August 8, Ordinary 19B (2 Samuel 18:5–9, 15, 31–33)
David, Absalom, and the dangers of “hanging between heaven and earth”
David wants his throne back, but to get it he will have to fight his own son. Yet the tale of David and Absalom is not exactly a conflict of interest story because—and here comes an understatement—these two have history. There are plenty of reasons that each would want the other’s head. What happens isn’t quite a catch-22 either, because there is a clear victory. It could be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, but this story is about something more than a clear victory that comes at great expense.
The story, brought to a tragic climax in this week’s reading, is about a phrase that lingers in the text, seemingly on purpose: “hanging between heaven and earth.” This phrase describes, almost to a comic effect, what happens to Absalom as he is riding during the battle: his head gets caught in a tree’s branches. Yet he remains alive, “hanging between heaven and earth,” while his mule rides on.
He’s not the only one hanging between. David wants all the might of a political giant, complete with a comeback story that would make Napoleon blush, yet he also wants his son spared. The text pushes even further: David wishes he could trade places with his dead son. Yet in the moments leading up to battle, and in all the engagement between armies and advisers (that Joab!) and prophets, David believes fully that he can be both a faithful father and a powerful warrior.