David is now king of Judah and residing in Hebron. 2nd Samuel chapter 2 gives us a very brief accounting of David’s coronation, and the circumstance is both odd and informative. A good question to ask is: why would a single tribe opt for a king over merely having a tribal prince or tribe leader?
In other words, it is customary that there is a designated head of the tribe, and then the tribes are further sub-divided into clans such that each group would also have a leader who is under the authority of the tribal prince.
Clan leaders would have less authority, not more, under a king. Having a king makes sense when the goal is to set a man over the top of many tribes; a man who is above the several tribal princes. But that is not the case here.
We don’t have a definite answer for this problem, but a reasonable speculation is that the clan leaders of Judah figured that there would for sure be a new king over the northern tribal coalition that was headed by King Saul before his death.
And that since Judah didn’t want that northern king over them, that it was better to anoint their own while there was a power vacuum up north. I think this fits well with the historical circumstances.
The issue was a balance of power and perhaps even hope that their man David might also become king over all of the tribes thus giving Judah a position of pre-eminence over the other tribes.
Let’s Read 2 Samuel 2:4-32 To Set The Stage For Today’s Lesson.
We’re going to run into a lot of political intrigue over the next several chapters. So if you find that sort of thing interesting, you’re going to love our study for the next few weeks.
The men of Judah who appointed David as king also informed him about the men of Jabesh-Gilead who displayed such great courage by braving the presence of the Philistines to retrieve the decapitated body of King Saul from the walls of Beit-Shean and then to give him a proper burial at their city on the east side of the Jordan River.
Here we see one of the qualities of David that made him so dear to the Lord. It was usual and customary for a new king to purge his predecessor’s accomplishments, family, and those who sympathized with the former king. But instead, David reached out to the people of Jabesh-Gilead and even sought to reward them for their faithfulness to king Saul.
Recall that the people of Jabesh were not only politically aligned with Saul but also they were closely related to him by blood, which is the foundational reason for their alliance with him in the first place.
David sent messengers to the leaders of Jabesh and said that because they had shown kindness to Saul that not only does he ask Yehoveh to show them compassion but that he, David, also wishes to demonstrate kindness to them.
The multiple uses of the word “kindness” are in the original Hebrew language “chesed.” And chesed indicates the commission of a righteous deed that is beyond everyday kindness. It is an act of mercy and grace that mimics the kindness of God.
But there is also present a very complicated Middle Eastern thought pattern and dialogue that is difficult for modern Westerners to spot. The underlying implication is that when we read of a person wishing chesed on another it’s because of the other’s chesed, and it is because the person who was on the receiving end of the righteous deed is unable to repay it himself.
So, in this case, the citizens of Jabesh-Gilead showed chesed to Saul and his family, but since Saul is dead, he naturally can’t reciprocate with a righteous deed towards the citizens of Jabesh. Such a thing is entirely intolerable to Middle Eastern sensibilities and must be remedied somehow.
We see this same concept in the Book of Ruth between Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah. In Ruth chapter 1 we read this:
Ruth 1:8-9 CJB
Na’omi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Each of you, go back to your mother’s house. May ADONAI show grace (chesed) to you, as you did to those who died and to me. May ADONAI grant you security in the home of a new husband.” Then she kissed them, but they began weeping aloud.
Here Naomi is telling Ruth and Orpah that even though they did chesed towards her (in being good wives to her two sons and good daughters in law to her) that she is not in a position to reciprocate (as is expected), so she prays that the Lord will repay them.
And then once they are provided with new husbands (as a divine act of chesed) then the new husbands will also repay. This idea of repaying good deed for good deed is very Middle Eastern.
So since the deceased Saul and the people of Jabesh can no longer show loyalty and chesed to one another, David suggests that (in addition to God giving chesed to Jabesh) he will be the one who repays the people of Jabesh for their act of righteous kindness towards Saul. And that he is offering a bond of faith with them in place of the relationship they had with Saul.
In verse 7 David exhorts them into accepting this offer by saying, “be strong and be brave”. What would strength and bravery have to do with Jabesh taking David’s proposal of repayment and kindness?
Essentially it is because this repayment and kindness are all wrapped up in Jabesh establishing a covenant with David.
- David is asking Jabesh to break away from the northern tribal coalition and to become part of David’s southern kingdom instead.
- David is asking that this group of men with such close ties to the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe, transfer their loyalty to the tribe of Judah.
- David is suggesting that instead of Jabesh continuing an alliance under the house of Saul, they switch and become allied with the house of David.
This indeed will take courage because their northern tribal coalition partners will not only be supremely unhappy with them for doing that but might even try to punish them for what they would likely see as no less than treason. Jabesh’s response to David’s offer isn’t given.
Considering what had happened to Jabesh-Gilead several decades earlier, when most of the northern tribes of Israel punished them severely and nearly into extinction, their reluctance to jump at David’s offer can be understood.
Verse 8 is a change of scenery. We move from David’s southern headquarters in Hebron to the offices of the government of the northern tribal coalition, the Kingdom of Saul.
Abner was Saul’s top military commander (and he was also either Saul’s uncle or his 1st cousin; traditions differ on the exact relationship). And the situation was that the north had lost their king (Saul) and there was only one son of Saul that remained alive to continue Saul’s dynasty: Ishbosheth.
Now, without doubt, Abner was the real power in Saul’s kingdom at the moment, only because he had the might of the army behind him. Since Ishbosheth is a legitimate heir to the throne, Abner has little choice but to appoint him as the new king (Saul’s dynastic replacement).
Ishbosheth is not so much a name as an epithet. It is unthinkable that a man would name his son “man of shame.” So there is some disagreement on what his real given name was. Later in the Book of Kings, we see mention of this same fellow but he’s given the name of Eshba’al (Esh-Baal), and there is a good reason to think that this may indeed have been his original given name.
This name issue may seem trivial on the surface, but there is a good reason to spend a little time with this because it helps us to understand the ancient Hebrew mindset at this point in Israel’s cultural development. Understanding these sorts of nuances is the key that unlocks many mysteries and difficulties of the Bible.
Eshba’al means, “Fire of ba’al.” It’s a name that speaks of strength; at least it does if one is a pagan. But would a Hebrew king like Saul assign a pagan name to his son?
Here’s the answer: in reality, ba’al carried a dual or even triple meaning at this time. Ba’al meant “lord” (lord as in the sense of master) from a generic standpoint, and it was used in reference to a person. But it was also a term that was regularly used in reference to spiritual beings; and when it was, it meant god (little “g” god).
Thus we will see Biblical reference to the ba’alim (the ba’als, the gods, plural, many gods). But of course, Ba’al was also the name (or better, title) given either to the Canaanites’ chief god or at least to the head male god (with his wife being Ashtoreth) depending on which Canaanite tribe or nation one belonged to.
Now, this structure is very parallel to a more modern day use of the word “lord.” Lord can merely be a term used by royalty, or of someone who has authority. Lord can also be used to refer to God in a general sense, and Christianity especially will refer to God on a more personal basis as “The Lord.”
By the time of David the Hebrews had borrowed the word ba’al and added it to their vocabulary, and they used it to mean “lord” in the sense of a person with authority.
Thus both in the Bible and in other ancient Jewish sources we will find Hebrew names incorporating the word “ba’al.” It didn’t necessarily mean a loyalty or dedication to the pagan god, Ba’al (although often it could). But it did reflect a very casual and un-pious attitude toward the Law of Moses and the Hebrew religion in general.
But that’s what happens to language: a word that means one thing incorporated into a new language and it comes to say something similar but not quite the same. And after a generation or two since the word was adopted, the use of it is done without thinking; no one bothers to challenge its real meaning or whether it is even proper to use it.
There is no reference to Saul turning his loyalty over to a pagan god, so very likely the name of his son, Eshba’al, was meant to be regal: the fire of the lord (lord meaning a human lord). However in later times there grew to be a high sensitivity among the religious Jews to the word or name ba’al.
So the editors of some of the Old Testament books determined that it was inappropriate for that word to appear in the holy texts and therefore they would not write or say the word “ba’al” because it was offensive to them.
Thus when they copied the most ancient Biblical scrolls, they substituted the word bosheth (which means shame) when they ran across the word “ba’al.” Thus Eshba’al became Ishbosheth.
This idea of future scribes and editors adhering to a religious/political correctness of their time that caused them to substitute one word (now deemed offensive) for another (that was religiously acceptable) is especially noteworthy when it comes to God’s formal name, YHWH, which I have elected to pronounce Yehoveh (and others as Yahweh).
The word “YHWH” (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh) also became a sensitive issue around the 4th century BC. The word was retained in the written form in the new hand-written copies of the Bible. And in the margins of the scrolls, a handful of other words such as Adonai (meaning lord, master), or HaShem (indicating the Name) or Elohim (meaning God) were written so that as the scroll was being read out loud, these words would be used in place of YHWH.
These sorts of variations in Biblical names and places and these substitutions of words from one scroll or manuscript to the next have created all kinds of difficulties and controversies in Bible translation. But most of the time if we’ll read what the ancient Hebrew Sages say about it, we’ll find the reason for these changes (even if the reasons are somewhat dubious).
Let’s move on. For some reason Abner decided to relocate Ishbosheth out of the northern region of Canaan and across the Jordan River to a place called Mahanaim; it was there that he formally appointed Ishbosheth as his father’s successor.
There are a couple of interesting aspects to what is happening here; one is to ask why it is that Abner would move Ishbosheth to the other side of the River to appoint him king?
The reason is that it would be easier for Ishbosheth to set up his new government there because the Philistines now had too much control over the land that constituted Saul’s Old Kingdom.
A second issue is: why would Abner want to crown Ishbosheth at all since apparently, he knew that God intended David to be the king?
It is clear that Abner had more respect for Yehoveh and His commandments and decrees than did his former boss, King Saul. The ancient Sages and Rabbis have some interesting takes on this issue of what was in Abner’s mind that caused him to go ahead and make Ishbosheth the new king.
Despite his admission (that we’ll read in chapter 3), Abner was well aware that David was God’s choice to be king over all of the Israelite tribes.
The Jewish commentary called Bereishis Rabbah states that Abner did not deny that David was to be king, but only thought that it was not yet the appointed time.
This conviction had to do with a tradition that had evolved that the tribe of Benjamin was to supply at least two kings BEFORE David would become king. And this belief was due to a statement made in the Torah in Genesis 35:11 that God blessed Jacob (as he was returning from Mesopotamia and fleeing from Laban) by saying that “kings shall issue from your loins.”
This was taken to mean that since up to now there was no indication that any king had come from the sons already born to Jacob, that these kings would be manifested in a not-yet-born son. Tradition says that the only son not yet born to Jacob was Benjamin.
Therefore it was Benjamin that would produce these kings. And since the word is a plural that meant at least 2 Benjamite kings had to rule before David would assume the throne.
Therefore (reasons the Rabbis) Abner was merely righteous by insisting that the 2nd Benjamite king is installed (Ishbosheth), and then only after that would Abner help David become king. Abner was determined to fulfill the prophetic words of Genesis 35:11.
Quite frankly, we can be a bit skeptical of this rabbinical reasoning. Not only does it seem that such logic is less than clear, but it also appears that there is a better more straightforward answer present in the Scriptures; Abner was the now the real and undisputed power in the north and Ishbosheth was too young and incompetent to lead Israel on his own.
Abner knew that by installing the weak and easily manipulated Ishbosheth as his puppet that he would personally control Israel using Saul’s sole surviving son as a mere proxy, and at the same time appear to be doing the right thing in the people’s eyes by continuing Saul’s dynasty with his surviving son.
At best Abner was manipulating the situation so that when David did assume the throne over all Israel; David would be forced into giving Abner a position of high status in the kingdom. At worst, Abner knew that God intended to make David king but hoped that under the right circumstances Abner could postpone David’s coronation indefinitely to his benefit.
Verse 9 explains that Ishbosheth was made king over Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin and all of Israel. Gilead was the tribes of Gad and Reuben, located in the Trans-Jordan. The Ashurites are seen as a copyist error and ought to read the Geshurites (and this makes sense).
Geshur lay beyond the northern boundary of Manessah, on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee. We’ve seen mention of the Geshurites in earlier stories, and later we’ll read of David marrying a Geshurite woman and having a son with her. For whatever reason, a political alliance with Geshur was deemed significant to David.
The Jezreel is referring to the western slope of the Gilboa Mountains, which lies in Issachar’s territory. Ephraim represents the heartland of Canaan, and the designation, in this case, intends to include that part of Manessah that lies on the west bank of the Jordan.
The idea is that it is the territory set aside for the house of Joseph, through his two sons Ephraim and Manessah. Benjamin is that buffer territory that is sandwiched between the north and the south of Canaan. The term “all Israel” (in this context) means all the northern tribes, but NOT the southern tribes.
Why this kind of strange description that gives specific territories but then ends with “all Israel”? Why not just SAY “all Israel” to begin with? Because this was a progression: Abner’s strategy was to move Ishbosheth to an area he could operate in freely without Philistine influence and outside of any of Judah’s (and therefore, David’s) territorial claims.
So Abner chose Mahanaim in Gilead as that place. Step by step he would rebuild the northern coalition that Saul had constructed (but fell apart after his death) until Ishbosheth was finally accepted as king by all the Israelite tribes of the north.
Thus it was that Ishbosheth was only gradually able to put together a kingdom, but it would begin at Gilead; next in his sights would be Geshur, then Jezreel, then Ephraim and Manessah, then Benjamin. That would complete the rebuilt coalition.
Now, of course, we see that David must have figured out Abner’s plan and so he had invited those leaders of the key city of Jabesh (located in Gilead) to be David’s allies in hopes of derailing Abner’s plan for Ishbosheth.
Verses 10 and 11 work together and explain that Ishbosheth only reigned for two years over Israel (the northern tribes), but David reigned for 7 ½ years over Judah.
Now, this presents an interesting chronology problem that we’ll only spend a moment on. We know that David was appointed King of Judah at around the same time that Abner appointed Ishbosheth as Saul’s successor. As we’ll find out in the next chapter Ishbosheth lost his kingdom to David.
So how do we account for the 5 ½ years of the time difference? It seems logical that David and Ishbosheth’s respective reigns should have been parallel and very nearly the same amount of time.
In a nutshell, the consensus of Rabbis is this: notice that verse 10 says that Ishbosheth reigned over “Israel” for two years. Israel (at this time) is what the Bible calls the confederation of northern tribes as it operates under one king.
We talked earlier how it was Abner’s strategy that Ishbosheth rebuilds the coalition step by step, tribe by tribe UNTIL he has put the kingdom back together again and thus reigns over “all Israel.”
Therefore it took Ishbosheth 5 ½ years to gain all the regional loyalties back, and only then did he rule over “Israel.” Once that happened, he was on the throne just two years until David took over the northern kingdom.
In verse 12 a chance meeting between men loyal to Ishbosheth and men faithful to David occurred, and the result would be war. It seems that Abner had business in his family hometown of Gibeon in the territory of Benjamin and he and his contingent of men stopped to refresh at a watering hole called the Pool of Gibeon.
Since Judah’s territory abutted this same place, Joab, a nephew of David and his current commanding military officer, and some of his brothers and other men also happened to arrive at this pool at the same time for the same reason.
Imagine their surprise. What to do? Should they immediately engage in battle? Should one or the other withdraw? Abner (apparently rather impulsively) proposed that each side choose 12 men and they fight gladiator-style in representative battle.
The idea is much like what happened with David and Goliath; rather than the full armies of the two enemies fighting one another, each side would send out their champion. The two men would fight, and the losing team would consider it a defeat of their entire army, and leave the battlefield saving massive bloodshed.
The Pool of Gibeon has been located. It turns out to have been manmade; it was a massive cistern carved out of the rock. About 40 feet in diameter and 80 feet deep, it caught the runoff from the surrounding area and stored the water. There is even a stairway carved into the walls of this cistern so that as the water level dropped the precious liquid could still be accessed.
The 12 pairs of fighting men eventually erupted into the other troops from both sides engaging in battle. The narrative seems to indicate that the reason this turned into a full-scale battle was that there was not a decisive outcome from the representative warfare between the 24 men. Instead, it seems that it was a draw; they all killed each other.
It turns out that Joab was there with 2 of his brothers Abishai and Asahel. It appears that Abishai was the oldest, and Joab was the middle child. These were David’s nephews, sons of David’s sister Zeruiah.
David’s men got the best of Abner’s men, and so Abner and his company of soldiers fled. Zeruiah’s three sons gave chase; but the youngest, Asahel, was a much faster runner than his brothers (the narrative describes him as being as swift as a gazelle or a deer).
The youthful and fool hearty Asahel set his sights on the big prize, Abner, not giving it a thought that this grizzled old warrior had lived so long because he was a fierce and cunning fighter who didn’t know how to lose.
As Asahel got closer in the foot race, Abner looked over his shoulder and told the boy that he needed to rethink his intentions. The supremely confident Abner suggested that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that he should catch him because Abner would quickly kill him and this would cause even more bad blood between the military commanders of the opposing kingdoms, Joab and Abner.
But in youthful exuberance, Asahel responded by turning on the jets. As he was breathing down Abner’s neck, Abner used a military trick that only the most experienced would dare to try.
Abner had sharpened the wooden handle end of his spear. As Asahel was ready to strike, confident that he was about to end the life of this old man of legendary status, Abner unexpectedly and abruptly stopped and without turning thrust the sharpened handle of his spear backward, and Asahel ran into it and impaled himself upon it.
Now because Asahel had raced out ahead of everyone, it would take some time before the rest of the group caught up. When they did, they all froze in their tracks when they came upon Asahel’s lifeless body.
The sight of their dead brother caused their adrenalin to flow and brought a second wind to Abishai and Joab; they sped off in pursuit of Abner, blood in their eyes and murder in their hearts. They caught up to Abner at a place called Ammah Hill (no one knows where, exactly, this is).
But by then Abner’s Benjamite troops had amassed around him and taken up defensive positions. As Abner saw Joab and his men approach he yelled out to him that it wouldn’t serve either side to continue the bloodshed.
What Abner’s words were about was trying to convince Abishai and Joab to put aside what was now a personal vendetta against Abner. Now, this was no longer about military victory. After all, there wasn’t any real need for a battle to have started at all since David and Ishbosheth were not at war. And so Joab responds in verse 27 by saying,
“As God lives, if you hadn’t said something, there is no doubt that the people would have kept following their brothers all night long.”
The meaning of his words is that it was Abner who instigated this. If Abner had not rashly suggested that the 12 representatives from each side fight each other, then all these soldiers wouldn’t have died, and Asahel would still be alive. Abner is responsible for it all in Joab’s eyes, and especially for his younger brother’s death.
The dynamics of the entire situation have now changed. Before the incident at the Pool of Gibeon, it was a cold war of sorts between those loyal to David and those loyal to Ishbosheth, and it had now turned into a family blood feud.
Abner knew that this is what would happen and this is why he asked Asahel to turn aside and go after somebody else. Abner knew that otherwise he’d have to kill Asahel and the result would be an ongoing series of revenge killings between the two families.
In any case, Joab knew that there had been enough bloodshed for one day and that Abner and his men were in strong defensive positions.
So he blew the shofar as a signal to end the fighting. Abner followed through and led his men on the trail north through the Arabah and back into home territory. The Arabah is a long rift valley that begins at the Sea of Galilee and extends all the way south to the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqabah.
When both sides arrived home, they counted their dead. The victory for David’s men was overwhelming. They lost only 20 men, including Asahel, while Abner lost 360. In some ways, this is to be expected. David’s men were experienced and apt fighters, having followed David for several years. These men were part of the 600 who had been with David through so much.
But as Asahel’s brothers carried his body to the family burial plot in Bethlehem, Joab burned with desire for revenge. The truce arranged at Ammah Hill between he and Abner applied only to kingdom business, but the matter over Asahel’s death was personal and between him and Abner alone. And this was, after all, the Middle East where all blood feuds end badly.