Second Samuel, Chapter 2

David becomes King of Judah, and fights with the servants of Saul’s son Ishbosheth, Abner’s puppet King of Israel.

More notes from UCLA’s Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group. We’re working our way through First and Second Samuel..


What Alter calls “The David Story” is a mix of disparate elements: myth, poetry, folktale, and history (or at least realistic historical narrative). Some of that mixing goes on within chapters. But 2 Sam. 2 is purely historical (which is not necessarily to say accurate).

After the death of Samuel, “David inquired of HaShem” about whether to go up into the cities of Judah. The answer is yes, and when David further inquires he is told to go to Hebron.

No mention is made of a priest, or of the Urim and Thummim. Does this mean that David has unmediated discourse with HaShem, as Samuel did? The text would allow it, but we mostly agreed with the commenters who took the inquiry to be by the normal oracular means, especially given the exceptionally brief answers attributed to HaShem. (Clearly the Urim could give yes-or-no answers, and the name Hebron could have been reached by a process of elimination, as the name of Jonathan was in the affair of the honey.)

David goes up to Hebron, taking his men and their wives, and his two wives, Ahinoam and “Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite.” Why “the wife” rather than “the widow”? The rabbis say because David pursued her while her husband still lived, and she is so designated to accuse him of having taken the wife of another man. (Not, as it turns out, for the last time.)

He is anointed “king over the House of Judah” by the “men of Judah.” (No reference to his previous anointment by Samuel.)

He learns that the men of Jabesh-gilead have buried Saul, and offers them praise though they are not part of his mini-kingdom. He also offers them a vague promise of future reward, and announces that he has become King of Judah.

Abner, the captain of Saul’s host both before and after David held that post, sets up Ish-bosheth the son of Saul as King of Israel. It appears that Ish-bosheth is a mere puppet; he has the royal title, but the text attributes to him no word or action. He wasn’t on the previous list of Saul’s sons. Has Abner set up a mere pretender? Is Ish-bosheth the son of a servant as a opposed to a wife?

The name is strange: “Man of Shame.” But that turns out to be a Masoretic emendation of the original Ish-baal. (“Master of Men”? “Man of Power”? Or did Saul have a son by a Canaanitish woman and name him for a Canaanite god?) Ish-baal is not the only victim of this decision; “baal” is replaced by “bosheth” in several names, as a rejection of the idolatry that might be inferred from having the name of the god Baal as part of someone’s name.

Ish-bosheth is said to have been forty when he became king (consistent with Saul’s being seventy when he died) and to have reigned two years. But David is said to have reigned seven years and six months over Judah. Those two numbers seemed hard to reconcile; perhaps Abner sets up Ish-bosheth only after David has been King of Judah for a while.

What follows next is unclear, but it appears that Abner leads an group of soldiers toward the Judean homeland and Joab, David’s general, goes out to confront him. The two forces (referred to as “the servants of Ish-bosheth” and “the servants of David,” not as the armies of two kingdoms, except once when Abner’s force is called “the men of Israel”) meet “by the pool of Gibeon,” and take positions on opposite sides.

Then Abner says to Joab, “Let the young men arise and play before us.” Is this a challenge to a ritual battle-substitute, some sort of game whose outcome is supposed to decide the issue between the two sides? Or are two groups of champions to fight it out, as David fought Goliath? (But if so, why neerim, “lads”?)

Whatever is supposed to happen, twelve of Abner’s men (identified as being “for Benjamin” as well as “for Ish-bosheth”) and twelve of Joab’s men go up, and what actually happens is mutual slaughter, followed by a battle, in which Abner’s forces are routed: 360 of them die, to only 20 of Joab’s. (Such a huge disproportion is not uncommon in historically-recorded battles; the side that breaks and runs frequently takes almost all the casualties.)

Asahel the brother of Joab chases the fleeing Abner, and refuses to turn aside when Abner invites him to strip a corpse of its armor instead: ” ‘Turn thee aside from following me; wherefore should I smite thee to the ground? how then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?’ “

But Asahel pursues, and indeed Abner kills him. Abner manages to rally his forces and make a stand against the pursuit by Asahel’s brothers, who seem to be carrying on the very feud Abner didn’t want to start.

Then Abner called to Joab, saying ‘Shall the sword devour for ever? knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the end? how long shall it be then, ere thou bid the people return from following their brethren?’

And Joab said: ‘As HaShem liveth, if thou hadst not spoken, surely then only after the morning the people had gone away, every one from following his brother.’

So Joab blew the horn, and all the people stood still, and pursued after Israel no more, neither fought they any more.

We took this to mean that Abner proposed a truce on the basis of the kinship between Israel and Judah, and Joab accepted it. Abner makes the long retreat to Mahanaim, while Joab returns to Hebron.

This is not the first instance of civil strife recorded in the Tanakh; Judges 12 recounts the war of the men of Gilead under Jephthah against the Ephraimites, and Judges 20 the war of all the other tribes against the Benjamites over the murder of the Levite’s concubine. But the fight by the pool of Gibeon seems to foreshadow the later conflict between the two kingdoms.

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: