David’s dysfunctional handling of family conflict leads to civil war (2 Samuel 13-19)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Most people feel uncomfortable in situations of conflict, so we tend to avoid facing conflict, whether at home or at work. But conflicts are a lot like illnesses. Minor ones may clear up even if we ignore them, but major ones will work their way deeper and more catastrophically into our systems if we do not treat them. This is true for David's family. David allows conflict among some of his sons to plunge his family into tragedy. His oldest son, Amnon, rapes and then shames his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-19). Tamar's full-brother, Absalom, hates Amnon for that crime, but does not speak to him about it. David knows of the matter but decides to ignore the situation (2 Sam. 13:21). For more on children who disappoint their parents, see "When children disappoint (1 Samuel 8:1-3)."

For two years everything seems fine, but unresolved conflict of this magnitude never fades away. When Amnon and Absalom take a trip into the country together, Absalom plies his half-brother with wine, then has his servants murder him (2 Sam. 13:28-29). The conflict draws in more of David’s family, the nobles, and the army, until the entire nation was engulfed in civil war. The destruction brought about by avoiding the conflict is many times worse than the unpleasantness that might have resulted from dealing with the issues when they first arose.

Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe how leaders must "orchestrate conflict," or else it will boil up on its own, thwart their goals, and endanger their organizations.[1] Likewise, Jim Collins gives the example of Alan Iverson, who was CEO of Nucor Steel at a time when there were deep divisions about whether the company should diversify into scrap steel recycling. Iverson brought the divisions in to the open by allowing everyone to speak their opinion, protecting them from reprisal from others who might disagree. The “raging debates” that ensued were uncomfortable for everyone. “People yelled. They waved their arms around and pounded on tables. Faces would get red and veins bulged out.” But acknowledging the conflict and working through it openly prevented it from going underground and exploding later. Moreover, by bringing out a variety of facts and opinions, it led to better decisions by the group. “Colleagues would march into Iverson’s office and yell and scream at each other, but then emerge with a conclusion…. The company’s strategy ‘evolved through many agonizing arguments and fights.’”[2] Conflict well-orchestrated can actually be a source of creativity.

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 101-122.

Jim Collins, Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001), 76.