2 Samuel 3:6–21: Abner Goes Over to David
The title of this post is “Abner Goes Over to David,” but it could just as easily have been called “Political Intrigue in the Land of Israel.” There’s a lot of history and personal politics playing out as national politics in this passage!
On that point, before we even get into this passage we should talk about Michal, one of Saul’s daughters.
Back in 1 Samuel 18 Michal fell in love with David. This was during the period in which Saul wanted to kill David, so he saw Michal’s love for David as an opportunity: Saul would set David an impossible task to win Michal’s hand in marriage—a task so impossible that David would surely die in trying: David was to bring Saul the foreskins of a hundred Philistines1. This way Saul could be rid of David without having to do the actual work of, you know, killing him.
To Saul’s surprise, however, David succeeds! (Actually, he brings back two hundred foreskins, instead of one hundred.) So Saul has no choice but to give his daughter Michal to David as his wife.
In 2 Samuel 19, however, Saul is apparently through with finding ornate ways of killing David: he’s just going to outright kill him. Michal warns David, however, and David escapes—without Michal.
Finally, in 2 Samuel 25, we are told that Saul has given Michal to be the wife of another man, Paltiel, since David is gone.
Some of the story in this post will make more sense with this backstory in mind.
As this passage begins Israel is in a period of transition: David is king of Judah while Ish-Bosheth, son of Saul, is king of the rest of Israel. However, the leader of Ish-Bosheth’s army, Abner, has become more and powerful in “the house of Saul” (verse 6). This is not sitting well with Ish-Bosheth, who makes a rather rash accusation: He accuses Abner of sleeping with one of Saul’s former concubines.
If this had been true it would have been a very political action on Abner’s part. Sleeping with a king’s concubine (or, presumably, wife), would be essentially a statement that he was taking over kingship. However, it was not true, and Abner had done no such thing. In fact, Abner is incensed that Ish-Bosheth would even accuse him of it!
Abner was very angry because of what Ish-Bosheth said. So he answered, “Am I a dog’s head—on Judah’s side? This very day I am loyal to the house of your father Saul and to his family and friends. I haven’t handed you over to David. Yet now you accuse me of an offense involving this woman! May God deal with Abner, be it ever so severely, if I do not do for David what the LORD promised him on oath and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David’s throne over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beersheba.” Ish-Bosheth did not dare to say another word to Abner, because he was afraid of him. (verses 8–11)
I have no idea what is meant by, “Am I a dog’s head,” but I think Abner’s response to Ish-Bosheth is clear nonetheless. In fact, what Ish-Bosheth has done is take what appeared to be a staunch ally and turn him into an enemy! (And a powerful one at that.)
Abner’s loyalties completely shift as a result of this, and he sends word to David that he will help deliver the entire kingdom over to David. David agrees, but on the condition that when Abner comes over to his side he bring Michal with him.
David also sends a messenger to Ish-Bosheth himself, making the same demand:
Then David sent messengers to Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, demanding, “Give me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to myself for the price of a hundred Philistine foreskins.” (verse 14)
So Ish-Bosheth—who seems to just be going wherever the wind leads him in this passage—takes Michal away from her husband Paltiel to send her back to David. Paltiel follows after Michal for quite a way, weeping, before Abner sends him home.
Abner then follows some more concrete steps to deliver the rest of the kingdom to David:
Abner conferred with the elders of Israel and said, “For some time you have wanted to make David your king. Now do it! For the LORD promised David, ‘By my servant David I will rescue my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines and from the hand of all their enemies.’”
Abner also spoke to the Benjamites in person. Then he went to Hebron to tell David everything that Israel and the whole tribe of Benjamin wanted to do. When Abner, who had twenty men with him, came to David at Hebron, David prepared a feast for him and his men. Then Abner said to David, “Let me go at once and assemble all Israel for my lord the king, so that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may rule over all that your heart desires.” So David sent Abner away, and he went in peace.
As I say, a lot of politics going on in this passage! Past history coming back into the story (such as with Michal), some bad decisions being made (such as with Ish-Bosheth accusing Abner of what is essentially treason), and David seemingly just taking advantage of the situation. I think David asking for Michal back as his wife is more about politics and consolidating power than it is about love, but hey, maybe I’m wrong about that.
It’s interesting to me that Abner clearly believes that the LORD promised David on oath to give him the kingdom, and yet he’s also doing a great job as head of Ish-Bosheth’s army. (Yes, it’s true, when he and his army have come up against Joab and David’s army Abner has lost the battles, but I read that more as the LORD giving David victory than as Abner doing a bad job.)
So if Abner believes the LORD is going to give David the kingdom, why is he still supporting Ish-Bosheth (up until the point that he’s not)? Does that not mean he’s going against God? I don’t think so. After all, even David himself refused to lift a hand against Saul; though David seems quite happy to take the kingdom away from Ish-Bosheth—who isn’t “the LORD’s anointed” in the same way Saul was—perhaps Abner still feels loyalty to the kingship that God had originally put in place, and doesn’t feel comfortable going against the king, even though he knows that David is eventually going to win?
Or perhaps Abner is just taking advantage of the political situation until such time as the winds shift. He’s been able to build up power under Ish-Bosheth’s seemingly weak kingship; perhaps he’s just been taking advantage of that, until such time that he feels he needs to seek power somewhere else.
Perhaps, reading between the lines, when Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of sleeping with one of Saul’s former concubines—of trying to consolidate power for himself—he wasn’t completely wrong? Maybe Abner didn’t do that specific thing, but he was clearly amassing power in other ways…
Wisdom and Weakness
There’s a reading of this passage in which Ish-Bosheth is showing a lack of wisdom: he first makes a rash claim about Abner when he shouldn’t have, but then when Abner clearly switches sides—he tells Ish-Bosheth that he’s doing it, it’s not like it’s a secret—he stops confronting him. It seems that he’s speaking up when he shouldn’t and not speaking up when he should.
To be clear, I’m not speaking of morality here; just wisdom. It was foolish for Ish-Bosheth to make the accusation he made, and it was weak for him to just let Abner go off and turn the kingdom over to David.
That might sound gross, but the idea was that Israelites were circumcised but Philistines weren’t. So by bringing back foreskins, it would be clear that David had killed actual Philistines, not fellow Israelites. ↩︎