Skip to content

Heroes or not heroes?

“Background characters”: now let’s be honest, didn’t your heart sink, even just a little, when you opened the Adult Bible Study Guide for the fourth quarter of 2010? Well, I’ve got good news if you haven’t gone further than the title page yet, because the authors, Gerald and Chantal Klingbeil are really to be commended for this concept, which has huge potential for affording rich insights into God’s Word and into the way He works in human lives.

I need to say that up front because I don’t agree with their choice of “background characters”. However, I imagine that if you asked a hundred readers to name thirteen interesting people who are “in the background” of the Old Testament, none of those hundred people would come with exactly the same thirteen names. In the Hebrew Bible there are simply so many characters who spend their time in the wings of the stage, but who suddenly get thrust into the spotlight, front and center stage, if only for their fifteen seconds (or 15 verses!) of fame, that really the choice as to which 13 should be examined this quarter will be very individual. Any choice is bound to be eclectic, at least to some extent.

Background Characters

I do think, though, that the authors are curiously inconsistent, though perhaps that is their intention. Rizpah is in a sense never in the foreground—even when she is briefly mentioned in scripture (2 Sam. 21:10-11), she is still in the background. Abigail, Uriah, Gehazi, and the widow of Zarephath do make it to the foreground: the spotlight does dwell on them; but only briefly, before passing on to others. Hannah is the centre of attention, but only in passing, to set the stage for her son, Samuel. The anonymous “man of God’ of 1 Kings 13 has the spotlight on him for a prolonged period, a whole chapter—but then he disappears (literally into the grave!), and we never even know his name.

Abiathar and Baruch are interesting characters, who fade in and out, so to speak: they are there for a prolonged spell in the background, or in a group of supporting characters, every so often stepping forward to deliver a crucial line. But it is always one that really just sets up the next dramatic moments for the “stars” of their story, David and Jeremiah. So Abiathar and Baruch, too, can fairly be called background characters.

The same is true even of Caleb. Many readers will know his name from the story of the spies in Canaan, the giants they saw, the giant grapes they brought back, and the no less gigantic terror that ten of the spies reports’ spawned in the hearts of the Israelites. Yet the truth is, Caleb has but a couple of moments in the spotlight: once when he was in his physical prime and once when he was old but still strong of faith and spirit. Most of the time, though, he is back there in the darkness of Old Testament history. The story focuses on him, but only briefly, and on the whole he is a background character.

But what about Jonathan and Joab? Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a soldier and visited the areas they lived and fought, and I’ve come to identify with them a little too much, however, I’m pretty sure they are not “background characters in the Old Testament”. In fact, very far from it.


The story of Saul is compelling, but he must await a different quarter (“Anti-heroes of the Old Testament,” perhaps). Initially he is heroic, but very quickly, as the story develops, it is Jonathan who is the hero! It is Jonathan who, acting on faith, defeats the Philistines, and who, in the process, exposes the first character flaws in his father, hinting the dark tragedy that is to unfold, and who defies his father’s unwise behavior in battle, setting a model for how the Israelite kingship could be.

Politically as well as spiritually Jonathan is important, for he is the heir to the throne. He becomes David’s friend—more, given the tension between David and his brothers (see 1 Sam. 17) he becomes a surrogate brother, even as Saul emerges, in the story, as David’s substitute father. Jonathan saves David’s life, not once but twice or more, and, astonishingly, gracefully submits himself to God’s will and renounces his right to his younger friend/brother. He thus counterpoints but corrects the shortcomings of Esau, who could not surrender his birthright to a younger brother on whom the blessing of God lay, even as Saul, in his depression-induced “blindness: cannot see David’s true qualities, is a new Isaac. David will in due course become the founder of a kingdom of Israel, just as Jacob–Israel founded the people of the Israelites. But only, let’s remember, because Jonathan first saves his blood-brother and, inspired by the Spirit of God, foretells his future.

Jonathan is also the subject of one of the most moving laments in world literature, a candidate for David’s greatest psalm (though it isn’t in Psalms), an extraordinary meditation—given that it’s by one of history’s great warriors—on the ultimate futility of so much warfare:

The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!

Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice ….

The bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.

Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.

They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. …

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!

O Jonathan, you were slain in the high places.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan:

You have been very pleasant to me;

Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.

How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished! [1]

This is not a background character! This is a first-class hero. And we would do well to remember that Jonathan has a history, and an interesting, clearly indicated, compelling personality, well before David appears on the scene. Abner, Saul’s cousin and commander-in-chief, is a background character; Saul and Jonathan are not.

Nevertheless, Jonathan is also interesting because part of David’s story (and part of what makes it, I believe, a tragedy just as the legend of King Arthur is a tragedy, even though Arthur, like David, is a conqueror and imperial king for a lot of his life), is that the David of Bethlehem and the cave of Adullam can only become King David by the death of the man he loves more than any other human being. (Incidentally, only a completely sexualized society could assume that anything homoerotic is intended here.) Now, Jonathan’s role is not merely to facilitate David’s development, as, for example, Hannah’s is vis-à-vis Samuel; neither is it just to give the hero the chance to deliver moral lessons, as Gehazi’s is vis-à-vis Elisha. Jonathan’s role is more complex. He is an integral, indeed an essential, part of a tragedy.

Yes, David eventually loses his sons by his own too-great, too-indulgent love for them. Yet that is not the end of the Davidic tragedy. For reflect: his love cannot save his best friend. On the contrary: it must not if David is to fulfill his destiny. He is betrayed by Saul, his substitute father, who David will not betray—until the very end, when David accepts Achish’s command to go home to Ziklag but does not fight for Israel at Gilboa, as he surely could have done. David’s choice dooms both the king/father to who he owes his rise to fame and fortune, and the friend/brother, who had betrayed his own real father for his friend’s sake. Is this not an extraordinarily rich story, full of shade, nuance and psychological depth?

It is told with stark grandeur by the inspired writers of the Hebrew Bible and is all the more compelling because it is true. But what would Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, not to mention Shakespeare, have made of David’s story! Recent Adventist exegetes such as Alden Thompson argue that 1 and 2 Samuel are basically intended as a critique of kingship.[2] This simply does not do justice to the rich psychological complexities of David and his love or love-hate relationships with so many of the people close to him. It will, I suspect, be a literary scholar, if not a poet or playwright, who eventually does justice to David’s story. For now, we can recognize that Jonathan is a heroic–tragic figure in his own right as well as in his relationship with David.


Among those who had complex, shaded, ambiguous relationships with David was Joab—and the authors of this autumn’s Bible Study Guide want us to believe that Joab is a background character, too. If Joab only appeared in the Hebrew Bible when, say, he played the key role in capturing the city of the Jebusites, giving David his capital city, and when he besieged and captured Rabbah the capital city of the Ammonites—in that case then yes, we might accept his “backgroundness”. But there is much more to Joab’s story.

He defeats Abner, ensuring that Saul’s surviving son, Ishbosheth, cannot defeat David. But then, after Abner is reconciled to David, allowing David to become king of all Israel, not just Judah, he is murdered by Joab for having earlier killed Joab’s kid brother. David disavows Joab’s murder, but clearly not Joab, who goes on to fill for David the role Abner had for Saul, only rather more effectively and dramatically. Joab helps David defeat the Philistines; he personally defeats the Ammonites, after which he is made complicit by David’s orders in the murder of Uriah (though he doesn’t try to deflect David’s murderous wishes), and then helps David take Rabbah. Later, Joab reconciles Absalom and David, via a wise–woman, before going on to save David from Absalom and then from his own (self?)-indulgent instincts, having murdered Absalom on the way. Joab then murders another rival army commander, Amasa, and defeats Sheba’s rebellion, having a striking conversation with another wise–woman along the way. He then, intriguingly, tries to stop David committing the sin of the census, showing himself a faithful (if violent!) follower of YHWH. At the end, he backs the wrong horse by choosing Adonijah as David’s successor, and is then murdered in his turn, at Solomon’s orders, even while clinging to the “horns of the altar” (2 Sam. 2:28, 34).

Joab is neither the hero nor the “star” of the Davidic story, but he might be the anti-hero. He is far more than a background character. Abishai, Joab’s other brother, and co-commander of the army, who is often mentioned along with Joab, but whose character is never elucidated and who is always simply there “with Joab” rather than as an autonomous figure, is a background character. Joab recurs too often, and is too important, too influential, and too interesting, for that. If David’s life were a movie, the actor playing Joab would be a shoe-in for an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor”!

What is particularly interesting is that David on his deathbed turns on his old friend, urging Solomon to have Joab killed, for Joab’s murders (and for having embarrassed David?). Yet Joab’s deeds were crucial to David’s kingship and maintenance of authority. There is so much that is so interesting going on here: psychologically, politically, theologically, spiritually. Joab’s story is not as problematic as some skeptical exegetes argue. There definitely are ways of understanding what the Biblical narrators in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles are relating. But understanding David’s life, the ambivalent role Joab played in it, or Joab’s ambivalent relationship with the shepherd boy become king: these are not straightforward.


If I’ve stolen the thunder of those who write later this quarter on Jonathan and Joab, then my sincere apologies! Maybe we have here a theme for a future quarter of Bible study: “Second-rank characters in the Old Testament”! But the very possibility of having this discussion shows that Clifford Goldstein, the editor of the Bible Study Guides, and Gerald and Chantal Klingbeil have done us all favor in their choice of theme.

I’d like to suggest also that the focus on stories and biography is a valuable one, because, in our discussions and debates about doctrines, we sometimes lose sight that much of scripture is story—the recognizably human stories of men and women, whose interactions with each other and with YHWH Sabaoth, the awesome Lord God Almighty, give us so much to ponder and to learn from. Too, it is the depths and complexities of these people and their relationships that give us the real insights into our own lives and how we relate to our Creator and Savior.

So, two thumbs up to the Adult Bible Study Guide for turning us back to people and their stories. Whether background or foreground, whether heroes or villains, this is the real stuff of redemption history.


[1] 2 Sam. 1:19-27 (KJV/NKJV).

[2] Alden Thompson, Samuel: From the Danger of Chaos to the Danger of Power, The Abundant Life Bible Amplifier series (Nampa, Ida.: Pacific Press, 1995).

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.