21 October 2010

The Sons of Zeruiah: Heroes and Villains

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                King David of Israel had a sister (apparently considerably older than David) who had three sons: Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. All three of these nephews of the king were famed warriors among David’s men, and their history is integrally linked with that David and his throne.
                They were mighty men, but they were also ruthless and impulsive. The third brother, Asahel, was “one of the thirty” greatest warriors of David’s army. His career was cut short early when he insisted on pursuing Saul’s uncle and military commander, Abner during a battle at (  )_. Abner was considerably older, and Asahel was known for his ‘fleetness of foot.’ Abner kept warning Asahel to stop pursuing him and, when Asahel would not (no doubt eager for the glory of killing the famed warlord), Abner rammed his spear backwards, impaling Asahel with its butt. Joab never forgave Abner for this act.
                The second brother, Abishai was the “chief of the thirty;” in fact, he was their leader and “had a reputation rivaling the three” greatest warriors in the nation. In one battle he struck down 300 enemy soldiers single-handedly. His ruthless, impulsive nature is apparent from two episodes in his life. First, when he accompanied a fugitive David in sneaking into Saul’s camp, David had to restrain him from executing the mad king. Later, during Absalom’s rebellion, a man named Shimei shouted curses at David as the king was driven from Jerusalem; twice David had to stop Abishai from killing the man.
                Abishai took the lead in killing 18,000 Edomites and in routing the Ammonites under his brother’s leadership. When Sheba rebelled against king David in his later years, Abishai loyally led the thirty in battle against him. Perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment occurred during David’s last recorded battle. A giant Philistine warrior made the King his target and David, in his old age, was no match for him. David would have been killed had not Abishai arrived and killed the Philistine hero.
                But it was Joab, the eldest son, who was the real hero of the story and one of David’s closest allies and counselors throughout the celebrated king’s reign. He fought alongside his brothers against Abner at the time of Asahel’s death. In the ensuing war, Ish-bosheth takes Abner to task over his actions toward the king’s concubines; offended Abner turns traitor and makes a covenant with David, promising to unify the entire kingdom under his rulership. Joab doesn’t trust Saul’s uncle—after all, Abner had hunted David for years while serving as Saul’s military commander. Joab charges Abner with spying. Together with his brother, Joab plots and kills Abner in revenge for Abner’s slaying of Asahel. It seems likely that Joab also realized that he was eliminating a possible rival for the position as head of David’s army.
                In the middle of David’s growing empire is a well fortified city inhabited by a sometimes-friendly Canaanite nation: the Jebusites. That city is Jerusalem. For centuries the Israelites have been unable to conquer the Jebusites because of Jerusalem’s mighty walls. David offers his knights a challenge—whomever conquers the city will become the supreme commander of the royal army. Joab accomplishes the feat by leading a contingent of David’s mightiest soldiers up a well shaft and into the city, fighting their way to the gates and opening them to the surrounding army. David is true to his word: Joab becomes the General of the army and is given ten attendants to bear his weapons for him—including one of the Mighty Men, Naharai the Berothite (perhaps as his personal bodyguard).
                Joab is the kind of commander kings dream about. He helps David conquer Edom, uses a clever strategy to conquer an alliance of Ammonites and Syrians, conquers the Ammonite capital of Rabbah but waits for David to arrive to ceremonially capture the city. Joab not only cooperates in David’s plan to murder Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, but improvises on the plan to better conceal David’s complicity in the affair.
                During Absalom’s rebellion Joab loyally supports David—but then disobeys David’s direct order not to kill Absalom; Joab slaughters him while Absalom is hanging, helplessly entangled, in a tree. For this act of disobedience, David removes Joab from his leadership of the army and appoints Amasa (Joab’s cousin) in his place. Joab continues to play a vital role in military activities, including the defeat of another rebel named Sheba. But during the pursuit of Sheba, Joab calls Amasa close, grabs his beard as if to kiss him, and runs him through.
                Inexplicably, David returns Joab to his command position at the head of the army. Some scholars believe that David was afraid of Joab’s power—and this seems to be borne out by David’s words at the end of the king’s life. While David is lying on his deathbed, Joab joins the conspiracy of David’s son Adonijah who is determined to take the throne from David’s chosen heir, Solomon. Joab must by this time be in his 80’s or 90’s. David makes Solomon promise to execute Joab and, after Adonijah’s rebellion is put down, Solomon sends one of the Might Men, Benaiah, after him. Joab flees to the Tabernacle and clings to the sacrificial altar, hoping to be saved by his presence on “holy ground.” Benaiah isn’t moved—he executes the last of the sons of Zeruiah in the Tabernacle sanctuary.
                The three sons of Zeruiah share a remarkable number of similarities to the three sons of Lot in Arthurian legend: Gawain, Gaheris, and Gareth—but that is a subject for another blog.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.


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