Absalom: Caught by Head or Hair?

Absalom was a son of David who instigated a revolt, an attempt to overthrow David and take his place on the throne. This led to a battle in the heavily wooded mountains of “the forest of Ephraim” (2 Sam 18:6). When Absalom was confronted by some of David’s men, he fled on his mule, was caught in the branches of a great oak, suspended in the air, and was eventually killed by Joab and other soldiers of David. One of the oddities associated with this story is that, despite the clear wording of the text, the popular conception today is that Absalom was caught by his hair.

“Absalom Hanging on the Oak Tree,” by James Tissot, circa 1899.

The text reads, “Now Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. For Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. And his head caught fast in the oak, so he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him kept going” (2 Sam 18:9, NAS). The Hebrew word “head” (rosh, רֹאשׁ) is not the same as the word that would have been used for “hair” (se’ar, שֵׂעַר). Unfortunately, this clear wording is obscured by a few English versions like the NIV and the New Living Translation that actually switch the word to “hair.”
Where did this misunderstanding come from? It probably stems from the notice a few chapters earlier that Absalom had a very thick head of hair, and was accustomed to cutting it once a year. The narrator of the book of Samuel states that this shearing produced a mass of hair that weighed about 200 shekels (2 Sam 14:26), equivalent to about 5.5 lbs (2.5 kg). By comparison, the average sheep fleece harvested in the US is a bit over 7 lbs.

Shepherd shearing a sheep, circa 1910.

There may be some additional indicators, though, that Absalom was actually caught by his head and not by his hair. If he were caught by his hair, one might expect him to work himself free; as the leader of the rebellion he should have been well armed and been able to cut himself free. If nothing else he could have pulled through or broken smaller strands of hair. There was likely time to do so, since the first man to find him left him alone and went to inform Joab (2 Sam 18:10-13). But there is no reference to a struggle. On the other hand, if he were caught by his head he was likely injured, and perhaps even paralyzed by a broken neck or puncture wound. It is noteworthy that there is no conversation between him and anyone else after his accident. He may have been so incapacitated already that he was unable to speak.




    1. I was taught, he was caught by a fork in a big tree(head).

    2. The part of his anatomy engaged in usurping the throne was finally caught.
      Like Lucifer of old, Absalom would not ascend the throne.
      His stinking thinking came to a tragic end.

    3. I actually believe it was his hair because earlier in chapter 14:26 it talks about how much his hair would weigh (by the end of the year before he would shave it) and it was about 5-6 lbs which is about the upper end of how heavy a humans hair can be, indicating that it was quite long. Why else would God put this weight in the scripture other than to foreshadow his means of death and to give explanation for how that would be possible.

    4. Avatar for Kris Udd Mark Robinson : February 3, 2024 at 2:58 am

      Absalom stayed in Jerusalem during the battle, as both Ahithophel and Hushai advised. His desire was to return justice to the kingdom, not to kill his father. Regretting his actions, he came late to the battle to make peace. That is why he rode a mule, and that is why he rode alone. No one rides a mule to a battle; no king ever rides alone. He was caught by his hair because he was crying so hard he could not see where he was going. He did not call for help, which he could have done. He did not cut himself free, which he could have done with any weapon. He carried no weapon, because he sought peace. He was silent, resigned to his fate, which he thought he deserved. Absalom was a type of Christ, a truth which is well hidden in the center stanza of Psalm 72, the most prominent of all the psalms.

      • This is certainly an out-of-the-box interpretation, but there are a number of very difficult hurdles. 1) The motives attributed to Absalom (regret, desire to make peace, carried no weapon, crying, resigned to death) are pure supposition; this view is not supported by the text, and in fact runs counter to the descriptions of Absalom as a murderer (2 Sam 13) who undermined David (2 Sam 15:1-6), who also took his father’s wives in view of the public (2 Sam 16:22), and it was God sought to bring calamity on him (2 Sam 17:14). 2) The statement that “he rode alone” is incorrect, as “Absalom crossed the Jordan, he and all the men of Israel with him” (2 Sam 17:24). 3) The mule was a royal mount (see 2 Sam 13:29, 1 Kgs 1:33,38), so it would naturally be the choice of a man who aspired to be king, even to ride into battle [don’t confuse the mule with a donkey, which is not an animal one would ride into battle]. 4) As noted in the original text of this blog, the text states that he was caught by his head, not his hair; to describe him as caught by his hair and then assume he purposefully did not cut himself down or call for help goes well beyond the description of the text itself. 5) Psalm 72 has no hidden reference to Absalom. It was written by Solomon [probably many years after the death of Absalom] and it describes the ideal kingship of a godly king. One might easily suggest that the psalm is ultimately fulfilled in the kingship of the Messiah, but it does not mention Absalom, nor is there any reason Solomon would have made reference to his rebellious half-brother in a royal psalm.

    5. I visited Israel and as we were touring we stopped to to see 1 of the sites on our way to the Dead Sea. There was a small rest area with trees there and as I was walking under 1 of the trees my hair got caught in it. It took my husband and 1 of the other visitors to get me out. I was not dangling in the air, but I had to hold onto my hair to keep more hair from getting stuck in that tree. My 1st response was to grab my hair. I had always had trouble trying to figure out how anyone could get caught in a tree like that, but after it happened to me I didn’t question that verse anymore.

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