This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
UK POLICE HARRASS SECURITY LEAK JOURNALIST’S PARTNER
2 Samuel 18:9-18.
New English Translation (NET)
9 Then Absalom happened to come across David’s men. Now as Absalom was riding on his mule, it went under the branches of a large oak tree. His head got caught in the oak and he was suspended in midair, while the mule he had been riding kept going.
10 When one of the men saw this, he reported it to Joab saying, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree. 11 Joab replied to the man who was telling him this, “What! You saw this? Why didn’t you strike him down right on the spot? I would have given you ten pieces of silver and a commemorative belt!”
12 The man replied to Joab, “Even if I were receiving a thousand pieces of silver, I would not strike the king’s son! In our very presence the king gave this order to you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Protect the young man Absalom for my sake.’ 13 If I had acted at risk of my own life—and nothing is hidden from the king!—you would have abandoned me.”
14 Joab replied, “I will not wait around like this for you!” He took three spears in his hand and thrust them into the middle of Absalom while he was still alive in the middle of the oak tree. 15 Then ten soldiers who were Joab’s armor bearers struck Absalom and finished him off.
16 Then Joab blew the trumpet and the army turned back from chasing Israel, for Joab had called for the army to halt. 17 They took Absalom, threw him into a large pit in the forest, and stacked a huge pile of stones over him. In the meantime all the Israelite soldiers fled to their homes.
18 Prior to this Absalom had set up a monument and dedicated it to himself in the King’s Valley, reasoning “I have no son who will carry on my name.” He named the monument after himself, and to this day it is known as Absalom’s Memorial.
I suppose that the story of Absalom caught in the branches of an oak tree was deeply embedded in the tradition and gratefully taken up by the author of Samuel. But as he tells it, it’s more Tom & Jerry than history. Yes, it’s possible that a warrior pursued in a forest might get caught up in branches; but very unlikely that he might hang there long enough for a soldier to see him and report to his commander. What was Absalom doing with his his hands? How was he snared or wedged? Of course, it’s just possible that he was inextricably stuck, but more probable that the author is delighted to set up the ridiculous image of the great rebel, the pride of Israel, hanging from a tree by his golden hair.
What follows on the other hand is far from comic. Joab knows exactly what must be done and does it. Absalom must die and be disposed of, so that there is no chance of his father pardoning him or giving him funeral honours. Thug that he is, he sees Absalom as just another thug but with greater ambitions than his own, who must pay the penalty of failure.
The author’s view of the use of force in politics is never less than realistic. Power, even just power, rests at least partially on force. If people are satisfied with your justice, you may never need to use force. But when there is dissatisfaction or rebellion, your survival may depend on it. Once the naked use of force becomes common, as in a civil war, people will commit horrific violence, as Joab does, because they can.
Yesterday UK Police detained and questioned the partner of an investigative journalist for nine hours under a terrorism law. It’s quite clear that this was a piece of blatant thuggism, designed to inhibit journalism, carried out by the authorities to show that if pushed, they can do this sort of thing. The Christian tradition asserts that love is greater than force, but the Bible is not naive about the effects of force: they are extensive and often final, as today’s story shows.