For this week, please read 2 Samuel 1-4. This week’s episode is the story of the War of Saul’s Succession.
In Episode 5 last week, David fled Saul into Philistine territory and became a vassal of the Philistine king Achish of Gath (Goliath’s hometown). David was given the town of Ziklag by the Philistine king, and in return, David pledged his allegiance to the Philistine and plundered neighboring tribes and villages for booty to give to Achish. With David on his side, Achish decides to decisively move against Saul in the Jezreel Valley where he could better exploit his technologically superior military. God is unresponsive to Saul’s inquiries about the upcoming battle, forcing Saul to employ a necromancer to recall Samuel from the dead to ask his advice. Samuel informs Saul that he is a dead man walking. On the eve of battle, Achish sends David home because his commanders doubt David’s loyalty. David leaves the battle scene neither attacking nor defending Saul and his countryman’s army. Upon arriving back at Ziklag, David discovers the Amalekites have sacked the town and carried away the inhabitants. David successfully recovers all that is lost and more and distributes the excess spoils to the nearby Judean towns. In the Battle of the Jezreel Valley, Saul, Jonathan, and Saul’s two other oldest sons die. The Israelite army is scattered, and the Israelite people return to the hills and to the east of the Jordan River.
THIS WEEK: In this week’s episode, the remnants of the house of Saul battle David for control of the throne of Israel. Like any good War of Succession, the palace intrigue of shifting loyalties and personal vendettas will drive our story. There are four primary characters in this week’s events:
Ishbosheth: Saul’s only surviving son who is a good man but a weak leader;
Abner: Saul’s military commander (who survived the Battle of the Jezreel Valley) and the true power behind Ishbosheth’s throne;
David: The current vassal of the Philistines who is always a step removed from deaths that benefit him; and
Joab: David’s military commander and David’s nephew who is jealous to keep his powerful position.
Saul’s Death and David: (Ch. 1:1-6)
As we saw last week, when the Battle of the Jezreel Valley between King Saul of Israel and King Achish of Philistia commenced, David had left the scene to return home. David doesn’t know the outcome. This week’s episode opens with an Amalekite, most likely a member of Saul’s army, coming into David’s court at Ziklag. The man recounts the battle to David and tells David that King Saul and Jonathan, the crown prince, are dead. The Amalekite man claims that he came upon a wounded Saul on Mt. Gilboa and that Saul requested that the man kill him to prevent capture. (We know from last week, that Saul made this exact request of his armor-bearer.) At this request, the man claims to have killed Saul. To prove his tale, he carries with him Saul’s crown.
This Amalekite messenger certainly believes that David will welcome this development. Saul and Jonathan are the primary impediments to David taking the throne of Israel and here, this man has hastened this result and has brought David the crown that should be his. The Amalekite, however, has miscalculated and apparently has not heard the stories of how David had previously spared Saul’s life. As the man stands before David expecting praise and reward, David becomes incensed that anyone would dare kill the “Lord’s anointed”. David instructs his bodyguard to kill the Amalekite in judgment for his regicide.
David publicly mourns the death of Saul and Jonathan. He composes a moving elegy lamenting their deaths and praising their life. David commands that this elegy be taught throughout his tribe of Judah. David meets Saul through music (1 Sam. 16:18) and David sends Saul off to music.
Issue of Succession:
Saul is dead. In general, sovereign succession falls to the oldest surviving son of the king which in this case is Ishbosheth. Although David is a great military leader, David is suspect. He is still a vassal of the Philistines. The reason God made Saul king was to protect Israel from the people David is now a vassal of. 1 Sam. 9:16. Additionally, circumstantial evidence points to David as having a role in King Saul’s death. David benefited from Saul’s dying. David had the ear of King Achish when he was planning the decisive battle against Saul. And when Israel went to battle against Saul, David deserted the field. David never fought against Saul, but he certainly never helped. In order to secure the throne, David must overcome these issues.
David, King of Judah: (Ch. 2:1-7)
To set the political stage, Judah has a similar relationship to Israel as maybe Scotland does to London or Texas does to the U.S. It is a constituent part of the nation but is always seen by itself and others as something apart from the nation. Judah, along with Simeon, is the most southern tribe and therefore on the edge of Israel proper. The oldest text in the bible, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, thanks the tribes of Israel who came to fight with Deborah and disparages the tribes who failed to come to her aid. The song doesn’t mention the tribe of Judah at all, she seems not to even have expected Judah’s participation. And, as we will see on the death of Solomon, David’s rule over the northern tribes of Israel will only last two generations. 1 Kings 12.
David has himself crowned as king of Judah. He inquires of God and moves from the Philistine town of Ziklag to the Judean town of Hebron which becomes his capital. The elders of Judah, whom David had helped while he was still a vassal of the Philistines, come to Hebron and anoint David king over Judah. David has consolidated his home tribe and waits for the opportunity to become king of the whole of Isreal.
Ishbosheth, King of Israel: (Ch. 2:8-10)
Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, takes Ishbosheth, Saul’s sole surviving son, to the town of Mahanaim located east of the Jordan River. (After the battle of the Jezreel Valley, the Philistines control most of the land west of the Jordan.) There Abner makes Ishbosheth king. Abner is the power behind the throne. As we will see later during the story of Absalom’s Rebellion (2 Sam. 16:21-22), taking a king’s concubine is a way to establish your rights to the king’s power. Abner takes one of Saul’s concubines to announce his authority. (3:7). Unlike David’s coronation, Abner’s elevation of Ishbosheth to be king does not have the explicit consent of the tribal elders. Ishbosheth is simply a matter of convenience of Abner to seize power.
The War of Succession: (Ch. 2:12-2:7)
The War of Succession begins. The two sides meet at the pool of Gibeon located on the frontier between the tribe of Benjamin (Saul’s tribe) and the tribe of Judah. Abner arrives with the surviving remanent of the Saul’s army and Joab arrives with David’s army. There a fierce battle occurs between the two forces. During the battle, Joab’s brother Asahel gives chase to Abner. Abner unsuccessfully begs him to stop the pursuit. As Asahel closes in on Abner, Abner impales Joab’s brother with the butt of his spear. Abner and his forces then take the high ground. Abner calls on Joab to call off the internecine battle – “Shall the sword devour forever, for how long will you pursue your kinfolk.” With these words, Joab signals retreat and returns to Hebron.
David starts the process of assembling allies in his fight against Abner and Ishbosheth. David begins to build a harem at Hebron. (3:2-5) He marries at least four other wives, one of whom is the daughter of the king of Geshur. Geshur was an Aramean city-state located on Israel’s northern border in the area of the Golan Heights. With this marriage, David puts military pressure on Ishbosheth’s northern flank to compliment his forces in the south. David also still has his contacts with King Achish.
The War of Succession lasts for almost two years. (2:10) During this war, the fortunes of David and Joab waxed and those of Ishbosheth and Abner waned. Beyond verse 3:1, we know nothing else about the war or the battles fought. Most likely, there are some border raids and border skirmishes but there are no full-scale battles like that at Gibeon. During this time, the Philistines remained quiet. They control the lowlands of Israel to the coast, and their one-time vassal appears to be prevailing.
Peace Negotiations: (Ch. 3:12-21)
Abner, seeing his forces to continue to grow weaker, reaches out to David promising to deliver Ishbosheth’s kingdom to David in return for peace and hopefully a place in David’s administration. David accepts Abner’s overture on the condition that Abner deliver to him Saul’s daughter Michal who was once married to David but now is married to someone else. The delivery of Michal signifies the unification of Saul’s house under David’s rule. Whether Michal consents to be a peace offering seems to not be an issue that either man cares about.
Abner goes to the elders of the tribes of Israel to discuss this matter with them. We can see Abner gathering and approaching these elders. Most of them probably would prefer to be under David’s rule because of his increasing power. For the last two years, David has appeared to be a loyal king of Judah and no longer under the sway of King Achish. Abner receives their blessing and their consent to the terms of peace. At no time is Ishbosheth brought into these conversations.
Abner travels to Hebron with twenty military attachés and Michal to wrap-up the peace negotiations. David throws a great feast for his honored guests. We can imagine the celebration signaling the end of the internecine hostilities. We can see David and Abner conferring as to the role Abner will play in David’s government since it is Abner who showed great skill in bringing about the peace. Absent from this feast and this conference is Joab. Joab is out on a raid and does not know what is occurring back home between his boss and his prior enemy, now colleague, who killed his brother.
Abner’s Murder: (Ch. 3:22-39)
Joab returns to Hebron just after Abner leaves. Joab is upset and tells David that Abner cannot be trusted. Joab sees Abner as a usurper of his position and remembers that it was Abner who killed his brother. Joab storms out of David’s presence and sends messengers to Abner requesting he return to Hebron. Abner arrives outside of the gate of the city with his men. There Joab takes him aside as if to speak with him privately. Once Joab separates Abner from his men, he brings Abner close to him, and stabs in the belly with his dagger. Abner falls dead to the ground. Joab’s position in David’s government is protected and the blood of his brother is avenged.
This action by Joab enrages David. Joab was on a peace mission and under the protection of David, and his chief military commander kills him. How is David to restart the peace talks with the northern tribes under these circumstances? We can imagine the very heated discussion with David vacillating about whether a capital judgment should be brought against Joab or not for his recklessness. Joab, however, is David’s nephew and is successful at his position. David spares his life. David publicly disclaims any knowledge of the plot, curses Joab, and mourns Abner’s death. He also orders Joab to humble himself and to visibly grieve Abner’s death in sackcloth and ashes. This public display of grief carries the day, and the people and elders understand that David had nothing to do with Abner’s death.
Ishbosheth’s Murder: (Ch. 4)
King Ishbosheth knows his days are numbered. Abner was his only protection, and now Abner is dead. Put yourself in Ishbosheth’s place. In the last two years, everyone who has stood between David and the throne has died – Saul, Jonathan, and now Abner. The only person remaining is you. Abner had previously worked out an arrangement for David to become king of all of Israel, and those elders who supported that deal are still in power. Both sides benefit from your demise. There is no indication that Ishbosheth reached out to David or to the elders to negotiate his peaceful abdication. Although Ishbosheth appears resigned to his fate, he does remain within the area controlled by his own tribe of Benjamin where, presumably, he will be somewhat safe.
Fate soon comes along. Two captains of an Israelite raiding party decide to break the deadlock and take it upon themselves to assassinate the weak and unwanted king. (These men are ethnically Beerothites, who are a group of non-Israelites that had become absorbed into the tribe of Benjamin, which may explain their willingness to commit the act.) These officers believe a reward awaits them by dispatching Ishbosheth and bringing about the unity of Israel under King David. Under the cover of darkness, these two men sneak into Ishbosheth’s bed-chamber and decapitate the king. They ride all night and bring Ishbosheth’s head to David at Hebron.
David’s response (as it was to the Amalekite messenger who claimed to have killed Saul) is swift and severe. David immediately orders his men to kill the two officers and to mutilate their bodies. David has no choice but to demonstrate that he had nothing to do with Ishbosheth’s murder. David also commands that the head be buried with Abner in a sign of respect.
Immediately upon Ishbosheth’s death, the elders of Israel come to David at Hebron and anoint him king over all of Israel (5:3). Ishbosheth’s assassination ends the war and makes David Saul’s true successor.
As we read through the War of Saul’s Succession, these four deaths of convenience (Saul, Jonathan, Abner, and Ishbosheth) easily lend themselves to conspiracy theories. Winners write the history, and the story of David is written primarily by one of David’s own people (the best guess is Abiathar). The stories are quick to distance David from these deaths and always tell of David’s public demonstration of his grief and sorrow. What role did David have in the death of Saul and Jonathan besides abandoning them? Did David instruct or have knowledge of Ishbosheth’s murder which required David to make sure the perpetrators suffered a quick death themselves? Or is the official storyline we have received, true? As we will later learn in 2 Samuel 21:1-4 (Episode 12), David will have the Gibeonites take out the remainder of Saul’s family, save one disabled son. David may be the most complex character in all of Scripture reflecting both his and our humanity. In reading the narrative and placing it in the context of a battle of succession, David’s culpability in the actual occurrences probably lies somewhere in between.
NEXT WEEK: In next week’s episode, David will conquer Jerusalem and establish it as his capital city. David will also bring the Ark of the Covenant into his capital city, thereby consolidating the military, political, and religious power in one place under his supervision.
Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.