Abner, Joab, and Torture

For my daily quiet time this week, I read II Samuel 3.

Here’s the situation: King Saul of Israel has died, and the kingdom is divided two ways. Under the direction of Abner, Saul’s captain of the guard, Saul’s son Ish-bosheth becomes king of the North. Meanwhile, David rules Judah in the city of Hebron. There is civil war between the two camps.

Joab is David’s nephew (I Chronicles 2:15-16) and the captain of his army. One day, Joab’s brother, Asahel, chases Abner in battle. Abner tells Asahel to stop chasing him, since Abner doesn’t want to kill him and anger Joab. But Asahel keeps on pursuing, and Abner ends up killing him.

Ish-bosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Saul’s concubine, an act that’s often an attempt to seize the throne (I Kings 2:21-22). Outraged at Ish-bosheth’s lack of appreciation for all he had done for him, Abner leaves Ish-bosheth to support David. In the process, Abner acknowledges that God had promised David the throne of Israel (I Samuel 3:9-10).

Abner and David make an agreement, and Abner promotes David before his own tribe of Benjamin as well as the elders of Israel. Joab is upset, however, claiming that Abner is only a spy who wants to monitor the activity of David and his army. Joab then kills Abner out of revenge for Abner’s killing of his brother Asahel. Joab does so in Hebron, a city of refuge (Joshua 20:7), where blood vengeance is not allowed, at least not for manslaughter (Numbers 35).

David goes out of his way to show the Israelites that he had nothing to do with Abner’s death. When David fasts, all Israel takes note and concludes that he was not involved (II Samuel 3:36-37). This was presumably a political attempt on David’s part to demonstrate to the Northern Israelites that he did not kill their hero right after making peace with him, since that would be treacherous.

In II Samuel 3:33-34, David laments that Abner died like a fool (the Septuagint has “Nabal”), a fate that he did not deserve, according to David. In I Kings 2:5, David says that Job shed the blood of war in a time of peace. In II Samuel 3, David wishes for disease to fall upon Joab. In I Kings 2, Solomon orders Joab’s death.

Both the biblical text and also Christian preachers seem to side with David and Abner in this controversy. Personally, I can see where Joab is coming from, and I’m surprised by David’s lack of empathy for Joab’s feelings. Abner had killed Joab’s brother and David’s nephew! “But it was in a battle, and that doesn’t count as murder,” Christian preachers like to say. Oh really? Then why did Abner express fear that Joab would pursue him for killing Asahel? That’s why Abner was initially reluctant to do it! Abner knew the rules of the game: If he killed Joab’s brother, then he would have to deal with Joab, even if the murder of Asahel occurred in battle. That’s how things were done in those days.

And why should we assume that Joab was wrong to be skeptical of the David-Abner truce? How would anyone know that Abner was not a spy? Maybe Joab was looking out for David’s well-being. He at least deserved some sympathy or gratitude from David, not a harsh curse!

Did Joab violate the rules about the city of refuge? Not technically. The city of refuge protected those accused of manslaughter, whereas Abner killed Asahel deliberately, in cold blood. At the same time, maybe Abner could have made a case for self-defense. It’s not as if he plotted to kill Asahel.

In David’s Secret Demons, Baruch Halpern argues that I-II Samuel was Davidic propaganda designed to exonerate David of accusations against him. For Halpern (as I understand his thesis), Saul supporters who opposed David alleged that David was responsible for killing Saul, Jonathan, and Abner in a brutal attempt to usurp the throne. That’s why the text protests vehemently that David loved Saul, Jonathan, and Abner, Halpern contends!

For Saul and Jonathan, I think there’s some sincerity in David, for I can envision myself honoring the good deeds of my enemies (on my good days, at least). But even conservative commentators and preachers were sounding like Halpern in their treatment of II Samuel 3: they said David and the chapter were trying to show that David was not responsible for Abner’s death. David is concerned about his PR here!

Maybe that was part of it. At the same time, David did allow Joab to live and left judgment up to God, at least until he delegated it to Solomon. And it’s amazing that Joab’s deed stayed with David up to the time of his (David’s) death. He just couldn’t fathom Joab’s bloodthirsty deed. So maybe there was more to this issue than David’s PR before the pro-Saulites.

But what should Joab have done? Should he have waited for Abner to have his day in court? Should he have forgiven Abner, or at least realized that Abner did not want to kill Asahel, but only did so out of self-defense?

For my news last night, I watched Bill Moyers’ Journal, which featured a critical documentary on torture. Are issues in II Samuel 3 relevant to that debate? A conservative can argue that America is like Abner: As Abner killed in an act of self-defense, our leaders reluctantly sanctioned violence in an attempt to protect our country. Consequently, in this view, people should give our leaders the benefit of a doubt rather than seeking to prosecute them for war crimes. A liberal, however, may view America more as Joab: Joab had no right to dehumanize Abner by killing him in a city of refuge, even if he was mad at Abner for killing his brother and deemed him a threat to Judah’s national security. There are such things as humanity and the rule of law, which should keep us in check! Liberals could argue that revenge over 9/11 and a concern for national security did not justify torture, meaning we should have sought information using other means.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Abner, Joab, and Torture

  1. Kevin says:

    First time I read this I was sure that David was behind Abner’s death. But Joab has been shown to be consistently more Machiavellian than David, so I don’t know what to think now.

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