Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Artistic rendering of Joab, son of Zeruiah, King David's military commander
Artistic rendering of Joab, son of Zeruiah, King David’s military commander

Joab, the “Mama’s Boy”?

However one evaluates Joab, there can be no doubt that 2 Samuel characterizes him as one of the toughest men in David’s court. Given this “tough-guy” image, it might seem surprising to describe Joab as a “mama’s boy”; yet the author frequently refers to him and his brothers as the “son(s) of Zeruiah.” Of course, the modern expression “mama’s boy” and Joab’s actual demeanor are worlds apart: Joab is no “sissy”! Still, the author’s repeated use of this label (fifteen times in 1 and 2 Samuel) deserves consideration. (The passages are 1 Sam. 26:6; 2 Sam. 2:13, 18; 3:39; 8:16; 14:1; 16:9, 10; 17:25–here Zeruiah is described as the mother of Joab– 2 Sam. 18:2; 19:21, 22; 21:17; 23:18, and 37.)

David’s Sister Zeruiah

1 Chronicles 2:16 reveals that Zeruiah is a sister of David, thus making Joab and her other sons David’s nephews. If “son(s) of Zeruiah” was used by the author to establish a family connection with David, surely once, or at most a few times, would have been sufficient. Like the designation “son of Ner” that frequently accompanies Abner (see my article The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner), one wonders whether the phrase “son(s) of Zeruiah” has another function in the narrative. While Joab’s father might have died prematurely (2 Sam. 2:32), or perhaps “the ancient custom of tracing descent by the female line [has] been preserved in this case,” (see note 1 below) it does not explain the frequency of this description. David’s use of this expression suggests a deeper meaning. For example, he uses it several times in a derogatory manner (2 Sam. 3:39; 16:10; 19:22). Presumably, David is not reminding himself of a family connection in all these contexts. His disparaging remarks suggest there is more to this designation than meets the eye.

The Meaning of Zeruiah

In a painting by Tissot, Joab & Abner oversee a contest in Gibeon between the soldiers of Israel and Judah in which 24 die.
In a painting by Tissot, Joab & Abner oversee a contest in Gibeon between the soldiers of Israel and Judah in which 24 die.

The meaning of “Zeruiah” has not received much attention from scholars; thus, I am treading on virgin territory here. Part of the difficulty is that there are several possible Hebrew roots from which the name could be derived. It is thought that the basic meaning is “balm.” (see note 2 below) If this is accurate, then “Zeruiah” would refer to a balm often used for medicinal purposes (cf. Jer. 8:22). This would associate her name with the positive qualities of healing. David’s use of the name could be considered ironic, since he uses it in contexts where the “sons of Zeruiah” have either murdered, or desire to kill, someone. These men want no “balm” for healing others; their spirit is quite the opposite!

Another feature of Hebrew names is that they often play off the meaning of other words with similar sounds. This is true of such names as Peninnah, Hophni, Phinehas, and Samuel (see my article Peninnah: The Other Woman). The consonants in the name Zeruiah are similar to two words that can mean: “showing hostility,” “distress,” “adversary,” “foe,” “hard,” and “rock” (see note 3 below). These meanings are apropos to the actions and demeanor of Joab and his brothers. In fact, several contexts in 2 Samuel link words with these meanings to the expression “sons of Zeruiah.”

In 2 Samuel 2:14, as the armies of Israel and Judah meet, Abner proposes to Joab a combat involving twelve men from each side. After all are killed in the combat, the field is named “Field of Flints.” The word “flint” comes from a word that means “rock” or “hard.” It is sometimes used to describe a knife or sword (Exod. 4:25; Josh. 5:2, 3). The reference to the “Field of Flints” is surrounded by references to the “son(s) of Zeruiah” (vv. 13, 18). The words “flint” and “Zeruiah” sound similar, and this would catch the ear of someone reading in Hebrew. Furthermore, there is a conceptual link between these words, as the sons of Zeruiah are well known for their use of the sword.

Another passage which associates the sons of Zeruiah with “hardness” is 2 Samuel 3:39. Following the murder of Abner, David declares, “and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are harder than me” (my translation). A different Hebrew word is used here to describe the “hardness” of Joab and Abishai. The important point here is that David connects the expression “sons of Zeruiah” with the quality of hardness.

Finally, in 2 Samuel 19:22 David rebukes Abishai by referring to him as an “adversary” or “accuser” (satan). In this context, satan is parallel to the expression “sons of Zeruiah.” Although 2 Samuel 3:39 and 19:22 express David’s point of view, this phrase suggests a certain “hardness” or “adversarial” role that characterizes Joab and his brother, in contrast to David.

In summary, the description “son(s) of Zeruiah” may originally have had a connotation of “healing,” but its relationship to similar-sounding words, as well as the actions and demeanor of the brothers themselves, suggests the meaning of “hard” or “adversary” in some contexts. Joab’s characterization throughout 2 Samuel shows him to be a ruthless individual, thus “hard” is an appropriate description of him. Furthermore, he is constantly pictured in an adversarial role to David. Therefore, the use of “son(s) of Zeruiah” throughout the narrative of 2 Samuel seems to lend itself to these meanings.

(The above article is an excerpt [with minor editorial changes] from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.)

 Family Portraits photoFamily Portraits is available through Amazon USA / UK and WestBow Press, as well as Logos.com

Footnotes

1. D. Harvey, “Zeruiah,” IDB, vol. 4, p. 956. F. H. Cryer, “David’s Rise to Power and the Death of Abner: and Analysis of 1 Samuel 26:14–16 and Its Redaction-Critical Implications,” VT 35, (1985), pp. 388-389, n. 9, supposes the probable death of Zeruiah’s husband and states, “It is thus likely that Zeruiah then returned to live in her father’s house (cf. Gen. xxxviii 11), and her children will then have assumed her name in acknowledgement of their special status. It may further be pointed out, with R. R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven, Conn., 1977), that Semitic genealogies have a habit of shifting in order to align their members towards the centres of political power, so it is possible that the ‘Zeruiah connexion’ was an effort in this direction.”

2. Harvey, “Zeruiah,” and Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB), p. 863.

3. The words are tsur and tsrr. See BDB, pp. 849 and pp. 864-866, respectively.

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