Joab and Abishai as Apologetic Tropes

Most biblical scholars familiar with the biblical accounts of David’s rise to the throne of Israel recognize that the text has been overlaid with an apologia defending David against charges that he murdered his way to the throne by killing off those who stood in his way. The most significant assassination charged to him was that he arranged for King Saul to be murdered.

Two characters in David’s retinue appear to take on literary roles in this apologia, the brothers Joab and Abishai, David’s two chief henchman. Two types of stories are assigned to these characters. In one set, Abishai urges violent action against David’s opponents and David chastises him for his suggestions. In the other, Joab kills off an opponent of David, and David (defensively) claims to be innocent and that Joab is to blame.

Let’s look at Abishai first. When David was on the run from King Saul (because of suspected treason) there is a scene where David and Abishai sneak into Saul’s camp while the king is asleep. Standing over Saul’s body, Abishai says, “God has given your enemy into your hand today; now therefore let me pin him to the ground with one stroke of the spear; I will not strike him twice (1Samuel 26:8).”

David responds, “Do not destroy him; for who can raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless? As the Lord lives, the Lord will strike him down; or his day will come to die; or he will go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed; but now take the spear that is at his head, and the water jar, and let us go (1Samuel 26:9-11).”

Surely this kindly gesture of David’s absolves him of any plot to kill Saul. But, about that Amalekite assassin bringing Saul’s crown to David after killing the king (2 Samuel 1:10) Hmmm.

In a second instance, when David was on the run from his son Absalom, he and Abishai encountered Shimei, a member of Saul’s family. Shimei shouted while he cursed, “Out! Out! Murderer! Scoundrel! The Lord has avenged on all of you the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, disaster has overtaken you; for you are a man of blood (2 Samuel 16:7-8).”

The charge here is that David was responsible for killing Saul. Abishai responded, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head (2 Samuel 16:9).”

To which David replied, “My own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on my distress, and the Lord will repay me with good for this cursing of me today.” Once again, Abishai urges David’s enemy be slaughtered and David reprimanded him, showing David to be kindand generous to Saul’s embittered family.

After David defeated Absalom (more in a moment), Shimei bowed before him and sought forgiveness. Abishai, responded, “Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed (2 Samuel 19:21)?”

Kindly David replied, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should today become an adversary to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel (2 Samuel 19:20)?” David spared Shimei.

In all three instances, Abishai urges David to kill his opponents from the house of Saul, including Saul himself. David reprimands Abishai on each occasion.

Abishai’s brother Joab plays a different role. After Saul’s death, the main obstacle to David’s control over Israel was Abner, Saul’s chief general. Joab had a grudge against Abner because the general (justifiably) killed one of Joab’s other brothers.

Subsequently, after a peace conference between David and Abner. David accepted the peace offer and let Abner leave. Joab was furious. Joab chased after Abner, feigned friendship, and then stabbed him to death (2 Samuel 3:22-30).

David was apoplectic. “Tear your clothes, and put on sackcloth, and mourn over Abner (2 Sam 3:31).”

“So all the people and all Israel understood that day that the king had no part in the killing of Abner son of Ner (2 Samuel 3:37).” See, it was all Joab’s fault. He didn’t follow decent David’s words.

In a second instance, during Absolom’s rebellion against David, a relative named Amasa, remained with Absalom. Afterwards, as part of the peace process, David appointed Amasa as commander of David’s army, in place of Joab (2 Samuel 19:13). Guess who Joab kills shortly thereafter. Yep, Amasa.

“Joab said to Amasa, ‘Is it well with you, my brother?’ And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. But Amasa did not notice the sword in Joab’s hand; Joab struck him in the belly so that his entrails poured out on the ground, and he died. He did not strike a second blow (2 Samuel 20:9-10.)

Lastly, when David finally had his rebellious son Absalom on the run, David ordered his soldiers, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom (2 Samuel 18:5.) An how did Joab follow that decree? “He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak (2 Samuel 18:14).”

In the event that David’s innocence in these executions wasn’t lost, we find David on his deathbed saying, “Moreover you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, and putting the blood of war on the belt around his waist, and on the sandals on his feet (1 Kings 2:5).”

On the literary level, then, we find a contrast between Joab and Abishai. Joab is portrayed as a rogue murder who disobeys David’s peaceful overtures to his former enemies. Abishai, on the other hand, urges David to take violent actions against his enemies and David reprimands him for such violent suggestions. David is just a man of peace, kind to all his enemies.

I don’t know if anyone has previously noticed this literary relationship. But the revelation was new to me. The coincidences suggest that Joab and Abishai were each singled out to emphasize a particular characteristic of David in the construction of the apologia. a deliberate element in constructing the apologia.

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