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….

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