The real commander of Israel’s army, Part IV

The scout came with good news: Abner was close. Joab and Abishai sent their two officers to hide with the other men in the olive grove, while they moved to the middle of the main road, out of sight of the guards at Hebron’s gate.

Joab hadn’t taken in any food or drink since that morning. His men had been pushing wine and water on him all day, but he never broke a sweat, despite the heat. It was like winter rain flowed through him.

The old commander ambled towards them on a donkey, but Joab didn’t run to him. That would be a sign of submission, and Joab didn’t acknowledge that Abner had any authority over him. It took forever for Abner to draw even.

“I was already at the well at Sirah. Now I’m going to have to stay here overnight. What’s so important that you had to delay your master claiming his kingdom?”

The nagging, old-man tone in Abner’s voice made Joab think of lambs being led to slaughter. He gripped the hilt of the dagger hidden under his sleeve.  “We need to talk privately.”

“My guards are discrete.”

Joab grabbed the donkey’s lead. “It’s a matter of some delicacy.”

“Then why is David sending you to deliver it?”

Joab made a noise he hoped sounded like laughter, to prove he was a good sport. “He didn’t send me.”

“So you’re talking to me behind your master’s back?”

“We’ve spoken privately before. Please just come over here.” Joab walked twenty steps off the road, into the olive grove.

Abner conferred with his guards. “Not in the trees. Closer to the wall.”

Joab didn’t care where it happened. He was across the road before Abner had dismounted. When Abner was several steps away, Joab dropped the dagger, blade down, out of his sleeve, but kept it hidden.

“What’s this about?” Abner asked, but there was no bite of authority in his tone, just weariness.

Joab put his left arm around Abner’s shoulders and leaned in as if he were going to whisper his secrets, but instead thrust up with his right arm, stabbing Abner between the ribs before he could register what was happening. Joab did it again and twisted the blade for good measure.

Joab nodded at Abishai and kept Abner in the bear hug until his brother was there. When Abishai was blocking the view from Abner’s guards, he let the old man drop.

Abishai unsheathed his sword, and the old man’s guards yelled and ran towards them, but they couldn’t get there in time to stop Abishai from running Abner through.

“Just like you did to our brother,” Abishai said as he brought the blade down.

Abner coughed out one word: “Traitor.”

Joab spat in his face.

The guards arrived. One man knelt at his master’s head and wiped the spit off. He and another man stripped off their robes and pressed them to Abner’s wounds. The two standing guards drew their swords and pointed them at the brothers.

Joab and Abishai put their hands up, which was the signal to their back-up, and maneuvered themselves so the guards had their backs to the olive grove. If they could kill the guards without a big fuss, they could drag everyone off and all anyone in Hebron would know was that Abner never did what he claimed he would. And Joab’s counsel to David would be proved right.

The guards on the ground were focused on their master. The guards with the swords out were focused on Joab and Abishai. As long as nobody noticed Joab’s men creeping towards them, this would all be over in a heartbeat.

“Just so you know,” Joab’s tone was conversational, “this wasn’t a political thing. Abner killed our brother. His blood was crying out for justice.”

The guards said nothing.

“Were you at the Pool of Gibeon?” Joab asked. “It happened then, after we were no longer fighting.”

“That’s right,” the shorter one said. “Your brother chased after a retreating army.”

The back of Joab’s neck got hot. “Are you implying that Asahel was in the wrong–”

Abner rasped something that sounded like, “Behind you,” and his guards turned their heads.

Joab’s men raised their weapons. The guards with the swords were outnumbered twelve to two, fourteen including Joab and Abishai, and surrounded. They voluntarily dropped their weapons and put their hands in the air. While Joab was reclaiming his dagger, he saw the backs of Abner’s other two guards almost at the city gate.

That was stupid. They were so fixated on securing the guards with swords that they didn’t cover the two with Abner, and now they’d pay for it.

Abishai said in an undertone, “What do we do now?”

Joab watched one of the city guards run out and glare at the scene.

“I’m not ashamed of what I did.” Joab strolled over to Abner’s body, stepped over it, and stood, his legs planted wide, hands clasped behind his back. “Every custom of our people gives us the right to seek revenge for our brother’s murder. Let them come.”

The city guard went back in. They’d be running to get David now.

Joab sent all his men, except for Abishai, back into the olive groves to hide out until the pressure eased.

They waited in silence.

It didn’t take long before David arrived with a full entourage: Abner’s two guards, half of David’s own guards, the leaders from Judah and the other tribes, and then the kinds of hangers-on who always seemed to show up at the first sign of drama.

Joab didn’t budge.

David didn’t do him the honor of a private word first. He scowled at Abner’s body and shouted, “Nephew, did you do this?”

Joab said, “Yes,” while Abishai said, “We did it.”

“Both of you?”

“Yes,” they said.

David lifted his gaze from the body and stared at them. “You killed a great and courageous man, a hero of Israel, for your own selfish purposes.”

“It was—”

“Enough! There is no defense against this, only thin excuses.” David went into what Joab called his desperation position: standing with his arms open wide to his sides and his head tipped back. “I vow by the Lord that I and my kingdom are forever innocent of this crime against Abner, son of Ner.” He straightened his head. “Joab and his family are the guilty ones.” He was looking at them, but it seemed like he saw right through them. “Joab, may your family be cursed. May every generation produce a man who’s plagued by sores or lame or dies by the sword or begs for food.”

A chill went through Joab. David didn’t go around cursing people. This was more than an ordinary disagreement about tactics. Would David send them home? What could he do after leading an army? Plow his father’s fields again? Become one the bandits he fought against? Better to fall on his sword than come to that.

No. He would not fall on his sword. He’d done nothing wrong. Righteous anger brought warmth back to his limbs. Moreover, he was beginning to see why David’s brothers were often so annoyed at his piety.

David dropped his arms. “Guards, wrap him up and bring him to my compound. We’ll bury him in the morning. Tell everyone to come. And you,” he rounded on Joab and Abishai, “you will be there and you will tear your clothes and you will wear sackcloth. We will all, all mourn for Abner.”

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Joab and put his mouth on Joab’s ear. “We were on the verge of peace for all of Israel, you idiot. Abner was seventy-five. He wasn’t going to challenge you.” David shoved his cloak behind him as he swept back through the gates.

Joab blinked at the crowd who blinked back at him. He wasn’t being sent home. David wouldn’t order him to attend Abner’s funeral procession if he wasn’t going to be around. He would be the sole commander of the army of Israel. The corners of his mouth began to turn up, but Abishai whacked his shoulder. Right. That would look bad.

Speaking of which, he wasn’t waiting for the crowd to decide to turn into a mob and go after him and his brother, so he copied David and exited with a flourish of his robe, his head held high.

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