If David = Christ, Absalom = ???

There’s a tough question for you: at the level of allegory, who is Absalom?

This question is a lot more difficult than asking the same of Pharaoh, because (again) the Books of Samuel give us richer and more complicated characters.  We can see and understand and sympathize with the motives of the various actors.

In one obvious sense, Absalom just has to be playing the role of Satan.  This is especially clear in II Samuel 15-16.  If David is the true king of Israel, whose people have abandoned him for another king, walking in sorrow up the Mount of Olives…well, Absalom has to be Satan.  He’s the rebel who won the hearts of the king’s people and turned them against him, the one who has ascended in his pride and usurped the place of the king, the one who seems to conquer as the true king is defeated and goes down into exile.  In the king’s absence he plunders his bride(s) just as Satan defiles the souls of believers and the Church herself.  He’s a bad dude.

But he’s more sympathetic than Satan ever can be in Scripture, and I dare say even more sympathetic than Milton’s version.  Absalom is a young man enraged by the very real failings of his father, who continues to fear his father, and who dies rejecting his father’s forgiveness because it came too late.  It’s hard to hang on him the garb of Satan, for whom such things can only exist in Miltonian fantasy.

This inability to accept mercy and the betrayal against his king provides another easy fit: Judas.  Judas is a traitor and, if you work at it a little, a sympathetic one.  He does not attempt to reign in Christ’s stead, so the allegory breaks there, but there’s also a dinner-table betrayal: Absalom uses a family feast to murder his brother (What would have happened had David accepted the invitation…?).  Finally, Judas rejected his Lord because he relied on worldly wisdom to evaluate the Gospel, just as Absalom relied on the counsel of Ahithophel.

Of course the connection with Judas also raises a quick and easy moral sense of Scripture as well: Absalom and Judas are both men destroyed by their inability to forgive and accept forgiveness.  Absalom is each of us when we choose this path—rebel against a loving father, hurtling down a path that can only end in our own destruction, motivated by fear of punishment but entirely in the wrong direction.

The likability of the characters in II Samuel also underscore an important point about the spiritual senses: there is not a 1-to-1 correspondence between type and fulfillment.  Even nice guys, or relatively nice guys, can be figures of evil.  To say that Absalom is a type of Satan is not to condemn him with the identical wickedness. Not even Pharaoh, a much more flatly evil character, need be tarred with quite the same brush.

We don’t reverse-engineer the interpretations so that, knowing Absalom is a type of Satan, all of his actions and motives must be interpreted Satanically.  It’s merely that he plays the corresponding role and in doing so provides insight into the real, transcendent thing.  Otherwise no one could ever be a type of Christ—no one can say that David is divine, sinless, omniscient, etc.

These are simple considerations but they can be easy to lose sight of once the literal sense becomes more complicated.  This makes me marvel a little bit at the way Scripture is composed.  You simply don’t find these problems in Genesis or Exodus…isn’t that better? Shouldn’t the matter be “less in the way,” much like the extremely simple Eucharistic species gives way the more readily to manifesting God?  There is less to distract?

And yet, like Christ Himself, Scripture fires on all cylinders, touches upon all aspects of the human, plays notes that are pure and simple as well as rich and complex.  When I read the Books of Samuel I think of Homer, and it please me to know that even something like Homer’s epic genius can serve as a medium for revelation alongside the simple.  God does not need us to make room for Him—it is He who makes room for us.

As high as the sky is above the earth, so high above your ways are my ways, sayeth the Lord.

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