The Bible’s most vivid character is King David, whom it is easy to see as the paradigm of masculinity. We think of him as a ferocious fighter, a sweet musician, a loyal friend — and mighty popular with the ladies.
King David is also an extravagantly emotional father — belying the contemporary cliché that fathers are tough, unforgiving disciplinarians, while mothers are gentle, clement protectors. (Indeed, parental roles in the Bible can be seen as remarkably flexible, less defined than you might expect. Both parents are to be honored, as in the Ten Commandments, and revered.) No one loves his children more than King David, and only God is so boundlessly forgiving. The Bible’s favorite hero embodies masculinity partly because of his great capacity for parental love.
Just think of the Absalom story (2 Samuel, chapters 13 – 20) to understand: David’s son Amnon had raped his half-sister Tamar. Either ignorant of the rape or overly clement, David fails to punish Amnon. Instead, Tamar’s full brother Absalom, who is furious, kills Amnon and flees to another king for protection. David mourns for Amnon, but even more he is heartsick at Absalom’s absence, and ultimately (borrowing a Christian image) brings this prodigal son home. Even when the child is a murderer, David embraces his son with love.
But even that is not the limit of David’s love. Absalom, returned home, has too much charisma and ambition for his own good, and before long he has fomented a rebellion against his father. The oncegreat king now is driven into the desert, weeping and barefoot, his enemies pelting him with rocks and calling him names. David fights back, of course, but instructs his generals to “treat this young boy Absalom gently… for me.” When the battle rages, David seeks reports: “Is my boy Absalom safe?”
Young boy? Treat him gently? Is he safe? Absalom has driven David from the throne and is trying to kill him; he has drafted David’s top adviser, Ahitofel, to the rebel side, not to mention that he has already slept with David’s concubines. Why should David cut him any slack? Warlords don’t cut slack!
In the end, Absalom dies dramatically: His hair is caught in a tree branch, and he hangs there “between heaven and earth,” until he is stabbed and beaten to death by David’s troops. When the king hears this awful news, he is disconsolate, moaning along his heart-breaking speech: “My son, my son, Absalom. If only I died instead of you… . Absalom, Absalom, my son, my son!”
David’s generals, who have just risked their own lives to defend him, are astonished: “You are humiliating us!” they say. “You would have been happier if your own side lost, and we were all killed! You love your enemies and you hate your friends!”
King David’s reply is absent from the text. I imagine he said nothing. Perhaps he thought: “You are my friends, but you cannot be my children.” For the sake of the kingdom, he congratulated his soldiers, but I imagine his heart was not in it. At this moment, he did not care much for being David HaMelekh. He wanted his boy.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofky is rabbi at Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, loves his two sons and two daughters, and prays they experience better fates than David’s children.