Lessons from a Family Tragedy
The Psychopathology of Absalom
The story of Absalom is a study of the tragic life of a once promising young man, infamous for staging a rebellion against his father, King David. In today’s context, this would be tantamount to a coup. I don’t believe Absalom’s idea to overthrow his father’s reign was an overnight decision. Those plans were hatched over a period of time. Let’s look at the events that shaped Absalom’s thinking, his feelings and behaviour, the events that predisposed him to the psychopathology of a frustrated prince. More than studying his mind, we want to drill deeper into the layers of his soul to see what lessons can be learnt from his life and death.
First, we look at his name. A person’s name can be very illuminating because it defines ambitions, aspirations, and even appearance and demeanor.
Absalom’s name means “father of peace.” Here is a name comprising two important words, “father”, and “peace”. We could say that throughout his life he longed for peace. In one sense that is what we all long for, but to Absalom, peace meant more to him than to the ordinary person. Because even in his relatively brief lifespan, peace was in short supply.
He looked to his father to provide peace. But he was disappointed, as there was none from his father. When he encountered injustice he looked to his father to mete out justice. But he was disappointed to find none from his father.
When he needed a sense of security in a complex, multi-family household, where there was status but no real significance, he looked to his father for security, but none was forthcoming. He craved affirmation in the face of rivalries that plagued relationships between his mother and his step-mothers and between himself and his step-siblings. But he was disappointed as there was none forthcoming from the throne room. Imagine his deep disappointment in his father.
Absalom’s mother was Maacah, a foreign princess, whose father was king of Geshur, a district in Syria, on the border of Israel. Maacah’s union with David seemed to be a marriage of convenience, perhaps politically motivated to ensure peace between their two countries. Did Maacah believe her husband desired her for who she was? We can imagine that any foreign-born queen, living with the king’s other wives would feel a sense of insecurity, constantly looking over her shoulder, and checking her position in the palace’s pecking order. She would have to deal with jealousy, rivalry, and perhaps even face racial discrimination from the other queens and officials, not to mention having to grapple with her own doubts and fears.
This sense of insecurity could have been projected onto Absalom, thus poisoning his soul with self-doubt, a sense of uncertainty, and low self esteem, all contributing to a psychopathology that would no doubt shape his future behaviour. Alas, in moments when he most needed his father, the king had no time for him. Father was too busy with military expeditions, and important matters of state, not to mention that he was the country’s poet laureate and resident psalmist.
Despite his inner frustrations, there seemed to be a plus point in his favour, albeit of dubious significance. We are told in 2 Sam 14:25-26 that he was an outstandingly handsome man and that his mane weighed a staggering two hundred shekels, equivalent to about 3.4 kg in today’s scales.
Just as Absalom was a handsome man, he had an equally beautiful sister, Tamar. Among her many admirers was David’s oldest son Amnon who desired her. After inviting her to visit him under false pretences, Amnon raped her. Perhaps filled with guilt and self disgust, his lust for her turned into hatred. Amnon had her chased out of his house. When Absalom heard what happened, he took his sister in to live with him. And for the next two years, Absalom nursed a hatred of his half-brother.
Hatred that is not properly dealt with results in murder. The two years of witnessing the tears and sorrow of a defiled sister only served to fuel his desire for revenge. By then, it was obvious that father David had forgotten the matter.
Seeing the perpetrator get off scot-free was too much for Absalom to bear. After two years, his sense of injustice had reached fever pitch. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
If the king would not punish Amnon, Absalom would. Amnon was invited together with the rest of the king’s sons to Absalom’s house for a party. During the merry-making, Absalom ordered his servants to kill Amnon in cold blood, after which he escaped to Geshur, where he stayed with his grandfather for three years.
Meanwhile, David “longed to go out to Absalom” (2 Sam 13:39). David might have longed all he wanted, but without taking action to reconnect with his son, his longings remained as wishful thinking. He could have contacted the king of Geshur to send his son back, but he did not do so until later.
It finally took David’s top general, Joab, a military man, to suggest to the king to bring the fugitive son back. Even after Absalom returned to Jerusalem, David sent his son into exile, with the order, “He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.”
The way to deal with a problem is not to send it away and let it sort itself out. The young prince felt totally rejected, and abandoned. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father waited for his wayward boy to return, ran to greet him when he was a distance away, and threw a gala dinner in his honour. But not so with David. He totally ignored Absalom.
Despite being a brilliant military strategist and the greatest psalmist in the land, the man after God’s own heart was a failure as a father, his parenting skills was non-existent. He had not taken the trouble to understand the psychopathology of his son, Absalom. Neither did he deal with Tamar’s emotional or physical trauma, nor the sin of his eldest son, Amnon.
With this background sketch of the life of Absalom, let us examine his future actions.
His future actions can be described in one word, “rebellion”. Absalom probably felt that throughout his whole life, he had been a victim. In all the years of nursing hurt feelings, angry at being neglected, rejected and abandoned, ideas to overthrow the king were festering.
He now approached people with problems and grievances and promised he could help them. He asked his father permission to go to Hebron. It was just an excuse because once there, he secretly arranged to have himself proclaimed king. News reached David’s ears. And now David began to fear for his own life. David gathered his servants and fled Jerusalem.
Then Absalom laid plans to immediately pursue and attack David’s forces, but the idea was abandoned owing to the advice of Hushai.
This delay allowed David to gather some soldiers and launch a counterattack. In spite of Absalom’s treachery, David gave explicit instructions to the generals to “deal gently” with Absalom. However, the orders were disobeyed. As Absalom was riding under some trees, his hair became entangled in the branches, and he was left suspended in mid-air. At the same time one of Joab’s soldiers happened to be passing by. He informed Joab, who picked up three javelins and thrust them into Absalom’s chest. As if that were not enough to kill him, 10 armour bearers were commanded to strike him to make sure that he was truly dead.
The manner in which Absalom died was interesting, if not bizarre. What trapped Absalom was his head full of hair. This was his crowning glory. It was his source of pride. His pride had now proven to be his downfall. We even have an English idiom: “Pride goes before a fall” perhaps borrowed from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” While it was his wounded heart that led to his rebellion, it was pride that led to his death.
What can we learn from Absalom’s life?
1 Do not take revenge. When you are wronged it does not give you the right to take matters into your own hands, or to seek revenge.
The problem with many movie plots is that they are based upon the victims seeking revenge for the wrongs they suffered. But the Lord commands in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’”. Leave it to God to exercise divine retribution.
2. Deal with pride. Absalom’s pride lay in saying, “I can rule the country better than my father.” Phil 2:3 instructs, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”. If others are more important than ourselves, then we should respect them even if we don’t agree with them.
3. Deal with idolatry. Many of us would consider idol worship as totally against biblical teachings. Yet we may unknowingly entertain idolatry in our hearts. Focus on the 2nd half of the verse 1 Samuel 15:23, “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.” The Hebrew word for presumption is pawstar, which can be translated presumption, stubbornness, and insistence on one’s own way. All these constitute the sin of idolatry. Why is this so? Because stubbornness and insistence on one’s way elevates self-will into an idol, which we insist that others must obey.
4. Deal with rebellion. Rebellion is different from disobedience. When we disobey we simply do not carry out what we are instructed. When we rebel, we purposely do the opposite of what we are told. All authority has been placed there by God. When we rebel it is not only a rejection of authority, it is a rejection of God Himself.
There is so much to learn about the life of Absalom. We learn how to respond when we are wronged, when we see injustice, when people wrong us. We need to pray for those who have authority over us. Although we may not always agree with their decisions, we need to bestow honour upon them. We need to exercise humility and not insist on our own ways even though we may think we are in the right.
As parents we need to be sensitive to our children’s feelings, sensitive to how our words and actions can impact their feelings. We need to make time for them, affirm, encourage and pray for them to grow in the knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Dr Leslie Lim is a Clinical Associate Professor and a Senior Consultant Psychiatrist. In his younger days, he was an ardent student of the violin. Offered scholarships to further his musical training in London, United Kingdom and France, he declined all of them in order to pursue his calling to become a doctor. Nevertheless he proceeded to London not for music but to pursue psychiatric training after which he returned to Singapore to commence practice in the public sector.