Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

David and Joab - The King and His Advisor


In the kingdom ruled by David various family members were involved in government positions. This is typical of the Middle East where nepotism plays a stronger role than meritocracy. Joab, David’s commanding officer and prime counselor during most of his reign is his first cousin, the son of Zeruiah, David’s  sister. Other family members (of David and Saul) come into play times during the reign of David. Joab and David seem to have an ambiguous relationship; several times they come into conflict. At the end David’s life he commands his son and successor Solomon to kill Joab which he does.  

David and his nuclear family have a strained relationship. The only interchange we have between David and his father Jesse are instructions to bring food to his three brothers who are fighting the Philistines. The statement is a mere directive bereft of warmth. Why would Jesse endanger his son - the future king – by sending him to the dangers of a battlefield. David went the next morning and when David’s eldest brother, Eliab sees him talking to other soldiers about the war says angrily ‘Why have you come down here, whom have you left to watch the sheep’. David responds equally angrily ‘What have I done? May I not even speak’ (1 Sam. 27:-29). Eliab, the eldest, was specifically rejected by God, David, the youngest was anointed. The brothers and Jesse saw David being anointed by Samuel. How does one explain their behavior to there soon to be king?

What do we know of David’s mother who remains unmentioned and unnamed? Given David’s lack of a relationship with his father and the apparent conflicts with the brothers, Jewish post-biblical commentators developed a ‘mother

fantasy’ about his birth; after all someone needed to love David named to mean love; was he named by his mother?

One version suggests that David was born out of a fantastic form of ‘wedlock’. In this story, David’s mother masqueraded herself up as Jesse’s mistress and became pregnant with David. 1 That is an intriguing comparison to Leah masquerading as Rachel. Was the mother unloved (as was Leah) and the mistress loved? Does it also suggest that the unnamed mother of David like Leah was no longer intimate with husband? In another version the mother was accused of adultery, and David became the families slave. 2  While these are clearly elaborate Midrashic mythology, they are attempting to explain David’s lack of a positive father and a missing mother image.  

Zeruiah sons’ (aside from Joab) are Abishai and Asahel appear to comprise a unique position in the Bible, where children are noted as sons of their father, never their mother. Zeruiah’s husband is never noted; he is in fact unknown. Mothers are occasionally unknown; father’s never except in this case. It is difficult not to think of this as an insult to David’s older sister, a husband-less wife. Joab, Abishai and Asahel appear to be much older than David. Is it possible that Jesse have two wives and Zeruiah was a much older a half-sister of David? Where some of his brother’s half brothers as was the case with Jacob’s children?


David refers several times to the ‘sons of Zeruiah’ in terms of rebuke and repudiation. David is Joab’s uncle, although they appear as contemporaries in age. Despite David knows his nephew’s talents as a military commander and accepts their family loyalty.


David is King of Judah and Abner, the commanding officer of the fallen Saul son of Kish, has established Ishbaal (or Ish- bosheth), Saul’s son as king of Israel, the northern tribes. Abner was a cousin of Saul; Abner’s father Ner was Kish’s brother.

The first time they meet in the text Abner is the commanding officer of Ishbaal. They cross from Mahanaim, Ishbaal’s stronghold to Gibeon and they meet at a pool. It would appear that they were not yet at war with each other. Abner suggests that ‘let the youngsters (Ha’na’arim - in Hebrew)) come forward and play (‘Viy’sakhu’ - in Hebrew) before us’ (2 Sam. 2:14). Twelve of each side came forward ‘each caught his opponent by the head and drove his sword into his side’ (2:16). The word used by Abner is not soldiers but youngsters; when Abner and Joab first met the text used the term servants. The term ‘Viy’sakhu can mean fight or play. The text is very unclear in terms of what took place. It appears that when Joab and Abner met at a pool they agreed to ‘play a game’ between the two sides. Did Abner come to have some agreement between the forces of David and Ishbaal or was he hoping for a battle in order to defeat David forces? One side was obviously not playing but killed the twelve youngsters of the other side. But which side broke the tentative peace between Judah and Israel? We are not even told which side’s youngsters died.  If Joab’s youngsters were killed did Abner know what was going to happen; had he planned it? If Abner’s youngsters were killed did Joab know what was going to happen; had he planned it? Did both not expect this to happen? Was this an unfortunate error?

A war ensued and we are told ‘that on that day a very fierce battle took place’ (2:17). Abner’s forces lost. With Joab were his two brothers - Abishai and Asahel. Asahel chased Abner and when they met Abner told him to leave and not follow him. He refused and Abner said ‘stop following me, unless you want me to strike you to the ground, and how will I face Joab, your brother’ (2:22).  Asahel refused and Abner killed him. It is clear that Abner did not want to fight Asahel, but Asahel would not let it be.  Later on that evening Abner called out to Joab, who had been pursuing him ‘Is the sword to go killing for ever? . . . How long will it be before you order those men to stop pursuing their brothers? (2:26) Joab then stopped the battle.  Many (330) of Abner’s soldiers died, but we still do not know whether the original twelve were Abner or Joab. As the war continued over time Judah was winning.

Abner taking control of Israel decided to make peace with David. He conferred with the elders of Israel and they agreed. He came to David at Hebron and agreed to peace terms. Joab returns back having defeated other enemies of David and carrying back the spoils of war. When he returned and learnt of the agreement he angrily denounced it to his King.  Joab leaves and killed Abner.  We are told that Joab killed Abner for the death of his brother Asahel. Did Joab know that Abner tried to avoid the killing of Asahel? Did Joab see a potential competitor as commander and counselor to David?

David angrily holds a public funeral for Abner and mourned him. David curses Joab and says God will take vengeance. David reveals to us that he is too weak as compared to Joab to take vengeance himself (3:39). In this incident David and Abner appear as the peace makers and Joab as bloodthirsty.


David has an adulterous affair with Bathsheba who is married to the soldier Uriah, the latter fighting at the front under Joab. When Bathsheba informs David that she is pregnant David recalls Uriah in the hope that the pregnancy can be attributed to him. However Uriah does not cooperate (believing it inappropriate to have intimate relations with his beautiful wife during times of war) and David sends Uriah back to the front with a letter to Joab.  In the letter Joab is commanded to have Uriah killed.  As a loyal commander Joab acceded to David’s directive. We do not know whether he agonized over the murder of an innocent soldier of his own (according to the Septuagint his own arms-bearer).  Joab set up a battle in which other soldiers aside from Uriah are killed in an attempt to get to the city walls.  Joab was concerned about David being angry at the killing of the others soldiers.  He sent a messenger to David to give an account of the battle and said to the messenger if the king is angry and says to you ‘Why did you approach the city. . .  Did you not know they would shoot from the wall. Who killed Abimelech ... Wasn’t it a woman who dropped a millstone on him from the ramparts?’ Then you are to say ‘Uriah the Hittite is dead too’ (11:20-21). The messenger relayed Joab’s message, but David did not get angry and instead responded to Joab not to be concerned about the number of soldiers killed.

Joab’s message is using an analogy of Abimelech (Judges 9) about an illegitimate ruler of Israel (son of Gideon), who attacked a walled city and the resultant deaths. David would know that and Joab was concerned that David would think him an incompetent commander allowing his soldiers to die. Joab’s response was that Uriah died, that was the point of the exercise.  Joab could not have Uriah die without other soldiers being killed otherwise the story would become obvious. David did not get angry but instead informed Joab that in a war people die.


The third event when we meet Joab he reconciles David with his son Absalom. The conflict he reconciled was based on the fratricidal killing of Amnon by Absalom after Amnon raped Absalom’s full sister and David’s daughter. David had never punished Amnon and Absalom felt honor bound to take revenge for his sister’s rape. Absalom planned the killing which took place two years after the rape. Amnon was the heir apparent and Absalom the third child of David. The second son Kileab, from his wife Abigail may have died in the interim, since he is never mentioned again. Thus Absalom may have considered that he would become the heir apparent.  ‘David mourned for his son [Amnon] every day’ (13:37). Absalom fled to his maternal family, the King of Geshur and stayed for three years.

The first verse of chapter (14:1) stated that Joab observed what was ’in the heart of the King toward Absalom’. This does not tell us what was in David’s heart but he apparently believed David was favorably inclined toward Absalom.  Joab then decided to bring Absalom home and perhaps suffer a minor reprimand.  Given his uncertainty but perhaps desiring to have a favorable position with the heir apparent he developed an elaborate plan.  He contacted a ‘wise’ woman from Tekoah who was to play a mourning mother.

 Joab requests of the ‘wise’ woman of Tekoa to tell the king a parable. My husband is dead and my two sons fought with each other, one killing the other. The family demands blood revenge and wish to execute the remaining son.  But if he is also dead I will have nothing. The woman’s speech is very compelling in presenting the issue of justice versus mercy. David opting for mercy, says I will protect you. The woman responds that she is still fearful about her son. David responds again that he will protect her and takes an oath to protect her son.

After David’s oath for `her’ son the woman suddenly changed her tone to a reproach and began the transition to the real story. Why have you undertaken this thing (the oath) when you have not taken back your exiled son.  You have declared that he (Absalom) must die, would God do that (14:13-14)? Then she switches her tone again and says `My Lord the King’ I am your servant.   I know the king will protect me and my son.  She continues as if the parable were her true story. But when she says to the King that he will `discern the good and the bad’, David realized that she has raised a new subject, since he has already oathed to protect `her son’. (14:16-17). And David responds by telling her to be truthful and answer his questions. `Is the hand of Joab with you in all this’ (14:19)? The king then says directly to Joab you have won `you have done this thing’ (14:21). Joab went off to Geshur and brought Absalom back to Jerusalem.  

Absalom lived in Jerusalem for two years but did not see his father. If David wanted to extend hospitality to his son why did he do not invite him into the Palace? Was David waiting for a request from Absalom? Perhaps David wanted Absalom to ask for forgiveness. Absalom may have been uncertain about his father’s feelings.

Absalom asked Joab to see him to request that Joab intervene on his behalf again for his father.  Joab refused presumably knowing what the request would be.  Absalom sets Joab’s field on fire to attract his attention.  This spectacular attempt to get Joab’s attention tells us about Absalom. He is in a rage, still being exiled from the royal house. He tells Joab I should have stayed in Geshur where he was perhaps the heir apparent.  Did Absalom develop the idea of rebelling against his father during these two years or during the earlier years in Geshur? As a result of the fire Joab sees Absalom and he is asked to request of the king that Absalom see him.  Finally David agreed and allowed Absalom to see him.  Absalom prostrated himself to his father and reconciliation was accomplished.

What motivates the three characters? Absalom wanted to return to his ‘rightful’ place as crown prince. We do not whether he intended to patiently await his father’s death or to precipitate his own reign. David, a passionate man, did not punish Amnon over his daughter’s rape, but mourned over his death (as he had over his unnamed first son from Bathsheba).  Did he want to punish Absalom because Amnon was his favorite or did he reconcile himself after three years over Amnon’s death? Was his anger beginning to wane, but incomplete and it took another two years until David was willing to see his son Absalom. Did Joab simply want to help his King whatever the Kings intent? He had killed for his King knowing it was wrong to have his own soldiers die unnecessarily. Did he suspect something about Absalom real reasons for coming home? Did Joab realize that Absalom intended a rebellion against his old father? Did he believe that the only way to solve this was to reconcile the problem between David and Absalom? Or did he believe the kingdom needed a King like Absalom to continue to be stable and grow?  We do not know; what we do know is that Joab set up the reconciliation with enormous cleverness and insight.


After a while (we do not know how long) Absalom sat at the gate of the city and when people would come to get judgment from the king Absalom would intervene saying there are no judges here. He says `who will appoint me judge in the land’ (15:4) suggesting that the kingdom needed a better judge/king. As people come he tells them he will do them justice.  He is acting not as a judge but a politician and indeed is seeking his father’s kingship.  And indeed `Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel’ (15:6).  This went on for four years (15:7). Did David not learn of this in during years? What of Joab’s role during these four years? Did he notify the King and if so did the King ignore his warnings?

Absalom went with two hundred men to Hebron to make a sacrifice. He had messengers come from all the tribes and declare him as King. Absalom had developed much support during the four years at the gates. Absalom has significant strength from the people and it appears that he is on the verge of achieving his goal, to replace his father. David left Jerusalem, with his followers but left behind his ten concubines. Later Absalom slept publicly with the concubines, disgracing his father and essentially announcing his victory.

Absalom put Amasa, David nephew, (the daughter of his sister Abigail) in charge of his army. Did Joab refuse to back Absalom? David divided his Army into three sections; one commanded by Joab, one by Abishai and the last under Ittai, the Gittite.  David then said to his commanders ‘treat Absalom gently’ (18:8). Absalom’s soldiers lost the war. He escaped and was caught in the branches of a thick bough of a tree by his thick hair.  Joab was told and asked why did you not kill him. The messenger said the King ordered us and you ‘to spare young Absalom’ (18:12).  Joab took three darts and stuck them into his heart and Joab’s soldiers then killed him. Joab disregarded the King’s request and in cold blood killed Abasalom. While Absalom may have deserved death for his rebellious actions, Joab clearly ignored his King’s request.

David mourns his rebellious son. `O my son Absalom, my son Absalom, would that I had died in your stead, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (19:1) He repeated this emphasis in his public grief (19:5). David deeply mourns his son's death despite Absalom's rebellion.

Joab speaks harshly but wisely to his King. He tells David that he has embarrassed his servants, his children and his concubines. He then, using hyperbole suggests that many believe that by mourning Absalom, you `love those that hate you and hate those that love you.  Would you prefer Absalom alive and all of us dead’ (19:7)?  If you do not go and address those who saved you no one will be with you. Joab is saving David’s throne. He is pointing out to David that he is king first and a father second. Instead of dealing with his monarchy he goes into a depressive mourning over his rebellious son. David obeyed Joab, but deeply resents his commander commanding him.

David’s mourning over his son’s death is understandable as a father - he is genuinely grieved. We can certainly sympathize. But Joab was right, the kingdom is at stake.  We had previously noted the problem of whether David hated Absalom for killing Amnon or after mourning for three years was comforted and longed for his return (13:39, 14:1). The problem becomes more complicated when David goes into depressive mourning when Absalom is killed, despite his rebellion. David appears instable and unable to distinguish between his role as king and his role as parent. The statesman-like Joab is his indispensable advisor. But David does not appreciate him.

David resenting Joab says to Amasa, the defeated General of Absalom’s army (and his nephew) that `You shall be . . . appointed captain of the host instead of Joab’ (19:14).


Sheba, of the tribe of Benjamin, wanted to restore the dynasty to Saul’s children. The conflict between Judah and Israel was not over. David commanded Amasa to gather an army in three days, but Amasa `tarried’ (20:5).  He do not know why he `tarried’ but he failed to bring back an army for David. David then appoints Abishai, brother of Joab, to gather an army to fight Sheba. David tells Abishai that Sheba is more dangerous than Absalom.  The next verse refers `Joab’s men’, no longer mentioning Abishai (20:7) Whether Abishai called for his brother Joab’s help it is unclear who is commanding the men.  The next incident does not involve Sheba but Amasa. When Joab meets Amasa he kills him. He kills his competitor, the man David appointed Commander in Chief. Is it the same as Joab’s killing of Abner? Both were potential competitors for the position of Commander.  Both were just recently the generals of the enemy, Saul in the case of Abner and Absalom in the case of Amasa.

Joab goes to the city of Abel and besieged it. A wise woman comes out and asks Joab why do you seek to destroy this city? Joab responds he seeks Sheba who has rebelled against David. Give us him and we will depart.  She responds that his head shall be given you and it is thrown over the wall. Thus Joab once again saves the kingdom and has a rival to him killed


In the succession drama toward the end of David’s life Adonijah the remaining eldest son attempts to take over power as his father is senile and is dying. Joab backs him.  Nathan and David’s wife Bathsheba convince David to appoint Solomon, Bathsheba’s son and they establish the younger son as successor. Joab did not know that David would prefer Solomon and thus may have considered Adonijah as the rightful King. At his deathbed David tells Solomon, his successor to kill Joab for the killing of Abner and Amasa. It is interesting that David does not include as a reason the killing of Absalom (1 Kings 2:7) nor his backing of Adonijah.  Would Solomon have thought that killing Absalom was an appropriate punishment for his rebellion?  Joab did preserve the dynasty for him? Solomon as one of his first acts kills Joab.


David had several sisters; the only one mentioned in the books of Samuel is Zeruiah.  Zeruiah is stated as the mother of Joab, Asahel and Abishai.  They are noted as Zeruiah’s sons, no husband is noted.  This is unique in the Bible.  It is difficult not to think of this as an insult to David’s older sister, a husband-less wife.  Joab and his brothers are David’s nephews, but appear to be his contemporaries in age.  Perhaps Jesse had two wives and Zeruiah was a much older a half-sister? Was there conflict between two wives, one older and one younger? Were Zeruiah’s sons considered inferior?    

In the first event described as the beginning of the civil war between Judah and Israel, the facts are unclear, but later on Abner appears as a peacemaker and Joab needs to kill him whether as blood revenge for his brother or to kill a potential competitor. He claims to be protecting David. In the second incident Joab kills Uriah at David’s order. In the third incident he kills Absalom against David’s order, but in his opinion necessarily for the rebellion to be truly over.

Joab is also deeply involved in bringing Absalom home from exile. This can be seen as protecting his future position or protecting the dynasty.  In the rebellion of Sheba we clearly see him as killing his competitor Amasa.  Amasa had backed Absalom, the rebel.  Joab could be construed as killing a rebel. He is no longer protecting David, but himself.  Joab is a very successful commanding officer for David.  At some point he is stronger than his king David (3:39).  Joab never attempted to overthrow David. At the end David may have considered that Joab was more dangerous to the young and newly appointed King Solomon than valuable as a wise older counselor.  

1 Ginsburg, L.,  Legends of the Jews,  Vol. IV (JPS, Philadelphia,1947), Pg. 82.

2 Ibid.