2 Samuel has a particular interest for students of history, as the only book of the Bible where it’s possible to follow the messy details of
It can be read around (and may have been written around) the career of David’s nephew Joab, the son of his sister Zeruiah.
He spends the book, apart from a brief interval, as the leader of David’s army.
When Saul and Jonathan were killed by the invading Philistines, there were no agreed rules about who should succeed the king or whether anyone
Israel was still at the “ad-hoc military leader” stage of early kingship.
Saul’s commander, Abner, took charge of Ishbosheth, one of Jonathan’s brothers, brought him over to Mahanaim on the comparatively safe side of the
Jordan, and set him up as king over most of the tribes of Israel- “Gilead and the Asherites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin”.
David’s tribe of Judah chose him as their king, and he ruled them from Hebron.
As he got older, he came to rely more and more upon his own commander, Joab.
Joab’s brother Abishai was the leader of David’s “thirty men”, which also included their younger brother Asahel. It was dangerous to mess with
the sons of Zeruiah.
The two courts were rivals for a couple of years. The only recorded episode of war is a remarkable “arranged battle” between the troops of Abner
and Joab. The two parties met at the pool of Gibeon, and sat on opposite sides of the water. If this was a time of negotiation, it came to an end when
Abner made the grim joke “Let the young men arise and play before us”.
First (we are told), a set-piece battle between twelve champions from either side.
That settled nothing, because each of the twenty-four was killed by, and also killed, his immediate opponent.
“Each caught his opponent by the head, and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so that they fell down together”.
There followed a more general battle.
The main result was that Abner’s party were driven from the field with heavy losses, and fell back to Mahanaim.
But one of the casualties in Joab’s party was Asahel, who was active in the pursuit until he was killed by Abner.
Meanwhile the regime in Gilead was getting undermined by the touchy relationship between Abner and his puppet king.
The hereditary principle was not yet well established, and “Ishbosheth” (whose real name was Ishbaal) did not have a commanding personality.
Since kingship was about leading the people in battle, and Abner was already doing the work, he might have been expected to discard the son of Saul
and rule in his own name.
In those days, a new king might show that he was taking charge by taking over the wives of his predecessor.
Therefore when Abner “went in to” one of the concubines of the late king Saul, the implications made Ishbaal very nervous.
He made the mistake of questioning the act.
Abner was mortally offended. He had been showing consistent loyalty to the house of Saul, and the only response was jealous ingratitude.
He swore a solemn oath, there and then, that he would transfer the entire kingdom to David instead.
He took immediate steps in this direction, and Ishbaal was helpless to do anything about it.
Abner’s first move was to send a message to David; “Make your covenant with me, and behold, my hand shall be with you to bring over all
David felt strong enough to impose conditions. When he parted with Saul, Saul had taken back his daughter Michal and given her to a different
David now claimed her back, on the strength of the hundred foreskins of the Philistines which he had handed over as a bride-gift.
Abner was told that he would have no meeting with David unless he brought Michal with him.
David also made this demand in a direct message to Ishbaal.
Michal was duly collected (by Ishbaal’s messengers) from the home of her second husband, who followed her, weeping, until Abner brusquely sent him
Abner’s next task was to convince the elders of Israel, even the leaders of Benjamin, that David was the man sent by God to save them from the
Then he reported his work to David, there was a celebratory feast, and Abner was on the verge of completing the deal;
“I will arise, and will go, and will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you”.
All this was happening while Joab was out of the way, on a raid, and he did not learn about Abner’s visit until he got back.
Of course he could not be expected to welcome the new alliance.
He still had a grievance about the death of his younger brother.
There was also, I think, another reason for hostility, which can be found by reading between the lines.
Taking the hard-boiled view of politics, there are three assumptions we can make with a reasonable degree of confidence;
1; Abner would have demanded the post of David’s commander, as a reward for changing sides.
2: David would not have refused this demand out of hand. At the very least, he would have encouraged Abner’s hopes.
3; Joab, hearing that David had been talking to Abner, would have been suspicious enough to reach the same conclusions.
He would have seen a serious danger of losing his position as commander, along with all the power and prestige and perks that went along with it.
He would have felt a double emotion- “First that man kills my brother, and now he wants my job!”
Joab found a pretext to call back Abner, privately, and then he and Abishai killed him together.
David’s response was to disown the deed. He mourned Abner, and buried him with honour.
But he also confessed that he was powerless to control the strong men of his court; “These men the sons of Zeruiah are too hard for me”.
Once Abner was dead, the regime in Gilead fell apart, in any case. Ishbaal was murdered by two of his sub-commanders.
The other tribes now offered the throne to David.
So Abner’s plan bore fruit after all, and David had become king over all Israel.
Where is the theology in this story?
In the absence of any direct intervention by God, though the characters frequently appeal to his name, we can only learn about him indirectly.
In the first place, we can recognise real politics in the details of this narrative.
Gibbon described history as a record of the “crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind”.
“What it’s all about is the dirt”, as one of my tutors used to say.
We can see from the rough-and-tumble nature of these relationships, tinged with brutality and treachery, that events are taking place in the real
This is history, not legend.
And the implication is that the relation between the God of Israel and his people is embedded in the world of history, not restricted to the world of
In many cultures, stories about the gods belong only to the world of legend, and the gods are correspondingly distant.
This God maintains himself close to his people, in the middle of real-world events.
It’s obvious enough, in the second place, that the protagonists in these events are filled with flaws.
Even David has his weaknesses, and he ignores the spirit of at least one of the laws of Moses.
This is evidence that a good relationship with God does not depend on our own perfect righteousness, and that must be encouraging for the rest of
These are real people, in short, and God is prepared to work with them as real people.
Finally, if this is God promoting the kingdom of David and developing his own plans, he’s clearly working very indirectly, which says something
about his methods.
edit on 24-10-2014 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)