[NB] Absalom, Absalom

Like much of theoretical speculation here, there is a practical case that motivates my thinking about the mythical depths of the seemingly historical Bible. The Bible provides me with many of the tropes through which I have worked out some of the more intimate dimensions of my spiritual court. I am sure some of that is growing up Catholic, but several elements have little to do with the Biblical world of my Catholic childhood. Like Absalom, the rebellious son of David, like Tamar.

This one is longer than usual.

(Which isn’t to say that these stories are strictly Christian or Jewish. They fall into a globally-distributed pattern of myths.)

Tamar and Absalom share a story, but there is a still earlier story of Tamar that makes her contemporary with Judah. If we read the Bible historically, those two Tamars must be quite distinct people, but if we read it as myth Tamar can be understood as two faces of a singular figure. The structuralist in me notes that the two stories share many elements, just in different arrangement.

The stories also just read a lot like myths. The way in which tensions arise and resolve around the less than ethical behavior of the key actors and the stylized death of figures like Absalom have a lot in common with mythology.

You can click over to Wikipedia for the medium length version of these stories or to one of the many copies of the Bible online for the full story, but I will very briefly summarize each story here.

In the Tamar story of Genesis, Judah has three sons. Tamar is wed to the eldest, Er, who is struck dead by God for his wickedness. As is proper by Jewish law, Tamar is then wed to Onan whose habit of coitus interruptus angers God who strikes him dead. Judah hesitates at this point, delaying Tamar from marrying his third son, Shelah. Realizing Judah is cheating her of what is hers by right, she plays the veiled prostitute and gets pregnant by Judah, making sure she has proof of the encounter.

When she is brought before Judah to be burned for conceiving out of wedlock, she presents Judah’s regalia and he relents, realizing that she only claimed what was hers by right (i.e., she just went to the father for the seed of the line she should have received by marriage to the son). She has twins, Perez who is the ancestor of King David and Zerah (‘rise’) who is the first child to reach forth from Tamar’s womb (marked with a scarlet thread), even though it is Perez who is born first.

In the story of 2 Samuel, Tamar appears in the court of David as his daughter by Talmai (a name shared by a nephilim at Hebron, the same place from which Absalom’s rebellion begins), full sister to Absalom and half-sister to Amnon. Amnon lures Tamar to him, rapes her, and then abandons her. She makes a claim against him, but he refuses to acknowledge her claim. Absalom, enraged at his sister’s treatment, lures Amnon away from court and murders him. Later, Absalom rebels against David, making a point of displaying his rebellion by laying with his father’s concubines.

David loves his son deeply and asks that he not be killed. But when Absalom is caught in the branches of a tree by his head, David’s military leader Joab kills him.

An important caveat before proceeding: a full account of these stories would need to treat the historical dimension of these stories, not just their mythic dimension. The historical trappings transform the reception of the story by highlighting that great injustices weigh heavily against the righteousness that the chosen people have been called to uphold. As historically portrayed, they emphasize the historical dimension of human action where what is done cannot be undone, only modulated.

That sensibility is present in myth to a lesser degree. Talking about the Bible in strictly mythic terms occludes that, but since the Bible has been so heavily freighted as historical it is necessary to over-emphasize the mythical dimensions of it.

With this in mind, let’s proceed with Tamar first since she spans two stories, providing a link between two snapshots of a dynamic correlation of potencies.

In both stories, Tamar’s control over own sexuality plays a key role and, despite that, her behavior is held to be above criticism. In Genesis, she plays the harlot and lures Judah to sleep with her so that she may claim from him directly what she is due. Yet, when it is revealed who she is, Judah acknowledges that her trickery was just, that she behaved honorably by pretending to be a harlot so that he would sleep with her.

In the second story, though she is raped, there is no pretension made that the rape is anything but repulsive, and that her rapist, Amnon, is all the more repulsive for refusing to acknowledge what she has a claim upon him because of his crime. Outright harlotry is absent from the story, but the force of it is displaced onto David’s concubines, with whom Absalom lays.

There are a series of structural inversions between Genesis and 2 Samuel. Tamar the ancestress of David becomes Tamar the descendent of David. The seed of the father claimed by the ‘harlot’ becomes the seed of the son sown with the father’s concubines. Consent becomes rape. The founding of a royal line becomes a threat to the royal line. The patriarch’s just ruling becomes the king’s unjust inaction. Twins contesting for a place as first born become half-brothers at loggerheads over an injustice. Proper inheritance becomes unsettled rebellion.

Tamar and Absalom are both, by virtue of their mother, united to stories of nephilim and Tamar is explicitly associated with the mystery rites of the neighboring peoples, wearing the clothing of a priestess. Compare this to Tamar of Genesis and an interesting picture emerges. Judah’s judgment on Tamar excludes her from the circle of the Judaic people, but incorporates her offspring into its genealogy. Tamar, the foreigner, becomes the root of the Jewish kings. Appropriately enough, it is only with Judah the father that she conceives.

There is a tension here between the institution of Judaic kingship and the (dangerously close to idolatrous) woman who provides it with the means to become real, to be born. This looks familiar, like the pact between the gods and faeries / witches that makes possible the manifestation of the divine in the world.

That we are looking at two forms of order can be seen in the behavior of Absalom as interfering with the king. He changes the order of things, greeting those who come to him with a kiss instead of asking them to prostrate themselves to him, he keeps concerns to himself so that the king does not know and so appears indifferent (an interesting tactic since it is precisely the king’s indifference which Absalom rebels against). In other words, Absalom behaves a good bit like a Gnostic demiurge.

Tellingly, in spite of being provoked by his sister’s rape, Absalom’s rebellion never provides proper redress for it. While a pact is made with the concubines whose social position puts them in resonance with the Tamar of Genesis, the pact acquires no dimensions beyond its place as securing Absalom’s revolt. The proper treatment of the (great mother) Tamar seems essential for the success of the kingdom. More than anything else, that proper treatment consists of honoring her role in supporting the kingdom on earth and according her the respect attendant to that.

Consider the importance of brotherhood in these stories. These figures represent one of the many formulations of Cain and Abel that criss-cross the early books of the Tanakh. Consider the relationship between Zehar’s red string and Esau’s hairy red hands. In attending to Cain and Abel, we should note that this makes Tamar resonate deeply with Eve, with Tamar’s associations with the nephilim mirroring Eve’s associations with the serpent. Tamar shares her name with a date palm, a tree, underlining her resonance with the serpent in the tree.

And how does Absalom die? Absalom is killed after being lifted off his horse by a tree. Absalom is taken for sacrifice by a tree, i.e., by Tamar. He pays for not answering Tamar’s claim in much the same way as Amnon, with death.

Going back to Zehar and Perez, we need to pay attention to the solar connotations of the brothers. Zehar is lined with red, his arm reaching out, like the rays of a sun. The rivalry of sons is also the rivalry of suns, the system of two suns evoking some other, mithraic, mysteries from the greater Levantine region. And from whence does the sun rise? It rises from beneath the horizon of the earth, from within the earth. The sun in the sky, the sun in the earth.

Now, Zehar who foreshadows Absalom is marked with red, and Absalom sets fire to Joab’s field. The red flames across the horizon of the fields here summoning again the spectre of an other sun whose destructive force parallels the fructive force of the sun-son of God embodied in the kingship of David.

The sun-son of the earth trying to replace the sun-son of the sky.

A white stone building with a pillared facade and a conical roof.

The structural pattern developed within the Tamar stories continues in the next generation of the house of David, with Solomon’s reign. Under Solomon, what was made fruitful with Judah, contained by David, becomes destructive. Threat turns into collapse with the division of the kingdom. When we look to see how that collapse develops, the female figures at the heart of the failure are neither ‘harlot’ ancestress nor raped descendant, but wives.

This suggests a further clarification about what it means to respect Tamar and provides some deeper insight into what the injunction against idolatry entails. Honoring Tamar is absolutely necessary, but placing her in the same position as God, as the celestial king who descends upon the kingdom, is not only unnecessary, but disastrous.

The core of the Jewish monotheism expressed in these stories is that there is a kind of spiritual being who is different and more expansive than other spirits the Jewish people are aware of. Other idols are excluded from God’s temple because they lead the Jewish people to lose sight of this expansiveness, leading them to confuse this God with the sorts of spirits that have idols.

Nonetheless, it suggests that there is an aspect of this idolatrous spiritual world that cannot be ignored without grave (pun intended) consequences. That tension animates the Jewish myths of Tamar. While there are glimpses of a more stable formation in the prophetic books, at this stage the tension is unstable and explosive.

As an aside, the story of St. Peter that Gordon shared a little while back can be read against this backdrop.

The anti-idolatry applied to these myths has consequences, too, transforming them into meditations on ritual protocols as much as they are meditations on spiritual forces that define the world.

*   *   *

And, having something to do with all this, let me just end this post with my respects to the dogs Excalibur and Loukanikos. The dog days are fierce and long this year. Blessings to you both and good journey.

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