Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Absalom

Dear Hannah,

The Ethiopians are a very peculiar people.  Hidden away on the eastern half of Africa, they do not have a history of slavery in the Americas, and of all the different kinds of black Africans appear the least foreign to us.  Their features are in many cases sharp as the European's, and provide a stark contrast to the Africans of The Ivory Coast and the Congo.  Here you will see no flattened noses or giant lips; and their skin appears almost bright compared with the midnight blackness of the people of Sudan.  My opinion is that their women are the prettiest of black Africans; and what they surpass in all their neighbors with the beauty of the face, they double in terms of form with a thickness in the rear*.  Their only rivals on the continent are the Arabs of North Africa.  The same compliment of looks cannot be paid to their men.


On Sundays in an area like north Seattle where large numbers of Ethiopian refugees have settled and currently thrive, they are easily mistaken by the less distinguishing locals for Muslims; and around their orthodox Christian churches you can see hordes of elderly women flocking to hear sermons in their best Sunday garb -- a flowing white headdress which is easily confused for a hijab.

The fact that they are Christians forms perhaps the most striking aspect of the Ethiopian community.  The older ones can oftentimes be seen in the marketplace with tattoos of the cross on their foreheads; a reminder to everyone who looks them in the face about Whom it is they actually serve; and these devotees in turn have chosen to mark their children in other ways which are equally important.  Many of the names I have encountered in their community are starkly Jewish; a sign that the elders are familiar not only with the New Testament, but with the obscurest portions of the Old.  You frequently encounter a hybrid between the Dark Continent and the Promised Land in their surnames like Gebremichael and Woldemariam; and their first names are oftentimes not even after people, but the places of the patriarchs.  Moses was said to have married an Ethiopian after his first wife, and this had caused a massive grumbling amongst the leadership.  It is possible to surmise without knowing the history of Ethiopia that many of them have taken this story seriously, and perhaps hold on to their heritage like anyone born to the actual Jews.

But if this is not the case the naming may also be taken as a sign of resurgent fanatacism.  During periods of revival in America and England the effects of conversion are practically homgeneous.  First there is a revolution in morals.  Next there is a revolution in nomenclature.  Georges and Williams do not even give way to Jameses and Johns (which despite their association with the apostles are too common to be taken religiously at this point), but to Ezekiels and Jedidiahs; names which are too ugly and too Jewish to be given of their own sake, but which reek of fervency and activism and the times when God spoke to his people and ruined their enemies instead of throwing His children to lions. The Apostles got themselves killed.  Solomon ran a kingdom during the period of its height.  Some Christians believe the future of the church is in heaven.  Those who believe it begins here on earth often name children after the best of the Hebrew heroes and prophets.

What this is all leading to is the fact that of all these wonderful Africans I've met -- the Africans who are almost not actually Africans --, I have finally met one named after an almost-king the Jews are more likely to boo than to cheer.  Absalom was his name, and the reason he was almost a king is because he was a rebel.  Nearly every child reared in the home of a devout parent knows that Absalom was a rebel, and not only a rebel, but the rebel who rebelled against the saintly king David.  He has been held for thousands of years in disrepute.  I believe it is time to vindicate him.

Absalom was born to the best king the Hebrews had ever gotten (whatever the Bible says about Hezekiah); a nobody made into a somebody who was born with the heart of a poet and fought with the arm of a warrior.  It is nearly impossible despite his devotion that none of his children be unruly.  During his reign Israel defeated the Philistines and established their people in safety; and it was during this period of safety that David's son Amnon fell in love with his half-sister Tamar and raped her.  It was then that she went to live with her brother Absalom.

Absalom's love for his sister was nothing like Amnon's, but brotherly; kind; piteous and fawning and jealous for her dignity.  The Bible says that after her rape she was left desolate, and that Amnon, being loved by a father who believed wholly in justice but was embattled by every natural passion, forsook the duty of a king for the paternal affection of a father.  So Absalom watched David do nothing.  And Absalom said in his heart that he would do something.  And one day he finally did.

That day fell on a day of celebration, years after Amnon and David thought everything had been forgotten, and a feast had been thrown for the young men of the family.  They gathered in one spot, drinking began, the sluggishness of gluttony sank many into a stupor, and Absalom's servants sprang upon his unsuspecting brother and slew him with a sword.  The brothers all fled Absalom, and Absalom in turn fled his brothers.

Absalom went into hiding for years, unable to face his father who had now not only failed to kill the rapist of his daughter, but had been saddled with the obligation of killing the murderer of his son.  He was torn.  Absalom was perfect, beautiful in the manly way -- with David's own looks and described by the Scriptures as the handsomest man in Israel.  He was tall and charming and upright and daring and loving and kingly -- and just as only just men are when the law isn't ruining the lawless.   He was the pride of David's household, and he was on the lam for murder.  David couldn't hunt him down.  David couldn't let him back.

After years of being on the lam David was implored by his best general to grant him pardon, knowing that whatever Absalom had done had only been done out of brotherly duty.   Eventually David gave in but took years to accept Absalom as a son again, which in turn fostered an implacable feeling of resentment in a son already inclined to hold grudges.  But Absalom was finally brought back to court, and being back into court he began to slowly court the people.  Sitting by the city gate, he beckoned everyone who had a grievance to come to him, winning the hearts of the poor with his generosity and justice, settling disputes and hearing the cases that David was too busy or too negligent to hear.  And he soon got a following that was too great to bear David's past injustices.  A signal was given.  Absalom declared himself the king, and David narrowly escaped into hiding with his life.

The civil war was short and brutal, and David would have lost were it not for a spy he had put in Absalom's camp.  Meanwhile Absalom degenerated into the thing that he hated, raping ten of David's wives on the roof of the palace and driving David to the last extreme of a parent only flawed by his affection.  A battle turned south for Absalom, and while on the run from David's loyal general Joab, Absalom's flowing hair was caught in a tree, and he was killed by loyalist forces who were commanded above all things to spare him.

There can be no way to express exactly what David felt at this point, but we know that he was so profoundly affected by this entire scheme of events and felt so strongly for his son that he went into mourning -- to the extreme embarrassment of his generals and the general shock of the troops.  Israel was mourning the deaths of their friends and their family, and David was mourning the loss of the rebel.  The army nearly deserted him.  Having nearly lost the kingdom to Absalom's vigor, he almost lost the kingdom to Absalom's memory.

And this is the point of it all.  I believe David wept because Absalom was his son.  But I also believe he wept because he knew Absalom got worse than he deserved.  Absalom is the name of a just and passionate rebel; a man who would kill his own father to make things right even if that father had been anointed by a prophet.  Absalom is a name you give to someone you want to think outside the rules because you think outside the rules; because whatever you've been taught you know the difference between a tragic hero and a villain; because you know that justice is sometimes bigger than laws and conventions and connections.  We of European descent often call ourselves freethinkers, and many wrongly imagine that Africans are stuck in the superstitious and tribal past.  But of all of us who've given our children Biblical names, have any of us ever had the balls to name any of our kids after Absalom**?

Your father,
-J

*It turns out I'm not the first person in our family to voice this opinion, and it's been reported that my grandfather Kietzmann, an old, blue-blooded German immigrant who married my Honduran grandmother Eva, had said practically the same thing when I was only a kid.  He believed that Ethiopians made the only beautiful women in all of Africa.  A man who is used to the Goddesses of central and northern Europe would know better than the rest of us.

**Your mother objects to the conclusion of the passage, citing the many apparently clueless parents who name their children Mark Anthony -- after the drunk and dissolute tyrant responsible for killing our Cicero, and the unworthy successor of the god-like Julius Caesar.  We have met women named Jezebel and Delilah; and many children have been named after Aaron, despite the fact that of all the Jewish patriarchs Aaron was the biggest doofus.  His most celebrated line comes in the book of Exodus, when Moses caught him worshiping an idol, and his defense was that he threw a bunch of gold into a fire, and instead of a molten blob he got a statue of a calf.  Fitting for a person who saw the ten plagues and couldn't believe in the One who had sent them!

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