Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


David the paradigm of Jewish kingship was also a member of a family. In addition to his well know wives and children he had a mother and father, brothers and at least one sister. We will discuss his lesser known family in this essay.


What do we know of David’s parents and his childhood? Very little is recounted in the text of David’s relationship with his own father, Jesse. When Samuel, the religious leader of Israel came to the Bethlehem to complete a sacrifice he specifically purified Jesse and his sons. However Jesse failed to bring David, his youngest son who was taking care of the sheep. David was summoned only after Samuel or rather God rejected all the sons presented and inquired as to the existence of other sons. David was then anointed in the presence of his brothers and presumably his father, although he is not explicitly mentioned (I Sam. 16:11-13).  

The only interchange we have between Jesse and his son David are instructions to bring food to his three brothers who are fighting the Philistines. The statement is a mere directive bereft of warmth. Another oddity is that based on the then recent history of Israel – including Eli, the high Priest, Samuel, Judge and Prophet, King Saul and the later King David - it is clear that nepotism was a basic government principle. Why would Jesse endanger his investment – his son, the future king – by sending him to the dangers of a battlefield.

David (the anointed future King) 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’ (I 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 of David’s mother who remains unmentioned and unnamed?

Given the 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 means 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 not longer was 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.  


David’s brothers despite being blood relatives are not mentioned in any significant way again. Frequent mention is made of other family members.  The lack of comment about his brothers is therefore particularly surprising. The only direct relatives of David mentioned are Joab, Abishai and Asahel, all are noted as sons of David’s sister Zeruiah as well as Jonadab his nephew, the son of Shammah David’s brother. Jonadab conspired with Amnon in the rape of Tamar and thereafter disappears.  Zeruiah son’s appear to comprise a unique position in the Bible. Her children are not noted as sons of their father but their mother. Zeruiah’s husband is never noted.  It is difficult not to think of this as an insult to David’s older sister, a husband-less wife. Since Joab and his brothers are David’s nephews, but appear to be his contemporaries in age it seems likely that Jesse have two wives and Zeruiah was a much older a half-sister and that Eliab whose anger we noted earlier was also a half brother? This is no doubt the basis of the midrashic myths noted above.

Is it possible that 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?  Is it possible to consider that the father of the children was of a forbidden tribe such as being a Moabite? This would of course be an incredible irony.  

    David refers several times to the ‘sons of Zeruiah’ in terms of rebuke and repudiation. Among the sons of Zeruiah are Joab, David’s most important military commander with whom David had an ambiguous relationship. Despite David using ‘sons of Zeruiah’ as a term of rebuke, he knows his nephew’s talents as a military commander and accepts this family loyalty.

    Joab leads in the  civil war between Judah and Saul’s descendants and as a result; David is appointed King of Israel and Judah. At the end of that war Joab killed Abner, who had killed his brother Asahel. Joab claims that since Abner was a traitor to Ishbaal he could not be trusted. David was very distressed since he had recently signed a treaty with Abner and had granted him peace (II Sam. 3:21).  Despite his military commander killing his former enemy, David made a public funeral and delivered an oration condemning his death. David states that he is too weak against the ‘sons of Zeruiah (II Sam. 3:39).  


    In the next incident Joab sacrifices Uriah, his own soldier and according to the Septuagint his personal armor bearer for the benefit of David. Joab reconciles the relationship between Absalom and David after Absalom’s murder of Amnon. But then during Absalom’s revolt Joab executes Absalom in direct defiance of David’s orders who asked his commanders to ‘treat Absalom gently’ (II Sam. 18:8). Joab believed the sole punishment for rebellion was death. David mourns Absalom by stating ‘O Absalom, my son, would that I had died in your stead’ (!9:1)

In the rebellion against Sheba David appoints Amasa, the son of David’s sister Abigail and Absalom’s military commander as commanding officer. When he failed to gather an army, David appoints Abishai, Joab’s brother as commander. Joab kills Amasa, his cousin and helps his brother defeat Sheba. Joab has Sheba killed thus defeated another dangerous rebellion against David. The last time Joab and David meet the King tells him to do a census of Israel. Joab tries to dissuade the king since he knew that a census was forbidden except at God’s request. For the census the king and the people are  punished. In this short incident Joab again attempted to be protective of David (II Sam. 24:1-9).

Both Abner and Amasa whom Joab killed, are formerly commanders of opposing regimes and therefore traitors, but can also be seen as potential competitors to Joab. Joab won the war against Ishbaal, against Absalom and against Sheba. Is Joab the heroic military commander of the Davidic regime or is he evil as David suggests?

At David’s deathbed he 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 Joab’s backing of Adonijah as successor. Would Solomon have thought that killing Absalom was an appropriate punishment for his rebellion. Joab did preserve the dynasty for him?  Joab never attempted to overthrow David. David may have considered that Joab was more dangerous to the young and newly appointed King Solomon than valuable as a wise older counselor.  

Solomon as one of his first acts kills Joab.

(1) Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Bible, (JPS, Philadelphia, 1975) pg. 533.

(2) op. cit. 534.