Notes on 2 Samuel, Chapter 3

After the death of Saul, his top general sets up a puppet king, and the House of Saul goes to war with the House of David.

I’ve been remiss in posting the notes from the Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA, which has been working its way through First and Second Samuel (using Robert Alter’s translation, published as The David Story.) The group is all the way up to 2 Sam. 14, following the harrowing Tamar-Amnon-Absalom incest/rape/murder story. But the last notes published here were way back at 2 Sam. 2

Back then, I remarked that the “David story” mixes literary genres: myth, poetry, folktale, and history (or at least realistic historical narrative). But that left out at least one category: “Richard Condon/Ross Thomas novel.” 2 Sam. 3 is an example of this last genre.

The fight at the pool of Gibeon between David’s servants under Joab and the servants of the House of Saul under Abner described in 2 Sam. 2 turns out to have been the opening of a civil war (and a foreshadowing of the long fight between Israel and Judah), while the truce that concluded that fight turns out to have been temporary. The two sides continue to battle, with David growing stronger and Ishbosheth weaker. At the same time Abner, having set up Ishbosheth as a puppet king, continues to accumulate power among those loyal to the House of Saul.

Ishbosheth accuses Abner — whether truly or falsely, the text does not say — of having taken to himself one of Saul’s concubines. That would have been an act of lèse majesté and perhaps an implicit claim to the throne. Abner does not deny it. Assuming the charge to be true, Abner’s might have had a variety of motives: passion, or the desire to inflate his own apparent importance, or the desire to challenge Ishbosheth.

If Abner really “went into” Saul’s concubine, and especially if the connection was notorious, that would have given Ishbosheth an unpalatable choice between accepting the insult to himself and to the memory of his father and confronting the head of the army.

Whether Ishbosheth was motivated by anger or honor, or instead chose to assert himself in an attempt to become king in fact as well as name, he chooses the path of confrontation. (This is both the only speech and the only action attributed to Ishbosheth, who is otherwise entirely the passive tool and victim of others.)

Abner explodes with rage, either real or simulated. He promises to transfer the crown to David, and asserts that HaShem had “sworn as much.” (Abner might have heard this from either Saul or Jonathan, but he says it as though it were already public knowledge.)

Abner then sends word to David that he is prepared to sell out Ishbosheth and bring to David the support of “all Israel” if David will strike a deal. David demands as a preliminary the return of Michal, whom Saul had first married to David (who gave as her bride-price the foreskins of two hundred Philistines) and then taken from him to give to another when David became his rival. David’s demand is sent both privately to Abner and publicly to Ishbosheth, and it is Ishbosheth who is said to take Michael from her husband Paltiel and send her to David. But it is Abner who orders the weeping Paltiel to stop following Michal.

(So also Achilles weeps when Briseis is taken from him in Iliad I. Homer says Briseis went unwillingly. Michal’s affect, if any, is not reported, but perhaps her later anger at what she takes to be David’s unkingly behavior reflects in part her resentment at being treated as a counter in games among men. As to whether David had wept earlier when Michal — who had, after all, betrayed her father to save his life — was taken from him, the text is silent. But by contrast with the comment about Paltiel, that silence is loud.)

Abner canvasses the elders of Israel about switching sides in the war between the House of Saul and the House of David. He says to the elders “Time and again in the past you have sought to have David become king over you,” and cites (or invents) a prophecy that HaShem will deliver Israel from the Philistines by the hand of David. This is the first we have heard about David’s having support outside the tribe of Judah; was it only Abner’s prestige that was holding the Saulide coalition together?

Abner then visits David to negotiate the terms of a deal, including the demands Abner has gathered from the elders: “Abner went also to speak in the ears of David in Hebron all that seemed good to Israel.” (Benjamin seems to be an entity separate from both Israel and Judah.) The visit seems to be open rather than conspiratorial; he takes an entourage of twenty, and David gives a feast in his honor. They strike a deal, and David sends him away “in peace.” (This phrase is used three times in quick succession.)

David has sent Joab, still at blood-feud with Abner over the death of his brother, off on a raid, from which he returns laden with booty. (Was he raiding the Moabites or the Amalekites or the Philistines, or rather engaged in border rieving against Saul’s Israelite subjects? And had David sent him away precisely to avoid a clash between him and Abner?) When Joab returns, he is furious, and tells David that Abner had come only to dupe him. David, without telling Joab to keep his hands off Abner, allows him to depart; he goes after Abner and murders him under cover of parley.

David makes a huge fuss about how upset he is, denying any role in the murder, mourning demonstratively for Abner, writing a poem implying that Joab is a “son of iniquity” for having killed him, and publicly praying that HaShem “reward the evildoer for his evil.” (Think of Elizabeth and Secretary Davidson after the death of Mary Queen of Scots.) But David claims (sincerely?) to be too weak to confront Joab, who after all is the head of the army of Judah, while David is not said to have gathered any troops to add to his original 600 bandits.

This demonstration satisfies the populace, which holds David innocent of Abner’s death. So not only is David shed of whatever threat Abner might have posed (if only the threat that his troops would clash with Joab’s), he has made himself look good and Joab look bad in public. Clever fellow, that David.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: