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.

 

 

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