The Blood of War and Peace: The Story of Joab

The Old Testament, in following the story of a nation that often comes into conflict with its pagan neighbors, tells us of many renowned warriors of Israel. Abraham defeats five kings to save his nephew, Moses and Joshua both lead Israel to conquer territory as part of Yahweh’s covenant promises, and the stories of Judges are replete with strong men leading Israel to peace through violence. One of the most interesting warriors of the Bible is one who is often not well-studied: the leader of King David’s armies in 2 Samuel, Joab. Joab, in some ways, serves as a good example of a soldier who fights for the Lord through his service to the Lord’s anointed. We can take courage from a soldier who bravely fought battles against difficult foes in the name of God: Our fight in this world is a dangerous one, and we can look to the warriors of the Bible for encouragement. Yet how do we distinguish between fighting for God, and fighting for our own desires? Sometimes, the distinction is not as clear as we might like. Such is the case with Joab. While often playing the role of patriot and faithful general, Joab is an interesting character to examine because Joab’s own desires often seem to come to the forefront. As we examine Joab and his actions, multiple questions about his character come to mind: is he a patriot, or a self-serving mercenary? Is he a man of God, or a man of the world? Is he a loyal subject, or loyal only to himself? In reading about Joab, it is possible that we can glean some applications from his failures to our own temptation to falsely see our allegiance to worldly goals as efforts in serving God.  

When we are first introduced to Joab, he is mentioned as being the brother of Abishai in 1 Samuel 26:6. Abishai is the chief of David’s mighty men and a close ally of David’s; he is the companion who sneaks into Saul’s camp with David to steal Saul’s spear and persuade Saul to desist in trying to kill David. Abishai and Joab are mentioned as sons of Zeruiah; she is revealed in 1 Chronicles 2:15-16 as David’s sister, making Joab and Abishai nephews of David. Given that David is the youngest of the siblings, and that Joab and Abishai both have positions of authority in David’s army, it seems likely that Joab is a contemporary of David’s in age rather than a younger man. Joab himself makes his first appearance in the text in 2 Samuel 2:12-32, where he is the captain of David’s armies that fight in the civil war against Ish-Bosheth and his general Abner, a warrior who had also been Saul’s second-in-command. In the text a battle erupts between the two armies at the pool of Gibeon, and David’s men decisively defeat Ish-Bosheth’s. Abner flees from the battle and is pursued by Joab and Abishai’s younger brother, Asahel. Asahel refuses to relent from pursuing Abner despite Abner’s attempts to deter him, but Abner is forced to kill Asahel in defense. Abner attempts to make peace with Joab in the aftermath, but Joab blames Abner for both Asahel’s death and the battle at large. Later, Abner will defect from Ish-Bosheth and join David’s side to unite the entire nation of Israel. While David happily agrees with this, Joab is enraged upon hearing the news. He berates David and tells him that, “What have you done? Behold, Abner came to you; why then have you sent him away and he is already gone? You know Abner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive you and to learn of your going out and coming in and to find out all that you are doing.” While Joab seems to be intent on protecting David from a potential enemy, his actions betray his true motives: he lures Abner into a trap and murders him “on account of the blood of Asahel,” (2 Samuel 3:24-30). While he might have claimed to kill Abner because he did not trust the former advisor of Saul, Joab had clearly simply wanted to kill him out of personal vengeance. David calls a curse upon Joab and Abishai for murdering Abner and gives the murdered general a state funeral and mourning.  

Despite his crime against Abner, however, Joab remains in a place of authority within David’s army. 2 Samuel 8:15-16 has him over all the army, and 1 Chronicles 11:4-6 notes that this occurred because Joab had been the one to lead the assault on the Jebusites against Jerusalem. Interestingly, despite being an accomplished warrior and general, Joab is never listed as being a mighty man of David (unlike Abishai, who is listed as the chief of the Thirty). It is possible that Joab never had the strength or prowess to be considered one of David’s best warriors, which makes his fearlessness in leading the assault on Jerusalem from the front all the more impressive. As leader of David’s armies, Joab is the one to lead the war effort against the Ammonites in 2 Samuel 10:1-19. Hanun, the new king of Ammon, had insulted the messengers of King David and drawn themselves up for war along with an army of Aramean mercenaries. Here Joab is at his best; a warrior fighting with skill and valor while depending upon the Lord for victory. He splits his forces between Abishai and himself, and tells his brother, “If the Arameans are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the sons of Ammon are too strong for you, then I will come to help you. Be strong, and let us show ourselves courageous for the sake of our people and for the cities of our God; and may the Lord do what is good in His sight,” (2 Samuel 10:11-12). While Joab has been a thorn in David’s side, it’s also clear why Joab has maintained his position of command: he is a capable strategist and a loyal soldier to David and the kingdom.  

It is in the midst of this very campaign against the Arameans and Ammonites that David’s infamous sin with Bathsheba takes place, and Joab plays a part in this tale as well. When Uriah refuses to sleep with his wife upon his temporary return to Jerusalem (and thus provide David with a cover story for why the woman is pregnant), David commands Joab to place Uriah in a position where he will surely die. Ironically, David’s actions bear marked similarity to the earlier murder of Abner by Joab: Joab “stabbed” (nakah) Abner so that he “died” (mut) in 2 Samuel 4:7, and now David has commanded for Uriah to be left alone so he may be “struck down” (nakah) and “die” (mut). There is little surprise, then, when Joab faithfully executes his king’s command and leads Uriah to his death, although several other soldiers also die in the process. When the deed is accomplished, Joab is more concerned about David’s potential wrath for his other men dying than the intentional death of one of David’s mighty men (2 Samuel 11:14-25). David responds via a messenger that Joab should not worry; “the sword devours one as well as another,” and who could predict the ways of war? Tragically, David’s words come back to haunt him: when Nathan exposes David’s misdeeds, he prophesies that “the sword shall never depart from your house,” (2 Samuel 12:9). While Joab has faithfully executed his king’s command, he failed to honor God by refusing to engage with David’s sin.  

The consequences of David’s failures quickly come to roost in the next chapters: the crown prince Amnon rapes his sister Tamar yet goes unpunished by David because he is the heir. Tamar’s brother, Absalom, murders Amnon and flees to the city of Geshur for three years. Joab, knowing that King David longs for Absalom to return (2 Samuel 14:1), concocts a scheme to get the royal son to return through a wise woman from Tekoa. We are not told exactly what Joab’s motivations for this are, but it can be inferred from the story the wise woman that Joab is concerned about the continuation of the royal line: the wise woman concludes her story with the concern that “they will extinguish my coal which is left, so as to leave my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.” With Amnon dead, Absalom is the presumptive heir, and he has proven that he is an ideal king from a worldly standpoint (he is long-haired and handsome, and already has multiple sons). While David eventually perceives that Joab is behind the wise woman’s story, he accepts Joab’s reasoning and has Absalom return to Jerusalem on the condition that Absalom does not return to the palace or see David; in other words, Absalom is not returned to his status as heir. After two years of this separation, however, Absalom grows tired of his status and sets fire to Joab’s field to force a confrontation (note that this is quite similar to how both prince Abimelech set fire to a field in Judges 9:49 and how long-haired Samson set fire to the fields of the Philistines in Judges 15:3-5, neither of which are encouraging literary parallels for Absalom!). Absalom demands for the king to judge him legally for his murder of Absalom, and kill him if he is guilty of the crime; either Absalom sees himself as innocent of a crime, or he believe his father is too weak-willed to exact justice for Amnon. Absalom is proven correct: David “kisses” Absalom (2 Samuel 14:33), which is indicative of Absalom being acquitted of his crime against Amnon and restored to his position of crown prince. While Joab had interceded on behalf of Absalom to have him returned, it is unlikely he foresaw this possibility; in the story of the wise woman, the son’s guilt is quite obvious and the woman wants her son returned in spite of the guilt for the sake of continuing the father’s name. Unfortunately, Joab’s intercession and David’s weakness toward his son leaves the door open for rebellion; neither general nor king seems aware of how deep Absalom’s bitterness runs, and both are caught off guard by Absalom’s rebellion in 2 Samuel 15.  

To Joab’s credit, he stays loyal to David even as the king is forced to flee Jerusalem. In his place as commander over the army Absalom installs Amasa – another nephew of David and Joab’s cousin. Absalom and Amasa assemble their army to face David in direct battle, and Joab is once more part of the command structure of David’s army. The battle goes in David’s favor, and a great number of Israelites are slain in the carnage. Absalom himself flees from the battle on his mule, but his long hair is caught in the branches of an oak tree as he rides underneath. This news is relayed to Joab, who quickly takes decisive action to resolve the civil war. Although David had implored the commanders to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom,” (2 Samuel 18:5), Joab refuses to allow the rogue king to survive the battle. He plunges three javelins into Absalom’s heart, and his ten armor bearers finish the job of killing the prince. Once more the irony is thick: the unrepentant murderer Joab, who went unpunished for his crime against Abner, slays Absalom, the unrepentant murderer who went unpunished for his crime against Amnon, the unrepentant rapist who went unpunished for his crime against Tamar. Joab, who was loyal enough to David to let Uriah die, demonstrates his continued cruel loyalty to David through killing the threat to David’s throne. David’s utter failure to instill justice in his household has led to terrible consequences.  

As Joab returns from his great victory, he is informed that “the king is weeping and mourns for Absalom,” (2 Samuel 19:1). What should have been a day of rejoicing over the Lord’s victory turns to mourning, and the soldiers of David’s army return to the city in quiet humiliation. Joab is the one to finally rebuke the king for his actions, and lets him know that his continue display of grief will bring nothing but renewed rebellion; he tells the king that “if you do not go out, surely not a man will pass the night with you, and this will be worse for you than all the evil that has come upon you from your youth until now,” (2 Samuel 19:7). David is roused from his grief by Joab’s speech to present himself before the king, but the damage appears to already have been done; the text lets us know that “Israel had fled, each to his tent.” While Judah has stayed loyal to the king, Israel has rebelled and had supported Absalom in rebellion; now they vacillate in restoring David to the kingship (2 Samuel 19:9-10), and then argue with the men of Judah about their place in the kingdom (2 Samuel 19:41-43). While David attempts to pacify the Northern tribes, they quickly rebel once more against David by following the “worthless fellow” Sheba the Benjamite in his revolt (is it then unsurprising when the tribes of Israel again revolt against David’s grandson, Rehoboam, and use almost the exact same phrase as Sheba’s?).  

David’s army once more mobilizes to fight against a rebellion, but a change in command structure has occurred: David has replaced Joab with Amasa, his nephew who had commanded Absalom’s army (2 Samuel 19:13). The text does not explicitly give the rationale for why this occurs, but it seems likely that it was a combination of trying to pacify the fractious Northern tribes as well as Joab falling out of David’s favor due to his killing of Absalom. Amasa is commanded to assemble the army in three days in order to fight against Sheba, but Amasa “delayed longer than the set time which he had appointed him.” Again, the text does not give a clear reason for the delay. David, concerned about the damage that Sheba’s revolt could cause, sends Abishai and his personal bodyguard to go pursue the rebel. Joab joins the expedition (although it seems significant that David had given the task to Abishai rather than Joab), and as they pass by Gibeon they encounter Amasa. Joab greets his cousin in a display of affection, but quickly reveals his motive; Amasa drops his guard and Joab stabs him in the belly. As Amasa “wallows” in his blood, Joab and Abishai coldly continue on their way to pursue Sheba (2 Samuel 20:8-10). The rest of the army, disturbed, eventually follows and accepts Joab as the new commander. While the text does not state the reason for Joab’s murder of Amasa, it seems likely that Joab was jealous of Amasa taking over his position as commander of the army. It is also quite possible he viewed Amasa as a traitor against David for leading Absalom’s forces, and perhaps even viewed Amasa’s delay in assembling the army as a sign that he was considering joining Sheba’s rebellion. Joab successfully besieges the city that Sheba is hiding in, and the people of the city eventually behead the rebel and throw Joab his head. Returning with another notch on his belt, the chapter ends with Joab again to his position as commander of the army (2 Samuel 20:23).  

The only other mention of Joab in 2 Samuel comes in 2 Samuel 24, where David numbers all the people of Israel and Judah. This is an odd episode because 2 Samuel 21-24 do not take place chronologically, but instead are placed at the conclusion of the story to serve as an epilogue to the entire Samuel narrative. We are thus not privy to knowing when exactly this census takes place, but it is likely before the events of 2 Samuel 20 which transitions chronologically to the beginning of 1 Kings. Joab’s role in this odd story reinforces what we have seen of his character thus far: he warns David against the foolishness of doing this thing and hints that the pride of David may be causing ruin to fall on Israel, but nonetheless follows the orders of his king.  

Joab’s story concludes in the very beginning of 1 Kings. Joab supports the kingship of Adonijah, which seems unsurprising. Adonijah is depicted as “very handsome” like Absalom before him, and he is the oldest remaining son of David; Joab had conspired to bring Absalom back before David likely based off of these exact qualities of the prince, and it makes sense that Joab would support another son of David who checks off the marks of being king. Most importantly, the text notes that “his father had never crossed him at any time by asking, “Why have you done so?” (1 Kings 1:6). David never argued against Adonijah’s claim of being the heir apparent, so Joab likely believed himself to be doing David’s will by promoting the claim of the heir apparent before David dies; certainly Joab had been a firsthand witness to the dangers of not having an appropriate heir to the king! Yet when Bathsheba and Nathan intercede on behalf of Solomon, David grants the throne to the younger son instead of the elder. Adonijah;s supporters flee, and the would-be king is forced to cling to the horns of the altar to save his own life.  

As David’s final words to Solomon in 1 Kings 2 conclude, and he exhorts his son to covenant faithfulness and courage before God, he then immediately advises his son to execute Joab for his crimes against Abner and Amasa. As the supporters of Adonijah are dealt with in the wake of David’s death (Adonijah himself is executed and the priest Abiathar is exiled from service), Joab flees to the temple and grasps hold of the horns of the altar. When Solomon’s executioner calls for him to face his death and exit the temple, Joab refuses to release the horns and Solomon instead orders his man to kill him where he stands. Joab is slain and buried in his designated place.  

Thus, Joab dies a confusing paradox: a murderer who dies clinging to the holiest spot in Israel. An unfailingly loyal soldier who also never passed up an opportunity to advance his own interests. A man who would kill for David both when David requested it and when he thought David too foolish to issue the command. A man who flagrantly broke the Law of God on behalf of David, yet also frequently called on the name of the Lord and fought on His behalf. What do we make of such a character? He is certainly emblematic of the books of Samuel and Kings, where the narrators constantly show both the successes and failures of both righteous and unrighteous individuals. The chaos and inconsistency of these portrayals mirrors the growing chaos and inconsistency of the entire nation of Israel, and it foreshadows how ultimately this inconsistency in faith will be the downfall of the entire nation. The one consistency in the portrayal of Joab is that he is an unflinching patriot; one could argue that every action Joab took was in service to David and the Kingdom, even when it seemed to counteract what David thought appropriate. Unfortunately, Joab’s loyalty to the Kingdom seems to have outweighed his loyalty to God. While Joab is undoubtedly a good soldier and general, he is a poor follower of Yahweh. He is a man of violence and bloodshed who is willing to murder anyone he sees as a threat to the stability of the kingdom (and, as it happens, his own personal ambition). While he is steadfastly loyal to David, he seems to have learned nothing of having a servant’s heart from his king. Even to his death, there is no indication that Joab repents of his murders as David had done. This, then, seems to be the moral of Joab’s story: do not let your pursuit of an earthly kingdom blind you to the need to serve the spiritual kingdom. Joab’s love of the kingdom did not extend to trust in Yahweh’s provenance and promises to protect the kingdom. Instead, Joab often took matters into his own hand and trusted in the earthly aspects of the kingdom rather than submitting to God’s will for him. Is it possible that some Christians today have placed so much of their trust in earthly kingdoms and nations that they have forsaken their allegiance to the one true King? That in their desire to be a great patriot they have failed at being a follower of God? Joab teaches us that patriotism and love of country are not the same thing as righteousness. He reminds us that supporting unrighteousness “for the good of the state” can often lead to the utter ruin of spiritual lives. He stands as a terrible example of the damage one can do when one blurs the line between love of God and love of power and prosperity. May we all read the example of Joab and be convicted of the importance of making sure that our ultimate allegiance is to God rather than a nation that will ultimately pass away as surely as physical Israel did.