Joab, Anti-Hero

My favorite character from II Samuel is Joab.  This is a hero for the 21st century!

Joab is David’s right hand man throughout the trials and tribulations of II Samuel.  When something needs to get done, Joab is your man.  He does not qualify as one of David’s “Thirty”—his mighty men of valor—but instead commands the armies of Israel.  He is the cunning strategist willing to pay the price for victory.  He is the loyal soldier who wants Israel and the house of David to be strong.

For Joab, “the price for victory” can be anything.  So can the conditions for victory!  He is fully committed to playing the villain so that the good guys can win.  If ever there was a means to worry over, Joab could find the end to justify it.

Obviously Villain

Joab ambushes and murders the noble warrior Abner as he leaves the court of David.  Abner had been the sole force propping up the fading house of Saul; after his honor was impugned Abner concluded a peace agreement with David which forecasted the end of the war between their houses.  But Abner had, in the previous hostilities, slain Joab’s brother Asahel when the latter refused to break off the fighting.  Asahel’s death was a sad but guiltless casualty of war…to everyone except Joab.  Family ties being his apex ethical norm, Joab murdered Abner.

What fascinates me is that David curses Joab and his family for making him into an oath-breaker…but Joab remains commander of David’s armies.  He is the indispensable heavy, the enforcer who does the dirty work so the boss can keep his hands clean.  It is some insight into David’s character that he finds Joab repellent but does not dispose of him.

When David gets a girl in trouble and decides to off her husband, he gives the odious task to Joab.  Joab actually improves upon David’s plan—murder ain’t no game for amateurs—and takes care of the loose end.  He out-maneuvers David, who tries to put Joab in the cross hairs for the deed in case anyone asks any questions, but he also remains scrupulously loyal to his fallen lord.

When David orders that his rebellious son be spared in the battle to reclaim his throne, Joab makes another “improvement.”  He goes to extraordinary lengths to murder and then cover up the murder of Absalom.  He masterfully manipulates the fog of war so that David always believes Absalom died fighting to the death in a mad melee, then builds him a monument and plays the reluctant victor.

And finally, after the civil war with Absalom, Joab gets one more chance to show his true colors.  When the new general, Amasa, fails to execute David’s orders in timely fashion, Joab murders him and gets the job done himself.  It is a perfect convergence of Joab’s devotion and moral failing: he punishes the dangerously incompetent Amasa for failing to protect Israel and do his lord’s bidding, while at the same time murdering the man who stole his job and ultimately taking it back.  Better still, he leaves Amasa to gutted on the side of the road.  Savage.

And Yet…Hero?

Despite his savagery and moral indifference, Joab is a true believer in David and the house of Israel.  He is one of the very few constants in David’s life who always, without question, without hesitation, supports his lord.  It’s never entirely clear if this is because of a personal, familial loyalty to David or because he thinks David is good for Israel.  We never get to see him forced to choose between those two, but my sense of things by the end of the story is that Joab would never, for any reason whatsoever, betray David the way Abner betrayed Ishbosheth.

He wages wars, sure, and he does so extremely well.  He never takes the credit for the victories and even goes out of his way to make sure that David always does.  But he also covers up David’s crime against Uriah by making sure that no one asks questions about the circumstances of Uriah’s death.  He—precious few are the others—remains by David’s side even in the exile from Absalom’s coup.

When the time comes for the redeemed David to return to the throne, there is Joab by his side.  When David is lost in his grief over the death of Absalom, there is Joab telling him to get up and do his job as king.  When David takes the generalship from Joab and awards it to Amasa—the same Amasa who supported Absalom and led his armies against David—Job accepts the demotion and continues to serve.  Sure, he murders the guy later and takes his job back.  How many soldiers would have bothered to stick around with a lump of pride stuck in their throat?

Joab has two surprising moments in the book that really bring him to life.  Against the pattern sketched out above are two episodes where he seems to play against type, out of character, defying expectations.

When Absalom languishes in exile in Geshur, it is Joab who arranges for the intervention that ultimately leads to David bringing home his son.  Joab as peacemaker?  Didn’t see that one coming!  Perhaps it makes sense in terms of Joab’s absolute devotion to family.  Or again perhaps we can see some machination in it, since Absalom was David’s heir at that point.  Does bringing him home and reconciling the two help Israel’s succession?  Maybe.  Never mind that it doesn’t work.  But it seems quite counter to what we see of him before and after—a surprising tenderness of heart.

The second is an awareness of divine law and disfavor.  When David sets his mind on a census to turn Israel into a war machine, it is Joab who most stands to benefit.  Commander of the armies of Israel with more troops?  A standing army to train and employ throughout the region?  Make peace with the edge of the sword and extend the influence of Israel?  Right up your alley, Joab!

And yet it is Joab who puts on the brakes and tries to get David to see reason.  “May God increase our people by so much again before the end of your reign…but don’t do this!”  The Law forbids David’s action precisely to prevent Israel from becoming a war machine with warmonger kings and it is Joab who acts as the conscience of the people to bring David back from this mistake.  Even knowing the penalty to follow for all the people, it is still a surprising stand on principle for David’s enforcer.

A Bitter End

Joab’s compelling moral ambiguity is immortalized by his surprising end in I Kings.  The curse that David leveled on him way back in II Samuel 3 is not softened by Joab’s long service nor lifted by his loyalty.  On his death bed David insists that his son and heir “take care of” his few remaining enemies…Joab among them.  Perhaps David suspected him of Absalom’s death after all?

Once David goes to sleep with his fathers, Solomon dispatches his own “Joab,” Benaiah, to put an end to the son of Zeruiah.  Joab rushes to the horns of the ark in Jerusalem—a less sincere religious conversion the world has likely never seen—and attempts to beg for his life.  Benaiah, under the remorseless orders of Solomon, drags him from the divine presence and ends his fascinating, awful, dangerously seductive life.

Joab, the hero Israel deserves/needs.  Read more Old Testament.

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