With Joel Baden’s The Historical David as a guide, I continue to reflect on what happened at the beginnings of the Davidic dynasty in Israel.
David’s son Absalom rebelled against him and tried to make himself king 2 Samuel 15-19). There is no question that this is a historical event.
The question is what Absalom’s motive was.
Baden makes a strong case that the story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar never happened. He thinks the narrator modeled it on the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Nowhere else do we hear that David had a daughter named Tamar. So Baden concludes that she is a fictional character. (The episode was a private event, so there can’t be any evidence for it, one way or another.) The follow-up to the story, though, was public knowledge and historically true. Absalom killed Amnon.
But the reason for this was that Amnon was the son of Ahinoam, the wife David had taken from Saul when he first unsuccessfully tried to stage a coup against him. David approved the elimination of Amnon because of his connection to the house of Saul. With Amnon gone, Absalom became the primary heir to the throne.
But, if Absalom’s ambition drove him to murder his brother, David was naive to think such a man would wait patiently to inherit the throne. The next obstacle for Absalom was David himself.
Even though David had approved Amnon’s murder, he would have had to punish Absalom if he could lay hands on him. So Absalom spent years in Geshur. (At the time, this was an independent kingdom along the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s capital was on the site of the important New Testament village of Bethsaida. During 2016 archeologists located the 10th century gates and are now excavating them.)
David was fine with Absalom being away. It solved a problem for him. The story of the wise woman of Tekoa is fictional. The notion that it was really Joab who wanted Absalom to return is also part of the cover-up of David’s involvement in Amnon’s death. The time Absalom spent away was a price both he and David paid for getting rid of Amnon.
Eventually David welcomed him back to the court, but Absalom was already plotting. He spent four years undermining David’s popularity. Then he went to Hebron and had himself declared king.
It strikes me that, although several of these stories seem to have an agenda, we really do not know what happened historically in much detail. In Egypt we have tombs and funeral inscriptions that give us insight into succession struggles and plots. The Egyptians have even left us pictures. But, for Israel, we mostly have just the biblical text.
The Absalom story makes me think of Aiden Dodson’s reconstuction of what happened in Egypt after Pharaoh Merneptah died. Seti II was likely Merneptah’s son and the designated successor. However, inscriptions and tomb evidence point to a Pharaoh Amenmesis who some scholars put before Seti II and some put after. Dodson thinks Amenmesis was the son of Seti II, who proclaimed himself king in Nubia and Upper Egypt a few months after Merneptah’s death. A few years later he disappears from Egyptian history, although Dodson argues that the next Pharaoh, Siptah, was his son. This is all in Aiden Dodson’s The Poisoned Legacy.
My point here is that a son unwilling to wait for his inheritance, who proclaims himself king and starts a civil war, is not without example in the ancient Near East. If Baden is right and David put out something like a contract on Amnon, that certainly would have raised doubts for Absalom about whether his own position was secure. These doubts were probably wrong. Baden sees David’s grief at Absalom’s eventual death as authentic. David really did want Absalom to succeed him.
David was completely taken by surprise when Absalom rebelled. So Absalom’s plot was more successful than David’s original plot against Saul. David has to flee Jerusalem. Absalom took Jerusalem and marked his territory, so to speak, by bedding women from David’s harem. The details of the Bible’s report on the strategy and battles that follow are unverifiable. Baden’s method is to look for places where the story protests too much. He points out that Joab serves the purpose of deflecting blame from David throughout the narrative.
So here, when the text casts Joab as the one who was responsible for the death of Absalom, this means that David, although the decision pained him, ordered Absalom’s death. He had no choice. And when the story tells us that David got stuck in grief and Joab had to stage an intervention, this means that David got over his grief without too much trouble.
Joab serves as a literary device throughout the story. Baden, however, does not think Joab is a fictional character. So Joab actually did things. Some of them may have fit the purpose of the narrative. Some of them may not have.
Joab is said, to have killed Amasa. This was the relative of both David and Joab, who had led Absalom’s army. The king extended an amnesty to Amasa and used him to help bring Judah back under his sway. But then during the minor rebellion of Sheba, Joab killed him. Baden does not find anything about this story historically convincing except that Amasa died because David could not allow the leader of the rebel troops to live.
David reestablished himself after the revolt, but began a decline that led to Bathsheba becoming the decisive power at the end of this reign.