2 Samuel 18
This is one of the most tragic stories in the Old Testament. David’s son Absalom rebels against his father. He has captured Jerusalem. David is on the run. And yet, David tells his commanders to deal gently with his son. And yet, Joab, the same trusted commander that David sent the letter to that said, make sure Uriah is killed, kills Absalom. David mourns for his son, crying after him, that he wished he could have died instead.
Tragic? Well, yes. But the story is so much more complex thant what I have simply hinted at. We need to go back a bit. Absalom’s half brother Amnon raped Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom goes to David their father and wants to have Amnon punished. David does nothing. Absolutely nothing. Amnon is David’s eldest son. I don’t think the text ever comes out right and says so, but I’d guess that Amnon is David’s favorite. The oldest often is the favorite. But for whatever reason, Amnon isn’t punished. He gets off scott-free.
And so Absalom plots and plots for two years. Finally, he has his chance. See, I told you two weeks ago, this story was like a soap opera, a story with more intrigue than most modern novels. And he invites Absalom and all of David’s sons to a banquet. And Absalom has his men kill Amnon after Amnon has become quite drunk. And then Absalom runs away. He stays away for several years. Joab finally convinces David to bring Absalom home, but David still doesn’t see his son. Finally, after trying to get an audience with his father, Absalom gets Joab’s attention by burning his field. Joab tries to reconcile the two, but doesn’t succeed.
The story continues with Absalom seeing more things that convince him that David is not worthy of being king. David isn’t hearing the grievances of the people. Disputes aren’t being settled. And so Absalom takes matters into his own hands. He begins a rebellion. He is convinced he will make a better king than David.
This story might sound a bit familiar. David, too, took power from a reigning king. His father-in-law. Now the story the scripture tells is that God annoints David as king, but someone who isn’t a believer might look at the tale a bit differently and see David as a usurper. Saul himself and his followers might have seen the young man as a usurper.
This time, though, the usurper doesn’t succeed. David makes a cryptic request of his commanders to deal gently with the young man Absalom. He doesn’t say, spare his life for my sake. He doesn’t say let him get away. He says, deal gently. In the end, Absalom is caught on the limbs of an oak tree in the forest, hanging between heaven and earth. A man sees Absalom and tells Joab. Joab asks why the man didn’t kill Absalom and the man reminds Joab of the king’s request. Joab, the hardened commander that he is, the man who saw to Uriah’s death, takes matters into his own hands and kills Absalom.
David gets the news. Everyone else thinks it is good news. The rebellion has ended. David is restored to power. They can all return to Jerusalem. They can celebrate. But David is devastated. His grief overwhelms him. The text doesn’t say, but one has to wonder whether David thinks about all the ways he has been complicit in Absalom’s actions. How much have his actions contributed to the actions of his son and his death?
Several places in the Old Testament the scriptures tell us that God visits the visit the sins of the fathers onto the sons to the third and fourth generations. For a long time, I looked at those statements and wondered why God would punish people who had done nothing wrong because their parents had sinned. It seemed so unfair. And I didn’t want to worship an unfair God. But, I came to realize something else was going on. It is a statement of reality. What the parents do has a huge impact on what happens in their children’s lives. Our children learn from us. Somehow, they don’t seem to manage to learn easily the lessons we teach with our words—share your toys, be nice to others, work hard. They do learn the lessons our behavior teaches very quickly. They absorb what they see us doing. They know right away when our words diverge from our behaviors. We unwitting teach our children things we’d rather not have them learn.
David has usurped power. David takes what he wants. He saw Bathsheba and wanted her. He had the power to take her. David’s son Amnon does the same thing with disasterous consequences. Amnon sees Tamar and is sick with desire for her. She begs him not to rape her. She tells him that David will give him anything he wants; that David will give her to him as a wife. She begs not to be disgraced. One wonders if these words echo what Bathsheba must have said to David. This story is different though. Tamar has a defender, another of David’s sons. Tamar is taken and discarded. Absalom goes to David for justice and doesn’t get it. He takes matters into his own hands and has Amnon killed. David, too, had a man killed. It was not the perpetrator of the crime, but a victim of David’s crime with Bathsheba, her husband.
David’s sins have been visited on his children. On both Amnon and on Absalom. Both die for their sins while David lives on unpunished. Except he must have been punished by the knowledge of his sins, on the loss of his sons: the infant Bathsheba conceived and then his two grown sons Amnon and Absalom.
And yet God continues to be faithful. God is the faithful parent who is always there. Much of the Hebrew scriptures are stories that have a common theme. People sin. They suffer the consequences of their sin. God is there.
The very first story in the scriptures is the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. God tells them not to eat the fruit of the tree. They are tempted. They eat it. The consequences of the action is to be sent out from the garden. But, before they are sent out, God makes them clothes so that they will have protection. I have this image of God sitting cross-legged as tailors used to sit, carefully stitching clothes from animal skins for his beloved children. Cain kills his brother and God comes up with a plan to protect Cain. Cain is banished, but he still has God’s protection. Sin becomes so rampant that God decides there is only one answer. God will destroy creation, this world with a flood. But God protects a family, Noah’s family in the ark. At the end, God promises never to destroy the world again.
One scholar has suggested that the work of the writer of David’s history and of the beginning chapters of Genesis want to suggest to Solomon that Solomon must decide how he will rule. Will he follow God or will he follow the example of David? Will he choose unlimited power or will his kingdom be one in which God’s will is followed? Will the sins of the father be visited on the son?
That is the question that is always before us. Will we follow our own appetites? Will we use our power to get what we want no matter what the cost to other people is? Will we look only to our selfish desires? Or will we follow God’s commandments? To love God and to love one another. To treat each person with respect and love?
God’s faithfulness in trying to teach us how to live didn’t end with these stories. God’s faithfulness is shown in Jesus and Jesus’ willingness to be faithful to God to the end. The kingdom of God that Jesus taught is the same one God wanted in the Hebrew scriptures. A place where all are respected and loved. Where all have enough. Where no one with power takes advantage of those without power for his own pleasure or gain. Where justice is served.
Today, we have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of that kingdom. Today, Christians around the world with gather around a table. Somewhere half way around the world, twelve or more hours ago, people gathered around a table and took bread and wine and shared it. Each had enough. And as the earth continued to revolve, more and more people gathered and took bread and wine and shared it. Each had enough. There was and is a place for everyone. Those with great power and those without. Those with great wealth and those without. Those who were joyous and those who were grieving. Those with different colors of skin and different languages. All shared the same bread and wine and had enough. In a few minutes, we too will join those Christians and be for a moment a part of God’s kingdom on earth. Amen.