Bible Commentary: 2 Samuel 3:22-4:12

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2 Samuel 3:22-4:12

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Joab's Revenge, David's Reaction

Joab seeks revenge for his brother Asahel's death by murdering Abner. Yet it's not a tit for tat. For while Abner killed Joab's brother during the course of battle and in self-defense—after repeatedly warning Asahel to call off his pursuit and even offering him the opportunity to fully arm himself for a fair fight (2 Samuel 2:18-23)—Joab kills Abner in a deceitful plot. Under false pretenses, Joab stabs him in the stomach—where Asahel was pierced by Abner's spear. Moreover, this treacherous act occurs at Hebron, a city of refuge, wherein an avenger of blood is not permitted to kill a murderer without a trial (Numbers 35:22-25). However, it may be that the act actually occurs in a suburb just outside the Levitical city itself (compare Joshua 21:11-12; 2 Samuel 2:3).

Wisely, David makes it a point to let the Israelites know that it was not his intention to kill Abner. These are already very delicate times, as David and Abner had just begun an important peace process in the unification of all of Israel. So it is no wonder that David speaks so strongly against his nephew Joab, pronouncing a curse on him and his descendants. David declares a fast and personally follows Abner's coffin to the gravesite in an outward show of honor and respect. He refers to Abner as "a prince and a great man." David's skills in statesmanship prove successful in gaining the hearts of the people.

In 2 Samuel 4, we learn of a son of Saul's son Jonathan, Mephibosheth, who was five years old at the time of Israel's defeat by the Philistines. It was characteristic for the victor of a battle to wipe out the entire family of a defeated king, especially the sons, thus preventing any succession to the throne and any eventual revenge. So, after hearing the news of Saul's defeat and death, Mephibosheth's nurse picked him up and fled for their lives. In the course of her escape, she evidently stumbled, dropping the young child and causing a serious enough injury (possibly spinal) that he became paralyzed in the legs and was unable to walk.

Saul's kingdom, under Ishbosheth, continues to grow weaker. So now we find another assassination plot under way. This time it is Ishbosheth who becomes the victim of those of his own Benjamite tribe. For the second time we find David's "reward" for those who feel they are doing him a favor. Once again we see David's valiant intention of allowing God to be the one to take action. After all of the battles David has fought, he feels it to be thoroughly dishonorable to murder someone in this way. As he lamented concerning Abner: "Should Abner die as a fool dies? Your hands were not bound nor your feet put into fetters; as a man falls before wicked men, so you fell" (2 Samuel 3:33-34).

Ishbosheth meets the same fate, but there is no rejoicing from David over this heinous crime. Actually, David fulfills the requirement of the law in this matter as found in Exodus 21:14: "But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar [showing no mercy in such a case], that he may die." Once again, David makes it publicly known that he did not support this assassination. The executed men are hung in a public place with their hands and feet cut off, for all to see.

One may ask why this same sentence was not carried out upon Joab. He had the excuse that he was acting as a kinsman avenger of blood (2 Samuel 3:27; compare Numbers 35:16-21). Although there evidently were problems with the reason for which, and the manner in which, Joab carried out his vengeance, perhaps it was too difficult to prove that his actions were not justifiable. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Joab was a member of David's family. Still, it is interesting that many years later, this matter with Abner is a factor in David ordering his son Solomon to execute Joab once David is dead (1 Kings 2:1-6).