Tag Archives: Joab

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.

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Joab murdered his own cousin Amasa in order to hold on to his position as commander
Joab murdered his own cousin Amasa in order to hold on to his position as commander

One of the interesting, but admittedly gruesome, features of 2 Samuel concerns the stabbing of 4 different men in the stomach. The stories are tied together by this (un)common theme. The first two killings occur between rival houses for the throne–i.e. members of Saul’s and David’s house killing one another. The first incident involves Abner of the house of Saul killing Asahel, the nephew of David (2 Sam. 2:18-23). For a more indepth treatment of this incident see my post entitled: “Asahel: Running into Trouble.” The second incident involves Joab and his brother Abishai of the house of David (and brothers of Asahel) killing Abner of the house of Saul (2 Sam. 3:26-27). The first killing happens during a time of battle, and in spite of Abner’s pleadings for Asahel to stop pursuing him. The second killing is more treacherous as Joab lures the unsuspecting Abner into a trap and murders him. Although these killings are both tragic because they involve rival houses during a time of hostility, they are, to some extent, understandable.

Ish-bosheth's own captains murdered him while he slept.
Ish-bosheth’s own captains murdered him while he slept.

The second set of killings, however, are more shocking. They are “in-house” killings. Ish-bosheth is stabbed by fellow Benjamites, captains of his own army (2 Sam. 4). Amasa, another nephew of David, is brutally dispatched by Joab, who is not only a nephew of David, but a cousin of Amasa (2 Sam. 20:8-13). Thus there is a steady progression of brutality and violence as we read through the story in 2 Samuel tracing this theme of 4 men who “get it” in the belly. The writer seems to linger a little longer over the death of Amasa. It is the last in this gory chain of stabbings and provides a climax in several ways. First, Joab’s killing of a fellow cousin through the deception of a kiss, and the callous treatment of Asahel as he lies “wallowing in his blood in the middle of the highway” (2 Sam. 20:12), presents the most tragic and gruesome scene of any of the 4 accounts. Second this scene intentionally recalls the other 3 accounts. In my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, my concluding thoughts on Amasa’s character study provides a summary of the similarities and differences between these accounts and some of the lessons to be learned from them. That conclusion is reproduced below.

Conclusion: Amasa and His “Blood Brothers”

family portraitsOne cannot read the account of Amasa’s death without recalling the violent deaths of other men in 2 Samuel. As Polzin notes, “2 Samuel makes it clear that Joab’s smiting of Amasa in the belly looks backward to the murders of Ishbosheth in 4:6, Abner in 3:27, and Asahel in 2:23. Moreover, these instances of ‘smiting in the belly’ occur only here in 2 Samuel, and always in the context of an explicit reference to ‘brother.’ ” These similarities invite the reader to compare and contrast the four different stories.

Parallels between the deaths of Abner and Amasa are especially noteworthy. They both share the same murderer: Joab. In both cases Joab deceived the men he murdered by catching them off guard and striking them in the stomach (3:27; 20:10). Both were commanders over their respective armies, who fought and lost a civil war against David (2 Sam. 2:12–17; 17:25). Joab perceived the reconciliation of both men to David as a threat, and both were killed in an atmosphere of “peace” (3:21–23; 20:9). Joab’s murder of these men threatened to disrupt the tenuous unity recently forged in both situations. Finally, David himself drew a parallel between these two murders, advising Solomon to deal with Joab accordingly (1 Kings 2:5–6).

These similarities provide the backdrop for the contrast between the two deaths. Although the narrative makes it clear that Joab was wrong in murdering Abner, at least the author provided him with some motivation: Abner’s killing of Joab’s brother Asahel (3:30). No such explanation is provided for the murder of Amasa; indeed, none can be. The silence of the text convicts Joab. Perhaps the text’s silence also suggests that Joab had reached such a hard-hearted state in his killing of others that he no longer felt the need to justify his actions.

Amasa and Joab were cousins. Both were sons of David's sisters.
Amasa and Joab were cousins. Both were sons of David’s sisters.

A final contrast that highlights the heinous nature of Amasa’s murder is that he was a blood relative of Joab from the house of David, whereas Abner belonged to the rival house of Saul. The murder of Amasa sounds a climactic note in 2 Samuel on the consequences of the abuse of power. Joab’s unrestrained lust for power begins with killing his fellow-countryman (Abner) and ends with killing his own kinsman (Amasa).

Besides the act of “smiting in the belly,” a number of other similarities also connect Amasa’s death with Asahel’s. Both stories center on Gibeon (2:12; 20:8). Each story speaks of “pursuing” an enemy, and in each case the battle ends by Joab blowing the trumpet (2:28; 20:23). The root ʾaḥar (“after”) occurs frequently (11 times) in the account of Amasa’s death, as it does in the story of Asahel. Furthermore, in both accounts the author vividly relates the gruesome nature of the death and comments that those who came upon the scene “stood still” (2:23; 20:12).

The difference between Asahel’s death and Amasa’s highlights again the brutality of Joab’s action. Since Asahel and Abner are on opposite sides in the battle, it is not surprising that one would kill the other. Amasa and Joab, however, are on the same side. Abner warns Asahel twice (2:21–22) before delivering the deadly blow, whereas Joab lulls Amasa into a false sense of security, and then kills him without warning (20:9–10).

The similarities of Amasa with Abner and Asahel also suggest certain character traits that they share. Both Abner and Amasa are caught unaware and “die as a fool” (3:33). Asahel’s inexperience contrasts with Amasa’s experience, but both prove to be naive in their own way.

Sadly, there is not much of a positive nature that can be said of Amasa. He was the nephew that betrayed his uncle the king. He was the general who lost a war, and the ineffective commander of David’s troops who could not fulfill his commission. In the end he dies the death of a fool, his body disgraced by being dumped in a field, ultimately forgotten by his men, and by the narrator as the story continues without him. Amasa, as commander of the army (both David’s and Absalom’s), has all the outward trappings of success, but his life is a dismal failure. His cruel death evokes sympathy, but his betrayal of the Lord’s anointed appears to reap consequences that go beyond the civil war. His under-achieving seems to be related to his lack of true perception (he did not recognize the Lord’s anointed or the sword in Joab’s hand). As such, he becomes a warning to all who might “dress for success” and look the part, but inwardly lack the real quality of greatness: a quality that comes only by aligning oneself with the Lord and His purposes.

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow press.com
Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow press.com

Many people are unfamiliar with Asahel. He was the youngest brother of the more famous Joab, David’s army commander. Asahel only appears in one narrative, found in 2 Samuel 2. The story is about his vain pursuit of Abner, commander of Saul’s army, during the civil war between David and the house of Saul, resulting in his premature death. Asahel’s death is told in gruesome detail in 2 Samuel 2 and often leaves readers wondering why this story was related by the writer in the first place. The following post is an excerpt from chapter 20 of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. In this chapter, I look at 3 men who shared several similarities: 1) they were all nephews of David and thus cousins; 2) they were all warriors; and 3) they all appear in limited roles in 2 Samuel. Although a first reading of Asahel’s death may leave the reader puzzled, a more careful examination reveals some important truths for all of us. I hope you enjoy this excerpt and consider purchasing a copy of Family Portraits for yourself or a friend. (For another excerpt from Family Portraits click here to read about Peninnah).

Asahel: Running into Trouble (2 Samuel 2:18–23, 30–32)

When the initial contest between 12 soldiers from Israel and Judah resulted in the death of all, a full-scale battle erupted resulting in a great victory for David's men, but at the expense of Asahel
In 2 Samuel 2:14-17, when an initial contest between 12 soldiers from Israel and Judah resulted in the death of all, a full-scale battle erupted resulting in a great victory for David’s men, but at the expense of Asahel (painting by James J. Tissot, 1896-1902).

“Brave, impetuous, and ready to kill,” are the words we used to describe Abishai’s introduction in 1 Samuel. These same words are perhaps even truer of Asahel, proving him to be Abishai’s brother and a genuine son of Zeruiah. Together with Joab, all three brothers appear in 2 Samuel 2:18 in the midst of a conflict between Israel and Judah. The conflict was precipitated by Abner, who had marched his troops to Gibeon where he was met by Joab and “the servants of David” (2 Samuel 2:12–13). When an initial competition, also proposed by Abner, failed to produce a victor, the confrontation erupted into a full-scale battle, with Abner’s troops experiencing a sound defeat at the hands of David’s men (2 Samuel 2:14–17).
The victory, however, was not without great cost to the men of Judah. In a flashback of the battle, the author follows Asahel as he pursues Abner. The outcome of this altercation not only results in the death of Asahel one of Judah’s valiant warriors, it also sets the stage for a blood feud between Abner and the two remaining brothers (Joab and Abishai), culminating in the murder of Abner (2 Samuel 3:27, 30).

gazelle
Asahel is described “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle.”

Asahel is described as one who is “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle” (2 Samuel 2:18). It is Asahel’s running ability that provides the setting for the chase scene described in verses 19–23. However, Asahel’s greatest asset will prove to be his greatest liability––a liability perhaps hinted at in his description as a “gazelle.” While gazelles are fast and nimble, they are not known for their strength or predatory nature. Gazelles are not usually “pursuers” (v. 19): they use their speed to flee from danger, not to run towards it! What chance does a gazelle have if it pursues a battle-hardened warrior like Abner?

Furthermore, the word “gazelle” sounds a note of familiarity with a statement found in the previous chapter: “The beauty (gazelle) of Israel is slain on your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). The gazelle that David laments is probably Jonathan (see 2 Samuel 1:25) but could also include Saul. While Asahel’s equation with Jonathan may seem complimentary, it has an ominous ring to it. The previous gazelle (Jonathan) had been slain and had fallen in battle; likewise, Asahel the gazelle will soon be slain and “fall” in battle (2 Samuel 2:23).

The chase begins in earnest in verse 19. Two expressions characterize the dogged determination of Asahel. The first expression, “he did not turn to the right hand or to the left (vv. 19, 21), is language frequently used in Deuteronomy–2 Kings in reference to not deviating from the path of the Lord (Deut. 5:32; 17:11, 20; 28:14; Josh. 1:7; 23:6; 2 Kings 22:2). The second term is ʾaḥarē, occurring seven times in verses 19–23 and variously translated as “after,” “behind,” or “back.” It is also used frequently to express following “after” the Lord, or not following “after” other gods (Deut. 4:3; 6:14; 13:4; 1 Kings 14:8; 18:21; 2 Kings 23:3). Thus, Asahel’s pursuit of Abner uses language that articulates the resolve Israel should have in following the Lord. While pursuing the Lord leads to life (Deut. 5:32–33), Asahel’s single-minded pursuit of Abner ironically leads to his death (v. 23). An outline of 2 Samuel 2:19–23 demonstrates Asahel’s determination as it alternates between his pursuit and Abner’s warnings: Asahel pursues (v. 19); Abner turns and speaks (20–21d); Asahel continues his pursuit (21e); Abner speaks and cautions (22); Asahel continues (23a); Abner finally strikes (23b–d).

 

Asahel pursues Abner. Painting by James Tissot

Still at some distance, Abner turns “behind him” to see Asahel hot on his trail (2 Samuel 2:20). Wishing to confirm the pursuer’s identity Abner calls out, “Are you Asahel?” to which Asahel responds with one breathless word, “I.” It is the only word he speaks in the entire narrative, highlighting his resolute focus on pursuing his prey. He is not interested in conversation; he is interested in catching Abner. As his name implies, Asahel is all about “doing” (“God has done,” or “made”) rather than talking. The doing, however, seems to have little to do with God and more to do with Asahel himself. Hence, Asahel’s answer, “I,” takes on a deeper significance.
Although the language is reminiscent of one pursuing God, the fact is that Asahel is in pursuit of his own glory. What could bring greater honor to a soldier than to kill the commander of the enemy’s army? This quest not only makes Asahel mute, but also deaf to the sound advice Abner tries to dispense. Using language that parallels the narrator’s, Abner says, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and lay hold on one of the young men and take his armor for yourself ” (2 Samuel 2:21). This is Abner’s way of telling Asahel to pick on someone his own size, or, in other words, to take on someone of his own skill level and not to tangle with a more experienced soldier like himself. Asahel is undeterred.

Next, Abner is more direct and makes Asahel aware of the deadly consequences he will face if he does not cease his pursuit: “Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I face your brother Joab?” (2 Samuel 2:22). Abner interjects an emotional element into his plea (“your brother Joab”), hoping it will slow down the fleet-footed Asahel. The advice, threats, and emotional pleas are all to no avail, however, as the narrator reports, “He refused to turn aside” (2 Samuel 2:23a). It is the last decision he will ever make, and it is a deadly one.

Winding Up on the Wrong End of the Stick!

Abner kills Asahel
When Asahel refuses to stop, Abner stops him with the back end of his spear (2 Samuel 2:23–painting by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695).

Asahel will not stop himself, so Abner must stop him. So far, Abner’s rhetoric has not caused his thick-headed opponent to “get the point.” Ironically, he will also not get the point of Abner’s weapon. Instead, with a thrust of the back end of his spear, Abner brings Asahel’s pursuit to an abrupt halt as the spear travels through his abdomen and proceeds out of his back (2 Samuel 2:23). It is ironic that with one blow of his spear, Abner did to Abishai’s brother what Abishai had wanted to do to Saul (1 Sam. 26:8). Asahel’s pursuit of glory causes him to “wind up on the wrong end of the stick.” Abner’s military prowess is so superior that it is not even necessary for him to assume the normal fighting posture of facing his adversary. This accords Asahel no respect. His death appears foolish and needless. Indeed, David’s lament over Abner in the next chapter (2 Samuel 3:33) could well have been sung over Asahel: “Should [Asahel] die as a fool dies?”
Asahel is the first of four characters to be stabbed in the abdomen in 2 Samuel. The first and the last (Amasa) to experience this fate are of the house of David, while the middle two (Abner and Ish-bosheth) are of the house of Saul, forming a deadly chiasm within 2 Samuel. Later in this chapter we will notice that the wording of Amasa’s death evokes images of Asahel’s, adding irony to the gruesome inclusio formed by their demise.

The conclusion of the battle underscores an important difference between Asahel and his brother Joab. After Abner pleads with Joab to, “return from following after his brothers” (2 Samuel 2:26—my translation), verse 30 informs the reader, “Then Joab returned from following after Abner.” The use of “after” reminds us of Asahel’s pursuit of Abner, and highlights Joab’s wisdom. Joab knows when to stop pursuing; he will wait for a more convenient opportunity. The contrast between the two brothers is stark. The body count for Judah says it all: nineteen men plus Asahel—the man who did not know when to quit. Asahel’s pursuit leads to a tomb in Bethlehem, while the wiser Joab lives to fight another day (2 Samuel 2:32).

Conclusion: Stop and Listen

The honor paid to Asahel by listing him first among David’s Thirty mighty men (2 Sam. 23:24) does not diminish the unnecessary tragedy of his death. Asahel proves himself to be much like his brothers: impetuous, hard, stubborn, and preferring violence to diplomacy. The one valuable quality of his brothers that he desperately lacks is discernment. McCarter rightly observes of Asahel that, “[He] appears in the present story as one so headstrong that he will not listen to reason even to save his own life.”
Stop-And-ListenThe Hebrew Scriptures frequently associate the act of listening with following the Lord. They are full of exhortations to listen, hear, heed, etc.; and the Scriptures record the consequences of those who do not (e.g., Exod. 15:26; Lev. 26:14–39; Judg. 2:17; 1 Sam. 15:22). Although Asahel’s story is not directly about listening to the Lord, the formulaic language used in the story recalls the frequent exhortation in Scripture to follow the Lord. Asahel’s wrong-headed pursuit took him down the enemy’s path and far from the safety of his comrades. Likewise, our pursuit of our own selfish goals can take us down the wrong path and lead us far from the safety of God’s people.

In one sense Asahel’s real-life tragedy becomes an analogy and warning to the nation of Israel, who often stubbornly chose to follow their own way (2 Kings 17:13–14) and closed their ears to God’s word and the way of wisdom (Isa. 6:10; Jer. 5:21). The same attitude is vividly portrayed in the New Testament, when members of the Sanhedrin refused to listen any longer to Stephen’s words. Luke reports: “Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord” (Acts 7:57).

Of course the story of Asahel is not just a warning to Israel, but to anyone who stubbornly pursues their own agenda while ignoring the wisdom of God and others. The grisly account of his death demonstrates how vain the all-out pursuit of glory is. If Asahel had stopped to consider Abner’s warnings, then he would not have been stopped by Abner’s spear. The message is clear: a stubborn refusal to stop and listen to good advice may have deadly consequences.