This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline form world news:
Thousands of Syrian refugees cross the Tigris into exile
2 Samuel 17:24-18:8
New English Translation (NET)
24 Meanwhile David had gone to Mahanaim, while Absalom and all the men of Israel had crossed the Jordan River. 25 Absalom had made Amasa general in command of the army in place of Joab. (Now Amasa was the son of an Israelite man named Jether, who had married Abigail the daughter of Nahash and sister of Zeruiah, Joab’s mother.) 26 The army of Israel and Absalom camped in the land of Gilead.
27 When David came to Mahanaim, Shobi the son of Nahash from Rabbah of the Ammonites, Makir the son of Ammiel from Lo Debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim 28 brought bedding, basins, and pottery utensils. They also brought food for David and all who were with him, including wheat, barley, flour, roasted grain, beans, lentils, 29 honey, curds, flocks, and cheese. For they said, “The people are no doubt hungry, tired, and thirsty there in the desert.”
The Death of Absalom
18 David assembled the army that was with him. He appointed leaders of thousands and leaders of hundreds. 2 David then sent out the army—a third under the leadership of Joab, a third under the leadership of Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under the leadership of Ittai the Gittite. The king said to the troops, “I too will indeed march out with you.”
3 But the soldiers replied, “You should not do this! For if we should have to make a rapid retreat, they won’t be too concerned about us. Even if half of us should die, they won’t be too concerned about us. But you are like ten thousand of us! So it is better if you remain in the city for support.” 4 Then the king said to them, “I will do whatever seems best to you.”
So the king stayed beside the city gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. 5 The king gave this order to Joab, Abishai, and Ittai: “For my sake deal gently with the young man Absalom.” Now the entire army was listening when the king gave all the leaders this order concerning Absalom.
6 Then the army marched out to the field to fight against Israel. The battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The army of Israel was defeated there by David’s men. The slaughter there was great that day—20,000 soldiers were killed. 8 The battle there was spread out over the whole area, and the forest consumed more soldiers than the sword devoured that day.
David’s wisdom in leaving Jerusalem, delaying contact with Absalom’s forces, along with his plan for his ex-counsellor Hushai to offer bad advice to the rebels has worked, allowing him to regroup his forces and face the rebels in a situation of relative advantage. As in the gospel story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, meals are given importance in the story of David’s humiliation and recovery. Those who provide him with food are singled out for special mention; their sharing of food shows love and loyalty of the kind celebrated in Psalm 23, “you have prepared a table before in the presence of my enemies….”.
The soldiers’ concern for David is as much out of love for him as it is from strategic concern; he should not risk capture by the enemy.
David’s concern for Absalom, however, strikes the reader as natural but inappropriate. How can he ask men to put their lives at risk while protecting the enemy leader? Still, David’s anguish reminds the reader that every victory in war is also a defeat, every triumph also a tragedy, especially in a civil war where the enemy may be your former friend or neighbour or son. The reader suspects that if this battle ends well for David it will also end badly for him. The fact that David cannot conceal his love for his treacherous son makes him a less effective leader even as it makes him a more sympathetic human being. Israel’s memory of its great king allows his folly and weakness to be portrayed. Official memorials of great leaders in Soviet Russia, The Third Reich, Maoist China, or today in North Korea, would never allow such a thing. This is an important element of the Christian tradition, which, uniquely amongst world religions, celebrates “the foolishness and weakness” of God.