In II Samuel 15, Absalom sets up his conspiracy to take the Israelite monarchy from King David, his father.
He does this through two means:
First, he judges people’s cases as they go up to Jerusalem to receive justice from the king. Through flattery, he wins the hearts of many Israelites.
Second, he tries to maneuver his way to Hebron without David figuring out that he’s starting a rebellion. Absalom asks David if he can go to Hebron to pay a vow to God. When he was in Geshur in Aram, Absalom tells his father, he promised God that he would worship God in Hebron if God would bring him back to Jerusalem. David allows Absalom to go to Hebron, and Absalom is declared king there. Hebron was a prominent city, for it was the capital of David’s kingdom before he moved it to Jerusalem.
Two features of II Samuel 15 stand out to me:
1. V 4 says that Absalom “justified” the Israelites who came up to him for judgment. The Hebrew word is “hitzdiq,” which the vast majority of the time in the Hebrew Bible means “to justify” or “to declare righteous.” Absalom doesn’t seem to be rendering impartial justice in these cases; rather, he is declaring anyone who comes to him to be in the right, thereby gaining his support. Maybe this is a good thing, since those who seek justice may be the victims of harm. But it could also be a bad thing, for Absalom is bribing people for their support by giving them what they want, without hearing both sides of the dispute (as far as I can see).
2. Many commentators act as if Absalom was insincere in his desire to worship God in Hebron. And they may have a point, for, whether v 7 says “after forty years” or “after four years,” Absalom waited a while before he decided to pay his vow in Hebron.
But the question that went through my mind was, “Why Hebron?” I understand how Hebron could be beneficial to Absalom as a headquarters for his conspiracy, for it was a prominent city. But why would David buy Absalom’s story of wanting to worship God in Hebron rather than Jerusalem? What would be the rationale of worshiping in Hebron? And why would Absalom in Geshur, Aram vow to worship God in Hebron if God returned him to Jerusalem?
A.A. Anderson points out that Genesis 13:18 mentions a Yahwist sanctuary in Hebron. There, Abraham built an altar to God after he had separated from Lot and God had promised him the land of Canaan.
Maybe Absalom vowed to worship God in Hebron because he viewed himself as a second Abraham. Centuries before, God brought Abraham from Aram, promising to give him the land of Canaan. So perhaps Absalom in Aram was praying, “Lord, if you bring me from Aram to the promised land, as you did for Abraham, then I will sacrifice to you in Hebron, where Abraham built an altar to you.”
And that could have been what went through David’s mind when he heard Absalom’s story: “My son wants to worship God in Hebron because that’s where Abraham built an altar, and God brought Abraham from Aram, as he did for my son.”
Yet, David wasn’t reading between the lines. Why couldn’t Absalom sacrifice at Shechem, which was the site of the first altar that Abraham built after God brought him from Aram (Genesis 12:6-7)? There may be a practical answer, such as the fact that Hebron was closer to Absalom (in Jerusalem) than Shechem was. But I wonder if the story of Genesis 13 was going through Absalom’s mind. In Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot separated, and God promises Abraham the entire land of Canaan. In II Samuel 15, Absalom decides to officially separate from David, and he launches his plot to take over the land of Canaan.
Maybe Absalom actually was sincere and religious, and his story to David wasn’t a lie designed to get himself into Hebron. He very well may have made a vow to God while he was in Aram, hoping that God would make him the second Abraham, bringing him to the promised land and blessing his attempts to take it for himself. And he waited for the right time to carry out his conception of “God’s work,” which is why he didn’t try to fulfill his vow until after some years.
But Absalom’s religion sought to make God a tool for his ends, and it didn’t echo the spirit of Abraham. Abraham allowed Lot to pick the best land for himself, meaning his goal was peace with Lot. And Abraham did not seek to take the promised land by force. Rather, he humbled himself before a Hittite native and paid him a big price to bury his wife, Sarah, on the very land that God had promised him (Genesis 23). And, incidentally, the site of this act of humility on the part of Abraham was Hebron.
Justice and religion can be tools for pride and self-advancement, or they can inspire us to acts of love, kindness, and humility. I hope they do the latter for me!