Several years ago, I remember hearing a preacher say that Joab’s relationship with King David changed dramatically after David’s encounter with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. He argued that the closeness they once experienced deteriorated in the following years, either due to a mistrust of the David the man or a soldier’s lack of faith in David his king.
At the time, I nodded my head in agreement. To be sure, there is a noticeable shift in tone after 2 Samuel 11that reveals David to be a more flawed character than the near-invincible man of God that he is before. In my mind (and, I guess, this preacher’s), Joab saw it the same way.
Now, I’m not so sure that’s the case.
Joab is a remarkably simple figure in the life of David. Whereas the rest of his world completely changes – from Bethel to Jerusalem, adding more wives, growing old, etc – Joab always appears to be the same from page to page. He’s the one constant in David’s life, stretching from the beginning of his reign all the way past his death to the time of Solomon.
He’s also an incredibly savage figure. Nearly every time Joab appears in Scripture, he has the backdrop of blood behind him. He is brutal, uncaring, unflinching, and 100% loyal to David.
The only thing he cares about as much as David is his position as head of David’s army.
Getting to the Top
Saul’s death in the 31st chapter of 1 Samuel leaves a massive power vacuum for David to fill at the start of 2 Samuel, and with it, a completely new regime to organize. David has already been anointed as the king of Israel by Samuel the prophet (1 Samuel 16:13), after which, it became a long, multi-year waiting game for him to assume the throne.
His time eventually came, but not without incident. Testifying to the fact that very few nations in history actually transfer power peacefully, a civil war erupted between the house of Saul and the house of David as to who would take control. David’s side eventually won, but not without great cost.
One of the participants in this struggle was Joab, the leader of David’s servants (2 Samuel 2:13). In one particular event, Joab’s forces clash with Abner, the commander of Saul’s armies, in a 24-person, winner-take-all battle.
Abner’s team loses and he is forced to flee from the battle. Not content with one victory, Joab’s brother Asahel pursues Abner to claim a second. Despite Abner’s pleas for him to turn around, Asahel continues chasing him, until Abner is forced to kill Asahel (2 Samuel 2:23).
It would appear that the guilt for Asahel’s death lay squarely on his own shoulders, but that’s not the way that Joab sees it. Even after Abner claims loyalty to David – an act that Joab argues is a trick (2 Samuel 3:25) – Joab still seeks revenge for the death of his brother and eventually murders Abner in cold blood (2 Samuel 3:27).
With Abner out of the way and Joab the de facto leader of David’s personal army, David has no choice but to commission him as leader of the entire military, second only to David himself.
Staying at the Top
History would repeat itself decades later. Years after Joab has served King David, a new challenger rises to usurp his throne: David’s son Absalom. And, as with any incoming king, Absalom also has his own commander in tow: Amasa, the cousin of both Joab and Absalom, and David’s nephew (1 Chronicles 2:16-17; 2 Samuel 19:13).
Whether or not Amasa is guilty of insubordination to the degree that Absalom is is unclear, but since he’s taking charge of the military under treasonous Absalom, he is nonetheless complicit in his crimes to a great extent. Not only has he helped displace the king, but he’s also taken Joab’s job, which, as you can imagine, Joab is none too happy about.
After Absalom’s reign is over and David retakes the throne, David does a peculiar thing. Instead of re-installing Joab as his military commander, he appoints Amasa to the post instead (2 Samuel 19:13). This is a move that is virtually unheard of, either then or now. In modern-day terms, it would be akin to Lincoln replacing Grant after the American Civil War with the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. It’s an unmistakable slap in the face to Joab.
Rather than take it out on David, however, Joab returns to his old ways of simply assassinating people that either (a) he doesn’t like, or (b) pose a threat to him, personally. Amasa is the latter; Joab murders him and throws his body on the side of the road. At least he has the “decency” to cover up his body with a blanket (2 Samuel 20:8-13).
If you read the text in 2 Samuel 20 closely, you’ll notice a lot of things that are very similar to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. For starters, he calls him “brother” (Judas would call Jesus “Rabbi” while Jesus calls him “friend”), and he also betrays him by way of a kiss. By all accounts, Amasa was completely oblivious to Joab’s treachery, but this traitor’s history is unmistakeable. Joab displayed himself to be a man of unchecked violence, time after time after time.
Taking Joab Down
David knew all of this. Years after he appointed Joab as his “new” commander after Amasa’s death (2 Samuel 20:23), he had some very pointed words about Joab to his son Solomon: “Do not let his gray hair go down to Sheol in peace” (1 Kings 2:5). Solomon wouldn’t, instructing Benaiah to cut him down at the altar while Joab clung to it hoping for sanctuary.
But it’s what Solomon said to Joab in his last few minutes that reveal David and Solomon’s true attitude towards their military commander. In their eyes, Joab had killed “two men more righteous and better than he” (1 Kings 2:32), speaking of Abner and Amasa.
Why did he do it? Why did Joab, in David’s words, “shed the blood of war in peace” (1 Kings 2:5)?
The answer is simple: power.
Joab was a man of blood, through and through. He killed Abner because he was the most qualified to lead David’s army, once he defected away from Saul’s camp (and because he had killed Joab’s brother), and he killed Amasa because David had replaced him with someone he viewed as a traitor. Both of these men were threats to his station as head of the army; Joab’s actions are of a man who wants to preserve power at every cost.
The list of crimes in Joab’s life continue. He killed Absalom while he lay defenseless in a tree, even though he knew that David wanted to bring him in safely (2 Sameul 18:9-14). He backed Adonijah’s claim to the throne, despite David anointing Solomon (1 Kings 1:7). He also was the point-man on David’s hit-job of Uriah the Hittite, the rightful husband of David’s mistress Bathsheba. Come to think of it, David’s murder of Uriah by the “hand” of Joab looks less like an involuntary act of loyalty by Joab and more like David using the known violent traits of Joab for his own selfish gain. For him to help Uriah die for David’s personal reasons wasn’t a stretch; he had already done that to Abner and would do it again to Amasa.
Joab did have one redeeming trait. When the times came for David to be straightened out – once when David openly mourned Absalom (2 Samuel 19:5-7) and again when David numbered the people (2 Samuel 24:2-4) – Joab opposed him, though these could just as well be attributed to Joab’s arrogance as much as his virtuousness.
Joab was a man of blood, plain and simple. He held on to the horns of the altar hoping that he would find peace, but he would find none, since he hadn’t extended any in his own life. In the words of James 2:13, “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy.”
What are we to gain from Joab’s life? This background figure that nonetheless played a monumental role in the shaping of the United Kingdom of Israel is seen as both loyal and violent, and skilled but savage. By his actions, he proved himself to be the embodiment of one of the things God hates the most: hands that shed innocent blood (Proverbs 6:17).
Could it be Joab that David wrote about in Psalm 11:5, which says “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates”? Maybe, but either way, Joab definitely fits the bill. Though Joab loyally served the cause of Israel, he did not always serve the cause of God, and those are two very different things.
His life is a cautionary tale against all who would seek to use any means necessary to accomplish goals that may appear righteous, but are inwardly selfish. Passion and sincerity do not necessarily add up to holiness, even when it’s done in God’s name.
That’s a reality that Paul the Apostle knew all too well (Acts 26:9-11).Last modified: February 19, 2019