Absalom’s Hair—2 Samuel 14

Absalom was David’s favorite son. His remarkable beauty his engaging manners, and his more exalted birth, must have contributed to this. But it is also true, that the peculiarly loving temperament of David rendered him incapable of fully enjoying life without some special object on whom to bestow the utmost tenderness of his affection. Hence we always find some one in the enjoyment of his special favor and regard throughout his whole career. It is now Absalom. Three long years the king endured his absence, and in that time his grief for the loss of Amnon was assuaged, and his horror in the remembrance of Absalom’s crime became less keen. He longed to have the young man back, but on many grounds feared to call him home. Joab discerned the struggle in the king’s mind, and although he seems himself to have had no liking for Absalom, he devised the means of impressing upon the king, that he might gratify his own wishes without giving offence to public opinion, which he seems to have much dreaded. He employed a clever woman of Tekoah, to appear as a mourner before the king, and tell him a fictitious tale of distress, well calculated to awaken in him the feelings of paternal affection towards his absent son. The application of the recital which she made was less striking than that of Nathan’s parable, but it ended by imploring David to “fetch home his banished.” The king began to perceive that Joab was at the bottom of this matter, and glad to have the sanction, thus delicately conveyed, of that rough and influential soldier, he authorized him to go to Geshur and bring Absalom home.

If the reader looks through the chapter which records these transactions, he will perceive in this cautious mode of proceeding, in the manner of the woman, and in that of Joab himself, that the kingdom was even, in the hands of David, assuming much of the character of an eastern despotism, notwithstanding the conditions on which the royal power was held in Israel. We are not, however, disposed to build so much on this as some have done. We see the king chiefly in his own court, and the court is always despotic in the East; that is, the king’s power is absolute over all who take employment under him, while the people may be comparatively free, and their franchises respected. What a difference, accordingly, always appears between the intercourse of the king with his own courtiers and officers, and that with the great land-owners and sheep-masters in the country! This distinction is not sufficiently attended to by European travellers, who, in their views of eastern nations, are too much in the habit of estimating the condition of the kingdom from what they see of the state of the court. But it is quite possible that there may be a considerable degree of freedom among the people, while the sovereign is absolute and despotic in his court, and over all who come within the sphere of his personal influence. We do not therefore regard the absolutism which appears in the Hebrew court, during this and subsequent reigns, as at all implying that the substantial liberties of the people were in any way compromised.

But although Absalom was allowed to return to Jerusalem, two whole years passed before he was admitted to his father’s presence; and, considering how deeply that father loved him, and had not beheld his face for three years, David is entitled to much credit for this self-restraint. That he was not admitted into his presence was a sign well understood, far more significantly in the East than it would be even with us, that he was still under disgrace. It in fact compelled him to live as a private person, and to lead a retired life; for it would have been outrageously scandalous for him to have appeared in public, or to have assumed any state, until he had appeared at court. The courtiers were also constrained to avoid him, and he could not even obtain an interview with his uncle Joab, until by a rough stratagem—that of causing his barley field to be fired—he drew him to make complaint of a wrong; and having thus got within reach of his ear, easily prevailed upon him to persuade the king to admit him to his presence.

In the chapter whose contents we have thus scanned, it is stated that—“In all Israel there was none so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. And when he polled his head (for it was at every year’s end that he polled it; because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he polled it); he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels after the king’s weight.” By this it would appear, that this vain young man let his hair grow as long as he could bear it without much inconvenience; and when it was cut, caused it to be weighed in evidence of its abundant growth. “From year to year,”—implying, that he had his hair cut every year, does not convey the meaning of the original, which signifies that he cut it “from time to time”—occasionally; that is, as the text explains, when it became heavy, which may have been, and probably was, at longer intervals than a year. The fact would imply, that long and abundant hair was fashionable at this time; although, in a later age, we find it counted as an effeminacy in a man. There are passages in Solomon’s Song which confirm this; and it is stated by Josephus, that the picked men who formed the body-guard of Solomon, wore their hair in long flowing wing tresses, which they anointed and sprinkled with gold dust every morning. This loading of the hair with unguents and gold dust, may perhaps, lessen the surprise, that an unusually ample head of hair should be so heavy. Two hundred common shekels would be about 112 ounces troy; but less if, as is usually supposed, “the king’s shekel” was not so much as the common shekel. The use of this denomination clearly implies that there was some difference, and no one has supposed the difference to have been in favor of “the king’s shekel.” One great authority (Bochart) makes the weight not to exceed 3 pounds 2 ounces; and even that is not the lowest estimate, for others bring it down to little more than two pounds. Some, indeed, by supposing one Hebrew letter to have been taken for another very like it, Note: The letter ‏ר‎, which as a numeral stands for 200, for ‏ד‎, which represents 4. reduce the weight to four shekels or two ounces; but this weight is too little remarkable to have been mentioned with such distinction. The hair of men will grow as thick as that of women, and perhaps thicker; and if we may judge from the queues of the Chinese, which sometimes reach to the ground, it will grow as long; and such hair, if of proportionate bulk, must, one would think, weigh at least three or four pounds. Indeed, we have read the well-known case of a lady whose hair reached the ground, and weighed, upon her head, and therefore without including the weight of the parts nearest the scalp, upwards of four pounds, which is close upon Bochart’s weight for the hair of Absalom.

Some, as in the case of the Ammonitish crown, suppose value, not weight, to be meant. But, was the king’s eldest son likely to sell his hair for five pounds, and what was the use of it? Hardly to make wigs of; for although wigs were known among the Egyptians, there is no probability that they were in use among the Jews; and to meet the suggestion, that persons might be employed to buy up hair for the use of the Egyptian barbers, it may suffice to remark, that such wigs as have been discovered seem to have been made of horse hair or goat’s hair, like those worn by our barristers.