How To Get A Head Through Negotiation

They came and besieged him in Abel Beth- maacah, and they cast up a siege ramp against the city, and it stood by the rampart; and all the people who were with Joab were wreaking destruction in order to topple the wall. (2 Samuel 20:15 NASB)

Joab replied, “Far be it, far be it from me that I should swallow up or destroy!  Such is not the case. But a man from the hill country of Ephraim, Sheba the son of Bichri by name, has lifted up his hand against King David. Only hand him over, and I will depart from the city.” And the woman said to Joab, “Behold, his head will be thrown to you over the wall.” (2 Samuel 20:20-21 NASB)

One of the most difficult things any US Administration faces is negotiations in the Middle East.  It  seems to be one of the most difficult places for people to get along.  Whether because of oil or religion, or even different people-groups, it seems that there is always turmoil in the Middle East.  In some wars early in Israel’s 20th Century history, they used tactics from Scripture to form their battle plans.  I wonder if we can find negotiation strategies in there too?

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The Gutless General

When they were at the large stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Now Joab was dressed in his military attire, and over it was a belt with a sword in its sheath fastened at his waist; and as he went forward, it fell out.  Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him.  But Amasa was not on guard against the sword which was in Joab’s hand so he struck him in the belly with it and poured out his inward parts on the ground, and did not strike him again, and he died. Then Joab and Abishai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri. (2 Samuel 20:8-10 NASB)

There are times that I really wish the Biblical writers had included more detail.  Then there are times, like here, where they include a lot of detail, and it doesn’t help; I still don’t get it.  This used to bother me, but the more I read commentaries, I realize we all struggle imagining just what happened here.  In addition to the few things we surmise, there are a few things we actually know.

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Rebuilding Burnt ‘Emotional’ Bridges

Say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? May God do so to me, and more also, if you will not be commander of the army before me continually in place of Joab. ‘” Thus he turned the hearts of all the men of Judah as one man, so that they sent word to the king, saying, “Return, you and all your servants.” (2 Samuel 19:13,14 NASB)

David, you’ve just won the battle against your rebellious son and all of Israel.  What are you going to do now?  Well, whatever he should have done, could have done, or might have done; what he did was ball his eyes out demoralizing his faithful victorious troops, sit in the gate to cheer them up, send word to Judah to rebuild relationships, and sort of forgave his enemies all around.  But it’s not really clear whether this is one of David’s shining moments or not.

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The Man With The Dangerously Big Head

Now Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. For Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. And his head caught fast in the oak, so he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him kept going (2 Samuel 18:9 NASB)

I had a friend ask me where I come up with these titles.  I’m not sure.  I suppose when I imagine a guy riding a mule going under a tree, getting his head stuck in the tree, and the mule continuing on, leaving the man hanging from the tree; I’m likely to suspect his head was too big.  The irony of the term applied to Absalom also makes it very attractive, almost as attractive as he thought he was.  See, it just works so well on too many levels.

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Wait, he’s who again?

Absalom set Amasa over the army in place of Joab. Now Amasa was the son of a man whose name was Ithra the Israelite, who went in to Abigail the daughter of Nahash, sister of Zeruiah, Joab’s mother. (2 Samuel 17:25 NASB)

Have you ever listened to some guy’s story about somebody he knows, and after getting lost in the details realize he has no idea who this guy is either?  The basic issue here is that Abigail’s and Zeruiah’s father wasn’t Nahash but Jesse (or was supposed to be).  That made Joab David’s nephew, which may be the only reason David let him live.

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Not Just A Pretty Face, But Also A Bad Example

Now in all Israel was no one as handsome as Absalom, so highly praised; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no defect in him. When he cut the hair of his head (and it was at the end of every year that he cut it, for it was heavy on him so he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head at 200 shekels by the king’s weight (2 Samuel 14:25-16 NASB)

Plots Within Plots

One character in Scripture who I never see put in a good light is Absalom.  He is often put in a ‘sympathetic’ light, but never held up as a good example of character.  And he isn’t.  In fact, I’m not so sure seeing him in a sympathetic light is really what was intended by the author here.  In the previous chapter, he tells his sister not to say anything about being raped, so she has no legal support from her father.  Absalom doesn’t say anything either.  This seems rather odd, except that the depraved brother is also the first-born, first in line for the throne.  So, in a very real sense, Tamar’s rape gives Absalom an angle to kill the person in front of him in line for the throne.

Beyond that, we see that he is brought back from exile, but never ‘repents’.  So he sees himself as above whatever law exists in Israel regarding what he did.  This isn’t a great situation for a would-be king to be in.  On top of that, we also get a glimpse of his character toward the end of chapter 14 which sets up the following chapter.  He is handsome, more than anyone else in Israel.  But he is very aware of this.  Who weighs his hair after cutting?  He cuts it because it’s ‘heavy on him’, and then weighs it to show off how much hair he has.  I’m thinking it would be lighter if he cleaned the anointing oil out of it from time to time, but again, that’s my opinion.

Absalom is living the good life.  He is back in Jerusalem, but not in court.  So he has a scheme for that.  It takes him two years to scheme against his depraved brother Amnon.  He waits another two years in exile, and now he waits two years to see his father.  Joab was instrumental in bringing him back, but ignores him once he’s back.  Absalom is not one to take being ignored, so he sets Joab’s field on fire.  Keep in mind, Joab is not above murder himself.  He’s not one to be trifled with, but Absalom is confident that no one can touch him.  He wants to see the king, and nothing will stand in his way.  But why?

I think that Absalom has been after the throne since before his sister is violated.  While his depraved brother Amnon is sick over his step sister, I believe Absalom is sick over how to get the throne.  Amnon unwittingly helps his brother when he ‘helps himself’ to his sister.  Absalom can kill Amnon and blame it on avenging Tamar.  And it really makes him look good in a way, like a kinsman-avenger.  But he still requires a few things to make a solid bid for the throne.  He needs legitimacy.  What I mean by legitimacy is that he must be perceived as the natural one to be next on the throne by everyone.  But the first step toward that is to be seen as legitimate within the court, but also with the king.

He has to have the king’s acceptance in order to be seen as really legitimate as an heir to the throne.  So, he comes home, but then must see the king.  He waits two years, and finally gets Joab’s attention by setting his field on fire.  It works, and Absalom is accepted by David.  Now Absalom can move on to stealing the hearts of the people.

Absalom is smart.  But he is also strategic, and patient.  He would be perfect in his diabolical pursuit if it weren’t for his one huge fault: Pride!  He really sees very little besides himself, and seems to truly believe that he is in pursuit of what is rightfully his to take.  He’s beautiful, he has heavy hair, he’s rich, he’s the kings eldest son (number 2 disappears, never to be heard from after being listed once).  What could possibly go wrong?  As long as he continues to be wise all should be well.  It really is interesting that he is so smart and patient at his age.  Most aren’t.  Amnon wasn’t.  Why is Absalom?

The Point of the Lesson of Absalom

We don’t know why Absalom is so cunning.  Scripture doesn’t tell us, and we’re left with the view that Absalom is just that smart.  And maybe he is.  That would make him very smart, very handsome, and with very little to slow down his inflated view of himself.  But there is a piece to this story that must not be lost.  Solomon must become king.

I’m not sure why, but Chronicles completely ignores these accounts of David.  There’s nothing about Bathsheba, nothing about Absalom, and from that account, we’re left wondering what happened to the eldest of David’s sons.  But this account seeks to solve a problem.  Keep in mind that of all David’s children, only Solomon is renamed by God, and this name is Jedidiah, a version of David’s own name but now it means ‘beloved of Yahweh’.

That happens as Solomon is a child, before he can ‘prove’ himself by his deeds, God sees something in him and approves of him already; before he can earn it.  The problem is that there are many brothers ahead of him.  And many of these brothers are dangerous, like Absalom.  So, in a sense, Absalom is a bad example, but what is also being shown here is that no amount of smarts, good looks, and strategic scheming will thwart the plans of the Almighty Creator.  This account explains what happened to some of those ahead of Solomon who assume the throne belonged to them.  But this account also supports God’s choice of Solomon.  Amnon wasn’t a good choice, he was depraved.  Absalom wasn’t a good choice, he was a conniving pretty-boy.  Adonijah is left to the final ascension of Solomon.


What I learn from Absalom, at least up through chapter 14, is that it’s not about how smart I am.  I already know I’m no looker, and I will never weigh my hair (nor let it get that long).  But I can become very impressed with my own ideas.  I can become very intoxicated with my particular view through a knothole.  This is partly (perhaps mostly) why I pursue this path of theology.  I need the reminder that there are other views, and mine is incomplete without the others.  I must not loose sight of the ‘game’, the Person and work of my Master.  He reveals Himself through Scripture, and I’m looking at Him, not myself.  There is real danger is looking myopically at the knothole itself and forgetting that the point lies in the view beyond.  God has a purpose in bringing Solomon to the throne.  This would have been true even if Amnon wasn’t depraved, Absalom wasn’t a conniving pretty-face, or anyone else thought they should have the throne.  God wanted Solomon on the throne, and that was what was going to happen.

What does God want for my neighborhood, my community, my church, may family?  Whatever it is, I better be on board with that and forget my own ‘plans’.  No amount of scheming, planning, conniving, or cleverness will change what He wants to what I want.  At least, that’s my view through the knothole.  What’s yours?

Not A “Nathan”

Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s heart was inclined toward Absalom. So Joab sent to Tekoa and brought a wise woman from there and said to her, “Please pretend to be a mourner, and put on mourning garments now, and do not anoint yourself with oil, but be like a woman who has been mourning for the dead many days; then go to the king and speak to him in this manner.” So Joab put the words in her mouth. (2 Samuel 14:1-3 NASB)

In chapter 12, Nathan the Prophet (I think that was his last name actually) goes to David and confronts him about his sin with Bathsheba.  To do so, he tells the Shepherd-Warrior King a little story about two guys with sheep.  Using that story, he brings David face to face with what he has done, and David repents.  I believe Joab saw the effects of the story (since he was so involved with David’s sin), and thought Nathan was such a genius for it, he decided to copy it.  I’m not sure, the Scripture doesn’t say that Joab wanted to be, or thought he was, a genius too; I just suspect something of the sort was involved.

Playing the King…And Surviving

The story Joab puts in the mouth of this wise woman of Tekoa (where everyone finds wise women) isn’t on par with what God puts into the mouth of Nathan.  This story is made up of a lot of begging on the woman’s part, ‘They want to kill my only remaining son!’ ‘I’ll not let that happen.’ ‘Please help me, they’ll kill my son!’ ‘Send ‘them’ to me, I’ll not let that happen.’ ‘My son will DIE!’ ‘No, I won’t let that happen!’  I sort of think this should have been called, “How to annoy your king and live.”

One of the pieces to this story that irks me is the application to the king.  The supposedly wise woman applies the story of her son to the king by saying, “We’re all going to die because you won’t bring back your murdering spoiled brat Absalom!”  That had to be the words of Joab since this woman is supposed to be wise.  My only confusion is that, since she is so wise, why agree to such a preposterous story.  She probably could have come up with a better one herself.

It seems David thought so too, because he sees right through her as soon as she tries to apply the story to him.  Enter Joab, stage…well, actually he seems to be standing right there (as I said, he’s not actually a sociopolitical genius).  David relents to bring Absalom back, just not to see the king.  Why is that?

The Legal Problem

One of the problems with bringing Absalom back is that David, the king of Israel, is responsible to uphold the law.  As king he hears cases all day long (or it probably seems like it takes all day).  That’s why the woman was supposedly there, for the king’s judgment.  It would not look great for the king to break the law for his own family, although God had done so for him in his sin with Bathsheba.  So, what’s a father/king/judge to do with a son who has committed such a sin as murder?

There is a set of esoteric laws in the Hebrew Torah regarding a Gaal, pronounced with two syllables, ‘ga-al’, no long vowels…we think, there’s actually an unpronounceable consonant in between the two ‘a’s.  This family role is responsible for redeeming lost property back into the family (redeemer), carrying on the line of a dead relative (leverite), and sometimes avenging the death of a relative (avenger).  It was part of their legal system that families, particularly this Gaal, avenge murders or even accidental deaths.  They were to do so upon meeting the man-slayer, no trial needed.

Two texts regarding this are found in Numbers 35:6-8 and another in Deuteronomy 19:1-13, those are the two I found regarding the avenger role specifically.  Included in these legal records are also the rules for ‘Cities of Refuge’ where someone could go if they killed another accidentally.  They could remain there until the death of the high priest, and the avenger could not slay them.  But, it first had to be proved that they did, in fact, kill by accident, and rules are found in the text to differentiate between intentional ‘murder’ and unintentional ‘man-slaying’.  It sounds convoluted and complex, but it’s not that hard to understand, and it makes a certain beautiful sense.  The hardest part is the cultural gulf needed to be spanned between 21st Century America and Second Millennia BC cultures.

Since the circumstance of Absalom’s exile was that he avenged his sister’s rape, a case could be made that he was within his rights to do so.  On the other hand, the circumstances surrounding how he did it place him in the wrong of the intentional murderer rather than the family Gaal avenger.  It’s a case for the king to decide, but it would be between his two sons, one having killed the other.  Certainly a mess.

So, this wise woman from Tekoa is used by Joab to influence the king to restore Abasalom, partly because Joab sees David wants to.  Joab thinks he’s helping David get what he wants to do, but doesn’t see how to do.  I think Joab is wrong here.  I wasn’t there, I didn’t see David’s face and Joab does know David really well (see 2 Samuel 11:18-21, in the Greek text of this passage, David says exactly what Joab said he would).  But I think David was embroiled in a deeper dilemma than Joab knew.


In seeking the will and desire of my Master, I have a few things to hold on to.  First, I believe that my Master truly wants me to know what He wants.  But He wants me to know that as I grow closer to Him.  He wants that close, intimate relationship where it’s relatively easy for me to know what He wants.  The description in Scripture of God’s love and desire for His people is deeply intimate.  His practice of speaking with His people and directing them is often also very intimate.

Therefore I believe David was trying to discern the will of God for this circumstance with Absalom.  And he wasn’t getting the answer he wanted.  I don’t believe that David was comfortable doing what he wanted to do, which was bring Absalom back.  I think that is why he brings him back but won’t let him come into his presence.

One of the comments Joab puts into the woman’s mouth is that God always makes a way for the ones He banishes to come back to him.  In other words, we might see it as God always leaving a way for repentance.  I agree with this to a point.  My understanding of repentance is more than physically relocating.  In this account, Absalom never actually repents for what he does.  Instead, he consistently requires everyone else to simply accept what he does, including the king.  So, in receiving him back, the king has ‘rubber stamped’ the sin of murder, and in this case, without a trial, and without repentance.  He’s the king, and he can do that.  But as we see from what follows, this wasn’t God speaking to him to give him guidance.  It was Joab intervening to give the king what he thought he wanted.

I can be quick to jump on something that I think God is telling me because what I sense is exactly what I want. That’s probably where I need to be most cautious, the most hesitant, and the most unwilling to go.  My heart is not the heart of God, and as much as I would like to see myself as one, I don’t think I am truly a ‘man after God’s own heart’ as David was.  In my own personal circumstances God has revealed to me, just last night, that I am harboring a huge amount of resentment toward someone (or something, depending on how you look at it).  This resentment is causing me no end of problems.  It’s not hurting the one(s) I resent though.

The key application here is that my resentment and the resulting bad attitude at work was not my Master telling me to find another job.  If I did that I would simply be carrying my resentments along with me.  That would disastrous for the next job/employer that picked me up.  I think it’s very easy to believe, and we like to think that, our Creator guides us using our desires; usually misusing the verse that He gives us the desires of our heart.  Our hearts are deceitful and lie to us.  Why would the One having made our hearts, tell us how bad our hearts are, but then turn around and give us what our hearts desire?  Wouldn’t it make more sense that He would instead, plant new desires as He changes our hearts?

I realize that I need to send away my resentments before I can really understand the direction my Master has for me.  That’s my view through this particular knothole.  What’s yours?