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Sunday, August 9, 2015

2 Samuel: collapse of David begins

2 Sam 13
David lusted after another man's wife, and killed the husband. The prophet tells the king that the sword will not leave his house....

Today we read of the son Amnon who "loves" (the Hebrew word-- 'ahab --for love includes appetites: lust) for his half-sister Tamar. His cousin is "wise", the Hebrew means clever and is morally neutral, and the  man figures out a way for Amnon, the crown prince, to have his way. The "love sick" man is counseled to feign illness and ask his father David to send for Absalom's sister Tamar to tend him. It is an evil plot.

Alter points out numerous verbal parallels between this story and Joseph (in reverse chronological order and reverse outcomes!) She prepares a meal for him (she kneads the dough, the Hebrew verb for this is the same root as heart leb, lebeb) and then he grabs her. She pleads (again the language alludes to other Biblical stories of rape Genesis 34, Judges 19:23). She offers an alternative: ask our father for me (which would have been an illegal marriage so perhaps it was a futile request made in desperation). He acts in his passion, rapes her, then is disgusted with her and sends her away (connotation of that Hebrew expression is divorce). In her ancient cultural setting this is even worse. He refers to her as "this one" (which Alter translates "this creature" to emphasize the brutal disdain). She goes into mourning, ashes on her head, tearing her garment (note, the term is only used of Joseph's clothing elsewhere in the Bible!). Absalom discerns what has happened and communicates to her that it will take time, but he will take care of this.

David is unable to act. He is very angry, yet does nothing. This will emerge as a new pattern of behavior for the King. Absalom, meanwhile, seethes with hatred for Amnon.

Monday we read the revenge. Absalom, biding his time for two years, invites his father to a grand event: the sheep shearing. David declines the offer. Note the king's sedentary life style (began with Bathsheba story) results in crisis after crisis. Absalom convinces the King to send his son, Amnon. The narrative emphasizes the presence of all  the king's sons. Amnon is slain but the rumor is that all have died. The king is devastated and tears his garments. The contrast of the promise to "be a house" and the threat to his progeny echoes the Abraham story (the offering of Isaac). As Absalom counseled Tamar, now Jonadab says to the king, "Do not take this matter to heart." Amnon lusted in his heart, and his heart was "merry with wine" at the moment he was slain. Per Alter, the cakes Tamar made for her brother were heart shaped dumplings. The heart ties together all of it. [One recalls the words of the fourth Gospel that Jesus knew what was in the heart of man... The heart, the personal core, the inner reality of humans, contains darkness as well as light.] David desires to harm Absalom, but the young man flees and is in hiding three years. Eventually David, the realist, comes to terms with Amnon's death.

[Tuesday] Joab, the general who figures so heavily in David's life, acts to bring Absalom back. David is ambivalent about the young man (the verbs could be translated 'for' or 'against') and once again David is confronted indirectly through a story. This time a 'wise woman' takes the role of Nathan, and her pleading about two sons (paralleling David's life like Nathan's story of the stolen lamb). The archetype, Cain and Abel, is in the background of her dilemma (one sons killed another in a field). Now she says they want to kill that son and leave her without an heir (or property!). David makes repeated promises to protect her son and then she turns the tables. The Hebrew (says Alter) is garbled and difficult to translate. Alter thinks it is reflecting the awkwardness of  accusing the king to his face. She tells the king that he is doing to his son what she said the men were going to do to her son! David, who is trapped, then asks if Joab is behind it all.

[Wednesday's reading] So David relents and sends for his son. Absalom returns home, but  he cannot see the face of the king. This fails to address the issue. We learn of Absalom's beauty and long hair (like Samson... like Samson he also burns Joab's fields.) The focus on physical attractiveness is perhaps a challenge to reflect on the shallow nature of such preoccupation. Beauty is an attribute of God, but godliness includes so much more than beauty!

Absalom's attention grabbing behavior (burning the field) achieves his goal, he is allowed to see the king. The king kisses him. Ahh! the terminology. It is not "David" or "his father", it is the king... With nothing else to go on, we can assume the word choice conveys a political formality. There is an outward sign which does not fully convey the inner reality of reconciliation. (think of politicians calling bitter opponents "my esteemed colleague" or "my good friend" when they are nothing of the sort...) The tragedy will continue to unfold in the readings in the days ahead.

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