Absalom (‘Abhshalom in Hebr.; Abessalom, Apsalomos in Gr.), the name of several distinguished persons mentioned in the Old Testament (Kings, Par., Mach.), interpreted “The Father of Peace”.
1. ABSALOM, SON OF DAVID.—He is third in the order mentioned by the chronicler (II Kings, iii, 2, 3) of the sons born at Hebron during the first turbulent years of David’s reign over Judah, when Isboseth, son of Saul, still claimed by right of inheritance to rule over Israel. His mother was Maacha, daughter of Tholmai, King of Gessur. The sacred writer who sketches for us the career of Absalom (II Kings, xiii—xviii) lays stress upon the faultless beauty of the youth’s appearance, and mentions in particular the luxurious wealth of his hair, which, when shorn, weighed over ten ounces. The significance of this latter note becomes apparent when we remember the important part which the culture of the hair played in the devotions of the Eastern people (note even at this day the ceremonial prayers of the Dervishes). As shaving the head was a sign of mourning, so offering a comely growth of hair to the priest was a token of personal sacrifice akin to the annual offering of the first fruits in the sanctuary. Probably the chronicler had also in mind that it was this gift of nature which became the occasion of Absalom’s fatal death. To a pleasing exterior the youth Absalom joined a temperament which, whilst fond of display, was nevertheless reserved, bold, and thoughtful. These qualifications were calculated to nourish a natural desire to be one day the representative of that magnificent power created by his father, from the prospective enjoyment of which his minority of birth alone seemed to debar him. Despite his ambition, there appears to have been in the youth that generous instinct of honor which inspires noble impulses where these do not clash with the more inviting prospects of self-interest. Under such circumstances it is not strange that Absalom, idolized by those around him, whilst his natural sense of gratitude and filial duty became gradually dulled, was led to cultivate that species of egotism which grows cruel in proportion as it counts upon the blind affection of its friends.
There were other causes which alienated Absalom from his father. David’s eldest son, Amnon, born of a Jezrahelite mother, and prospective heir to the throne by reason of his seniority, had conceived a violent passion for Thamar, Absalom’s beautiful sister. Unable to control his affection, yet prevented from gaining access to her by the conventionalities of the royal court, which separated the King’s wives and kept Thamar in her mother’s household, Amnon, on the advice of his cousin Jonadab, feigns illness, and upon being visited by the King, his father, requests that Thamar be permitted to nurse him. It was thus that Amnon found opportunity to wrong the innocence of his stepsister. Having injured the object of his passion, he forthwith begins to hate her, and sends from him the aggrieved maiden, who must be to him a constant reminder of his wrongdoing. Thamar, departing in the bitterness of her sorrow, is met by Absalom, who forces from her the secret of Amnon’s violence to her. David is informed, but, apparently unwilling to let the disgrace of his prospective heir become public, fails to punish the crime. This gives Absalom the pretext for avenging his sister’s wrong, for which now not only Amnon, the heir to the throne, but also David appears responsible to him. He takes Thamar into his house and quietly but determinedly lays his plan. The sacred writer states that Absalom never spoke to Amnon, neither good words nor evil, but he hated him with a hatred unto death.
For two years Absalom thus carried his resentment in silence, when at length he found occasion to act openly. From the days of the patriarchs it had been customary among the shepherd princes of Israel to celebrate as a public festival of thanksgiving the annual sheep-shearing. The first clip of the flocks was ordained for the priests (Deut., xviii, 4), and the sacredness of the feast made it difficult for any member of the tribal family to absent himself. The sacred writer does not state that there was in the mind of David a secret suspicion that Absalom meditated mischief, but to one whose insight into past and future events was so clear as that of the Royal Seer, it might easily have occurred that there had been in the days of his forefather, Jacob, another Thamar (Gen., xxxviii, 6) who figured at a sheep-shearing, and who found means of avenging a similar wrong against herself, though in a less bloody way than that contemplated by Absalom on the present occasion. Although David excuses himself from attending the great sheep-shearing, he eventually yields to Absalom’s entreaty to send Amnon there to represent him. The festive reunion of the royal household takes place at Baalhasor, in a valley east of the road that leads to Sichem, near Ephraim. When the banquet is at its height, and Amnon has fairly given himself over to the pleasures of wine, he is suddenly overpowered by the trusted servants of Absalom, and slain. The rest of the company flee. Absalom himself escapes the inevitable anger of his father by seeking refuge in the home of his maternal grandfather at Gessur. Here he hopes to remain until, the grief of his father having died out, he might be forgiven and recalled to the royal court. But David does not relent so quickly. After three years of banishment, Absalom, through the intervention of Joab, David’s nephew and trusted general, is allowed to return to the city, without, however, being permitted to enter the King’s presence. In this condition Absalom lives for two years, seeking all the while to regain through the instrumentality of Joab the favor of his father. Joab himself is reluctant to press the matter, until Absalom, by setting fire to the crops of his kinsman, forces Joab to come to him with a view of seeking redress for the injury. Absalom turns the opportunity of this altercation with Joab to good account by pleading his own neglected and humiliated condition: I would rather die ignominiously, he argues, than have this rancour of the King against me all the days of my life. As a result Absalom is received by the King.
Restored to his former princely dignity and the apparent confidence of his father, Absalom now enters upon that course of secret plotting to which his ambition and his opportunity seemed to urge him, and which has stamped his name as a synonym of unnatural revolt. By ingratiating himself in the good will of the people, and at the same time fostering discontent with the conditions of his father’s reign, he succeeds in preparing the minds of the disaffected for a general uprising. After four years [the Septuagint has “forty,” which is evidently a misreading, as appears from the Hebrew (Keri), Syriac, and Arabic versions] of energetic secret activity, Absalom asks leave of the King to repair to Hebron, that he might fulfil a self-imposed vow made while in captivity at Gessur. Preparations had already been consummated for a simultaneous uprising of the secret adherents of Absalom in different parts of the country, and emissaries were ready to proclaim the new king. Achitophel, one of David’s oldest counsellors, had joined the conspirators, and by his design a strong current was being directed against David. When, amid the sound of trumpets and the shouts of the military, the proclamation of the new king reaches David, he quickly assembles his trusted followers and flies towards Mount Olivet, hoping to cross the Jordan in time to escape the ambitious fury of his son. On the way he meets his faithful officer Chusai, whom he advises to join Absalom. “You will be of no use to me if you go with us. But if you join Absalom, and say to him: I am thy follower, a King, as once I was thy father’s, he will receive thee, and thou wilt have it in thy power to frustrate the designs of Achitophel who has betrayed me.” Chusai acts on the advice, and succeeds in gaining the confidence of Absalom. So skillfully does he play his role as adherent of the rebel party that his suggestion, pretending the uselessness of pursuing David, prevails against the urgent counsel of Achitophel, who urges Absalom to attack the King, lest he gain time to organize his bodyguard, lately strengthened by the accession of six hundred Gethaean soldiers. The event proves the accuracy of Achitophel’s foresight. David is secretly informed of Absalom’s delay, and forthwith sends his three generals, Joab, Abisai, and Ethai, to attack the rebel hosts from the eastern side of the hill. Shielded by a forest, David’s men proceed and meet Absalom’s unguarded forces on the edge of the woods which fringe the circular plain at a point marked by the present site (presumably) of Mukaah. A frightful slaughter ensues, and the disorganized rebel party is quickly routed. Absalom madly flies. Suddenly he finds himself stunned by a blow while his head is caught in the fork of the low hanging branches of a terebinth tree. At the same time his long loose hair becomes entangled in the thick foliage, whilst the frightened animal beneath him rushes on, leaving him suspended above the ground. Before he is able to extricate himself he is espied by one of the soldiers, who, mindful of the King’s words, “Spare me the life of Absalom”, directs Joab‘s attention to the plight of the hapless youth. The old general, less scrupulous, and eager to rid his master of so dangerous a foe, thrice pierces the body of Absalom with his javelin. When the news of Absalom’s death is brought to David, he is inconsolable. “My son Absalom, Absalom my son: would to God that I might die for thee, Absalom my son, my son Absalom.” The sacred text states that Absalom was buried under a great heap of stones (II Kings, xviii, 17) near the scene of his disaster. The traveller today is shown a tomb in Graeco-Jewish style, east of the Kidron, which is designated as the sepulchre of Absalom, but which is evidently of much later construction and probably belongs to one of the Jewish kings of the Asmonean period (Josephus, De Bello Jud., V, xii,2). Absalom had three sons, who died before him. He left a daughter Maacha (Thamar), who was afterwards married to Roboam, son of Solomon (II Par., xi, 20), although there is some doubt as to the identity of this name mentioned in the Book of Kings and in Paralipomenon.