Caught by his thick, flowing hair, David’s son Absalom swings limply from the branches of an oak tree. Gerald Wartofsky’s 1993 oil painting Absalom depicts the tragic climax of Absalom’s attempt to usurp the kingdom from his father (2 Samuel 18). Resentful of his father, Absalom amassed an army that entered Jerusalem, forcing David to flee east of the Jordan. By the time Absalom’s men caught up with David, however, the king, too, had gathered together a well-trained army, which defeated Absalom’s. In the biblical account, David explicitly forbids his men from killing his son, who tries to escape the battle on a mule. But as Absalom passes under the low branches of a tree, he is ensnared by his hair, and, as his mule runs away, he is left “hanging between heaven and earth.” Finding Absalom in this vulnerable state, David’s general Joab thrusts three spears “into the heart of Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:9, 14). When David receives the report of his son’s death, he weeps bitterly: “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son” (2 Samuel 18:31).
In the book under review, McKenzie dismisses David’s famous elegy as feigned emotion. David, according to McKenzie, had far too much to gain by Absalom’s death not to have supported it. For McKenzie, David, not Joab, should be remembered as Absalom’s murderer.