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The Strange Relationship
Between David & Joab

David and Joab

by Dennis Pollock

Life often throws people together in unusual ways which they neither expected or requested. In many cases people can accomplish far more in tandem with another than they ever could on their own. The ultimate example of this is marriage. God declared that “it is not good for a man to be alone.” But there are other examples of the effectiveness of working in tandem. Where would Abbot have been without Costello? How could Batman have saved Gotham City without Robin? Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin had stellar careers after their famous breakup, but they were far more dynamic in their days together. Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak to become the tech titan he eventually became, and Paul McCartney would never have attained to the heights he did without John Lennon.

In the Bible we find a partnership between King David and the general who directed Israel’s army that proved highly effective in many ways. That general was David’s nephew Joab, who served David throughout his tenure as Israel’s most famous king. Joab was an effective military leader who had no shortage of courage and managed the armies of Israel with skill and daring. He served Israel well in his office, and yet the relationship between him and David was a strained one, to say the least.

Joab attained to his position as a result of David’s great desire to conquer the city of Jerusalem and claim it for Israel. In those early days, David had no official head of his army and he himself functioned in that role. David wanted Jerusalem so badly that he made an enticing (and rash) offer: “Whoever takes Jerusalem will be my chief and captain.” Joab was one tough hombre who never backed away from a fight and took his uncle up on his proposition. Leading a group of men into Jerusalem he managed to overpower the Jebusites who then occupied the city, and Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Hebrews. It came to be known as the city of David, and David, true to his word, made Joab the general over his army. David and Joab would be linked together all the rest of David’s life. It was a relationship David came to hate and regret.

Capable Joab

The problem was not that Joab was not capable at his job. He was quite capable, perhaps a little too capable. The first act of Joab that revealed the kind of person he was and drove a wedge between general and king occurred when David was seeking to establish his leadership over all Israel. David’s first reign as king was a limited rule: he ruled over his own tribe of Judah, but the northern tribes of Israel followed Saul’s son, Ishbosheth. These two peoples fought continually, and the Scriptures tell us that David’s armies began to prevail. At a certain point while the two sides battled it out, Ishbosheth sensed his leading general, Abner, was up to something.

The two quarreled violently and Abner vowed he was going to turn their army over to David. Abner contacted David, and the two men agreed to meet together. David saw this as an opportunity to bring the war to an end and consolidate all Israel as one people under him. After meeting with David, Abner left for home, fully intending to persuade all the army to join David’s side. Shortly after this, Joab returned from a skirmish. When he learned what David was up to he was incensed. Telling David that Abner was surely planning to double-cross him, Joab took some of his own men to catch up with Abner. Joab no doubt sensed that his position as David’s leading general was at stake. But Joab also hated Abner for killing his brother, Asahel, in a previous battle. The idea of the man who had killed his brother taking his place as David’s top general was too distasteful to contemplate for the hotheaded Joab.

When he overtook Abner and his men, Joab feigned friendliness and went to greet his rival. As the two men embraced, Joab pulled out a long dagger and ran it through Abner’s belly, killing him instantly. In this one murderous act he effectively eliminated his competition, guaranteeing the top military position for himself. Apparently, Joab’s brother, Abishai, was also involved in this murder. The Bible says, “So Joab and Abishai his brother killed Abner…” (2 Samuel 3:30).

Strange Inaction

David’s reaction to this was strange, considering how much courage he had shown throughout most of his life. The man who faced down the giant and killed lions and bears made no response to this act of treason and murder. David ordered a state funeral for Abner, and lamented, “Should Abner die as a fool dies?... As a man falls before wicked men, so you fell.” He also refused to eat until the sun went down that day. But there was no punishment, or any attempt to remove Joab from his position. King David seemed to attempt to justify this apparent weakness to his servants, saying:

Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? And I am weak today, though anointed king; and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too harsh for me. (2 Samuel 3:38, 39)

Zeruiah was David’s sister, and the mother of three sons, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. All were outstanding soldiers. They were tough guys, so tough that even David was hesitant to rebuke them or remove them from leadership over Israel’s army. Of course, they were also family, and that always complicates things. In addition to this, rebellions and coups are often the result when the top army commander has a major falling out with the top political leader.  And this was something David seemed unwilling to risk.

Later in David’s reign, there was a second incident nearly identical to Joab’s murder of Abner. This occurred when David was forced to flee Jerusalem after his son Absalom instigated a rebellion against him. Absalom chose a man named Amasa as his military leader. After a season of hiding out and building up an army, David’s men and Absalom’s men engaged in a huge battle. David’s men prevailed and Absalom was killed by Joab, which gave David another reason to hate Joab. Even though Absalom had started an insurrection, David still loved his son, and had ordered his men to spare the young man’s life. Joab wasn’t about to engage in sentimentality, disregarded the order, and killed Absalom by thrusting three javelins through his heart, which effectively brought the mutiny and the battle to an end.

Absalom’s death didn’t automatically guarantee David a restored kingship. Those who had participated in the insurrection could easily appoint another leader. David used a little diplomacy to avoid this and sent them a message reminding the men of Judah that they were his flesh and blood, and promising the new military leader, Amasa, that he could be David’s top general in place of Joab. At last it seemed David could be rid of his troublesome nephew and have a more reasonable man leading the armies of Israel.

Amasa readily agreed to the proposition, but it cost him his life. Not long afterwards, Joab met Amasa and approached him to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. As they embraced, Joab pulled out his small sword and plunged it into Amasa’s stomach. As the saying goes, “It was déjà vu all over again.” Once again, we read of no rebuke by David, whose fear of Joab seemed to produce a strange paralysis in the great king. The Bible simply tells us, “And Joab was over all the army of Israel” (2 Samuel 20:23).

“You Sons of Zeruiah!”

We do get a sense of David’s frustration and outrage against Joab and his brother Abishai, when Abishai was riding alongside David, making their way back to Jerusalem after the death of Absalom. They met a man on the way who had cursed David as he left Jerusalem, and Abishai suggested that they kill him for daring to talk that way to the king. David blew up at Abishai, and shouted, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah…” Thus, we see that for his entire reign David seemed locked into a relationship with Joab and his brother Abishai, two men whom he came to absolutely despise, and yet he could never seem to muster the courage to rid himself of them.

Finally, as he was dying, David determined to get his revenge on Joab. After appointing his son, Solomon, as the new king David told the young man:

Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed. And he shed the blood of war in peacetime, and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist… Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace. (1 Kings 2:5, 6)

Solomon honored the wishes of his father, and had the old warrior executed. What David could not find the courage to do over a lifetime, Solomon achieved in a few days.

Heart of the Matter

What was the problem between David and Joab? In some ways the two men had their similarities. Both were tough guys, outstanding warriors and fighters. Both had more than their share of courage. But David was a worshipper of the God of Israel, and a “man after God’s own heart.” Joab was not – not even close. He was skilled at killing but totally out of his depth at prayer or worship. What in the world was David thinking when he gave Joab such an important position in leading the armies of Israel? Of course, David hadn’t exactly given Joab his position. Joab won it by capturing Jerusalem after David’s foolish offer of military leadership for whoever could get the job done.

Choosing a general that way was a pretty stupid thing for David to do, and he paid a high price for it. And this surely speaks powerfully to us today about choosing those who will serve with us, whether in business or in the ministry. Joab was competent for sure, but his character was woefully deficient. Competent people are great to have around – they are certainly far superior to incompetent people. People with skill, people who work hard, men and women who know how to get the job done – they are incredibly valuable to businesses or any organizations, but if that competence is not complemented by character, honesty, compassion, and a general decency, they will probably end up doing more harm than good.

Ultimately, the character required is that of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who was the perfect combination of fearlessness and compassion, of strength and tenderness, and of competency and character has died on the cross and risen again that He might live in us. It is His presence in our lives that equips us in whatever position we find ourselves – whether as a Marine, a counselor at a mental health facility, the pastor of a church, or a teacher at a primary school. What we can do matters a lot, but what we are matters a great deal more. People who love Jesus and walk with Him (along with possessing the needed capabilities for their positions) can be an incredible asset to any ministry, company, or organization.

Selective Faith

David, upon Joab’s first murder of a competitor, should have instantly removed his violent nephew. Somehow the amazing faith he demonstrated when facing and killing the giant Goliath seemed entirely missing when it came to dealing with his top general. He justified his inaction by saying, “The sons of Zeruiah are too harsh for me.” But God surely could have enabled a removal of Joab while preserving David’s kingdom and his life. Strange how we can have strong faith in some situations and zero faith in others!

Those who find themselves in positions of authority need to surround themselves with men and women who love Jesus as much as they do. It is not sufficient to have a leader who is highly spiritual, surrounded by a staff or a board who have little use for God. It is too bad Saul’s son Jonathan, David’s godly friend, followed his dad into battle and was killed. He would have made an outstanding military leader and would have been a perfect complement to David. Instead David allowed unstable, hotheaded, rash, violent, godless, but competent, Joab to lead his armies, and it was a grief to him all his days.


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