Ancient History, History

Joab the Psycho

I have mentioned before that our Sunday School ideals of David’s kingdom are painfully mistaken. David formed an uneasy alliance between Judah and Ephraim, which Ephraim often tried to violate. The  Ephraimites claimed that they were meant to rule because Israel (Jacob) had chosen Joseph to lead and had specifically blessed Joseph’s younger son Ephraim (Genesis 48). This claim was in conflict with David’s claim to rule which came from both Israel’s proclamation (Genesis 49) and Samuel’s anointing (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Sheba’s Rebellion

In the wake of Absalom’s failed coup, David returned to Jerusalem to the acclaim of his fellow Judahites but the Israelites, led by Ephraim, complained about the way that Judah welcomed him home. (2 Samuel 19) This led to a rebellion by a man named Sheba b. Bichri (שבע בנ-בכרי) who is initially referred to as being from the tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 20:1) but then later Joab says he is from the country of Ephraim (2 Samuel 20:21). Both Benjamin and Ephraim were troubled regions under David, and Joab seemed to be more than willing to equate them.

Regardless where Sheba was from, he led Ephraim and the other ten tribes in a rebellion against Judah and David.

David’s Cousin Amasa

In response, David sent his new commander Amasa to gather the Judahite soldiers. The first time we encounter Amasa in the narrative, he is leading Absalom’s armies in rebellion against David.

How did he manage to switch sides? And who was Amasa, and what was his relationship to David and Joab?

Amasa was David’s nephew through David’s sister Abigail. According to 1 Chronicles 2:13-17, David had six brothers and two sisters – Zeruiah and Abigail. The two sisters were the daughters of Jesse’s wife Nahash, and the fact that she is identified this way probably indicates that she was not the mother of David and his brothers.

Zeruiah mothered Joab, Abishai and Asahel. These three sons of Zeruiah, which is how they are always referred to in the narrative, were some of David’s closest friends and most ferocious warriors. Abigail and her husband Ithra had one son we know of, Amasa, who first appears in the narrative as the commander of Absalom’s armies.

This would make Zeruiah and Abigail David’s half-sisters and Joab, his brothers, and their cousin Amasa David’s nephews. Easily the most dangerous of this group of cousins was Joab.

Blood-Thirsty Nephew

Keeping track of who everybody is in the David narrative is tough, especially when they keep killing each other! In reality, it is pretty simple. Just remember that Joab kills pretty much EVERYBODY.

Joab’s brother Asahel was killed by Saul’s uncle Abner (2 Samuel 2:18-23). When Abner turned on the House of Saul and joined David, Joab took revenge upon him. (2 Samuel 3:26-30).

Then, when Joab led David’s armies against David’s son Absalom, Joab defied David and killed Absalom despite the fact that Absalom was helpless and could have been captured easily. (2 Samuel 18:9-15)

Joab’s brother Abishai recommended killing all the leaders of the factions that opposed David, which drew David’s scorn. (2 Samuel 19:22)

Because he had killed Absalom against orders, David replaced Joab with Amasa – who had been commanding Absalom’s armies. David sent Amasa out to put together an army to stop Sheba’s rebellion, but Amasa faieds to appear at the appointed time. Due to the press of time, David dispatched Joab to find the army and route Sheba.

When Joab found Amasa and stabbed him in the gut, leaving him to bleed to death on the side of the road. The spectacle was so gruesome that eventually, someone dragged Amasa off the road and covered him with a cloak.

Joab then led the combined army against Sheba, who had holed up in the town of Beth-Maacah or “The house of Maacah.” The name Maacah should sound familiar. She was Absalom’s mother, and this may very well have been a stronghold with affinities to her and her father, the king of Geshur.

An old woman inside the city talks with Joab, the population dispatches Sheba and sends his head to Joab. That rebellion ends a bit abruptly.

Joab is a paradox. He is both David’s closest friend and often the only person to tell him the truth in the midst of tragedy, but he also kills people with an almost psychotic fervor. He is a strange character indeed – loyal to David but also absolutely ruthless in his own interpretation of what that loyalty means.

Because of Joab’s reckless method of dispatching enemies – both real and perceived – he severely handicaps David’s influence over the tribes of Israel. He kills a number of men who could have proven worthwhile allies – Abner and Amasa are the ones we know about – which puts David in difficult straits. Eventually, Joab will even try to subvert David’s succession in favor of David’s fourth and oldest remaining son, Adonijah.

It is hard to judge Joab in light of history. In one sense, he was the strong arm that made David’s pre-eminence possible. But his actions also weakened that pre-eminence. History is full of these confusing characters with multiple dimensions. When we try to make them two dimensional, we lose the complicated interactions that make them so important.

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