Embedded in the biblical account of David’s rise to power as king of Israel is a parallel succession story—that of Joab. As the youthful David struggles against Saul, Israel’s first king, Joab fights beside him. When David secures the throne and becomes king, Joab is made commander-in-chief of the army, a job he keeps for 40 years (1 Chronicles 11:6). But as David lies on his deathbed, he advises his son Solomon not to let Joab’s “gray head go down to the grave in peace” (1 Kings 2:5–6).
Throughout their adult lives, David and Joab, the two most powerful men in Israel, rely on each other for success 016but publicly distance themselves from each other’s more questionable (even sinful) deeds. Theirs is a difficult working relationship that combines great loyalty with distrust and tremendous hostility. The phenomenal careers of these two biblical giants—entwined by ambition, blood, mutual need and shared circumstance—provide a glimpse of Iron Age realpolitik.
The parallel succession stories of David and Joab unfold primarily in the Books of Samuel and Kings; 1 Chronicles offers additional information but from a slightly different perspective, presumably because it was written to a different audience and at a later time than were Samuel and Kings.a This set of books provides the histories of the kings of Israel and Judah, and thus Joab is usually mentioned only in reference to David. Nevertheless, when we focus on their entangled personal and professional lives, Joab emerges as a powerful biblical character in his own right.
The First Book of Samuel sets the historical stage. The Lord directs Samuel to anoint Saul, a Benjamite, as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 10:1). Saul proves an able defender of Israel for many years. But when he disobeys the Lord (1 Samuel 15:19–23),b the Lord regrets that he made Saul king and sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king; the Lord chooses Jesse’s eighth son, the handsome lad David, and Samuel anoints him. David, however, will not serve as king for many years (1 Samuel 16:1–13).
Young, courageous and righteous, David slays the giant Goliath, thereby earning a place in history’s heart forever (1 Samuel 17). He enters Saul’s military service and grows into a mighty—and extremely popular—man of war. In the streets the women sing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). Jealous instead of joyous over his young recruit’s accolades, Saul repeatedly tries to kill David.
Realizing that Saul sees him as a threat to the throne, David flees for his life (1 Samuel 19–20). On the run, David attracts to his side a motley bunch of followers including “his brothers and his father’s household” and “all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented” (1 Samuel 22:1–2). Joab and his brothers Asahel and Abishai (all three the sons of David’s sister Zeruiah and therefore David’s nephews) were apparently among the group.
Over the years this sibling trio becomes exceedingly famous among David’s mighty men, and they repeatedly win their own combat laurels (see 2 Samuel 23:8–39; 1 Chronicles 11:4–47). The text suggests that the trio helped David shape the men who joined him in the wilderness into an exceedingly well-trained, victorious and deadly fighting force. Although mentioned only in passing in 1 Samuel as the brother of Abishai, Joab quickly emerges in subsequent biblical texts as the dominant figure both in the triumvirate of brothers and among David’s mighty men.
David and his merry men lead a life of adventure in the Judean wilderness. They hide in Philistine territory, make raids on the enemies of Israel, and outwit the bumbling Saul numerous times (2 Samuel 21–30). The text presents David’s wilderness experience as arguably the happiest time of his life. One is tempted to compare David to Robin Hood, and Joab and his ragtag but lethal band to Little John and the outlaws of Sherwood Forest.
The trouble between David and Joab begins in 2 Samuel. Here the story—with all its violence, feuds and court intrigues—starts to sound less like Robin Hood and more like The Godfather.
After Saul’s death (1 Samuel 31, 2 Samuel 1), the men of Judah anoint David as their king (2 Samuel 2:4). His capital is at Hebron. Meanwhile, however, Abner, commander of Saul’s army, has made Ishbosheth king of Israel (2 Samuel 2:8). For about two years the kingdom remains divided (2 Samuel 2:10). Two kings? Not good. Two feisty, egocentric commanders? Also not good.
The troops of Abner and the troops of Joab square off in a skirmish (2 Samuel 2:12–32). In the aftermath of the battle, fleet-footed Asahel, Joab’s brother, chases Abner down. Abner tries to dissuade his young pursuer, but to no avail. The text lingers on this encounter, which changes the course of the nation and starts a decadeslong blood feud: “But Asahel refused to give up the pursuit; so Abner thrust the butt of his spear into Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back. He fell there and died on the spot” (2 Samuel 2:23). As a result, “The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time” (2 Samuel 3:1).
Meanwhile, Abner eyes the throne for himself; and, yes, he can present a weak claim for it, for he and Saul were cousins (1 Samuel 14:50). To thwart Abner, Israel’s weak king Ishbosheth accuses him of 017sleeping with Rizpah, Saul’s concubine (2 Samuel 3:7). If indeed Abner took Rizpah and slept with her, at least two things are happening: Abner is staking a claim for Israel’s throne (the spoils of war traditionally included the wives and concubines of a dead or deposed king), and he is flaunting the fact that Ishbosheth cannot guard access to his father’s concubine.c Abner’s rhetoric and manner bully Ishbosheth into silence. Abner, promising to shift his allegiance to David, then storms away from their encounter (2 Samuel 3:9–11).
Abner travels south to David’s camp in Hebron and, while Joab is absent, holds a peaceful summit with the king of Judah (2 Samuel 3:12–20). Abner promises David his support as well as the allegiance of the Benjamites. He says, “‘Let me go at once and assemble all Israel for my lord the king, so that they may make a compact with you, and that you may rule over all that your heart desires.’ So David sent Abner away, 019and he went in peace” (2 Samuel 3:21). Abner’s defection represents a major coup for David in his bid for the throne of all Israel.
The news of Abner’s visit, however, incenses Joab. When he returns to camp, he accuses Abner of spying on David. “What have you done?” Joab explodes at David. “You know Abner son of Ner; he came to deceive you and observe your movements and find out everything you are doing” (2 Samuel 3:24–25).
Whether he is a spy or not (the text neither denies nor confirms Joab’s suspicions), Abner obviously has more to gain than to lose by suddenly siding with David. His change of face shows political savvy: He knows which way the national wind blows.
But Joab has a score to settle with Abner for killing his brother Asahel. He itches for revenge. In addition, Joab has his own political and military ambitions. The text has already clearly established his military prowess and leadership ability. If the tiny kingdom cannot tolerate two rulers, how can it be big enough for two commanders-in-chief of the unified army? Significantly, however, through his long career by David’s side, Joab never covets the throne.
While Joab’s forceful words may exaggerate Abner’s motives in a negative way, they nevertheless carry good advice: Be wary of Abner. Abner has his eyes on Ishbosheth’s throne, and he may well be maneuvering himself to take over David’s.
After speaking angrily to David, Joab leaves and has his own messenger invite Abner back to Hebron. “Now when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the gateway, as though to speak with him privately. And there, to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel, Joab stabbed him in the stomach, and he died” (2 Samuel 3:27). Note that the text stops short of calling Joab’s action murder and in fact vindicates the deed by saying it avenged the death of Asahel.
Abner’s death politically benefits both David and Joab, and privately both men must have recognized this. Publicly however, Abner’s death represents a PR disaster for David: He needs the immediate support of Israel, including Abner’s relatives (the Benjamites). Showing the political instincts of a born leader, David turns Abner’s funeral into a modern photo op. He castigates Joab with one of the strongest curses found in the Bible and absolves himself and his house from any part of the general’s death: “I and my kingdom are forever innocent before the Lord concerning the blood of Abner son of Ner. May his blood fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father’s house! May Joab’s house never be without someone who has a running sore or leprosy or who leans on a crutch or who falls by the sword or who lacks food” (2 Samuel 3:28–29).
David puts on a great spectacle, a great show of mourning for Abner—calling him a prince and a great man—and lets everybody know he is fasting on the day 020of the burial. David also commands Joab to tear his clothes, put on sackcloth and walk in front of the bier while David walks behind it (2 Samuel 3:31). David concludes his loud, public lament by labeling Joab and his surviving brother Abishai as treacherous villains: “And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me. May the Lord repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!” (2 Samuel 3:39; italics added).
A careful reader wonders if David protests too much, especially since his actions fail to match his words.d David does nothing to punish Joab. David needs Joab, and both know it. Together (for David’s rise determines Joab’s) they build and unite a nation. So despite the new king’s public self-absolvement and hand-wringing, despite all the cursing and the rending of garments, Joab stays in David’s court and increases in power. Paradoxically, the length and ire of David’s curse serve to underscore Joab’s high rank in the new kingdom.
A short time passes. In another politically astute move, David picks a new capital city: Jerusalem, called Jebus. Joab leads the successful attack on the Jebusite fortresse and as a result is named commander-in-chief of the army of Israel (1 Chronicles 11:4–6). David is now king of all Israel, and 2 Samuel presents a glowing account of the early years of his reign. David defeats the Philistines (2 Samuel 5:17–25), brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) and receives a promise from God for a dynasty (2 Samuel 7).
Likewise, Joab’s fame increases through his military victories. Joab defeats the Ammonites, calling on the Lord’s help to do so (2 Samuel 10:6–14); takes the royal citadel of the Ammonites (2 Samuel 12:26); and triumphs over the Edomites (Psalm 60; 1 Kings 11:16). Indeed, he never loses a battle.
At some point, however, David tires of war. Although the text gives no explanation as to why, David’s attentions turn from conquering enemies to being conquered by lust: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem” (2 Samuel 11:1).
While Joab and the army are away fighting the king’s battles, the king languishes in Jerusalem; one night he spies a beautiful woman taking her bath on a nearby housetop. He sends for her. She turns out to be Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his mighty men (2 Samuel 23:39). David commits adultery with her. According to biblical law, this single, illicit encounter 021is punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:22). To make matters worse for David and Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant (2 Samuel 11:1–5). The story makes it clear that there is no way her husband could be the father: Her bath was a ritual bath taken after menstruation.
Galvanized into action to save their lives, David initiates a series of cover-up schemes. David immediately tries to hide his sin by sending word to Joab to send Uriah back home to Jerusalem. There, David wines, dines, flatters, urges and beguiles the soldier to go home and “wash his feet” (2 Samuel 11:8)—a Hebrew euphemism for having sexual relations. David obviously means for Uriah to enjoy an evening with his willing, waiting, beautiful wife, and thereby remove any suspicion about who got her pregnant.
It’s a clever plan, but Uriah, dedicated soldier and honorable man that he is, steadfastly refuses to partake in lawful marital pleasures while his comrades face death and while the Ark of the Covenant and the army of Israel stay in tents (2 Samuel 11:11). He sleeps outside the palace entrance—a place so public that everybody knows where he is.
So David tries another, much more insidious tactic. He sends Uriah back to the battlefield with a letter for Joab, instructing the commander-in-chief to let the enemy kill Uriah. David commands Joab to put Uriah the Hittite in the thick of battle and then “withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Joab obeys the order, leaving Uriah defenseless against Ammonite arrow-fire; Uriah dies in combat (2 Samuel 11:17–20). Joab didn’t know why David wanted Uriah out of the picture, but he clearly understood the darker side of statecraft. Once again, dirty work and 022death entwine David and Joab.
After a brief period of mourning, David marries Bathsheba. The text, however, comments on David’s apparently successful cover-up with these ominous words: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27).
Despite David’s sins, the battle against the Ammonites at Rabbah goes well for the Israelites. Now it is Joab’s turn to rebuke David for dereliction of kingly responsibilities. The commander-in-chief warns the errant king, “I have fought against Rabbah and taken its water supply. Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it. Otherwise I will take the city and it 023will be named after me” (2 Samuel 12:27–28; italics added). David heeds Joab’s order; he takes the city as victor, wins great booty and puts the Ammonites to work baking bricks (2 Samuel 12:31).
But as the prophet Nathan foretold, the sword never leaves David’s household after that. In 2 Samuel 13, David’s oldest son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister Tamar. The Bible records no rebuke from David. Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, takes matters into his own hands some two years later: He kills Amnon in revenge and flees (2 Samuel 13:23–39). According to biblical law, Absalom should have been captured and turned over to the family for vengeance. But nobody pursues him. The king gives no such order.
After a while, Joab realizes David is privately pining for Absalom (2 Samuel 14:1) and begins to engineer his return. In this, Joab shows great political savvy. With Amnon dead, Absalom represents the likeliest successor to David’s throne. The only problem is that he might try to seize the throne prematurely. Absalom’s incredible good looks, driving ambition (see 2 Samuel 14:25–26) and skill in winning friends and influencing people make him a threat to the throne. Quite likely, Joab realized what David did not: that Absalom was more dangerous hiding in exile than he was in Jerusalem where his activities could be watched. Joab may well have brought him back to town simply to monitor his every move (see 2 Samuel 14).
Yet even in Jerusalem under the nose of his father, Absalom succeeds in mounting a rebellion against King David! Full of the charm he inherited from his father, he gains the people’s support. “The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:13), a messenger tells David. Absalom’s rebellion forces the king and his followers to flee Jerusalem on foot. How humiliating!
On the road leading out of town, a Benjamite called Shimei pelts David with curses and stones. Joab’s brother Abishai, traveling alongside the king, says to David, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head” (2 Samuel 16:9). David responds, however, by distancing himself from Abishai and from Joab (who hasn’t said a thing and may not even be present!). He asks, “What do you and I have in common, you sons of Zeruiah?” (2 Samuel 16:10; italics added). It seems that David is finally remembering the harsh words he spoke years before when he learned of Abner’s death at Joab’s hand.
Once again, we find David publicly disavowing the brothers while privately accepting their loyalty, courage and protection. In addition, David’s memory is short, for at some time during his reign Abishai saved David from being killed by a Philistine (2 Samuel 21:16–17).
Despite David’s public betrayal, Joab employs his military skill to save David’s throne. Joab leads the king’s forces against Absalom’s troops. Before the battle David begs his officers to go easy on his son—“Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake” (2 Samuel 18:5). But when Joab and his men come upon Absalom suspended in midair, his magnificent hair caught in the branches of a large oak (2 Samuel 18:9), they show the rebellious son no mercy. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21 stipulates the punishment for a rebellious son: “All the men of his town shall stone him to death.”) Joab takes three javelins in his hand and plunges them into Absalom’s heart; then ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surround Absalom and finish the deed (2 Samuel 18:14–15).
Joab’s victory against Absalom’s forces secures David’s throne. But instead of being grateful to Joab for quelling the rebellion and saving his life, David loudly laments the death of Absalom! “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom!” he weeps. “If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). David’s behavior saps the morale of his loyal forces, men who hours before had risked their lives for their rightful king. Hot from the battle, Joab storms into the king’s presence without ceremony and delivers a stinging rebuke and a woeful summary of David’s character: “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead” (2 Samuel 19:5–6). Significantly, the text lets the rebuke stand without comment.
Joab then commands David to go out and encourage his men at once. Joab promises David, “I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamaties that have come upon you from your youth till now” (2 Samuel 19:7). David obeys Joab, offering no counterargument.
Throughout their years of entanglement, David’s generous spirit never overflows to Joab; David never praises or thanks Joab or acknowledges his expertise on the battlefield. David never gives him credit for his statecraft or for securing his throne. In this case, David instead humiliates the victorious commander-in-chief who just won the civil war for him by firing him and then installing the leader of Absalom’s losing army, Amasa, in his place (2 Samuel 19:13)!
Once again, David’s open disloyalty to Joab carries political undertones: David knows his power is faltering. He knows the Israelites are divided over whether he should remain king. David makes Joab the fall guy. He replaces Joab with Amasa, to placate his enemies. The 062ploy works—at least for the short term. David again wins “over the hearts of all the men of Judah as though they were one man” (2 Samuel 19:14).
On his way back to Jerusalem, David is again met by Shimei, the Benjamite who had pelted David with stones and curses as the king made his way out of town. After David’s victory, Shimei is a changed man. He now leads a troupe of 1,000 loyal Benjamites, who greet David at the Jordan (2 Samuel 19:16–17). Asking forgiveness, Shimei prostrates himself before the king. Joab’s brother Abishai still itches to kill him, but David rebukes Abishai, once again lumping him together with Joab—who again may or may not be present! David even ratchets up the rebuke a notch: “What do you and I have in common, you sons of Zeruiah? This day you have become my adversaries!” (2 Samuel 19:22; italics added).
However popular David’s decision to replace Joab with Absalom’s former general Amasa may have been, it quickly proves unsound militarily. When Sheba, another Benjamite, mounts an insurrection, David orders his new commander-in-chief to muster Israel’s forces against this new rebel. But Amasa, lacking rapport with the troops, dallies and fails; Israel thereby loses a first-strike advantage.
Amasa’s delay provides Joab with the chance he’s been waiting for (see 2 Samuel 20). Joab joins Amasa and the troops on their march north from Jerusalem. In a scene directly reminiscent of his revenge slaying of Abner decades earlier, Joab invites Amasa over for an apparently friendly, private conversation between old warriors and close relatives (2 Samuel 17:25). The text puts it this way: “Joab said to Amasa, ‘How are you, my brother?’ Then Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. Amasa was not on his guard against the dagger in Joab’s hand, and Joab plunged it into his belly, and his intestines spilled out on the ground. Without being stabbed again, Amasa died” (2 Samuel 20:9–10).
This galvanizes Joab into action. He seizes control of the army and besieges Abel Beth Maacah, where Sheba and his followers are holed up. Sheba is beheaded, the rebellion fizzles (2 Samuel 20:14–22) and Joab heads back to the king in Jerusalem.
The text never reveals David’s reaction to the whole affair, but the chapter ends with a list of David’s officials. Significantly, Joab tops it as leader “over Israel’s entire army” (2 Samuel 20:23). Either the king tacitly sanctions Joab’s actions or he cannot control his ever ambitious and increasingly popular general.
The contrasts and conflicts between David and Joab intensify as they get older. First Kings 1 presents David in a less-than-kingly fashion. David is bedridden, constantly shivering, befuddled, impotent, isolated from his people, easily led by others’ suggestions and troublingly untroubled by the current state of his kingdom. In contrast, the same chapter presents Joab as still powerful, ambulatory, vigorous—in short the very model of an esteemed elder statesman. What’s more, others frequently seek out Joab—not David—for his counsel (1 Kings 1:7). Joab, like David, has become a legend in his own lifetime.
The prevailing political worry is one of succession: Who will replace David as king? His sons Amnon and Absalom are dead. The next in line is Adonijah, a very handsome young man. “Now Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, put himself forward and said, ‘I will be king’” (1 Kings 1:5). Joab and Abiathar the priest back him. It’s a bad call, one that will ultimately prove fatal for Joab. Apparently Joab is failing, too.
David surprises everyone when, in a rare moment of lucidity, he proclaims Solomon, Bathsheba’s son, as “king after me” (1 Kings 1:30).
Later on his deathbed, David admonishes Solomon to watch Joab. Like a Mafia Godfather passing the torch, he lists the old wrongs that he wants his successor to right. Without saying it directly, David advises Solomon to eliminate his old fighting comrade: “Now you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me—what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace” (1 Kings 2:5–6).
David, who profited politically from the slayings of both Abner and Amasa, now takes their deaths as a personal affront. To make the deaths seem even more heinous, he stretches the truth and claims they occurred in peacetime. Solomon must avenge these murders. Ever the politician, David recognizes in this moment of clarity that his house and his heir stand to gain nothing 063more from a continued, entwined relationship with Joab.
After David’s death, the opportunity comes for Solomon to consolidate his kingdom and settle old scores. When Adonijah asks for Abishag, David’s last concubine, Solomon interprets it as a bid for the throne and orders his half-brother’s death (1 Kings 2:13–25). Upon hearing of his protégé’s execution, Joab realizes his time is up. He flees to the tent of the Lord and grasps the horns of the altar.
The action refers directly to Exodus 21:12–14: “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.”
This is the climax of the parallel succession stories of David and Joab. A desperate Joab now seeks asylum and protection in the Lord’s dwelling place, an action consistent with textual hints that show Joab may have had a soldier’s practical, robust faith (2 Samuel 10:12–13; 24:3; 1 Chronicles 19:12–13; 21:3–6). By his action, he seems to be saying that he did not slay Abner and Amasa intentionally. Solomon does not agree. He sends his military leader Benaiah to strike him down. Joab refuses to come out to face Benaiah’s sword: “No, I will die here,” Joab answers like the soldier and man he is (1 Kings 2:30). So Solomon orders Benaiah to slay Joab next to the altar by saying, “Strike him down and bury him, and so clear me and my father’s house of the innocent blood Joab shed” (1 Kings 2:31).
Benaiah complies, striking down Joab in the tent of the Lord. “And he was buried on his own land in the desert” (1 Kings 2:34). In an ironic twist, Solomon rewards Benaiah, the slayer of the legendary commander of the army of Israel, with the command of the army of Israel (1 Kings 2:35).
And so one era ends, and another begins.
Embedded in the biblical account of David’s rise to power as king of Israel is a parallel succession story—that of Joab. As the youthful David struggles against Saul, Israel’s first king, Joab fights beside him. When David secures the throne and becomes king, Joab is made commander-in-chief of the army, a job he keeps for 40 years (1 Chronicles 11:6). But as David lies on his deathbed, he advises his son Solomon not to let Joab’s “gray head go down to the grave in peace” (1 Kings 2:5–6). Throughout their adult lives, David and Joab, the two most powerful […]