Absalom, we are told, happens to encounter some servants of David. Though this sounds a bit odd, the reader must remember that the fog of war had definitely descended on this particular wooded battlefield, and the rebel king probably was as disoriented as his troops. As would have been appropriate for a high-status figure, Absalom is mounted on a mule, and the animal, perhaps in a panic, scoots under a large oak. Before he can react, Absalom finds himself caught by the hair in the tangle of the tree’s branches.
The bizarre, almost comical, image of the young man suspended between heaven and earth is, as Robert Alter comments, a wonderfully apt summary of this entire section of 2 Samuel (Alter 1999: 304). Who could miss the irony in the fact that Absalom’s hair, which had been the very focus of his narcissistic pride, would become the means of his undoing?
On the biblical reading, happiness flows not from self-preoccupation but rather from a forgetting of self and a surrendering to the purposes of God. Also, the royal animal running off and leaving his rider suspended is a particularly apt symbol for the unseating, the dethroning, of Absalom. Like his former counselor Ahithophel, Absalom ends his life strung up, undone by his own errant machinations.
Of course, the church fathers cannot overlook the thematic rhyming of this episode with the Gospel accounts of the death of Judas, another betrayer from the inner circle of the king who ends in a bad way. Cassiodorus’s comment is typical: “When Absalom was cruelly attacking his father David, the speed of his mule caused him to collide with a thick oak tree, and the branches wound round his neck so that he was suspended high in the air. This was a prefiguration of the Lord’s betrayer. Just as Judas ended his life in the knot of a noose, so also David’s persecutor breathed his last through the pressure on his throat.”