The Battle of the Wood of Ephraim
The war between King David and his rebellious son culminated in a single battle, fought in the Wood of Ephraim. Absalom selected his cousin Amasa, also David’s nephew and a cousin of Joab, to be the commander in chief of his army, and followed the growing army of his father into Gilead. David had meanwhile expanded the army under his command, as warriors responded to his calls for support and flocked to his troops at Mahanaim. David split his forces into three divisions, with the first commanded by the eternally loyal Joab, a second by the ally Ittai, head of the mercenary troops which arrived from Gath, and the third by Abishai, a warrior with vast experience leading troops garnered during the wars of expansion.
The exact location of the Wood of Ephraim is unknown, as there are no other explicit references in the biblical texts, but it is believed to be to east of Mahanaim, from which location David dispatched his troops against Absalom’s forces. According to Second Samuel, Absalom erected a monument in Jerusalem to perpetuate his name to posterity, an indication that he meant to conquer or die in the attempt. Whether David was aware of the monument from his spies is not known, but David expressly forbade his commanders from harming Absalom in any way, warning them, “Beware that none touch the young man Absalom”.
The heavy woods made it difficult to maneuver and the rebel forces were caught between the three divisions of David’s army. Absalom himself fled from the battle as it became a rout of the rebels, and according to Samuel his long hair became entangled in the branches of a tree, leaving him suspended from the boughs as his horse or mule, accounts differ, moved on. He was discovered by one of David’s servants, who recognized him and sent the information to Joab, who ordered him executed. Other accounts claim Joab himself killed the rebellious youth. David was informed that Absalom had perished, though he was not told how.
Following the defeat of the rebellion and the death of Absalom, David brought the rebel commander, Amasa, to Jerusalem and after obtaining an oath of loyalty appointed him as commander of the army for life, a political move meant to bring the loyalty of the rebellious clans back to the throne. Joab recognized the move as a threat to his own position within the power hierarchy. When another rebellion began among the Benjamites, Amasa moved too slowly in preparing the Israelite army to suppress it, and Joab, though loyal to David, murdered Amasa.
Other than the biblical accounts there is little historical evidence for the tale of the rebellion and Absalom’s part in it, despite it becoming one of the most popular Old Testament stories in subsequent literature, music, poetry, and films. The monument erected to himself by Absalom has been identified by some who support the historicity of the Bible as the Tomb of Absalom in the Kidron Valley. In the early twenty-first century, the monument was dated as being from the first century of the Common Era, a millennia following the reign of David.