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Conflict places the burden of being the "blood avenger" on Joab!
Meanwhile, up in the north across the Jordan, Abner, the son of Ner, the late Saul's commander-in-chief, had proclaimed a surviving son of Saul, named Ish-bosheth, as Israel's king in Mahanaim. Chapter 2, verse 92 tells us that he: '...made him king over Gilead, and over the Ashurites, and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel.' All of Israel, that is, except the tribe of Judah. Verse 10 informs us that Ish-bosheth was forty years old when he became king over Israel and that he was king for two years. The tribe of Judah, however, gave its loyalty to King David. David was king in Hebron, over the tribe of Judah, for seven years and six months, five and one-half years longer than Ish-bosheth reigned in the North. As a result of the divided loyalties, there were now two separate kingdoms in the land; eleven tribes following Ish-bosheth and one tribe following King David. David's military commander was Joab, and Ish-bosheth retained Abner, who was in reality the real power behind the throne. Although Abner had put Ish-bosheth on the throne as a convergent puppet king because he was a son of Saul, Abner was still the one in control of the eleven tribes.
Soon after, the representatives of the two armies met on opposite sides of the pool of Gibeon. General Abner suggested a contest to demonstrate which had military superiority. "Let the young men now arise and play before us" (v145). Joab agreed, and two dozen contestants were chosen, twelve from Benjamin, Saul's tribe, and twelve from Judah. As they faced one another for hand-to-hand combat, each grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his sword into his side. As a result of this violent conflict, all twenty-four died together. Both armies then began fighting and King David's men were victorious. The contest was needless and fruitless and could do no more than intensify the already existing sense of rivalry and competition between the tribe of Judah and the other tribes of Israel, especially that of Benjamin (the tribe of Abner, Saul, and Ish-bosheth). While Joab was quick to accept the challenge, it was Abner who seemed to orchestrate this ill-fated event. When we consider the past 'history' between David and Abner we can easily conclude that this was his purpose. Abner was not only the commander of Saul's army, but also Saul's chief of security. When pursuing David with his best troops, Saul slept in the centre of his troops, with Abner right beside him. If anyone attempted to harm Saul, they had to get past all of the troops surrounding Saul, and then Abner, stationed beside him. We know that Saul and his men were divinely anesthetized (1 Samuel 26:12) when David crept into the camp and took Saul's spear and water jug, but David specifically called out to Abner and accused him of dereliction of duty, and thus worthy of death (26:14-16). This public humiliation would not easily be forgotten by Abner.
Had one side won the contest, it would inevitably make the other side more eager for another contest to save face by winning it. Although the result of the contest was a momentary victory for David's servants and an initial loss for the servants of Ish-bosheth, the latter were able to regroup and continue carrying on a war with the servants of David (ref. 2:25; 3:1,6).
David's three nephews, the sons of his sister Zeruiah, were among the fighting men. They were: Joab (the General), Abishai, and Asahel. Asahel, who is described as being unusually fleet-footed, singled out Abner to be his special target, as he and his men fled before the army of Judah. Abner evidently knew David's family, because he recognized Asahel and shouted at him to cease his pursuit and choose a lesser-known foe as his objective. He did not want to run the risk of killing Asahel, and asked (v225), "how then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?" But, Asahel refused to be turned aside, and Abner killed him with the shaft of his spear. Joab and Abishai continued to encourage a further pursuit of Abner. From a hilltop encampment, Abner called for a truce, crying out (v265), "Shall the sword devour forever?" Joab blew a trumpet and both armies returned to their headquarters - Abner to Mahanaim and Joab to Hebron. When the casualties were totalled, Joab had lost twenty men but Abner had lost three hundred and sixty. Joab sorrowfully took his brother Asahel's body to his father's tomb in Bethlehem.
The concept of "blood avenger" (or goel) was customary in those times. Because of this system which encouraged revenge and continued bloodshed, six Cities of Refuge were established (three on the cis-Jordan and three on the trans-Jordan) where someone guilty of the accidental death of another, might flee and, under certain conditions, be protected from the blood avenger. If the manslayer could convince the elders of the City of Refuge that the death was an accident, and not pre-meditated murder, he could live there until the death of the current High Priest. The avenger could not follow him. After the death of the High Priest, he was free to leave the city and it was then illegal for the blood avenger to touch him. After the skirmish by the Pool of Gibeon, the burden of duty (by custom) fell on Joab to avenge the death of his brother Asahel and the thought began to consume him until, despite all his good works, he was eventually destroyed by acts of murder committed outside of the war situation.
We learn about the character of Joab from the text of 1 and 2 Samuel. Once Saul's feelings toward David, and any who supported him (ref. 1 Samuel 22:6-19) were known, Abishai, Joab, and Asahel all fled from Bethlehem, accompanied by the rest of David's family, fearing that Saul might take out his anger on them. These family members were joined by others, who are also out of favour with Saul. Many in this group became a part of David's fighting band, with Abishai and Joab becoming prominent as warriors and leaders because of their courage and abilities. Initially, David was the commander of his small band of men and this remained the case during the years he hid from Saul and up to the time he left Ziklag for Hebron (ref. 1 Samuel 30:8,10, 17-25). Joab served as one of David's commanders before he became king of all Israel. Not until after David became king over all Israel and Judah did Joab become the commander of Israel's army. He won this position by taking the challenge to go up against Jebus (Jerusalem) and attack it (ref. 1 Chronicles 11:6). Although this was after Joab had killed Abner, David had made the general promise that whoever went up first against Jebus would be commander, and Joab was the first to seize the opportunity (1 Chronicles 11:6).
This all testifies to Joab's ability as a great and courageous military leader who fought against the Ammonites, the Syrians, and others (2 Samuel 10:9-14). He was not only a great warrior and military leader, but a man with some remarkable qualities. When Joab virtually defeated the Ammonite royal city of Rabbah, rather than take credit for this victory personally, he urged David to come and get the glory for himself (2 Samuel 12:26-31). When David foolishly ordered Joab to number the people of Israel, Joab strongly protested, but to no avail (2 Samuel 24:2-4).
Joab also showed great discernment and strength of character in his dealings with David and Absalom. It was Joab who served as the mediator between David and his exiled son, Absalom. Joab recognized that David wanted to be reunited with Absalom (13:39) and arranged for a wise woman from Tekoa to come to David with a story (14:1-20.). When David passed judgment, the woman urged David to deal in the same manner with his son, Absalom. David realised the point of the message and discerned that Joab must be behind the charade (14:19), but Joab's plan did not seem to be self-serving but to reconcile David with his son by leading him to the point where he would recognise that he should deal with his son in the same way he would deal with anyone else. Joab seemed genuinely grateful and happy that David responded as he did (14:22). After Absalom rebelled against his father and sought to take over the throne, Joab dealt much more severely with Absalom, while David was foolishly soft-hearted by instructing his soldiers to go easy on Absalom. When given the opportunity, Joab personally put Absalom to death, assisted by some of his men (2 Samuel 18:14-15). When David shamed the people by his response to Absalom's death, Joab strongly rebuked him (19:5-7) so that David followed his advice (19:8).
In spite of all these commendable points, Joab was also a violent man who sometimes acted foolishly, and we find these actions are rightly condemned. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and sought to be rid of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, he found a willing accomplice in Joab (ref. 2 Samuel 11:6), who raised no objections to David's request, but simply obeyed. This incredible hypocrisy explains why Joab also comes to a 'sticky end' later, despite all his seeming good works. Joab sinned by killing Abner, but not in war. Abner did not sin in this matter, because he killed Asahel in a time of war. But when David had Uriah killed, it appeared to be legitimate. Uriah's death was not seen, at least at first, as the victim of a murderer, but as a casualty of war. Joab was finally put to death, not only for his part in the conspiracy against Solomon, but also because he murdered Abner and Amasa (ref. 1 Kings 2:5-6, 28-35).
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