The Bible as Literature: Joab to David—Was He Friend or Foe?

Joab was an able army general, a great army organizer who was resourceful and decisive. He was also ambitious, opportunistic, vengeful and cunningly unscrupulous at times. David was king of Israel and Joab was at the head of David’s army of men.

David trusted Joab as the leader of his army, and continued to entrust him even when his actions betrayed disloyalty to him and his direction as king. It seems through the writing of the author of 2 Samuel that Joab was loyal as long as it served his purposes and goals, and he was just after whichever man might give him greatest benefit as a leader based on their possible kingship of Israel.

In the battle outlined in 2 Samuel chapter 2, Joab left Abner alive because he appealed that they stop the bitterness and endless slaughter. However, the desire to obtain vengeance against Abner smoldered inside Joab. Joab continues to fight against Sauls house—but when the time comes that Abner makes an alliance with David Joab disagrees and claims that Abner is a spy. Finally he catches Abner unsuspecting and slays him in retribution for his brother Asahel’s death.

Interestingly enough we see a weak side of David at this point, here he responds to Joab’s murder by saying (in chapter 3) that it would ‘whirl back upon Joab’s head’ because he is ‘weak’ and they are ‘too severe for me’ (New World Translation). In recompense it seems, Joab acts to restore favor by taking Jerusalem, which was to be David’s capital city, by climbing up its water tunnel. David then rewards him by making him commander of armies of Israel.

As we continue through the story we see that Joab remains a potential of David’s. In each thread of the story he acts of his own accord as it best suits his circumstances for personal gain. Most often this favors David’s position, but not always. For instance we see when pressing siege against the ‘city of waters’ he stepped aside when he could have finished the deed to instead let David capture the city, and let him take the credit for the victory… though the real work had all been done at Joab’s hand. Here we see Joab working as what one may call a ‘brown noser’ to achieve favor to save in his back pocket for use later.

David then had an affair with Bathsheba and uses Joab (who conveniently is available to do the King’s bidding which could be used as blackmail later against him) to help cover his sin and error by sending Uriah to the front of the battle lines. When Uriah dies as all would expect, Joab cleverly sidesteps any feigned scrutiny from King David by pointedly reporting Uriah’s death in his report. David of course neutrally offers encouragement rather than rebuke for the loss of the men in battle.

Then we jump to Joab’s unnecessary involvement in David’s family live. Absalom has been banished for three years for slaying his half-brother, and Joab sends a woman to David to sneakily reason with him, causing him to agree to Absalom’s return to the court. He then ignores Absalom’s further requests for help to retrieve David’s favor. Finally David addresses Absalom but then kills him when he’s found hanging from a tree, though David had requested that they deal with him gently. It seems to me that this may have been an act of mercy to some extent, but nonetheless he disobeyed David’s order, and apparently it once again could have been for personal gain of power… clearing a path to the throne.

David removes Joab as army chief, but Joab continues acting as such as Amasa seems to not do such a good job. He then murders Amasa his rival, again with a trick, and again, we find Joab head of the army.

Lastly we see Joab’s brief attempt to back Adonijah, David’s son, in his attempt to secure the throne. This is where my suspicions seem to ring true that Joab is just making a play for power through the appointment of a King that he could maneuver. He quickly realizes his mistake when David appoints his son Solomon instead, and Joab reneges on support.

Why David never dealt with Joab’s sinful murder’s directly is unclear. I think, perhaps David was afraid of Joab and his army family. But whatever the case, when David sees to it that Solomon his son is appointed as successor to his throne he has not forgotten how Joab has dealt as regards to his kingship and honor.

In first King chapter 2, we step into a scene where David lays on his death bed and is talking with his son Solomon. He takes the last few minutes of his life to be sure that Joab is addressed making his dying request that Solomon ‘no let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace’. It’s quite haunting I believe to be a dying King’s death wish, but quite appropriate realizing how Joab worked to force the King into the corner with black mail and cunning power.


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