Joab, the War-Crazed Traditionalist

Joab is David’s nephew. As I’ve written him, he’s a couple of years older than his uncle, David, which is an example of me stealing from life: in my mother’s family, the oldest nephew is older than his youngest uncle. In high school, the nephew apparently took great pleasure in needling his uncle about this in the crowded hallways.

We first meet Joab in It Is You just after David  has killed his first lion. Most of David’s family responds with a combination of awe, irritation, and hostility, but not Joab:

“Show-off!” someone shouted from behind the family.

They turned around and David went up on his toes to see his accuser.

“Always boasting,” the voice continued.

By then, David knew: it was Joab.

A smiling Joab broke through the rest of the family. “You go off to live with the king and then come back and kill a lion with your bare hands. How are the rest of us supposed to compete with that?”

When Joab goes off with David on a mission to find running water for David to clean himself with properly (there’s a spring a few km away), we get a sense of his life’s obsession.

Joab shouldered him sideways. “Someone said that the king has been training the men of Benjamin all winter. That true?”

David nodded.

“Man. You get to hang out near the army, see their weapons, watch them train. You get all the luck.”

David shrugged.

“Details. I need details.” Joab held his bundle out in front of him. “I’ll drop your clothes right here and make you walk back naked if you don’t tell me something soon.”

“Okay, okay.” David laughed. “A hundred or so men from Benjamin live in Gibeah and train year-round. Commander Abner hopes it’ll grow when the tribes see the success of an army more like the armies we’re fighting against. We’ll never again scatter in fear because an army lines up in ranks against us.”

Joab drove his right fist into his left palm with a satisfying smack. “Oh yeah.”

In this scene, David is 14. At 17, Joab is just a few years from the age of military service (20), close enough to imagine himself as a soldier.

As they walked back to the village, they weighed the merits of various weapons and retold old battle legends until David said, “But our best weapon is the Lord. Only He can throw a whole army into confusion so they kill each other and all we have to do is stand and watch and reap the plunder.”

“See, that’s why you’d make a great king,” Joab said. “You say stuff like that and even I want to follow you into battle.”

“Did you have a fever that boiled your brain while I was gone?”

“I’m serious.”

David pointed at the half-dead fig tree ahead of them. “You’d follow that tree if it meant you could be a soldier.”

Joab sniggered. “You’ve got me there.”

In the rest of the series, I build on that basic character trait: he’s always primed to fight.

After he hears that David has left King Saul and that the Lord has told David that he’ll be king some day, he does the one non-traditional thing in his history: takes off with his two younger brothers — leaving his father with nobody to work the land with him — and joins David. I think his war craziness is behind this. It was a calculated risk to give him a chance to command his own army, just like he and David used to play when they were kids.

In the early years of being on the run in the wilderness with David, and there are less than a hundred men with them, David takes his parents to Moab to ask the king to protect them. He’s gone for at least a couple of weeks. During that time (in my version), Joab gets the men all riled up to march on Gibeah and overthrow Saul. David has to talk them down and remind Joab that the Lord hasn’t given him the go-ahead for that.

This is a continual frustration between the two men; after all, David twice refuses to kill Saul when it’d be easy to do so. It deepens when David becomes king and has to learn diplomacy. It gets really messy in the story I told this week (Parts I, II, III, and IV), because David is trying to wrestle people into a new age and Joab doesn’t recognize either the dawning of the new age or the need for one.

Saul was the first king, but he wasn’t like what we think of as a king now. There was no golden throne, no formal court, no glorious castle at the capital of the country. There was no capital until David made one in Jerusalem. Saul was more like the most powerful tribal lord. So when David tries to get Joab to see that he should put away the idea of getting revenge for the death of his brother for the greater good, Joab just doesn’t see it.

As I see them, Joab is right and David is right. Joab is correct that every custom of Israel says he has the right to kill the man who killed his brother. It’s a little dicey in that Asahel was killed during a combat situation while he was chasing the people who were retreating and who gave him every chance of stating his intention and avoid being killed. But, in Joab’s eyes, his brother was killed, therefore he can seek revenge.

But David is also right. It would be better for Joab to sacrifice that old tribal ideal in order to make a peaceful transition to a united Israel possible. Abner was going to go out and negotiate allegiances for David, so that Ishbosheth would see every tribe arrayed against him and give up without a civil war. With Abner dead, there was nobody else with as much clout with the Saulean traditionalists to present David’s side with any authority.

When David makes Joab attend Abner’s funeral, it’s a public shaming. Joab does become commander of the tribal army (but not of the elite, permanent force), but the balance of power between him and David is way on David’s side until David sends word to put Uriah at the front line and then retreat behind him to leave him alone. But that’s a story for another day….

The real commander of Israel’s army, Part III

Joab didn’t know which part of a raid he loved best: when the enemy realized all was lost, or when he and his men paraded through small villages loaded down with plunder, tossing bits and pieces to people who came out to greet them — to the women who sang his praises and twirled and played their tambourines. The women of Juttah had sung so sweetly that he’d given up several headscarves he’d planned to give his own wife.

Coming in to Hebron was up there, too, because it was home. He’d sent a messenger ahead, so their children would be waiting to be hoisted onto shoulders, their wives would be laughing and crying, and David’s servants would be readying the feast. They’d have started slaughtering the oxen and sheep by now. Tonight, no more dried rations, no more sour water.

They were within sight of the gates when a man sprinted down the road at them. It was his messenger. Probably bringing word from David. Joab’s high dipped a little.

“My lord.” The messenger was panting so hard he could barely speak. “Ab- Abner–”

Joab narrowed his eyes. “What now?”

The messenger gulped. “At the citadel. With twenty men from Benjamin, Dan and –”

That was all Joab needed to hear. He pulled his brother close under the pretense of giving Abishai his pack. “This is it. Take your twelve best men and wait for me outside the gates, by the huge atad tree. Everyone else should go in and celebrate with their families. Wait for my word.”

He barely paused long enough for the gate guards to recognize him, and sprinted all the way to David’s citadel. The royal guards let him right through without making him give up his weapons, which might come in handy, depending on what Abner came here to do.

The courtyard was still set up for the feast, so Joab skidded to a stop, flattened himself against the wall, and peered around the corner. More than twenty men sat in a circle. David, of course, Great-Uncle Jonathan, Benaiah, leaders from Hebron and other self-important looking men. No Abner.

Joab stalked over to David. “You should’ve sent a message.”

David didn’t even give him the courtesy of looking at him. He just pointed at the ground with his finger.

Joab frowned. He didn’t have time to sit. “Where is he?”

David crossed his arms and looked into the distance. He barely moved his mouth while he spoke. “They’re deciding on me. They say yes and you get the whole army.”

Great-Uncle Jonathan stood and walked past him, adding, “Do it right for once.”

Joab almost left. Someone else could tell him where Abner was. He didn’t need David for that. But he did need to stay as close to David’s good side as he could, especially if he was successful, so he gritted his teeth and jerked his head, sharp and no-nonsense, like a soldier. “My lord,” he announced for everyone’s benefit, “the Amalekites will think twice about bothering Beersheba. And they made a generous donation to the military fund.” He grinned, but it felt more like he was baring his teeth.

David stood and put his right hand on Joab’s shoulder. “Elders of Israel, this is my nephew Joab, the commander of my army, the man your fighters will serve under.”

Joab stumbled forward a few steps, thanks to a not-so-gentle shove from David.

“He’s returned from a successful campaign against the Amalekites.”

“Just a small raid.” Joab did what was expected of him and did the teeth-numbing meet-and-greet, boasted about the results of his army, listened politely as they trumpeted their tribe’s fighters and their skills, refrained from mentioning that their men weren’t such great fighters that his army hadn’t already beaten them numerous times in the last six months. Each and every moment, he knew that Abner might be slipping away from him. Again.

“My lord,” Joab said to David the moment the elders’ attention wandered. “May I have a private audience?”

“Of course.” David opened his arms to the group. “My servants should bring in the midday meal soon. Stay and enjoy.”

Once they were two turns of the hallway away from the others, Joab grabbed a fistful of David’s soft linen sleeve. “Where is he?”

“Let go of me.”

“Fine.” Joab let go as if he were throwing the material away, which flung David’s arm back.

The next thing Joab knew, David pinned him against the wall. He could barely breath thanks to the forearm pushed against his neck.

“You even think about going for your dagger and I’m shipping you back to Bethlehem in shame,” David said. “You will not manhandle me, either when we’re in public or when we’re alone. You will treat me at least with the respect due to your uncle. Better if you could at least bring it up to the level of our time in the desert.” He pushed harder against Joab’s windpipe. “Clear?”

Joab nodded, because that was all he could do.

David freed him and shook out his arms. “Abner was here. He’s gone to the northern tribes to secure their support. He’s behind me.”

Joab spat.

“You’re letting your personal feelings get in the way.”

“It’s not my feelings,” Joab said. “It’s Asahel’s blood that’s in the way.”

“It was a battle.”

Joab’s chest heaved with the effort of keeping in all the things he wanted to say and do.

“We’re operating on a different level now. Blood feuds are part of the old—”

Joab sliced his hand through the air between them. “It’s not about that. Abner is too crafty. He started this war and managed to turn it around on me and make it seem like my fault. His visit wasn’t a peace offering. He’ll twist your words and turn you into–”

“I am not a green boy,” David ground out. “I tested Abner myself and I asked the Lord to confirm Abner’s sincerity, which He did. I am satisfied.”

Joab pressed his lips together and shook his head. “I can’t believe you just let him walk away.”

“With my blessing.”

They stared each other down for several long moments. Joab broke eye contact first and left without saying another word.

Abishai and his men were waiting just where he’d told them to. Joab sent two of them to run north and bring Abner back. Abishai and two lieutenants stayed with him under the atad. The rest of his men waited behind some ancient olive trees; nearby, but not close enough to be apparent.

When Joab’s messengers came over the hill with Abner and his four guards, the sun was low, but it wasn’t dusk yet.

Joab and Abishai exchanged a look, but didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to. The plan was set.


The real commander of Israel’s army, Part II

[possible pool of Gibeon, from]

The old commander looked as solid as he always had, although his hair and beard were now completely grey. Abner and his men were dressed in short leather battle tunics, too. Joab had made the right choice.

“About time!” Joab yelled across the Pool of Gibeon.

Abner stood with his feet planted wide and his arms crossed.

“We’ve been here three days.”

Abner raised his hand and his men sat as one.

So Joab had to order his men to sit, which they didn’t do in unison. The back of Joab’s neck burned as if Abner’s men had shown up his, which they hadn’t. Not really. He pointed to his left to indicate a spot halfway between them, by the stairs into the water.

The old commander dropped his belt and sword, unwound his mantle, removed one dagger and did a slow turn with his arms wide open. Then he gave Joab a “your turn” gesture.

Joab sighed. Fine. He’d take off his weapons, too. He dropped his shield, shucked his sword, unhooked his waist dagger and then tossed the dagger from his left thigh holster so it stuck in the ground point down, handle waving. He poked his own chest and pointed at Abner, who reached inside the neck of his tunic and pulled out another dagger. That was the benefit of having defectors on your side: they could tell you all your opponent’s tricks.

“Stay here,” Joab said to his brothers and his men. “But don’t take your eyes off the men across the way. Assign people to watch the opposite hills, and me, and him. Be ready for my signal.”

Abner sauntered to the meeting spot, hands clasped behind his back, but Joab strode there. He wasn’t going to pretend this was a pleasure visit. “Greetings, Commander of the Armies of Israel.” Joab loaded his voice with contempt.

“I’ve heard I might say the same to you.”

Joab’s claim was not a joke, no matter how lightly Abner took it. “You called this party.”

“Yes,” was all Abner said.


“To discuss what we might do to further our kings’ agendas.”

“And do some intelligence gathering?”

Abner shrugged and gave Joab’s men a once-over. “Your men look kind of small.”

“Have you gone blind in your old age? Those are combat veterans who’ve fought hand-to-hand against Philistines and Amalekites and come out on top.”

“Of course, of course,” Abner said. “I mean you no disrespect.”

“Are you going to get to the point?” Joab picked at a bit of dried blood on his tunic. “I thought we were men of action, not old women who need to gossip for half a day before getting around to business.”

Abner chuckled. “Have it your way, but from one commander to another, you’d do better to avoid that way of speaking to your superiors.”

“Are you referring to yourself? Because I will happily dispense with all these niceties and take you on myself.”

“Calm down. I meant David. Even though you ran together as boys, I bet he still wants to be treated like a king.”

Yes, but Joab didn’t meet Abner to have a heartfelt chat about it. “Thanks for the advice. Will you get one with it now?”

“That’s the problem,” Abner said.

Joab raised his eyebrows.

“Our kings won’t get on with it.”

“You’ve been after yours to do something decisive?”

Abner cleared his throat.

“So you’re as frustrated with Ishbosheth as I am with David.” Joab made that a statement, not a question.

“That’s a safe assumption.”

“So what are we going to do about it?” Joab scanned the hills behind Abner for any telltale glint of a sword. “Not ambush me, because one move from you and my men blow the trumpet and a delegation will rush to my aid.”

“Good strategy.”

“How do you think we survived so long on the run from you?”

“No need to be offended,” Abner said. “I merely complimented you. Shall we dispense with this charade and call our reserves, then?”

So Abner had hidden back-up, too. Joab made a show of nonchalance although there was thunder in his ears. “Is that a declaration of war?”

“We came all this way,”Abner swept his arm towards the east. “Across the Jordan, over the mountains, through the wilderness. It would be a shame to travel this far without engaging in some kind of combat.”

Some kind of combat? “What did you have in mind?”

“I made the first move.”

Joab sliced his hands through the air. “I don’t know what I was thinking. David has forbidden me to attack you and you’re clearly not going to oblige me by attacking first. This has been a huge waste of my time and my men’s time.”

“Almost forty, and still you lead like a hot-headed boy.” Abner spoke quietly, almost to himself.

Nothing Abner could’ve said would have made him angrier than that. More so because David told him the same thing. He’d show them. “The Philistine kings-”

“Ah, yes, your good friends-”

“Cut it.” Joab lunged towards the old man. “That line might work to rile up your men, but you know what we were about with the Philistines.”

“Yes, yes. You used them as cover to dig your claws deeper into Judah. Very smart. What did they teach you?”

Plenty that Joab had no intention of saying now. “The kings of the different cities liked to get small groups of their best soldiers together for fighting exhibitions. But all the winners got were bragging rights.”

Abner shrugged. “That’s a good place to start.”

“I’d like better stakes, but I’ll take it. You’re on.” Joab looked back at his men and calculated how many he could afford to lose if about half of the group were bested by Abner’s men, which was a fair assumption. “Twelve men.”

“No weapons.”

“What do you mean no weapons? I thought that was the point of this, to see who was better. You’re afraid of our hardened iron. That’s it, isn’t it? You know that our equipment is so superior to yours that you—”

Abner put up his palm. “A wrestling match, but they can keep their swords nearby on the ground. Does that make you happy?”

“As a bee after the rains.” Joab stalked back to his side, muttering about Abner’s patronizing attitude. “Men! We’ve got action!”

It took longer than he thought it would to choose twelve men who could win, but that he could also stand to lose, which meant that neither of his brothers made the cut. They were good, well-trained soldiers who took the news with proper stoicism, but once the twelve men had gone to the strip of clear land just south of the pool, they let their feelings be known.

“You know I’m better than them,” Asahel whispered.

“I could beat ten of them by myself,” Abiashar said. “I’m their unit commander. What does it look like that they fight while I stand?”

“I need you both too badly.” Joab put his weapons back on while talking. “I won’t risk losing you on some stunt of Abner. If this is an ambush, our soldiers will need your leadership.”

That seemed to placate them.

He and Abner moved among the chosen, pairing up fighters, each one switching men out for others. Finally, it was time to fight.

The rival units were no longer on opposite sides of the pool, but were spitting distance from each other, crowding close to egg on the wrestlers.

At first, Joab tried to show the same gravitas as Abner, the same calm leadership. The first time one of his men hit the ground, he grunted to himself. The second time, he clenched his fists and growled until the man got up. The third time, he gave up and screamed and waved his arms like the rest of his men were doing.

Every match was close. The thuds of bodies hitting bodies and the ground, the grunts of pain and effort, the trash talking — it was intoxicating. Joab looked to his right and his man knocked the feet out from under Abner’s man. Joab’s side cheered, but then Abner’s man levered up suddenly and kicked Joab’s man in the face; they heard the crunch of his nose breaking, and blood from it dripped down his opponent’s back as they grappled.

Then Joab looked to his left and Abner’s man kicked his man in the stomach, which made him fall to his knees. Abner’s man leaned over and prepared to kick again, but then his man pushed up and drove the back of his head into Abner’s man’s face, causing him to stumble back, clutching his eye.

Joab didn’t know who first screamed it, whether it was him or one of his men or Abner or one of his men, but once the words, “Pick up your swords,” were out there, the wrestlers lunged towards their weapons and grabbed their opponent by the hair. Each pair looked like a strange creature attached at the head. Someone gave a battle cry and the wrestlers gave up the pretense and went at each other. Within a few heartbeats, all twenty-four fighters lay on the ground, dead.

There was a pause, and then a roar from each side as they surged past their dead comrades and fought like enemies.

The real commander of Israel’s army, Part I

In November, I will post a new fictionalized biblical story every two days. I will. I asked some friends for stories they’d like to hear more of, and there are some great and tough things coming up, but one friend asked for a story I’d already drafted as part of my David and Saul middle school novel series. I felt kinda guilty at the idea of posting it as if it were freshly written, so I’m going to do it as a two-part warm-up over these last days of October.

I still have story slots open, so if there’s something you’d like to see (must be from the Bible), leave the suggestion in the comments or message me. Thanks for reading!

Part I is the buildup to 2 Samuel 2:12-17. It appears nowhere in the biblical record, but it’s how I imagine Abner and Joab wind up with a select group of fighters at the Pool of Gibeon. Joab, Abishai and Asahel are the three sons of David’s sister Zeruiah. In my version, Joab is a couple of years older than David. This story takes place six years after David was made king of Judah, but before he was declared king of a united Israel. Abner is the commander of Israel’s military, and has been since the early days of Saul’s reign (as such, he was the commander when David was in the army). Now he’s based in Mahanaim, across the Jordan, trying to keep the rule of Saul’s son Ishbosheth going.


Joab punched the ground under his head, but he didn’t have to be a seer to know that the rock that jabbed into his jaw when he lay down was not what he was angry at.

It was his uncle.

He punched the roof of his tent this time.

Abishai turned over. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”

“Shove it,” Joab said.

“What is it now?” Asahel mumbled.

It was an insult to his position and a constant thorn in his side, one of those really long seerim thorns, that he had to share a tent with his brothers. He was the commander of the forces of Judah. And not just of Judah.

What Joab really was, was the commander of the army of Israel, no matter what Abner called himself. “I have thousands of men from every single tribe in Israel,” Joab blurted. “Including Benjamin, including relatives of Saul and of Abner, including Manassah, even from all the way north, from Naphtali and Asher. Who does he think he is?”

“Is this rant about Abner or about David?” Asahel asked.

“It sounds like the one about Abner,” Abishai answered.

Joab ignored them both. “We’re just as much the army of Israel as his army is. More so, unless there are thousands of defectors from Judah, which there aren’t.”

“Some day you’ll be the—”

“I don’t want some day.” Joab flipped over onto his back. “I want it now.”

“We’re doing good work,” Abishai said. “Work the king has asked us to do.”

His middle brother’s point was reasonable, but Joab didn’t want to be reasonable, he didn’t want to be measured. “And what work has our uncle the king been doing? I’ll tell you. He and his wives have been parading around in the clothes and the jewelry we earn with our sweat and our swords. Speaking of wives, how many is he up to now?”

Asahel said, “You know it’s six.”

Joab sniffed. “A new wife every year he’s been in Hebron.”

“Not really,” Abishai said. “He brought Ahinoam and Abigail with him.”

“You have to admit, it was a major coup getting the king of Geshur to give David one of his daughters,” Asahel said.

“Are you denying that you loved every moment of leading the delegation to escort King Talmai back to Geshur, right past Mahanaim? The gold-plated shoulder guards alone….,” Abishai trailed off as if he were lost in the memory.

Joab almost smiled. “I even waved at Abner.” His brothers were right, but only about that one instance. “That’s my point. We’ve been living like we’re still in the desert, conducting raids and protecting travelers for a pittance while David lives it up in Hebron, stuffing his coffers, marrying more wives, having more sons. That sounds a whole lot better than this patch of hard ground.”

“He’s got his job and we’ve got—”

“I swear, Abishai.” Joab pushed himself up on his elbows. “If you try to jolly me one more time, the next thing I punch will be you.”

“I just want to get some sleep,” Abishai said.

“I just want my respect,” Joab said. “I want what’s due to me.”

“You’ll get it, brother.” Abishai reached a hand over to make some kind of comforting gesture, but Joab grabbed it in his fist.

They pushed at each other for several long moments before Joab let go and turned over.


The next morning, two messengers came for Joab.

They bowed, but their heads barely dipped past their shoulders.

Joab narrowed his eyes at them, but they didn’t redo the gesture. “No time for warm-up nonsense. Spit it out.”

“We come with an invitation from the commander of the army of Israel,” the taller one said.

This was the wrong morning to use that phrase. Joab growled and Abishai had to step in front of him.

The messengers backed up and put a hand to the hilts of their swords.

“What is it?” Abishai said. “And as a favor to all of us, just use the name of the person who sent you.”

“Abner requests a meeting at the Pools of Gibeon.”

Joab shook off his brother and stood with his arms crossed. He was twice as wide as these skinny little runners. “Why?”

The taller one stammered. “He, he, he just told me to make the request.”

“Bull. Is this a peaceful meeting? Should I bring my whole army? Is he bringing his whole army? Has he sent word to my king?”

The messenger flicked a glance at Abishai.

Joab rolled his eyes and gestured for the man to continue.

This is a private request from my lord,” the messenger said.

“No kings?” Joab asked.

“No kings,” the man said. “What can I tell my master?”

Joab pointed a thick, scarred finger in the middle of the man’s chest. “Tell him I’ll see him there, not with the full army, but he should bring his best unit.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Joab was already walking away when the messenger spoke again. “May I trouble your hospitality for some bread and water?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Joab said. “You come here saying you’re representing the commander of the armies of Israel, when that’s what everyone here calls me, and you expect me to give up my hard-earned supplies to you? You’re as much an enemy to me as someone from Gath.” He spat. “Feel lucky that I don’t slice your beard off. Get outta here.”

He watched the men walk away, their outrage at this treatment obvious in their exaggerated dignity. Joab smiled. Finally, it was on.