1 In the course of time, David inquired of the LORD. “Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?” he asked.
The LORD said, “Go up.”
David asked, “Where shall I go?”
“To Hebron,” the LORD answered.
2 So David went up there with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. 3David also took the men who were with him, each with his family, and they settled in Hebron and its towns. 4 Then the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.
When David was told that it was the men from Jabesh Gilead who had buried Saul, 5 he sent messengers to them to say to them, “The LORD bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him. 6 May the LORD now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I too will show you the same favor because you have done this. 7 Now then, be strong and brave, for Saul your master is dead, and the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.”
8 Meanwhile, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim. 9 He made him king over Gilead, Ashuri and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel.
10 Ish-Bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned two years. The house of Judah, however, remained loyal to David. 11 The length of time David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months.
12 Abner son of Ner, together with the men of Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, left Mahanaim and went to Gibeon. 13 Joab son of Zeruiah and David’s men went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. One group sat down on one side of the pool and one group on the other side.
14 Then Abner said to Joab, “Let’s have some of the soldiers get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.”
“All right, let them do it,” Joab said.
15 So they stood up and were counted off—twelve men for Benjamin and Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, and twelve for David. 16 Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his dagger into his opponent’s side, and they fell down together. So that place in Gibeon was called Helkath Hazzurim.
17 The battle that day was very fierce, and Abner and the Israelites were defeated by David’s men.
18 The three sons of Zeruiah were there: Joab, Abishai and Asahel. Now Asahel was as fleet-footed as a wild gazelle. 19 He chased Abner, turning neither to the right nor to the left as he pursued him. 20 Abner looked behind him and asked, “Is that you, Asahel?”
“It is,” he answered.
21 Then Abner said to him, “Turn aside to the right or to the left; take on one of the soldiers and strip him of his weapons.” But Asahel would not stop chasing him.
22 Again Abner warned Asahel, “Stop chasing me! Why should I strike you down? How could I look your brother Joab in the face?”
23 But Asahel refused to give up the pursuit; so Abner thrust the butt of his spear into Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back. He fell there and died on the spot. And every man stopped when he came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died.
24 But Joab and Abishai pursued Abner, and as the sun was setting, they came to the hill of Ammah, near Giah on the way to the wasteland of Gibeon. 25 Then the men of Benjamin rallied behind Abner. They formed themselves into a group and took their stand on top of a hill.
26 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?”
27 Joab answered, “As surely as God lives, if you had not spoken, the men would have continued pursuing them until morning.”
28 So Joab blew the trumpet, and everyone came to a halt; they no longer pursued Israel, nor did they fight anymore.
29 All that night Abner and his men marched through the Arabah. They crossed the Jordan, continued through the morning hours and came to Mahanaim.
30 Then Joab stopped pursuing Abner and assembled the whole army. Besides Asahel, nineteen of David’s men were found missing. 31 But David’s men had killed three hundred and sixty Benjamites who were with Abner. 32They took Asahel and buried him in his father’s tomb at Bethlehem. Then Joab and his men marched all night and arrived at Hebron by daybreak.
Points of Interest
- ‘In the course of time’–David is observing a proper mourning period for Saul and Jonathan before taking his next step.
- ‘Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah’–he’s been staying in Ziklag, his Philistine town. Even with Saul’s death, David’s situation is uncertain. To return to Israelite territory would be read–perhaps rightly–as an implicit claim on the throne. It could be dangerous for him, and it would certainly provoke a political crisis; there are still many people around loyal to Saul. The Israelites are still pretty new to this idea of monarchy; Saul was, after all, their first king. So, his death creates something of a constitutional crisis; there are no clear rules for succession. Does David, as God’s anointed and the most able general, become king? Does one of Saul’s remaining sons? Is succession automatic, or do the tribes vote? They haven’t had to face any of these questions before. A prophet might be able to help navigate the crisis; it was a prophet who anointed both Saul and David after all. But apparently no prophet who could operate on a national level has risen to fill the recently deceased Samuel’s place. So, David is moving cautiously. He certainly wants to return home, and he also seems to at the very least want to put himself under strong consideration to take over the kingship. But he doesn’t want to act rashly, harming either himself or the country.
- ‘To Hebron’–Hebron is a city in Judah. So, David is testing the waters. He returns to Judah, his home territory, and waits to see what happens.
- ‘they anointed David king over the house of Judah’–before Saul, each tribe managed their own affairs. In the vacuum created by Saul’s death, the tribes once again assert some of their independent authority. David’s own tribe, the tribe of Judah, decides that whatever else happens, David is their king. Judah is only one of twelve tribes, but it’s a strong and influential one; so this is a fairly substantial victory for David. It’s sort of like winning California’s electoral votes in a presidential race, except that in this case ‘California’ is saying that their guy will be president one way or another: either by winning the whole thing or by them breaking off and forming their own nation.
- ‘I too will show you the same favor’–David wants them to know that he would not consider their loyalty to Saul to be disloyalty to him. He appreciates their brave act to honor Saul.
- ‘Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army’–besides being Saul’s top general, he is Saul’s cousin. So, he’s probably doubly motivated to continue Saul’s dynasty: it’s his duty to work for the good of his family; and his prospects might not be all that great under a new regime.
- ‘had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul’–when I first read of Ish-Bosheth being ‘taken’ by Abner and made king, I pictured him as a child, too young to assert his own claim, with Abner serving as a regent for him. It turns out Ish-Bosheth is forty years old. Apparently, he’s not the most dynamic person; it’s even unclear as to whether he wants to be king. I guess with his three brothers killed in the war (and where was Ish-Bosheth, by the way?), Ish-Bosheth is the best Abner can muster as a credible Saulite king.
- ‘over Gilead, Ashuri and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel’–Gilead, Ashuri, and Jezreel are places; Ephraim and Benjamin are tribes. I think the author is trying here to give us a sense of the difference between the authority claimed by Ish-Bosheth and his area of effective control. Ish-Bosheth calls himself king of all Israel, but he can only exercise his authority among a couple of tribes in a few areas of the country. We have a split monarchy, with Judah going with David, Ephraim and Benjamin siding with Ish-Bosheth, and everyone else stuck between the two.
- ‘seven years and six months’–David’s patience continues to be tested. When Saul died, David might have thought that his troubles were finally over. It turns out that things are just getting started.
- ‘Joab son of Zeruiah and David’s men’–Joab is David’s nephew, and the commander of David’s troops. So, we have Saul’s cousin commanding the one army and David’s nephew the other.
- ‘twelve men for Benjamin and twelve for David’–twelve is the number of tribes in Israel. They’re symbolically fighting for preeminence among the twelve tribes. It’s a standoff, though, with all twenty-four champions falling, amazingly, simultaneously.
- ‘The battle that day was very fierce’–the idea with a contest of champions is that it lets the armies vent some of their hostilities, while containing the fighting to a small number of people. It doesn’t quite work out here, though. The contest seems to provoke, rather than forestall, a bigger battle.
- ‘Asahel was as fleet-footed as a wild gazelle’–Asahel, another of David’s nephews, is one of David’s famous Thirty.
- ‘Turn aside to the right or to the left’–Abner is trying to avoid a face-to-face confrontation between Asahel and him. If a close relative of Saul were to kill a close relative of David, or vice versa, it would add a family blood feud to the already tense political situation. Abner can’t shake the speedy Asahel, though.
- ‘the spear came out through his back’–Asahel has tragically misinterpreted Abner’s reluctance to fight as cowardice. Asahel may be faster, but Abner proves stronger.
- ‘stop pursuing their fellow Israelites’–things have gotten out of hand: rivalry and mistrust have led to a spitting contest, which has broken out into a brawl, which has led to many deaths including that of one of the key players, which has led to a bitter and angry battle, which could break out into all-out war. Abner is saying that they’ve had enough for one day, and they should let things cool down. For the time being, Joab agrees.
Taking it home
- For you: A lot of time has passed since Samuel promised what the future would hold for David, and that future is still pretty far from actually becoming a reality. David is stuck waiting to see how and when that future will play out. What is something that you are waiting for God to do? How is the waiting going? Talk to God about the things you are waiting for, and ask him to give you the diligence to be patient. How would the waiting be different if you felt entirely confident that God would, in fact, fulfill his promises and was truly going to work out all the details?
- For your six: The match between Team Abner and Team Joab reminds me of the werewolf-vampire feud raging in the adolescent female box office nowadays. It becomes less about what they are fighting for, and more about just coming out on top. Not only can it be a pretty grim way to live, but, as in the case of Asahel, it often terribly backfires. Pray for the ways that your six feel wound up in proving themselves to others. Ask God to replace any ways in which they are grimly driven to earn their worth through accomplishments over others.
- For our church: Pray that our church would always be asking, like David, ‘Where shall we go?’ David knew that God had a road map, and trusted God to very tangibly guide him to wherever he was supposed to be. Pray that our church would place the same trust in God’s ability to lead us.
For families: Do you feel like God has promised to do something for you, but it’s taking a long time for that thing to happen? Spend some time talking together about things you are waiting for and things you really want to see happen but need God to pull off. What is it like to wait? What are ways we could turn to God while we are waiting? Are there any things God might want us to learn or do while we wait?