With Saul dead, it’s presumably safe for David to return to Israel. Still, given all the emphasis on David as the heaven-anointed successor to Saul, having him just waltz back into the country after his competitor was conveniently killed might seem a little too forward. So instead of telling us simply that David returned, we have to go through the ol’ “he asked of God” bit again. God sends him to Hebron, in the territory belonging to Judah.

When David arrives, he is anointed as the king of Judah.

I’ve guessed before that the competition between David and Saul could well have been once between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the two tribes struggle for supremacy in the Israelite confederacy.

It could also be that Judah’s inclusion in the emerging Israel was by no means a given at this stage. We can see in Judges 5:13-18, for example, that Judah was not always listed among the tribes.

The third option is that the word “king” is used here in the same way that it’s used to refer to the city state leaders (just like Achish is the Philistine king of Gath, the other cities of the Philistine pentapolis each having their own king with no king of Philistia itself). I doubt that this is the case, however, since the bible has so far preferred “elders” to refer to local governments.

David’s (or God’s) choice of Hebron may be significant, as it is associated with several patriarchs.

Once established, David sends his blessings to Jabesh-gilead for their role in recovering Saul’s body. Once again, the point that David absolutely did not participate in Saul’s killing and absolutely grudges the unquestionable benefits he gains through it is reinforced.

The king beyond the river

Meanwhile, despite the insistent repetition that Saul and his sons were killed in 1 Sam. 31, one appears to have survived – Ishbosheth. I’m seeing the argument made that Ishbosheth appears, named Ishvi, in the list of Saul’s sons in 1 Sam. 14:49. However, three names are given in that list and the phrasing implies that it is complete, but 1 Sam. 31:6 tells us that Saul died in battle with his three sons.

So whose hand was I holding?

It’s probably that Ishbosheth is not the person’s real name anyway. According to my study Bible, the name can be translated as “man of shame” (p. 376). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a reference in 1 Chronicles 8:33 suggests that his real name might have been Ishbaal, or “man of Baal” (implying that Saul was not quite the monotheist 1 Samuel paints him to be). It seems possible that an industrious editor, either keen to erase evidence of polytheistic worship from the record or perhaps simply poking fun at this character, altered the kid’s name.

Ishbosheth, whom we are told is 40 years old at this time, is taken to Mahanaim by Abner, Saul’s old commander. Despite Ishbosheth’s age, he seems to be a passive agent in this and through most of the rest of his story, with Abner filling a sort of regent role. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what it means.

In Mahanaim, Ishbosheth is crowned king of Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel. There are a few notes to make about this list. The first and most obvious is that Israel is mentioned separately from the individual tribes and territories. This suggests that Ishbosheth’s rule over Israel as a whole is more theoretical, a claim he clings to though in reality he has no actual authority. Think of Daenerys Targaryen claiming herself to be the monarch of Westeros despite her exile.

The mention of the Ashurites is an impossibility. According to my New Bible Companion, Ashurite is normally used to refer to the Assyrians, and it’s clearly impossible for Ishbosheth to be king of the Assyrians.

The Hebrew text has probably resulted from a scribal confusion of two names, the men of Geshur (an Aramaean state, N of Gilead) and the men of Asher. The Targum reads ‘men of Asher’, probably correctly, while the Syriac and Vulgate have Geshurites. (p.303)

Having his capitol be in Mahanaim, to the east of the Jordan river, represents a retreat. That area has so far always been a sort of borderlands, a dubious inclusion in the territory assigned to Israel. But with the Philistines pushing from the west, it may have been the only viable location for a capitol.

It seems likely that Ishbosheth is only really ruling Gilead, that Israel belongs to him only in theory, and that the other groups mentioned merely swore fealty to him but likely retain most, if not all, of their own sovereignty.

We are told that Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for only two years, and that David ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years. This complicates the timeline a little. Since we know that David will be king of Israel after Ishbosheth, it leaves five years unaccounted for (either before or after Ishbosheth’s reign). One possible explanation is that David ruled Judah from Hebron for two years, then maintained it as his capitol after being crowned king of Israel for a further five and a half before moving to Jerusalem.

Play gone wrong

For reasons that are never explained, Abner (as Ishbosheth’s representative) meets Joab son of Zeruiah (as David’s representative) at the pool of Gibeon, yelling at each other from either side of the water. They have each brought 12 champions, which they set on each other in a kind of mock battle.

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

Unfortunately, all 24 champions kill each other, leading to the place of their fighting being renamed Helkath-hazzurim, or “the field of the sword edges.”

It could be that this mock battle was intended as a representative battle, like the one that Goliath proposed in 1 Samuel 17:10. Unfortunately, with all the champions dead, it results in a tie. It seems that with no resolution to decide the issue, David and Ishbosheth’s armies all fall on each other.

This is all guesswork because the narrative really isn’t clear about what’s going on, and it’s never indicated what they are even fighting over. Though, I suppose the easiest conclusion we can draw is the house of David and the house of Saul are engaging in open conflict over the Israelite crown (which gives the lie to the idea that David is passively given the crown by God and country).

According to Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic, it could be that the use of 12 men on each side could be a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes engaged in a civil war.

Once the conflict devolves into a large-scale battle, the followers of David are victorious and Abner flees. Joab’s brother, Asahel, takes off in pursuit.

Abner first tries to tempt Asahel into letting him escape, telling him to go scavenge some bodies for spoils instead. Asahel is not dissuaded and the chase continues. Next comes the scare tactic, with Abner saying that he has no desire to kill Asahel (and thereby become the enemy of Asahel’s brother), but Asahel doesn’t listen.

Finally, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, piercing Asahel through and killing him. Abner’s intent isn’t clear, and the Hebrew noun translated “butt” is apparently uncertain. It seems, however, that there’s at least a possibility that Abner merely meant to hit Asahel, perhaps to make him fall or at least stagger him long enough for Abner to get away, and that Asahel’s death was accidental.

Asahel’s brother, Joab, continues the pursuit along with their other brother, Abishai. You remember Abishai as David’s companion when he sneaks into the Israelite camp to steal Saul’s spear in 1 Sam. 26:6-9. In that story, Abishai tried to convince David to kill Saul while he had the chance, but David magnanimously refused. It seems that this bloodlust runs in the family.

So Joab and Abishai are pursuing Abner, intending to kill him and avenge their brother. Finally, Abner is joined by a Benjaminite army and, perhaps feeling a little more confident with the backing, turns to face the two brothers. He calls them out with a fantastic verse that just gives my chills:

Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren? (2 Sam. 2:26)

Joab insists that they were only planning to chase him a little longer anyway, but he backs down.

Now free from his pursuers, Abner travels without rest back to Mahanaim. Joab returns to the scene of the battle and does a body count, finding a total of 20 dead on David’s side and 360 dead on Abner’s side. After stopping to bury Asahel at Bethlehem, Joab and Abishai head back to Hebron right quick.