[K:NWTS 25/3 (December 2010) 27-37]

Joab and Abner: Narrative Symmetries Sandwiching David

2 Samuel 3:6-12, 17-39

James T. Dennison, Jr.

We first meet Joab in 1 Samuel 26:6 where he appears with his brother, Abishai, as David prepares to steal into the camp of King Saul in the wilderness of Zipf. In that passage, Abishai is introduced as the son of Zeruiah—Zeruiah, the mother of Abishai and Joab. She is, in fact, the mother of three boys, as we learn from 1 Chronicles 2:16: Joab, Abishai and Asahel (cf. 2 Sam. 2:18). What's more, Zeruiah is David's sister, which makes the sons of Zeruiah (Joab, Abishai, Asahel) nephews to David, their uncle. There are family ties between David and the sons of Zeruiah. Family ties ever so subtlely hinted at by our narrator, yet family ties which will play a major role in the David narrative. Or is it ambition which drives Joab's relationship with David?

Abner makes his initial appearance in the Bible in 1 Samuel 14:50 where he is featured as the captain of the army of King Saul. On the death of Saul at the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 31), Abner joins the renegade son of Saul, Ish-bosheth, in a civil war against David and the house of Judah (v. 6). Abner too has family ties—family ties with the house of Saul because his father, Ner, is the brother of Saul's father, Kish. Ner, then, is Saul's uncle (1 Sam. 14:50) and Abner is Saul's cousin and second cousin to Ish-bosheth. Already, we detect symmetries of relation in what we will discover to be symmetrical narratives.

Abner and Ish-bosheth establish their claim to rule over all the territory of Israel from the east bank—the Transjordanian region—placing their capitol across the Jordan River at the city of Mahanaim. And here, Abner exercises the same role for the son as he had for the defunct father—commander of the army (2 Sam.2:8). Family ties between Ish-bosheth and Abner are enhanced by political and military loyalties binding the army commander to the rebel son of Saul. Or is it political and military ambition which dominates in the kingdom east of the Jordan? The potentially insidious symmetry in this civil war is ambition—raw, corrupt, brutal ambition.

Joab also makes a lateral transition on the death of Saul—he becomes the captain of David's army. And David? Anointed by Samuel to be king over Israel even while Saul lives—David, on Saul's death, finds he is only king over the territory of Judah, capitol at Hebron. The tussle of a two-year civil war pits David and his military commander, Joab, in Hebron against Ish-bosheth and his military commander, Abner, in Mahanaim. Notice the symmetries of antagonism in this narrative of civil antagonism: King David at Hebron vis-à-vis King Ish-bosheth at Mahanaim; Army Commander, Joab, under David vis-à-vis Army Commander, Abner, under Ish-bosheth.

Initial Symmetries

The narrator lays out these symmetries of relation, political power and military might so as to reveal the character of the players in his drama. Think about it! Of all the stories which could have been recounted by our narrator over the two-year period of civil strife, these stories are featured. More than mere stories, these are narrative cameos demonstrating the character of the protagonists and antagonists in our drama. The real question will be: does the antagonistic positioning of the kingdoms include antagonistic character in the players in this drama; or are their symmetries lurking symmetries—lurking symmetries which are prophetic of character in its future revelations?

The first skirmish our inspired narrator records in this Israel-Judah civil war occurs in the face-off between Abner and Joab at the pool of Gibeon (2 Sam. 2:12f.). This debacle, in which twelve men from each side kill each other at the same time, carries a faint echo of David, champion of Israel, versus Goliath, champion of Philistia (some modern multi-culturists see the echo of Trojan and Greek champions here, e.g., Hector and Achilles, from Homer's Iliad, but that is not likely). Nor does twelve felling twelve settle the conflict. Joab and his army put Abner and his troops to flight. In the hot pursuit, the youngest of the three sons of Zeruiah, Asahel—swift-footed, gazelle-like Asahel—Asahel runs pell-mell into Abner's spear and kills himself. Is there no end of this self-killing in this civil war? Abner would have it end: "shall the sword devour forever?" he cries out to Joab (2 Sam. 2:26). And Joab? Joab calls a halt to the chase as night falls—as the lifeless body of his kid brother lies by the road wallowing in his own blood. Joab calls a halt to the senseless bloodshed while gathering up the bloodied corpse of his baby brother for burial in the family plot at Bethlehem. Antagonist Joab and antagonist Abner have met; their appointed champions have equally fallen twelve on twelve; and the ensuing bloodshed?—the ensuing bloodshed has resulted in a draw. But Joab takes up and carries away more than the bloodied body of Asahel; he carries a grudge, a remorseless antipathy for Abner—and he waits, Joab waits to avenge the ignominious death of his little brother.

Roiling Symmetries

The boiling emotions which are seething in Hebron are symmetrically matched by seething emotions in Mahanaim. The one is fed by a blood feud—Joab nursing a grudge to do unto Abner as he had done unto Asahel. The other? It is fed by a charge of rape or illicit sexual congress and Abner nurses a grudge against Ish-bosheth, declaring, "See if Abner does not do unto Ish-bosheth what Ish-bosheth did unto David." Our narrator selects parallel narratives of seething emotion because they reveal the character of the antagonists in the drama. More cameos of narrative action—action which features the opposition between the warring factions, their rulers, their military commanders—opposition that moves inexorably to a climax in the murder—the cold-blooded murder—the Judas-like murder of Abner by Joab. Character! character displayed in symmetrical narrative dramas.

Abner's character has appeared manipulative. He has placed Ish-bosheth on the throne in Mahanaim. Ish-bosheth, Abner's puppet king; the army's figurehead on the east bank. And Ish-bosheth? He plays the puppet role all too gladly, until . . . . until his champions are slain twelve by twelve, until his army is chased from the field by David's army, until a stalemate emerges and neither he nor his puppet-master general can conquer David, or his army, or his general, Joab. Ish-bosheth is chaffing now—chaffing at his puppet-king role. He is weary of being the pawn in the game—the game which has become a stalemate. And so Ish-bosheth does something to assert his royal dominance; Ish-bosheth ventures to trump Abner. He charges his puppet-master with illicit intercourse with Saul's concubine. "You had sex with that woman; you might just as well take the crown from my head. For to take my father's concubine is to take my father's role. And I am telling you right here and now, I am king! I wear the crown!!"

Now most observers regard Abner's explosion in v. 8 as bluster, prima facie evidence that he is guilty as sin—the sin of rape or consensual fornication. Virtually everyone agrees with Ish-bosheth that Abner is guilty of breaking the seventh commandment. But these indicters of Abner are not reading the narrative the writer has penned; they are reading 21st century sexual obsession and sensationalism into the narrative so as to concur with Ish-bosheth that Abner is a sleazebag. Suffice it to observe at this point that no one asks the woman. Rizpah remains silent in this tête-à-tête, left out of the picture, save to serve as an alleged victim: an alleged victim convenient to Ish-bosheth's agenda. But this woman will reappear in our narrator's drama of the life of David; she will play a tragically heroic role in 2 Samuel 21:10ff. She will not speak—not in that incident, even as she does not speak in this incident. But though her voice is silent, in 2 Samuel 21 she will act—will she ever act in fierce devotion to the dead bodies of her two sons. Surely Rizpah's honor in the matter of her children's corpses is symmetrical of honor in Rizpah here at Ish-bosheth's fierce, slanderous accusation. Narrative symmetries: duplicates of honor and loyalty. Rizpah silent—silent in honor and loyalty and devotion.

We must search for the symmetries, the narrative symmetries which our inspired narrator has sprinkled through his account of the history of David. We must look for the parallel narratives in order to let Scripture interpret Scripture—in order to understand the inner character of the players in the drama.

Symmetries of Abner

Well, what of narrative symmetries in the case of Abner? Abner's dishonor is revealed in his collusion with Ish-bosheth against David's election by God as king over Israel and Judah. He plays king-maker and puppet-master and dishonors himself, dishonors God, dishonors David thereby. There are no excuses for this shameful behavior of political and military connivance, egoism, power-play. This is as dirty a political game as the modern corridors of Washington, DC, Chicago, Illinois, Olympia, Washington or hundreds of other districts in modern America where political dishonor and dishonorable politics is the norm of political power. But with the shameful accusation of the violation of Rizpah, it is as if Abner has been slapped upside the head—stunned out of the stupor induced by thinking he has engendered loyalty and integrity from the man he has propped up as king in Mahanaim. Abner's fulmination, "Am I a dog's head," has suddenly awakened him from his presumption. He has been shamed into realizing the shame of what he has done. What he has done in defying David's God-ordained right to the throne of Israel and Judah. And so, as if in repentance for his folly, Abner swears an oath before God (v. 9) to deliver up the kingdom of Ish-bosheth to David with an exclamation point! "You see if I do not accomplish this for him!"

The about face in Abner here is provoked by a false accusation and Abner recoils from the false accusation by admitting that he was wrong—in the wrong, not with Rizpah, but in the wrong with the dog's head of a king, Ish-bosheth (yes, he is turning that slur back on his accuser). And in demonstration of this wake-up call, Abner declares he will ratify God's election of David by swearing his own fealty to the Lord's anointed. Having vowed to change his dishonorable and misplaced loyalty contrary to the will of Almighty God—having vowed to change his sinful loyalty, Abner acts in accordance with his vow, his repentance, his change of heart, his recognition and submission to the revealed will of God. Abner acts and travels to Hebron (v. 20) where he seals a covenant with David and pledges to deliver all Israel into a like covenant bond with David (v. 21). This is loyalty demonstrated by its fruits—a personal covenant between Abner and David, between former antagonists, now pledged as friends, brothers and a national covenant between Israel and Judah—between former enemy nations, now pledged as one body, one people, under God.

The reconciliation between Abner and David is celebrated in a feast (v. 20)—a meal of fellowship following personal reconciliation, mutual loyalty and honor. Abner, now a man of honor, endorses David's kingship as does God himself. And he does so in an honorable way, demonstrating his own change of heart and integrity. And the fruit of reconciliation? The aftermath of a feast of celebration of covenant union and relationship? Shalôm! Shalôm! David sends Abner away in "peace" (v. 21). Enmity resolved; hostility forgiven; antagonists now protagonists; civil war all over but the shoutin'! Abner departs in peace: peace of conscience, peace of relation, peace of honor, peace of integrity. Abner finally wakes up to the Lord's plan and purpose and Abner bows his knee to God's elect; Abner bows his knee to the man after God's own heart; Abner bows his own heart to the will of God and God's anointed.

Symmetries of Joab

We have observed our inspired narrator's literary technique of symmetrical figures and symmetrical narratives: King David in Hebron, King Ish-bosheth in Mahanaim; Joab, captain of the armies of Judah, Abner, captain of the armies of Israel. All this in the antithetical context of a national civil war. We have also observed our inspired narrator's narrative genius with regard to the display or revelation of the character of the players in this redemptive-historical drama. He uses so-called Janus-like or mirror symmetry to unfold the inner character. Abner's character is developed, mirrored, unfolded, displayed by way of his parallel narrative appearances. And as Abner is sandwiched between Ish-bosheth and David, so now we come to Joab. We expect Joab likewise to be sandwiched between Ish-bosheth and David. After all, he is the fierce, grudge-nursing opponent of the one and the ostensibly fierce, loyal commander of the other. Or is he? What do we find in our narrator's inspired narrative? Joab is not sandwiched between Ish-bosheth and David; rather Joab sandwiches David between himself and Abner. Joab squeezes David between himself and Abner. In fact, Joab squeezes the life out of Abner in order to squeeze David under his own power. Joab is an inveterate murderer—a cold-blooded and ruthless murderer; and he squeezes David with his ruthlessness not once, not twice, not three times, but four times he squeezes David under his own power—his military power as king-maker. Yes! Joab plays the game of king-maker too. Never does he want the throne; ever does he want to control the throne as army chief-of-staff. Whether it is Abner or Absalom or Amasa or even Uriah—Joab wants David to know straight out, "I am the power behind your charisma. Your handsome charisma wows the audiences; my military muscle keeps those audiences in your pocket—in my pocket." Joab squeezes David with his savage power and David?—tragically, sinfully, David is powerless to beard his vicious, power-brokering commander-in-chief.

Our narrator shines his light upon the character of Joab—the nefarious character of Joab in this third chapter. As Abner departs in shalôm with the peace of David's benediction upon him, Joab enters in a fuming fury with the umbrage of an upbraiding rebuke to his king: "What have you done?" (v. 24). What insolence is this? to speak to God's elect and anointed shepherd-king with such a tongue-lashing? Joab's character is beginning to be revealed and the picture is not pretty. Is this the first time a king has been rebuked in this chapter? Oh no, the narrative symmetry recurs in Abner's upbraiding rebuke of Ish-bosheth in v. 8. And Ish-bosheth? He says nary a word to Abner in reply (v. 11). And David? He says nary a word to Joab in reply (vv. 24-26).

Joab's Symmetrical Treachery

Ah, this narrator is indeed a literary genius. The fear that cows Ish-bosheth into silence—is it the fear that silences David? Do we have symmetrical kings quailing symmetrically before their respective military commanders? The charge Joab levels against Abner is a slander; it's a lie. "He came to deceive you" (v. 25). No! we know Abner came to seal a covenant of peace with David under a sworn oath to the Lord. Joab is lying; Abner has been falsely accused . . . . again. The mirror symmetry here echoes the accusation of fornication hurled at Abner by Ish-bosheth. You see what or narrator is doing with these symmetries, don't you? He is showing you that Abner is innocent of Joab's slander as he is innocent of Ish-bosheth's slur. Abner was no more guilty of deceit in coming to David than he was guilty of coming to Rizpah for lewd sexual purposes. Abner is doubly slandered, twice over in symmetrical narratives—narratives which interpret one another. Abner is innocent! Innocent of Joab's mendacious charge in v. 25; innocent of Ish-bosheth's salacious charge in v. 8. Abner no more touched Rizpah than he forswore himself before God in covenanting with David. The dishonor in this narrative belongs not to Abner, but to Joab. And tragically that dishonor in the form of cowardice squeezes David into doing nothing. Cold-blooded, heartless, treacherous, ruthless murder and David does nothing. Joab squeezes David with inaction, with do nothingism, with whining—"these sons of Zeruiah are too difficult for me" (v. 39). That's a cop out David. "Whoso sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6). Even you executed the Amalekite who claimed to have killed King Saul (2 Sam.1). He was a liar, but you silenced his lying tongue because he dared allege that he had killed the Lord's anointed. But here is murder most foul right before your eyes; murder from the treacherous sword of Joab; murder from this Judas who feigns private friendship while thrusting his sword deep into Abner's rib-cage slaying him on the spot. And David does nothing!

David's Passivity

Oh, you say, David did compel Joab to walk in front of Abner's bier, clothed in sackcloth, intoning lamentation (v. 31). You say David humiliates Joab with that public disgrace as he himself brought up the rear of the funeral train wailing "as one falls before the wicked, (so) you have fallen, Abner" (v. 34). David humiliates Joab with public disgrace, but he does not perform public justice. Abner's blood is crying out from the ground for justice: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood, and David orchestrates a parade. "These sons of Zeruiah are too difficult for me." Come on, David! Goliath wasn't too difficult for you. The marauding Amalekites who attacked Ziklag and kidnapped your wife, Abigail, and the wives and children of your armed band weren't too difficult for you (1 Sam. 30). Evading and sparing King Saul—Saul's relentless and murderous pursuit of you—was not too difficult for you. What is it David? What is it that so unnerves you, unmans you, undoes you, un-Davids you? What is it David that renders you unable and unwilling to execute justice in the face of gross, bloody injustice? Is it family ties? They're family so they get a free pass, these sons of Zeruiah. They're politically important, so as political cronies they get a free pass. They're soldiers—in fact, commanding soldiers—and so they have the loyalty of the army and you need the army to prop up your crown, so they get a free pass. We could go on speculating about why David turns wimp here and winks at bloody injustice. But this much is clear, as our narrator's symmetries make plain. Joab has trumped David—trumped him for the first time. But it will not be the last time. Conniving, colluding, conspiring Joab will trump David again—with Uriah, with Absalom, with Amasa. David will realize that he is subject to Joab; Joab is not subject to David. For Joab controls David and David knows it; and David refuses to do anything about it—content to cruise along with king-maker Joab and permit this devious commander-in-chief to manipulate, to maneuver, to prop him up on his throne. David from 2 Samuel 3—more a puppet-king than a sovereign, independent monarch. David from 2 Samuel 3—his character more reflective of those he fears than of the Lord God whom he should fear. How tragic is this heart of God squeezed by compromise and manipulation and injustice and turning a blind eye and refusing to do what is right—what is just and right, when what is wrong, what is wrong and unjust is right in front of his face.

How this curse haunts the church and Christian fathers and Christian mothers and Christian pastors who stare injustice and wrong in the face and do nothing because the other personality, the other party is too difficult for them. Oh the grief that such inaction, such do nothingism engenders. And oh the consequences of such do nothingism as David was soon to learn.

God's Activity

For while David does nothing, God does not. God is not too weak for Joab and the sons of Zeruiah. Nor is God too weak for the fawning hypocrites of today's church, of today's culture, of today's political establishment, of today's military toadies who do nothing and people are murdered—murdered in cold blood right before their eyes. God will do something and David will learn the hard, sad, painful lesson. And so will nations and political parties and military leaders and ecological utopians. They will learn that God is too strong for them as he confounds their schemes and their injustices and their hypocrisy and their base tyranny—base tyranny by which, like Joab, they dominate others, maneuvering, corrupting, suborning, harassing for the sake of power—raw, absolute power. All modern liberalism is about tyranny—tyranny to control human beings and subjugate persons to the ego of the imperial leader, the messianic pretender, the party of the elite, the arrogance—the unmitigated arrogance of the dominant forces of the political power-brokers of the age.

David symmetrical with Ish-bosheth? More like David symmetrical with Joab. Joab symmetrical with Abner? More like Abner symmetrical with loyal, devoted Jonathan, another who sealed a covenant with David (1 Sam. 20; 23:18). The jarring juxtaposition of the symmetries which our narrator aligns are revelations—revelations of character. Character which is despicable (Ish-bosheth and Joab); character which is repentant and covenantal (Abner); character which is emasculated by fear and threat—even insolent threat (David). Such weak character may say peace, peace, but there is no peace when justice—blind justice—does not stand shoulder to shoulder with shalôm. There can be no peace without justice.

Christ's Sufficiency

Every sinner knows that: no peace with God without justice. Every sinner knows that justice demands his or her blood. And unless there is blood for blood, justice will haunt, justice will stalk, justice will stand unsatisfied, until that great day when justice will have its fill—eternally! No injustice will go unrequited in that day; no injustice will go unrepaid on that great and terrible day. And the only plea any sinner has in the face of dread justice's proclamation—"You must pay! Blood for blood," says justice—the only plea any sinner has is the blood of Jesus for his or her own blood. David made that plea, praise God! In all his weakness, sinfulness, foolishness, fearfulness, fecklessness, inconsistency—David made that plea: "cleanse me from my iniquity" (Ps. 51:2); "blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes not iniquity" (Ps. 32:2). Joab never made that plea; Ish-bosheth never made that plea. Abner? We don't know for sure, but he too may have sat down at the feast table of the covenant under the canopy of the forgiving grace of God. He may have . . . .

How desperately we need Christ! For justice's sake; for righteousness sake. For the sake of forgiving our arrogance and manipulation and domination and refusal to do the right thing—the just thing—because that is to do God's thing. How desperately we need the blood of Jesus and the assurance that what is right is pleasing to him, regardless of the cost to us. It's not about us; it's not about us—it's about him! David leaves us disappointed, caught in the trap of Joab's manipulation and power over him. The eschatological David never disappoints us. And he—that eschatological Prince of Shalôm, that eschatological Prince of Peace—he appoints us to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8).