Monday, August 3, 2009

O Absalom!

Some parts of the Bible read more like an episode of Jerry Springer than sacred scripture.

This week's sermon text (2 Samuel 18) ends with King David mourning the death of his son, Absalom. But this tragedy has been long in the making. In fact, the seeds of it were planted when David slept with Bathsheba. After being confronted by God through the prophet Nathan, David does confess his sin and as a result, Nathan proclaims that God had taken away David's sin and that he will not die. In fact, God is so gracious toward David that he does not even lose his reign as king. However, there are still consequences to David's actions. God says through Nathan that as a result of David's sin that the sword will never depart from his household and that enemies will rise up against David from his own family. We see the beginning of this in the very next chapter of 2 Samuel (13).

David's son, Absalom, had a sister named Tamar. Another son of David, Amnon, presumably a half-brother to Absalom and Tamar, is in love with Tamar. Or perhaps more accurately, he lusts after Tamar, much as his father David lusted over Bathsheba, so much so that he made himself ill over her. And like his father with Bathsheba, Amnon takes Tamar as if she were an object to be possessed. Then once he is done with her Amnon sends her away much to Tamar's disgrace. Word of what Amnon has done reaches Absalom and he hated his half-brother for what he had done to his sister.

Absalom shares some of his father's characteristics as well. Just as David developed a carefully devised scheme to deal with Uriah upon hearing of Bathsheba's pregnancy, so also Absalom does not immediately lash out against Amnon. He devises a scheme. He throws a sheep shearing party and invites all of the king's sons. He makes certain that Amnon will be there and that he becomes drunk and once he is Absalom has the sheep shearers kill Amnon.

Absalom flees the scene and keeps his distance for a while since he has murdered one of the king's sons and he does not know how the king will respond. However, the story says that "King David longed to go out to Absalom." Joab, the commander of David's army, sees this and convinces David to bring his son, Absalom, back to Jerusalem. So David recalls Absalom to Jerusalem causing to expect that perhaps there will be some form of reconciliation; maybe this will be like the story of the prodigal son. But instead, without any explanation, David never sees his son after calling him home. Absalom is allowed to live in Jerusalem but is never able to see his father, the king.

Absalom then begins to conspire against his father's reign. Every day he would spend his time at the city gate, winning over the hearts and allegiances of the people, building support at the grass roots level much as his father had done before him. After forty years, Absalom leaves Jerusalem to go to Hebron under the guise of having to fulfill a vow he made long ago. Once he is there, he has himself proclaimed as king. Absalom has begun a revolt against the reign of his own father using some his father's very own proven tactics. David flees Jerusalem in fear of the rebellion that has begun and Absalom soon takes over in the capital city.

In chapter 18, the stage is finally set for the battle between these two rival claimants to the throne who are also father and son. David is torn between his role as king and his role as father. He diligently orders his forces so that they will be successful in putting down this coup but he also asks his commanders to bring Absalom home alive if it is at all possible. David's well-trained and seasoned soldiers quickly defeat the untrained and inexperienced populist army that was supporting Absalom. A strange turn of events even makes it possible for Absalom to be to taken alive. The forest in which the battle took place was a very dense and dangerous one and as Absalom rode through it on his mule he somehow got his head stuck in some low hanging branches. He was suspended there still alive. He easily could have been taken prisoner without being killed. One of the soldiers sees Absalom and reports to Joab but instead of taking Absalom alive as the king requested, Joab puts three spears through Absalom's heart and even allows his armor bearers to continue to attack him after that. The chapter concludes with military victory but it is the personal tragedy of King David's family which really takes center stage.

If ever there were ever a passage of scripture which illustrated the destructive power of sin, this is it. David's sin with Bathsheba sets an example of selfishness, lust, scheming, manipulation, grasping at power, and a need for control that is replicated in his sons. The consequences of David's action do not end with him. It destroys his whole family.

How do we so often fail to see this in our own world today? Yes, of course, personal responsibility plays a role. Absalom's actions were not completely determined by his father. He could have chosen a different path. So also, we can choose to rise above our circumstances. But there can also be little doubt that children often pay for the sins of their parents. A father's abuse pays negative dividends in every relationship his daughter ever has. A mother's irresponsibility of even simple insecurity leaves her child without a father. A parent's lust for possessions or power leaves his or her children without any sense of value or direction in life. The list goes on. It is a story perpetuated every day in a million different ways. So often, we are not the one's who pay most dearly for our own sins.

It's not an idea that had occured to me specifically before writing this post but maybe it would be a worthy experiment. What if every time I was tempted to avoid some of my responsibilities or to allow certain images to pass before my eyes or to be selfish and arrogant rather than compassionate and humble, what if I thought of my daughter and my soon-to-be son? And I don't mean that I should think about them in the sense of what I want them to see or learn or the kind of person I am trying to teach them to be. I mean that I should think about them with the assumption that it doesn't matter if they ever see that particular action or not. It doesn't matter if they see that particular action because they always see me and at some level those actions are inseparable from who I am and therefore also vitally connected to who they will become. We can not determine the course of our children's lives but the story of David reminds us that who we are surely sets the tone for who they will be.

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