2 Samuel 2:1–3:5: David Anointed King Over Judah, War Between the Houses of David and Saul
As this passage begins, Saul—the former king of Israel—has died, and so has his son Jonathan. This paves the way for David to formally become king. He’d already been anointed by Samuel (on behalf of God), but refused to try to depose Saul, because Saul was also anointed by God. But now that Saul is gone, there is nothing to stop David from assuming kingship.
It’s not quite that easy, however, since Jonathan wasn’t Saul’s only son!
David inquires of the LORD1 as to whether it’s time for him to return to Israel, and the LORD says yes, David should go to Hebron. So he does, along with his wives (Ahinoam and Abigail), and his men. The people of the tribe of Judah come to him there and anoint him king over their tribe.
He also takes time out to thank the people of Jabesh Gilead, who are the ones who had buried Saul.
[David] sent messengers to them to say to them, “The LORD bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him. May the LORD now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I too will show you the same favor because you have done this. Now then, be strong and brave, for Saul your master is dead, and the people of Judah have anointed me king over them.” (verses 2:5–7)
Meanwhile, the commander of Saul’s army—a man named Abner—makes Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth king over the remainder of Israel2. At this point, we have a bit of a timing problem, because verses 2:10–11 say that Ish-Bosheth reigned for two years, while David reigned over Judah (from Hebron) for seven and a half. It’s likely because the passage is skipping ahead to Ish-Bosheth’s death; in Chapter 4 Ish-Bosheth is going to be murdered, and in Chapter 5 David is going to become king over all Israel, but perhaps David reigned for a while as king over Judah before Ish-Bosheth was named king, and perhaps it took a while after Ish-Bosheth’s death for David to take over kingship of the rest of the nation.
Obviously, the current situation of David claiming kingship over Judah and Ish-Bosheth claiming kingship of the rest of the nation is going to be… uncomfortable. In David’s mind, he’s been anointed by God to be king over all Israel; in Ish-Bosheth’s mind, he’s the rightful heir to kingship, after the death of his father Saul. So things come to a head.
The head of Ish-Bosheth’s army, Abner, and the head of David’s army, Joab, bring their armies together, but rather than going straight into battle they decide to pick some of the young men from each side—twelve each—and fight on the armies’ behalf. But then—and I’m sort of thinking this might have been intended by the author as dark humour?—each man grabs his opponent, thrusts his dagger into his side, and immediately all twenty-four men are dead. (We’re told that they later renamed the field where they fought “Helkath Hazzurim,” which means, “field of daggers” or “field of hostilities,” for this reason.)
Now the armies need to fight a proper battle, which is fierce, but Joab and David’s men defeat Abner and Ish-Bosheth’s men.
The passage gives no details about the battle itself, but verses 2:18–23 give details about Abner’s death: a brother of Joab’s, Asahel, sees Abner and gives chase. Abner looks back to see who’s chasing him, recognizes Asahel, and warns Asahel to stop chasing him; he should go fight someone else instead. But Asahel refuses, and continues chasing Abner. So Abner—it seems as if he’s reluctant to do so—thrusts his spear backwards into Asahel’s stomach, killing him.
Abner isn’t yet done being pursued, however: now Joab himself, along with another brother named Abishai, continue the pursuit! They finally corner Abner, who is forced to take a stand on top of a hill. But then Abner is able to bring some sense back to the situation:
Abner called out to Joab, “Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realize that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”
Joab answered, “As surely as God lives, if you had not spoken, the men would have continued pursuing them until morning.”
So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the troops came to a halt; they no longer pursued Israel, nor did they fight anymore.
After this, Abner and Ish-Bosheth’s army are able to march away, while Joab and David’s army cease their pursuit. We’re told that twenty of David’s men have been killed (including Asahel), while three hundred and sixty of Abner’s men have been killed.
The fighting is not completely over, unfortunately, since verse 3:1 indicates that the war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasts a long time, with Saul’s side getting weaker and weaker and David’s side getting stronger and stronger.
Verses 3:2–5 then list out the sons that were born to David while he was in Hebron, including the sons’ mothers:
|Ahinoam of Jezreel
|Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel3
|Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur
|David’s wife Eglah
The careful reader might notice that David arrived at Hebron with two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail, but gained four more “partners” while he was there: Eglah is called out as David’s wife while the others aren’t, so I’m guessing that Maakah, Haggith, and Abital are concubines.
If we were to skip ahead, we’d see a struggle for succession between Amnon and Absalom in Chapters 13–18, and between Adonijah and Solomon in 1 Kings 1–2. Kileab is not mentioned in these power struggles so presumably he died before it became an issue.
No “spiritual” or “theological” thoughts are occurring to me in this passage, but I have trouble keeping track of names, sometimes, so here are the main people covered in this story (more on David’s side than on Ish-Bosheth’s side):
- David is king of the tribe of Judah, and Ish-Bosheth is king of the rest of Israel
- Joab is head of David’s army, and Abner is head of Ish-Bosheth’s army
- Joab’s brothers, Asahel and Abishai, are also mentioned
And I’ve already mentioned David’s wives/concubines above.
The Young Men Fighting on the Armies’ Behalf
When Abner and Joab decide to have some of the young men get up and fight, it’s similar to what had happened between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17, blogged about here and here). I’m led to believe it was common in those days to get a couple of people—or, in this case, a larger number—to fight on their nations’ behalf. The idea was that whichever nation’s god was stronger would cause their proponent to win.
Obviously, in this case, there was no idea of the god of the stronger side winning, since both sides worshipped the LORD, but there was probably a feeling that God would help the side He wanted to win. Which… is not remotely how it worked out.
The text doesn’t indicate how David inquired of the LORD, and it’s probably not important. (If it was, the text would have said how.) ↩︎
Verse 2:9 says that, “He made him king over Gilead, Ashuri and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel”—I believe that means the rest of the nation—all of the tribes that David’s not currently king over. ↩︎