The Biblical Absalom

The Banquet of Absalom attributed to Niccolò De Simone

I’ve been hearing a lot of mentions of William Faulkner in recent months, and as I’ve managed to reach my maturity without reading any of his books, I’ve decided to try to rectify that. Given that even his longest novels are only a fraction of the length of Warren Pease, maybe I’ll have more success.

Tentatively, I’ve settled on Absalom, Absalom! as that is supposed to be one of his best (or possibly even his greatest) achievements. And to prepare for that, I thought I’d refresh my memory of the story of the biblical Absalom.

Oh—my—god—what a story! Rape, incest, murder—and that’s only on the first page!

Anyway it all starts with David, you know that little guy who defeated the giant Goliath by bringing a slingshot to a sword fight. Well, when he grew up he had a total of eight named wives, an unknown number of concubines, and at least one adulterous affair (with Bathsheba, but that’s another story). These, uh, alliances produced 20 sons and one daughter, or at least that’s all that the Bible will admit to. God, or Yahweh, seems to have been ok with all this. At least he didn’t smite David with a thunderbolt or anything. Those were the days when God was still in the smiting business.

David’s firstborn was Amnon, the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel; the second born plays no part in this story, so I won’t bother mentioning him. The third born was the protagonist of our story, Absalom the son of Maakah. Although 2 Samuel Chapter 3 doesn’t mention it, Maakah presumably also gave birth to David’s only daughter (that the Bible will admit to) because we learn later on (Chapter 13) that she was Absalom’s sister, but she was only a half sister to Amnon. 

Tamar happened to be a very beautiful woman, and half sister or not, Amnon lusted after her. So he pretended to be sick and he asked his father to send Tamar to bake some special bread for him. Which she did, and when he asked her to feed it to him in his bedroom, he raped her.

After which he was immediately filled with an intense loathing for her. Now here is where it gets a bit cloudy for me. I believe that at that time God had some sort of law that allowed (or demanded?) a rapist to marry the woman he raped, but Amnon refused Tamar’s entreaties. No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” 

Instead, Amnon has his slave kick her out. When David heard what happened, he was furious, but apparently he didn’t do anything about it. However, Absalom bided his time, and two years later he sprang a trap and killed Amnon.

And then he fled the wrath of David.

In Chapter 14 we find that three years later David’s nephew Joab convinced David to allow Absalom to return.

There’s more to the story of Absalom but I believe that Faulkner’s reference is merely to the return of the main character’s son.

But I can’t close without mentioning the time that Absalom was riding his mule and he went under the thick branches of a tree. Absalom had very long hair, which got caught in the branches, and he was left hanging in mid-air while his mule kept right on going. I wonder if that gave Sondheim the idea for— 

Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground
You in mid-air
Send in the clowns

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