Wibble Wednesday: Second Stringers (2 Samuel 3–5)

Fell out of the swing for a while. Hope to be back for good in the new year though.

Short snarky summary: David’s rival, an ineffectual waste of space, is upstaged by his military commander. David is likewise upstaged by his own second-in-command, and the war is fought pretty much entirely by proxy. People die in ways that are surprisingly convenient for David, although he definitely didn’t give the order to kill them. Dunno, sometimes people just get conveniently murdered.


So we’ve already briefly been introduced to David’s rivals. The monarchical claimant is some son of Saul’s named Ish-bosheth, and his general is Abner, son of Ner. Now, we know a fair bit about Abner — he was Saul’s general before he was Ish-bosheth’s, and he killed one of Joab’s brothers in chapter 2. But we don’t know anything about Ish-bosheth, and what we do know isn’t very complimentary: he’s a son of crazy old king Saul, and he notably was not present at the great battle where Saul and his sons were struck down. So we can well imagine little Izzy, too young or weak or ill or cowardly to go to war, as the last scion of the great house of Saul. That there does not exactly look like the stuff of kings, particularly when measured against war hero David (who conveniently slaughtered all witnesses to the time he changed sides).

So it’s not much of a mystery as to why Ish-bosheth ends up upstaged by Abner, but it’s a bit more of a mystery as to why David gets upstaged by his general Joab. Joab’s been in the military game for a while himself, and he and his brother Abishai figure incidentally into the narrative of David’s panty raid on Saul’s camp, but are otherwise really very minor characters, mentioned even less than Abner in the text of 1 Samuel. But make no mistake about it: the civil war described here is all about Abner and Joab, not about Ish-bosheth and David. Ish-bosheth is dispensed with early, in a complicated domestic conflict with Abner: Saul’s women (specifically his concubines) are to some extent symbolic of his authority, and the text of chapter 3 suggests (through dialogue between Abner and Ish-bosheth) that Abner has appropriated at least one of these concubines for himself, which Ish-obsheth sees as an act of usurpation. He might even be right: as I pointed out above, Ish-bosheth comes across as a weak and ineffectual claimant to the kingship, and Abner might reasonably think that he’s a better representative of Saul’s household to accede to the throne. But Ish-bosheth’s accusation makes Abner totally lose his shit and declares that Ish-bosheth doesn’t actually deserve his loyalty. That’s very nearly a declaration of defection, and Abner’s speech teeters on the edge of treason, declaring that David deserves the kingship more, but not explicitly declaring his own intent to support David with actions. Apparently Ish-bosheth isn’t even strong enough to demote Abner for openly plotting treason, so we can totally see why Abner doesn’t respect the dude.

At this point Ish-bosheth is basically a nonentity, bullied into submission, and Abner is the primary dealmaker for the Saulite camp. Unlike Ish-bosheth, his viewpoint isn’t irreconcilable with David’s: he doesn’t actually care who gets to be king, as long as he gets to be a big wheel. David welcomes Abner’s defection on the condition that Abner liberate his wife Michal. This appears to be a clever political ploy (how cynically crafted it is depends on how much actual affection for Michal you read into David’s demand): remember that Michal is Saul’s daughter, and for any Israelites who might support Ish-bosheth, despite his paucity of actual kingly attributes, on the basis of his descent from the true king, David’s bond of marriage with the house of Saul is a compelling argument to switch over to his side.

The demand of Michal provokes a little-described but somewhat affecting domestic drama. Michal was given in marriage to a man named Palti back in 1 Samuel 25, and has lived with him for what is presumably years at this point (David’s had six sons in the interim), but suddenly she’s being asked to recall her youthful, quasi-annuled marriage and return to this husband. Her current spouse (now called Paltiel, which is just an editorial error), walks with her, weeping, until he’s sent home. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for poor Palti(el), buffeted as he is by the whims of monarchs. Michal won’t end up very happy in the end, either.

This domestic scene completes the alliance, however, and Abner proceeds to promote David’s claim throughout Israel, and brings news of his success to David. But at this point David ends up losing agency in his own story, for after a feast celebrating Abner’s success, David’s own general Joab comes home, and Joab is not happy with the dealings with Abner. His ostensible reason is a distrust of Abner’s treachery, but Joab has at least two far more personal reasons to want to keep Abner out of David’s camp: first, he kind of wanted the seat on David’s right hand for himself, thank you very much, and he does not like the boss palling around with this new promising upstart at all; second, there’s that way Abner killed Joab’s brother Asahel back in Chapter 2. So there’s no love lost between these two, but by the time Abner came over to David’s camp, the civil war seems to be all-but-won and their fued is going to end up settled by non-military means. Specifically, Joab’s going to summon Abner for a tête-à-tête in Hebron, and when he shows up, stab him in the gut.

It’s hard to read much moral context into this story. Rabbinical sources totally tie themselves in knots trying to make David, Abner, and Joab all come out of this looking good, and there is straight up not enough good behavior here to go ’round. Joab’s action seems to be pretty explicitly condemned by the text: the way the death of Asahel was presented back in the last chapter, Abner tried very, very hard not to kill him, and only when it became absolutely necessary did he do so, as a more-or-less honorable act of war, while on the other hand Joab’s revenge was a pure-and-simple assassination, and one from which he personally stood to benefit. But then you lay over this the context of Joab as the agent of the rightful king, and Abner as a long-standing ally of the unrighteous Saul and his disinherited house, and the moral balance is a bit muddied.

David, though, doesn’t seem too morally unclear on this, and he unambiguously regards Joab’s act as a dishonorable and unholy one, denying all responsibility for the murder, honoring Abner’s corpse, and heaping curses on Joab (not only cursing his offspring to be sick and unfortunate, but also specifically cursing his male descendants to “handle the spindle”, i.e., be sent to do women’s work). He fasts and grieves and puts on a pretty good show, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t actually replace Joab, who’s still at the head of his army. Weird.

Meanwhile, Team Saul knows it’s all over and Ish-bosheth’s court is falling down around him. We get a parenthetical about Jonathan’s crippled son Mephibosheth in this chapter for mystifying reasons—he’ll become relevant, but not immediately—but most of the story is about Ish-bosheth’s two current commanders, Baanah and Rechab, who are not exactly up to Abner’s standard. But like Abner they’re looking to jump ship over to David’s crew, and they decide that assassinating Ish-bosheth and bringing his head to David would be a good way to show their change of heart. Ish-bosheth really doesn’t choose his generals well, do they?

If you’ve been keeping count, this is, a scant four chapters into the book, the third death David didn’t actually engineer that has been tremendously beneficial to him (Saul being the first). Just like in all the other cases, he talks up a pretty good show of grief, but I can’t help but notice that people who have been annoying David have an alarming tendency to get violently killed, and, y’know, maybe he’s doing something to suggest to people that that’s a good idea (“Will no one rid me of this turbulent usurper?”). Hopefully people will stop doing favors for David once he kills enough of them: Ish-bosheth’s assassins are rewarded with the gift of dismemberment.

So by Chapter 5, David has no actual rivals for the kingship of Israel, and in a positively anticlimactic set of verses the elders of Israel come to Hebron to anoint him king, and now that he’s king he’s out to settle old scores and take back some lost Israelite land. Namely, Jerusalem, which doesn’t seem to have actually been the capital at the time: Judah had its seat at Hebron, while greater Israel seems to have been ruled from Gilgal or Bethel. Jerusalem is of course the modern capital of Israel, and was the capital of whatever Jewish state happened to be there for many centuries (first Israel-Judah, then Judah after the split of the two kingdoms on-again-off-again for centuries, and then the Roman province of Judaea). THe historicity of the capital’s location is a bit murky at this point, from which few records date, but certainly to the Deuteronomists and later redactors, Jerusalem was the once and future capital and its recapture pivotal to Israel’s greatness. Jerusalem is also known as the City of David, not least for his capture of the city.

An unnecessarily horrifying tale from David’s conquest: the Jebusites, who occupied the city at the time, taunted his invasionary force, saying that even their blind and crippled inhabitants would suffice to drive David back. When, as might be expected, the Israelites won, David recalled the taunt and said that the blind and crippled should be put to death. Not my idea of a class act, there.

Meanwhile, Hiram of Tyre sends envoys, gifts, and craftsmen to build David a palace. Tyre was a pretty significant maritime power, and Israel, based on what we can tell from the extant non-Biblical archaeological records, was a pretty smalltime local kingdom, so I’d read this as blatant pro-Israel propaganda rather than something that actually happened. Anyways, I mention this because we’ll see Hiram again, and when we do, we’ll learn about some exaggerated honors future rabbinical scholars heaped on him.

The end of Chapter 5 is mostly some tedious details. We’re told that David builds up a harem in Jerusalem and had 10 children, of whom somewhere between zero and two are actually narratively relevant, depending on whether there are multiple characters with the same name. We also get some rather dull fight scenes with a bunch of random Philistines, notably mostly for God speaking directly to David, who won’t go out and fight until God gives his OK, and for another etiological tale, of how Baal-perazim is called that because it’s where David seized the Philistine idols (baalim).

This more-or-less puts the Saul story to rest for a while. Anti-Judahite sentiment will flare up from time to time, but doesn’t bubble over again, and for the next two generations the Davidic dynasty will reign over a unified kingdom. But even though he’s king, David’s troubles are far from over, and things are going to finally stop working out quite so well for him soon.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Second Stringers (2 Samuel 3–5)

  1. gsanders says:

    So, the assassin killing the king and then being killed by the person advantage by the murder is a longstanding dramatic trope. It basically never seems to work out well, although the John Haring quote seems to apply “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.”

    I wonder if any historians have ever looked at the question of whether there was a general pattern to this. Were there a bunch of patsy assassins or convenient unrelated victims that were executed? Were the subsequent executions just made up by regime historians? Obviously, real hard to figure out something as far back as King David, but presumably there’s European more recent examples of the trope that might have more records available.

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