feud which sometimes went on for generations, and Absalom as the injured girl's own brother was the one whom custom demanded should be the avenger. But at the moment he bided his time. The chronicler merely states "Absalom spoke to Amnon. neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had forced his sister Tamar".
The chronicler also says "when King David heard of all these things, he was very wroth". Since Tamar was his daughter one would have expected a more decided reaction. The fact that there was not may well have been due to an inward realization that his own transgression of two or three years earlier had rendered him of all men unfit to pronounce judgment on the offender. David must have been sick at heart as he pondered over the disorder into which his life seemed to be slipping; perhaps now he did enter into a deeper and more sincere repentance than he had known before. In his dilemma, maybe he thought that Absalom, as Tamar's natural guardian, always the system where a king or nobleman had a multiplicity of children by a number of wives, was apparently going to allow the matter to rest and therefore he himself could do so without further apprehension. If he did so conclude, then he was gravely mistaken, as subsequent events were to prove. For the present, however, he took no further action. Under the Mosaic Law, of course, he should have had the offender, king's son or no king's son, put to death.
The Septuagint adds an extra phrase to the statement of David's wrath "but he did not grieve the spirit of his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his first-born". There may be something in this. David was at this time evidently expecting Amnon to succeed him as king, may even already have been grooming him for the kingship, and this might have been an additional justification in his mind for taking no action. But what he did not know was that the Lord had other ideas as to who should succeed him as king. In His infinite wisdom a man who would combine something of the qualities of the gentle Bath-sheba with those of the Bethlehem shepherd-boy was needed to lead Israel into the next stage of its national life.
Two years later the second episode occurred in the tragedy. Amnon had accomplished his crime with the unwitting connivance of the king, who had been deceived by a pretext invented by Amnon into sending Tamar to his house. Now David was to be deceived again, this time by Absalom who although only twenty years of age, had his own estate at Baal-hazor, eighteen miles north of Jerusalem. He was due there to superintend his annual sheep-shearing, which was always made a kind of ritual and accompanied by feasting and celebration (Gen. 31.19 and 38. 13 are examples, in the lives of Jacob and Judah). He went to the king and requested the favour of his presence at the feast, knowing his father well enough to be certain he would refuse, the presence of the king would involve a numerous entourage of court notabilities and servants which could be an expensive matter for Absalom. As anticipated, David declined on those grounds. "Nay, my son", he said "let us not all now go, lest we be chargeable to you". To disarm suspicion, Absalom pressed him further; he still declined but gave him his blessing.
Absalom now produced his second card. "If you will not go" he suggested "then let my brother Amnon go with us." Amnon as heir apparent would then represent his father at the feast. David demurred a bit; he obviously could not see why Amnon should go, but Absalom pressed him and eventually he consented,. So Amnon received what amounted to a royal command to proceed with Absalom, accompanied by most of David's other sons, to the feast at Baal-hazor.
Absalom's servants, briefed beforehand by their master, fully loyal to him and doubtless equally indignant at the outrage perpetrated upon his sister, waited until the feast had progressed to the point where the wine was flowing freely, the guests not quite sure what was going on, and Amnon himself in a condition of semi-stupor, fell upon him and assassinated him. "Then all the king's sons rose, and each mounted his mule and fled".
It would seem that in their semi-inebriated state they did not make very good progress, for news of the affair reached Jerusalem before they did. Probably some of their servants, having less opportunity for revelling and carousal, got there first and in their panic asserted that all David's sons had been slain, to the consternation of David and his court. But the ensuing lamentation was quickly interrupted by David's nephew Jonadab, a "man about court" who seems to have known more about the whole affair than would appear on the surface. He assured the king that Amnon was the only one slain and the rest would certainly come safely home. It had been Absalom's intention, he explained, to kill Amnon from the very day Amnon had committed the offence. Sure enough, the party arrived at length, by now sufficiently sobered up to realise the enormity of what had happened, to add their quota to the general expressions of grief pervading the royal court.
In the meantime, Absalom had fled for refuge to his father-in-law, the King of Geshur, and there he remained three years. David seems quickly to have got over the death of Amnon, judging by 2 Sam. 13.39, and began to fret at his third son's continued absence. Later events show that he developed a greater affection for Absalom than any other of his grown-up sons, and now that Amnon was dead may well have begun to think of him as heir to the throne. Of the second son, Chileab, by David's wife Abigail the Carmelitess, widow of Nabal, nothing whatever is known; it is possible that he died in infancy or early youth. What is obvious is that David now pinned his hopes on Absalom, yet could not see how he could allow him back into the realm without exacting some severe and deserved penalty for his act. It is very possible that others of his sons were putting pressure upon him; with Absalom permanently out of the way the succession would pass to one of them. There is some basis for thinking that of the first six sons, those born at Hebron during the first seven years of the reign, or earlier, Absalom was the only one of a non-Israelite mother and there might well have been family hostility to him on that account. David evidently wanted to be reconciled to his exiled son but could not find the way.
That way was eventually found by another crafty politician at court, Joab, nephew of David and commander-in-chief of the army. For reasons which do not readily appear in the narrative, it does seem that Joab was more favourably disposed towards Absalom than to David's other sons. He may have had in mind his own position in the framework of the kingdom after the death of David. He therefore was not averse to ingratiating himself with the man who would succeed the king so that any favour he might show Absalom in his time of distress might well be to his own benefit later on. At any rate, perceiving David's dilemma and his longing for reconciliation with his son, and perhaps remembering how Nathan had gone to the king with a fictional tale of injustice in order to bring the king to a recognition of his own wrongdoing, Joab concocted a similar scheme.
The story is in 2 Sam.14. He procured a "wise woman", probably a prophetess, from Tekoah in the highlands of Judah, and sent her to David with a plausible tale of woe and plea for the king's intervention. As a prophetess she would have ready access to the royal presence. Being thus admitted, she made the customary obeisance and voiced the usual plea "Save, O king", to which she got the usual answer "What is your trouble?" and the king composed himself to listen. The story was simple. She was a widow woman left with two sons and a small farm, her only support. The two sons had quarrelled and in the quarrel one of them had been accidentally killed. Now the family relatives were demanding that the guilty brother be handed over to them to be slain in revenge for the deed. So, she said, there would be left to her dead husband no heir and his name blotted out of Israel and she herself left destitute and alone.
The king was sympathetic, he was also not greatly interested. There were always men getting slain in Israel. He saw no harm in granting the old woman's request. "Go to your house", he said, "and I will give orders concerning you."
She was not quite satisfied, there was a point to press. "My lord, O king", she responded "On me be the guilt my lord the king and on my father's house, let the king and his throne be guiltless"(v.9 GNB). What she meant was that the king, by agreeing to set aside the customary practice of vengeance against the murderer, could be accused of an injustice, a breach of the social code. She would take the blame, if the king would but protect her son. David did not seem to think the point a very serious one. "If anyone says anything to you bring him to me, and he shall never touch you again".
If David thought the interview was over, he was mistaken. There was a more subtle thrust to come "Please may the king keep the Lord your God in mind so that the avenger of blood may kill no more and my son not be destroyed". David was getting a little impatient; he could not see where all this was leading and he spoke somewhat hastily, "As the Lord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground"(NRSV). He motioned with his hand to indicate that the interview was at an end.
The woman stood her ground. "Please let your servant speak a word to my lord the king." Resignedly, David assented. "Speak".
The woman stood erect and looked the king straight in the face, "Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch that the king does not bring his banished one home again. We must all die, and are as water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life, he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence"
There was a long silence. David realised there was more to the pleas of this suppliant than he had thought. There was a reproof in the woman's words and a summons to act. He had pardoned the woman's mythical son for his crime and promised his protection. He had sworn to that by the Lord God of Israel. Now he stood convicted, out of his own mouth, of refusing to pardon his own son for the same crime. He was not afraid of the woman's relatives clamouring for the death of her errant son and had told her to bring them to him to be dealt with; yet he was afraid of his own family thirsting for vengeance upon their exiled half-brother. God had forgiven him for his own crime of the murder of Uriah; he had not forgiven Absalom for his murder of Amnon. And above all things, this woman had revealed to him something he had never realised before; God is not really a God of vengeance. He is a God who must and does exact retribution for wrongdoing but with that retribution devises means of giving the wrongdoer an opportunity of reconciliation. "God will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence.".
Therein lies one of the fundamental principles of the Divine Plan. Notwithstanding the grievous sin of man, God has provided that the man cannot be irretrievably lost whilst any hope or chance of repentance and reconciliation remains. Because of sin, man is banished from the Divine presence but God has devised means whereby the banished one can come back, if he will. And the Father stands ready to meet him; the parable of the Prodigal Son tells us that. Perhaps at this point in his life David began to see that there was a higher plane of understanding of God's character than that of a vengeful Deity intent only in the destruction of His enemies and the punishment of offenders against His laws. Perhaps he began to perceive that the One who would one day "rule upon the throne of the Lord with justice and judgment even for ever" would not, could not, partake of the conception of God he himself had nourished all his life. Rather He would be more as he himself had been at the beginning, a shepherd who would "carry the lambs in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young". He looked at the woman still standing silently before him, and his thoughts came back to the present.
"Tell me", he said gently, keen eyes searching the woman's face, "is the hand of Joab with you in all this?" She looked at him, realizing that he had seen through her story, and admitted the fact. David nodded thoughtfully, and dismissed her with the assurance she sought. He sat and ruminated a little longer, then summoned an attendant.
"Command Joab that he attend upon me" he ordered..
The attendant bowed silently and withdrew. The king was still sitting, wrapped in thought, when his Commander-in-chief strode in. David looked at him speculatively.
"You know why I have sent for you?" Joab bowed respectfully
"Yes my Lord the king".
"You have engineered this thing. You have shown me my fault." He paused a moment "Go to Geshur and bring my son Absalom back to Jerusalem again." Joab bowed again, a light of triumph in his eyes. "This day I know that I have found favour in your sight, my lord the king". He turned to go; he was arrested by an imperious gesture from David.
"Let him dwell in his own house in Jerusalem and let him not see my face." Joab inclined his head slightly in token of mute assent and strode out of the throne room. David listened to his footsteps, clattering over the courtyard and dying away in the distance. He remained a long time thus, along with his thoughts.
And so Absalom came home again.
(to be continued)