Joab: The Power Behind the Throne

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Published:
November 14, 2010

Joab devoted his whole adult life to fighting for David energetically and, by his own lights, faithfully. It is hard to imagine how David’s reign could have succeeded without him. Yet in the end David on his deathbed decreed that Joab must die. How did it come to that?

David’s sister Zeruiah had three sons: Joab, Abishai, and Asahel, all enthusiastic men of war. They joined David’s band of fugitive warriors when David was fleeing from King Saul, and already we see a tension developing between the ruthless practicality of the sons of Zeruiah and what must have seemed to them the strange sentimentality of David when, in spite of Abishai’s urging, David refused to slay the sleeping king (1 Samuel 26). But Joab stayed with David through thick and thin.

After Saul and Jonathan died in battle with the Philistines the tribe of Judah anointed David to be their king, and Joab became the commander of David’s army. But Saul’s son Ishbosheth still reigned over Benjamin and the northern tribes, and there was dynastic war between his army, led by Abner (Saul’s cousin), and David’s forces. Abner and his men were routed, but Abner was forced to kill Asahel, who was pursuing him (2 Samuel 2). With uncharacteristic generosity Joab chose not to press his victory, and the armies parted. After Abner had a falling-out with Ishbosheth he made overtures to David, offering to deliver all Israel over to him. The deal was made in Joab’s absence, and when Joab found out about it he was indignant. Acting promptly, decisively, and without David’s knowledge, Joab treacherously murdered Abner in revenge for the death of his younger brother (chapter 3).

Again David behaved in a manner that seemed counterintuitive to Joab. He mourned Abner and told Joab to mourn him; he buried him with honors. David was in the habit of mourning the deaths of his enemies and punishing those who killed them or took credit for killing them. But Joab was too powerful and too indispensable. David knew his weakness: “the sons of Zeruiah are too hard for me” (2 Samuel 3:39). The most he could do was call down a terrible curse upon Joab and his family (verse 29). Perhaps Joab did not hear it.

David wanted to take Jebus (Jerusalem), a Canaanite enclave that still remained in the midst of Israel. He needed it to be his neutral capital city, belonging neither to Judah nor any of the northern bribes, and lying right between them. Jebus was strongly fortified, but Joab heroically led the taking of it, apparently ascending through a water shaft, which some have identified with what is now called Warren’s Shaft (1 Chronicles 11:4-9; cf. 2 Samuel 5:6-9). If it is anything like the shaft that Joab climbed, we can only be amazed at his achievement.

Joab continued as commander-in-chief of David’s armies, including an elite corps called the Mighty Men. He led them to victory against the Ammonites, the Syrians, and the Edomites, sometimes against great odds (2 Samuel 10). He was, in fact, never defeated. When the Ammonite capital was about to fall Joab held back and called on David to come and administer the coup de grace so that the king could take the credit and have the honor (12:26-31). Joab loyally did David’s bidding even when it was wrong, as in the case of Uriah the Hittite (chapter 11—and the subject of lesson 6). He carried out David’s misguided order to take a census of Israel, even though he strenuously objected to it (chapter 24).

Not only was Joab a vigorous military leader, but he also energetically, and sometimes guilefully, took a hand in affairs of state. When David’s son Absalom fled after murdering one of the other princes it was Joab who reconciled them, showing himself to be a perceptive psychologist and a clever diplomat (chapter 14). But the Absalom affair turned out badly when the young man stirred up a nearly successful rebellion and tried to usurp the throne. Then it was Joab who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But in direct contradiction of David’s expressed command he slew Absalom.

When David dissolved into inconsolable mourning, Joab finally exploded in exasperation: “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life. . . because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you. For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you; for today I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased” (19:5, 6). He found himself having to tell David to pull himself together and do what he had to do to save his reign. “This man is incompetent,” he must have thought, “I need to save him from himself.” He may have been right.

Absalom’s commander had been Amasa, a relative of Joab and David. Now, as if to add insult to injury, David made Amasa his commander in place of Joab (19:13)! Was this to punish Joab for killing Absalom? At any event, it turned out to be a bad move. When David commanded Amasa to call up the men of Judah to put down another rebellion, Amasa failed to act with the kind of promptness and energy that one could expect of Joab (20:4-6). David could not quite swallow his pride and invite Joab to take command again, so he appointed his brother Abishai to the task, knowing that Joab would go with him, leading the elite corps and foreign mercenaries. While pursuing the rebel leader they came upon Amasa. Joab treacherously murdered him, using the same stratagem that he had used with Abner.

Joab had loyally supported David and, for the most part, obeyed his orders, even when they were contrary to his own better judgment. But there were three cases in which Joab acted against the king’s wishes by killing men whom David wanted to live: Abner, Absalom, and Amasa. Here Joab’s own interests were mixed in with service to the king. These men were threats to his own position. We can reflect that no one’s motives are as pure as the driven snow, except in their own eyes. We can be serving ourselves even while claiming to be serving Jesus and the church.

Joab’s political acumen at last failed him and he overreached himself. By this time David had grown old and feeble, and was now on his death bed. He had promised that Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, would succeed him to the throne. But another son, Adonijah the son of a different wife, had other ideas. He was spoiled and handsome, and he said, “I will be king” (1 Kings 1). Joab and his faction supported him, and it almost worked. They had a grand ceremony and celebration at En-rogel, but they excluded Zadok the priest, Benaiah (a military leader), Nathan the prophet, Solomon, and the Mighty Men.

Nathan was wise and quick, and he knew just what to do. He alerted Bathsheba that something dangerous was afoot, and she in turn, with Nathan’s help, convinced David that something urgently needed to be done. So they had a rival ceremony for Solomon at Gihon spring, legitimated by the dying David, within earshot of En-rogel,. The people attending the En-rogel celebration quickly faded away. That game was up. Joab had bet on the wrong prince.

In David’s dying charge to the new king was the order to have Joab executed. Of course Joab had supported the wrong faction in the contest of royal succession (1 Kings 2:28), but the reason David gave was what Joab had done to Abner and Amasa, “whom he murdered, avenging in time of peace blood which had been shed in war, and putting innocent blood upon the girdle about my loins, and upon the sandals on my feet” (2:5). Joab soon learned of the sentence and fled to the tabernacle and sought refuge by clinging to the horns of the altar (2:28). But the horns of the altar provide no sanctuary to a murderer (Exodus 21:14). He was struck down on the spot.

Of course the murders had been committed long before, but Joab was then too strong for anything to be done about it. The only thing David could do was to pronounce a terrible curse upon Joab, which now came to pass.

Joab’s fate provides us with a biblical understanding of the sixth commandment, which really says, “Thou shalt not murder.” (The Hebrew word used, ratzach, has a specialized meaning.) Murder is defined in 1 Kings 2:5 as the shedding of innocent blood in time of peace. The killing of Asahel was not murder, because it took place in war. The execution of Joab was not murder because he was not innocent. Only the killings of Abner and Amasa came under the rubric of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue.

One difficult thing is the saying that the death of Joab somehow expiated the guilt that rested upon the house of David because of what Joab did (1 Kings 2:5, 31). Perhaps David and Solomon were thinking of the slaughter of the men of the house of Saul, besides the murder of Abner and Amasa, and all the other bloodshed that attended the rise of David to power, in which Joab was complicit and active. But even Solomon saw to it that any potential rivals were put away. Politics are dirty and sometimes bloody. They who live by them will perish by them.

Joab was a master politician as well as a successful warrior. Being on the losing side would be fatal. He was always on the winning side, except once.