When David retreats across the Jordan, he establishes his base in Machanaim, which we know from Yaakov’s story:
It is in the modern Golan Heights, easily defensible and very isolated from Israel proper. It’s where Avner re-established the independent kingdom of Israel after Saul was defeated by the Philistines:
So again, we have these references to the beginning of David’s reign, but in reverse. Ish Boshet, Saul’s son, was king on the east bank of the Jordan, with David as king in Chevron, then Jerusalem. Now, David is king on the east bank of the Jordan, and Avshalom is king in Chevron, then Jerusalem. This almost chiastic structure gives us the sense that we at the end of David’s reign, and the cycle of Jewish history, of salvation, sin and exile, is going to continue. The text is setting up the tension, hinting that ה׳ will save David, and at the same time hinting that he will fall here in Machanaim.
And Avshalom comes, וכל איש ישראל עמו. It’s the same pasuk as דוד בא מחנימה but it clearly comes some time later; it takes time to muster כל איש ישראל. That was Chushai’s plan:
The Yerushalmi says that David was in exile for 6 months, which seems to me to fit the sense of the story:
So for 6 months Avshalom is gathering his forces, and at the same time (as we will see) David is gathering his forces. We don’t have the details of what happened, but I assume there was an uneasy stalemate until Avshalom crosses the Jordan to attack.
David’s general is יואב בן צרויה, his nephew by his sister צרויה. Avshalom picks another cousin, עמשא בן יתרא, the son of David’s other sister, אביגל. But his identification is odd. He is a בן איש (aren’t we all?); his father is a ישראלי, and his mother is אביגל בת נחש, but her (and David’s father) was named ישי.
Avshalom is the sort of person to be impressed by external things like yichus; he’s David’s vain and pretty son:
And we have the same sense from the way his father is described, יתרא הישראלי. It wasn’t his real name:
Avshalom is emphasizing his yichus; he can’t call him ישמעאלי. So he calls him ישראלי instead. And calling עמשא's mother אביגל בת נחש has a similar reason:
Any way we look at it, whether he is emphasizing how עמשא's grandfather (and his own!) was so righteous or so tough, or descended from the first נשיא of יהודה, it points out the family connection without any sense that עמשא is actually capable of leading a battle. The fact is that he is a capable general, and in פרק יט David will hire him as his own military leader, but there’s no sense that Avshalom is thinking in those terms.
And while Avshalom is appointing his general and mustering his army, David is getting local support:
Who are these people?
בן נחש is a familiar name:
And that led to the disastrous war with Ammon and the eventual conquest and enslavement of its people. So שבי בן נחש, presumably the brother of חנון בן נחש, should hate David. But instead he saves him (the midrash says that שבי was חנון, who did “תשובה”).
And we’ve seen מכיר בן עמיאל before as well:
So he was the one hiding the remnants of מלכות שאול, now supporting David.
ברזלי הגלעדי is more subtle:
If ברזלי הגלעדי is the father of עדריאל בן ברזלי, then David has caused the death of 5 of his grandchildren. And yet he supports David.
Now we look at David’s army.
The ויפקד דוד is important, because it is part of the process of preparing the army for war.
So the irony is that פקידה is when you send people back who can’t fight. David is the one sent back. He’s 65 years old now, and his kids have taken away his car keys. All he can do is stay in the city and pray. And David is good at that; we have one פרק תהילים that is explicitly connected to this battle:
We’ve already looked at that perek, so I want to look at another prayer of David on behalf of the people:
This perek, like many תהילים, has two parts, with the volta at פסוק יג: ואתה ה׳ לעולם תשב; וזכרך לדר ודר.
In the first half, David describes himself as poor and starving. The כותרת is תפלה לעני, but there is no prayer here, just verse after verse of misery. The second half makes the individual’s suffering a metaphor for the exile of the people, and the prayer is that ה׳ should return them to their land. We have been trying to understand all of תהילים as written by David, and our story in שמואל is David’s experience in exile (and his experience with poverty and hunger).
In modern Hebrew (from Mishnaic Hebrew), עטף means to wrap or envelope. In תנ״ך, it means to bend over or collapse.
The next section is a brutal depiction of poverty, starvation and loneliness:
שָׁקַ֥דְתִּי וָאֶֽהְיֶ֑ה has an אתנחתא֑ under ואהיה, a pause. Artscroll translates it as “I perservere but I remain”, but Meltzer cites Benno Jacob who connects ואהיה to הִי, a sigh of pain:
It connects all these verses together: I am like a starving, abandoned bird, crying in the wilderness.
Then the psalmist turns to the תפילה part: end the exile; it is time:
And the reason that ה׳ should listen to his prayer to end the גלות is that he (and the people as a whole) want it so badly:
It’s a very Zionist sentiment: ה׳ will end the exile because we love ארץ ישראל so much.
ערער is the “ruined one”, an echo of the פרק of גלות:
Our response to this new salvation will be to write new תהילים:
This is what we are looking for; not victory over our enemies but an end to enmity.
Then the psalmist goes back to the beginning, to his hunger and pain:
But his children will dwell forever in presence of ה׳:
There’s another perek that seems related, that deals with the glorious past and ignomious present, and the hope for a better future. It is attributed to בני קרח, who are listed in the titles of 11 chapters of תהילים.
We assume that בני קרח are the cousins of הימן המשורר, one the choirmasters in the time of David. Their פרקים are almost all described as למנצח, ”for the master“, and משכיל, which we’ve translated as a lecture or polemic. Some of them are very upbeat and patriotic, like the שיר של יום שני, תהילים פרק מח, יפה נוף משוש כל הארץ; הר ציון ירכתי צפון. Others are much more negative; unlike David’s psalms, this starts happy and ends on a negative note.
It starts with how glorious the nation’s past was:
Then the ongoing history of Israel:
And then it becomes more personal, in the first person singular:
I think this is a reference to David:
But then things get worse:
What’s interesting is that this is a קינה without any mention of responsibility; בני קרח are claiming that תמכר עמך בלא הון. There’s no sense that the people sinned and deserve their fate.
The argument is that the disgrace of Israel (or the singular speaker; the sense goes back and forth as in תהילים קב) is a חילול ה׳. בשת פני is equivalent to מחרף ומגדף.
The prayer for salvation is based on the premise that we, כנסת ישראל, have remained faithful despite everything ה׳ has done to us:
This has a very different feel from the “David” psalms. It’s not “we deserve all this, and ה׳ will make sure it all works out in the end, כל דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד”. This simply states the fact, argues the case that we deserve redemption, not punishment, and ends with the plea:
In our narrative, David never expresses this feeling. But it is in ספר תהילים because it is a legitimate approach to suffering, and it’s hard to imagine that the historical David behind the text never felt this way. He has paid for his sin with Bat Sheva and Uriah multiple times over, he has done תשובה, and he is still starving, in exile, unable to even fight for himself (we left the narrative with ויאמר העם לא תצא כי אם נס ננוס).
Back in the text, the description of the battle itself is brief:
The battle happens in יער אפרים, which is an area on the east side of the Jordan (even though אפרים was on the west):
And it is an allusion to a previous Israelite civil war that happened there:
ירב היער לאכל בעם מאשר אכלה החרב tells us about the panic in Avshalom’s forces:
But I think it emphasizes the fact that David is trying his best to not kill עם ישראל, just as he insists they go לאט…לנער לאבשלום. David is trying to be king over all of עם ישראל. The tragedy is that it just doesn’t work, foreshadowing the tragedy of Avshalom to come.