Absalom’s attempt to steal the throne from his father King David would end in a bloodbath. The battle raged in a place called the Wood of Ephraim also known as the Forest of Ephraim. This battle showcased David’s experience with irregular warfare leading to victory for his men and a disastrous defeat for Absalom.
King David withstood many threats to his kingdom, but none was more devastating than the attempted coup by his son Absalom. Absalom’s ambitions may have started shortly after the rape of his sister Tamar and David’s hesitation to punish the perpetrator, his first-born Amnon. Through patience and brilliant political maneuvering, Absalom eventually garnered enough support within Israel to drive his father out of Jerusalem.
Absalom might have been successful if David had not planted his own double agent, Hushai (II Samuel 15:32-37). While Ahithophel, Absalom’s trusted counselor, had advised him to pursue David while he was on the run, Hushai convinced him to wait it out until Absalom could garner more military support (II Samuel 17). This decision was detrimental for Absalom as it allowed King David and his men to resupply and draw Absalom’s men to a geographic area of their choosing.
David Prepares His Army
After David fled, Hushai counseled him to cross over the Jordan River (II Samuel 17:16). Across the Jordan, he and his men found refuge in the city of Mahanaim where David’s allies provided for him and his men. It was a region King David had used as a strategic center during campaigns against the Ammonites and the Arameans and it would serve that purpose again against his son [see Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. Volume 2. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1963, pp 272.] In Mahanaim, David organized his forces into three divisions under the command of Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite in preparation to face Absalom (II Samuel 18:2).
As King David prepared his men, he did so with the knowledge that he would be facing a much larger army. I have made the case in King David, the Rise of the Warrior King, and The Organization of David’s Military that David’s military complex had both a standing army and a militia. The militia was much larger numerically and it was the militia who had mostly sided with Absalom. So as David prepared his men, he did so knowing that he was at a numerical disadvantage.
Inhospitable Terrain Favors Guerrilla Warfare
As David’s forces move out from Mahanaim (without David) to engage with Absalom’s men, the text simply reads:
So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim.II Samuel 18:6 (ESV)
The wording is a bit ambiguous as to where the fighting actually started. We know from II Samuel 18: 8-10 that the battle spanned a large geographic area and that it likely ended in the Forest of Ephraim. However, with David’s background (and his commanders’ for that matter) in irregular warfare, it would not be a far stretch to believe that David’s commanders intentionally drew Absalom’s forces into the forest (possibly under David’s direction).
Established armies would have preferred to face their opponents in open fields, especially in ancient warfare. Forested areas tend to be characterized by uneven terrain and trees obfuscate clear lines of sight, ambushes, sudden flank attacks, etc. But David and his generals were no ordinary commanders and with a significantly inferior army, they might have reverted to their roots of guerrilla-style warfare. His more highly trained force would have a much better shot at defeating Absalom’s large army in the forest than in an open field. No wonder the biblical text reads II Samuel 18:8, “The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.”
The Battle of the Wood of Ephraim echoes the Battle of Teutoburg Forest where Rome lost three legions and almost 10 percent of its military to Germanic tribes. In Rome’s case, the legions were highly trained and much more capable than Absalom’s citizen soldiers. In comparison, Absalom did not have a chance against his father and his men.
A Decisive Defeat in the Wood of Ephraim
Indeed, Absaloms’ men were defeated in the Wood of Ephraim. Absalom was also swallowed up by the forest in a rather unusual and embarrassing way. His long locks got caught on a tree branch and he was executed there by David’s general, Joab (against David’s orders). Along with Absalom, 20,000 of his men died during the engagement. The decisive defeat is a testament to the battlefield genius of David and his men and their ability to adapt to the changing environment.
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