We’re a bit behind the lectionary in family worship, so tonight we just got to the assassination of Abner by Joab in 2 Samuel 3. Joab avenged his brother Asahel, whom Abner had killed with the thrust of a spear-haft after the bloodsport contest in 2 Samuel 2. Joab stabs Abner in the stomach, the same location, in much the same way that Ehud killed Eglon in Judges. The chapter provoked several thoughts for me and the older kids.
One, there is a neat symmetry, not remarked upon by Alter or Leithart in their commentaries: Abner deserts the house of Saul because Ish-Bosheth complains about his sexual relationship with Rizpah, Saul’s concubine. (This is the same Rizpah who acts nobly to keep carrion birds off her sons bodies in 2 Samuel 21 — a ghastly passage that gives us some glimpse of what a tragic fate this noble woman suffered, passing from a royal life in the house of Saul to a makeshift tent on a rock in front of her sons’ corpses.) Abner’s response when faced with Ish-Bosheth’s complaint is to enumerate his benefits to the house of Saul and to ask, nonplussed, ”And you charge me with a fault concerning a woman?” (ותפקד עלי עון האשה היום:)
Shortly thereafter, Abner offers to go over to David’s side, and David welcomes him. The one stipulation he adds is… concerning a woman! He requires Michal, Saul’s daughter, to be returned to him. She, too, is a rather tragic figure. She fell in love with David and saved him from her father, but she will later revile him for his dancing before the ark, and die childless. At the beginning of chapter 3, we find a list of David’s sons by his different wives. Michal is conspicuous by her absence there. Leithart and Alter note that the marriages of David were also political alliances, calculated to outflank the Saulide dynasty. Michal herself, meanwhile, has been given to another man because Saul has treated David “as if he were dead” (Alter). One might wonder why David, with so many wives now, is making a fuss over the one he does not have. But she is, after all, his first wife, and moreover, David refers to her (3:14) as “my wife Michal, whom I betrothed with 100 Philistine foreskins” — a reference to the brideprice, which was a legitimate form of marriage, making her later marriage to Paltiel nothing but adultery, null and void. Nonetheless, this “taking” foreshadows David’s behavior in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite.
David’s handling of Joab after the latter’s murder of Abner is very ominous. He dissociates himself from the bloody-minded sons of Zeruiah, of course, but as my daughter Talia put it, that is simply “acting like Pilate” — i.e. washing his hands in order to avoid taking responsibility. The fact is that David, as king, should have punished Joab for murder. But he does not. Why? Because he is dependent on Joab, and because he is inactive and supine in administering justice within his own court and family. Just so, he will fail to punish Amnon, and will incur the frightful consequences. In a similar way, it would have been better for David if he had punished Joab during his ife instead of leaving that dirty job to be finished by Solomon.
A final note: 1 Kings 2:21-22 practically begs us to compare Adonijah’s request for David’s concubine Abishag with Abner’s relations with Saul’s concubine Rizpah in 2 Samuel 3. In both cases, the political dimensions of marriage are obvious to all concerned.