Lyz Lenz’s previous work for The Toast can be found here. This is her first essay for The Butter.
Walking the road to Jerusalem, I stumbled over rocks in front of Absalom’s tomb. It was the penultimate day of my trip to Israel with my husband. A trip we had been planning for almost two years. Growing up immersed in Bible stories, my husband and I wanted to put our feet on the land where faith and fiction fight over piles of rocks and sacred rubble. Tomorrow we would spend all day traveling to the airport, so today was designed to be the pinnacle of our trip: We would walk the Via Dolorosa and end our day near Golgotha, or what was supposed to be Golgotha. Like so many things with faith, no one is really sure.
So, we began our day in Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus sweated blood and cried out to God before Judas betrayed him. The holy experience cost $20 a person. A fact that didn’t seem to bother anyone else, who sat on benches, hands uplifted. I heard “Hallelujahs” echo throughout the garden.
I sat in a dirty plastic chair awkwardly watching Christians sob into olive trees.
I turned to my husband. “No one cries into a tree just because of Jesus. There is something else they are crying about, but it’s easier to pin it on Jesus.”
My husband put his finger to his lips. A lady from our tour group, who was kneeling by another plastic chair, glared at me before she continued her prayer.
I hadn’t gone to Israel for a religious experience. Still, I was amazed at how commoditized the experience was. Next to the church where Jesus turned water into wine, was a wine shop where nuns shoved their way into a long line to purchase bottles of syrupy sweet booze. Near the Jordan river was a booming baptism industry. You could be baptized just like Jesus in the Jordon for only $40, which included a white robe and a picture. The t-shirt that read “Baptized With Christ” was extra. At Kinneret, known as the Sea of Galilee in the New Testament, we got on a boat that piped out Christian worship music and bounced over the water, while a pastor led us in prayer. Another $20 a person. I had to plug my nose to keep myself from laughing during the prayer, when another boat sped past us blaring their Christian music louder.
I had to do the same thing while Americans, in their clean white sneakers, clung to the olive trees like they were their savior himself.
We left Gethsemane and walked a road that twisted down the hill toward Jerusalem. This was, ostensibly, the road Jesus walked back into the city with his captors, before he was crucified. Our tour guide was explaining all of this as we walked, but I barely heard him. All I could do was wonder at the grief that had been planted near the olive trees.
That’s when I tripped.
“Be careful, the road of faith is rocky,” our tour guide said. He was fond of puns. I laughed to encourage him. I dusted my hands on my skirt and looked up. In front of me was a small monument carved into the side of a hill. It looked like an ancient turret, lost without a castle.
“Oh, by the way, that is the tomb of Absalom,” the tour guide said. The tomb stands as an aside, a feature on your way to some other more important landmark. Cut into the side of a hill, the tomb is made of Ashlar stone streaked with yellow from age. The monument is small and square. Four decorative pillars line the front and they are marked in the center with a Cyclops-like window, topped with a conical roof.
It wasn’t actually the tomb of Absalom, the tour guide explained. But that was the legend. Jewish mothers would take unruly sons here and tell them the story of Absalom as a warning: Don’t try to up-end the will of God. Respect your elders. Don’t be like Absalom and rebel. Muslims and Jews like to throw rocks at the tomb, a symbol of disgust. A way of saying, “How dare you Absalom? How dare you challenge God’s chosen king?”
I stopped and stared. And all of a sudden, I wanted to cling to the monument and cry. Why were there no benches here? No silent moments of prayer? My heart was breaking, but I did nothing, just stood and stared. “I feel bad for him,” I mumbled, hoping no one would hear me, but too overwhelmed not to say anything.
“Absalom?” our tour guide asked.
The words spilled out of me. “I mean, he was just trying to save his sister and he loved her. He really loved her.” I tried to keep my voice from breaking.
It was far from the eloquent defense I wanted to launch. One of the pastors in our tour group smiled benevolently. “You can’t subvert God’s will.”
I spun to look at him. “The rape of Tamar had nothing to do with God’s will,” I snapped. “Or no God I want any part of.”
My husband came and grabbed my hand. I pulled away. I longed to be like Absalom. I wanted an army or a sword, the charisma to raise up a nation in defense, or even just the words to tell everyone that they were wrong. That Absalom was right. That he is a hero. But, standing in front of Absalom’s tomb, I had nothing, just my rage and my hair falling out of its poorly-constructed bun, frizzy in the humidity.
The Bible says Absalom died hanging by his hair from the branches of a tree, between heaven and earth. Absalom was angry at his father, King David, for doing nothing when his sister Tamar was raped by his brother, Ammon. Can you really blame him? Ammon lured Tamar to his bed by pretending to be sick. King David told Tamar to go to him and she did. She went to cheer him up and he raped her. Her own brother. When Ammon was through with her, he was disgusted with her and sent her away. David didn’t know about the rape, but after it was done, he didn’t do anything about it either. To me, the silence of King David reads like complicity. He was a man of war. He was used to rape, to expressions of power. It made him sad, but what was he to do?
For Tamar, for her honor and her life, the disgust and rejection afterward was the worst part. She was ruined and the one who had ruined her cast her off like a piece of garbage. With nowhere to go and her social standing and dignity lost, Absalom took her in. I imagine his anger and his disgust with his brother. His heart aching for his sister, who must have been his favorite because he even named one of his daughters Tamar. But after that, he lost his shit.
First he murdered Ammon. Then, he mounted an insurrection and took over the kingdom. His father had done nothing, after all, to avenge his daughter, Absalom’s sister. So Absalom scorched the earth with his rage. He raped his father’s concubines and marched on the holy city of Jerusalem. It seemed like he would win, too. But as he fled from the battlefield on the back of a donkey, his hair, his beautiful hair, got stuck in a tree. His donkey left him alone suspended between the ground and the sky.
In the end, Absalom was murdered by his father’s advisor, Joab, who found him dangling from the tree and stabbed him. Joab was acting against orders. King David told his men not to hurt Absalom, but Joab was pragmatic. He knew Absalom wouldn’t stop until Jerusalem was his. So, he protected the king by killing his own son. I imagine Absalom in those last moments, kicking the air in frustration and rage, futilely trying to land on earth. Silenced only by the sword.
I too hang with Absalom alone on a tree. The hunted child of a beloved king.
I remember a woman at church telling me how lucky I was to have my mother. “She is a true woman of God,” she said earnestly. I suspected her lecture may have been brought on by my mother lamenting my teenage surliness. I rolled my eyes.
“No,” she said. “Your mother has a heart for God. She lives her faith in a real way.” The woman gestured over to where my family stood, huddled by the doors to the church, ready to leave for lunch. I was one of eight children, homeschooled in order to shelter us from the ungodly influences of secular culture.
My family was the proof of my mother’s good works. We were quiet, smart and well-behaved. We volunteered at church and delivered meals on wheels. And when we gathered all together, around the oak dinner table that my dad called the aircraft carrier, we knew we were anointed. And over all of us, my mother reigned.
But her reign only appeared stable to those on the outside and soon, there too came a day when it all fell apart. My sister, my dear sister, golden and curly-haired like Tamar, was taken by a family member, ruined and cast out. And like David, my mother’s heart was broken but she did nothing.
I remember the day I was told about my sister. I was in my dorm room, it was October, and the evening light poured in my window thick and rich. I could hear students outside throwing a Frisbee. I was supposed to go meet some friends for dinner when my phone rang. I answered and listened to my mother. My whole body began buzzing with rage.
“He should go to jail,” I said. My throat hurt even though I hadn’t cried. Not yet.
“We need to forgive,” my mother said.
Only then did I scream. I lost my shit. Like Absalom, I railed and screamed and demanded justice. I slammed the phone against the wall. The plastic shattered in my hands and I screamed. I held my pillow to my mouth and screamed and screamed and screamed. I screamed until I fell asleep. When I woke up, all I could do was huddle against the wall and cry.
Over and over, my family told me to forgive to find God. Finally, I was told that maybe nothing had happened. Maybe, my mother said, I needed to be quiet and stop trying to tear the family apart. So nothing was ever done and the statute of limitations was allowed to pass.
I remember calling another sister on the phone during all of this. I was yelling at her. “This,” she said, “is why I don’t want to hear from you. This is why no one will talk to you. I’m afraid you are going to do something. You, out of everyone, are the most angry.”
This infuriated me even more. “Why is that?” I asked. “Why am I the only one angry? Isn’t it right to be angry about this? Shouldn’t we all be angry?”
She hung up on me.
That was almost twelve years ago. We’ve talked since then. We pretend like that conversation never happened. She wasn’t wrong to be worried. For many years after, I prepared myself for sleep by imagining the various ways the man who hurt my sister could die. Sometimes he died by accident. Sometimes he died by my hand. It feels scary admitting this. He is someone who was and still is dearly loved by people close to me. But night after night, I would lie in bed, silencing my mind by picturing his blood. I was trapped. I had no recourse. I wasn’t a player in this drama. I was just a sister on the sidelines. There was nothing I could do but yell.
Sometimes, I dreamed that the man who hurt my sister came after us all. In my dream, we were all in the same home, each of us sitting in different rooms. He walked from room to room, cutting us up with a knife. No one ever ran or tried to get away. They just sat still while he cut them. Then, when every one of us was gone and every room in the house was filled with blood, he lit the house on fire.
I would wake up from those nightmares afraid. Then, I would calm myself by, again, imagining his death. I only found peace when I pictured myself taking the knife from him and turning it on him. This was the civil war in my mind. He cuts. I cut. The metaphors were barely veiled. I told my husband that the worst part about the dream was realizing that this man had already killed us. He had already destroyed everything I loved and found beautiful. The nightmare wasn’t a warning, it was a reminder.
Sometimes I envy Absalom. He had recourse. He had power. He raised up an army in his rage. He did something. He turned his rage into an insurrection. All I’ve ever done is turn my anger into words. How can a sister avenge her sister? How can a brother mourn his loss? How can a child reconcile the sins of her parents?
In every Muslim, Jewish and Christian narrative, Absalom is a villain. He is cast as proud and ungrateful. Unrepentant and unprovoked.
David was God’s Chosen One, anointed by the Prophet Samuel to bring his people back to their God. He is the one who defeated Goliath. He is the one who returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He is the one who lusted after Bathsheba as she was bathing on the roof. And even then, even after David sent Bathsheba’s husband into battle so he could bed her, he repents and God forgives all. Even in his ugliness, David is forgiven and held up as a model of men who go wrong but redeem themselves. How can you win when your father is described in the Bible as a “man after God’s own heart”?
I imagine Absalom growing up in the shadow of David’s great light. Handsome and charismatic, Absalom was his father’s favorite. All great men have their dark sides only their children see. Absalom saw his father loved and revered; he also saw him murder a man and seduce his widow. Absalom saw his father turn a blind eye to the rape of his own daughter. He saw David’s weaknesses manifest in his powerlessness in the face of his own children. Where David failed to protect and comfort Tamar, Absalom prevailed.
As punishment for the murder of Ammon, Absalom was sent into exile. I imagine Absalom in those years trying to negotiate the disparate halves of his father. I’m sure Absalom began to doubt not only his father, but God. Did he ever cry out? Did he ever demand that God answer “Why? Why did you pick a man who lets his own daughter be destroyed?” In the Psalms, King David is depicted as crying out to God in rage, begging him for justice. I imagine Absalom doing the same. But in the Bible, God seems to answer David—slaying his enemies, meting out justice—but for Absalom, God was silent.
This golden son, now dejected and angry, raises his fist to the heavens and demands a reckoning for his ruined sister, and hears not a word. So he fills the void with his anger.
When David heard the news of Absalom’s death, he wept: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The repetition of language evokes his wails. The heartbreak of a father. I’ve always heard David’s lament as evidence of his tender heart. His forgiveness in the face of Absalom’s bold rebellion. But I hear something different. I hear a father lost.
Six years after I learned about my sister, I went to Israel and tripped in front of Absalom’s tomb and yelled at a stranger who didn’t understand. I cried and wanted to press my face against the stone of a fake burial site. So many people on that trip went to Israel to meet God. I went there and met my own rage, rising from the ground like a turret without a castle.
When I got home, I made an appointment with a therapist. This isn’t an mutiny for most people, but I had been raised to believe that most therapists are liberal and manipulative. The kind that make you blame your mother instead of the real culprits–the Devil and your own sin nature. Only Christians were to be trusted. When I told my parents about my therapy, they stopped talking to me for months. I was exiled. When they did talk to me again, no one mentioned The Thing That Had Happened. But I did. I wrote about it. I talked about it. I screamed about it to anyone who would listen. I felt like I was raising an army.
I write about my sister always. Even when I’m not writing about my sister, I write about her. Each word on the page is a little insurrection—a coup against the silence. Absalom and I were created the same way—by witnessing pain and being told to ignore it.
This is my war now. I’m in it. In this place of rage and action. But most days it feels like swinging futilely between heaven and earth, lost in the love of a sister.