Absalom enters Jerusalem where, in a display of defiance, he has sex with David’s concubines. Absalom’s aides advise him to attack David immediately, but one of David’s officials, pretending to support Absalom, persuades Absalom to wait. This delay gives David time to muster an army, and his forces kill twenty thousand of Absalom’s followers in the forests of Ephraim. Riding along, Absalom catches his head in the branches of a tree. Joab ignores David’s instructions to treat Absalom gently and drives three spears into Absalom’s hanging body. When David is notified of Absalom’s death, he weeps, screaming repeatedly, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (19:4).

To the frustration of his officials, David shows mercy to all of Absalom’s supporters who approach him for forgiveness, especially Absalom’s commander Amasa. David sends messengers to the leaders of Judah, and the tribe welcomes him back to Jerusalem. The remaining tribes—Absalom’s chief supporters—fear that David will be angry at them. An uprising ensues, but Joab traps the rebels in a city and the city’s residents hand over the severed head of the rebel leader. Angered that David has shown mercy to Amasa, Joab stabs Amasa one day while pretending to greet him.

David rebuilds his throne with continued acts of local diplomacy and with military victories over the Philistines. He composes a song praising God as a loving and kind deliverer, and the narrator briefly recounts the feats of David’s most famous fighting men.

Analysis

The major scholarly debate over 2 Samuel involves whether or not the book describes David in a negative or positive light. Chapters 9–20 of 2 Samuel are not necessarily complimentary. David commits adultery, tries to have his mistress’s husband killed, and loses control of his sons. At the same time, however, the narrator explains how each of these incidents actually proves David’s righteousness. Not only are David’s sons blamed for their own actions, but David’s own repentance for his misdeeds is described as exemplary. The circumstances surrounding David’s reign suggest that God approves of David’s actions. David’s kingdom in Zion represents the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. It establishes the unified tribes of Israel in the promised land under the rule of a divinely sanctioned leader. David’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant marks the story’s climax, symbolizing the ideal combination of religion and politics in Israel and the peaceful unification of God and man in one city. The image of an organized procession of song and dance around a symbol of God suggests that the people have, temporarily, reconciled their earthly aspirations with their religious commitments. 2 Samuel is characterized by the contrast between joyful images and images of civil conflict and confusion. All of the challengers to David’s throne in Samuel lose their heads, symbolizing their thwarted attempts to become the head of Israel. David’s retreat from Jerusalem to the sound of weeping and cursing contrasts with his earlier celebratory march into the city. Geographical motifs further reinforce this sense of division and loss. Ish-Bosheth’s challenge to the throne divides Israel into two halves, northern and southern. Absalom is declared king outside of Jerusalem in Hebron, a symbol of his dissent from David, while his exhibition at the top of the palace represents his ascent to power. David, meanwhile, must move out from the center of Israel and across the Jordan River—the chief mark of one’s exile from the promised land.

Individual characters express differing opinions about David’s method of ruling. In one sense, David’s mercy shows great prudence, for his tolerance of Ish-Bosheth eventually earns the respect of Ish-Bosheth’s subjects. However, David’s reluctance to punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar seems more permissive than just, and only fosters Absalom’s rage. Joab similarly believes that David’s kindness to Abner and Amasa is the result of oversight. Joab’s decision to take matters into his own hands makes Joab a foil to David. While Joab is suspicious of others and concerned with end results, David is trusting and believes that an earnest response in the present moment is more important than outcomes. David’s trust in the impulses of the present moment is the source of his greatest failing, his lust for Bathsheba. David’s immediate impulses are also the source of the narrative’s greatest moment of pathos—David’s desperate cries for Absalom. Nevertheless, his mercy stabilizes Israel by providing second chances, not only to political rebels, but to some of the nation’s most intriguing characters, such as Saul’s cursing relative.