2 Samuel 20: Joab is just not having it

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Now that he’s back in Jerusalem, David’s first order of business is to deal with those pesky ten concubines who’ve been raped (2 Sam. 16:22) because he abandoned them (2 Sam. 15:16). Obviously, they can’t be comforted and then welcomed back into the household! No, instead David shuts them away in a house, under guard, until the day they die.

The fact that anyone would see David as good man or good king when he shows himself, again and again, to be so casual and cruel toward the women subject to his power (and even those under his protection in a patriarchal society) is absolutely sickening. Whether it’s locking away these concubines because of their rape (which only happened because he abandoned them in the first place), or his indifference to the rape of his daughter Tamar, or his questionable behaviour toward both Bathsheba and Abigail, his treatment of Michal, David is outrageous in the way he treats women.

Sheba’s Rebellion

Meanwhile, the unrest continues. The Benjaminites, still clearly put out by the loss of the crowd, produce Sheba, son of Bichri. When he rejects David’s kingship, we’re told that “all the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 20:2) joined him, while Judah remained loyal to David.

David tasks his new general, Amasa, with gathering up all Judah’s soldiers within three days so that they can deal with the rebellion. For reasons unstated, Amasa fails to do this in time – was the task impossible? Did he try to sabotage David’s efforts by dallying because his loyalty remains with Absalom? Did he just fail due to incompetence? The text never tells us, even though the reason behind Amasa’s failure utterly changes how we can interpret this chapter.

Realizing that Amasa does not have this situation under control, David asks Abishai to handle it. Why Abishai, rather than his brother Joab? Some of the commentaries I’ve read say that David is trying to push Joab out because he is still angry about Abner’s murder in 2 Samuel 3:27 (the idea being that Joab had too much power to simply be dismissed, so David is trying to slowly exclude him from the clique, Queen Bee style). Other commentaries claim that David may have been too proud, after dismissing Joab in favour of Amasa, to admit that he’d made a bad call and bring Joab back.

It could also be that, after setting Joab aside for political reasons (bringing in Amasa, who had been Absalom’s general, may have been a move to bring the rebels back on his side), he may have wondered if he could still trust him. Would Joab still be on his side after being so cruelly treated?

Abishai heads out with the Cherethites and Pelethites. Whether or not with David’s blessing, Joab tagged along too. Or, perhaps, did more than just tag along, since he quickly took charge and Abishai falls into the background.

Met along the way

Amasa, still afield, meets up with the rebel-hunters in Gibeon. Joab, in a move that would have Harlequin readers quivering, “took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him” (2 Samuel 20:9), then, during their embrace, stabbed him in the stomach so hard that Amasa’s entrails spilled out.

Joab, it seems, did not like being replaced.

Still, his anger seems focused on Amasa, rather than on David. In fact, the text gives us the possibility that he killed Amasa not because he was replaced by him, but because he failed to rouse the army quickly enough. In other words, this could be yet another example of Joab getting rid of someone who has made themselves a liability to David. And, of course, it also gives us the possibility that David was behind this murder as well – Amasa fought against, David, after all. It could be that David made him a general to assuage those who had gone to Absalom, but had no intention of letting him go unpunished.

Joab leaves Amasa’s body in the middle of the road. He posts a man over it to tell people who remain faithful to David to join Joab – presumably the men in Amasa’s band. Eventually, we’re told, someone decides to drag Amasa’s corpse off the road and into a field, covering it with a cloth.

Joab & co. carry on after Sheba.

The end of a rebellion

Joab chases Sheba all the way to Abel of Bethmaacah, where his retinue has apparently dwindled down to his own clan (the Bichrites). It seems that the claim that Sheba was joined by all of Israel was hyperbolic. It could be that the verse only meant that Sheba had followers from several different clans (indicating that this was not a single clan’s rebellion), or it could have been intended as anti-Israel propaganda.

Joab at Abel, from the Morgan Bible, c.1240-1250

Joab at Abel, from the Morgan Bible, c.1240-1250

When Joab arrives, his retinue knocks the city walls down. Before they can do any more damage, however, a local wise woman calls out to Joab. It seems from her words that Abel had a reputation for wisdom, and was perhaps a place that people would go to for conflict resolution. Given this, would Joab truly destroy the city?

Joab is swayed without any fuss, and offers the wise woman a deal: He will spare the city, so long as they hand over Amasa. The wise woman agrees and, soon, Amasa’s severed head is tossed over the city walls to Joab.

His task done, Joab returns to Jerusalem – apparently never considering that David might be angry with him for killing Amasa, or that he might not be getting his old job back just because Amasa is dead. The fact that he is, in fact, restored lends credence to the idea that David, for whatever reason, implicitly (or perhaps explicitly) condoned Amasa’s murder.

It’s worth noting that, once again, Joab has been used to put down a rebellion. In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins notes: “As in several previous incidents, however, Joab and his brother are the ones who shed the blood. If there is guilt because of violence, it can be imputed to them rather than to David” (p.129).

David’s cabinet

To close off the chapter, an editor put in a note about the composition of David’s cabinet. It’s mostly a repeat of 2 Samuel 8:15-18, though with a few notable differences.

Joab, once again, is listed as having command of Israel’s army (note the name “Israel,” which once again seems to refer to the whole nation including Judah, suggesting a different author/editor from the last few chapters). In fact, this may be the reason for the inclusion of this note – to explicitly show that Joab has returned to his former position.

Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, is still in control of the Cherethites and Pelethites. Jehoshaphat is still recorder. Zadok and Ahimelek are still priests.

Adoram is a new addition, having been appointed as overseer of forced labour. Seraiah the secretary, however, has been removed from the list.

Finally, we are told that David’s personal priest is Ira the Jairite, replacing David’s sons. This may be a reference to the fact that David’s sons have, for the most part, met their ends recently.

Inanna prefers the farmer

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The goddess Inanna is ready to marry, but must first choose a mate. Her brother encourages her to marry the shepherd-god Dumuzi, but she finds that the farmer-god Enkimdu is more to her liking. Angered by her choice, Dumuzi picks a fight with Enkimdu, but Enkimdu is able to calm the situation by promising to give him gifts and, even, to let him have Inanna. And so it is that Dumuzi, the shepherd-god, seems to win the argument and the favour of the goddess.

(Source)

Sound familiar? It should, because we covered it in Genesis 4.

As with the flood story (a Babylonian version of which is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh), we see that bits and pieces of many of the Bible’s stories were floating around in the collective cultural memory before they were written down (and edited) by the authors of the Hebrew Bible.

Genesis 4: Cain and Abel

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We’re now finished with the Garden of Eden and turn to the story of Cain and Abel.

Genesis 4 begins with Adam getting to know (*wink wink*) Eve, and they give birth to Cain and Abel (Cain being the elder of the two). Much is made of their professions: Cain is a “tiller of the ground” and Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (Gen. 4:2). My Bible points out that the story “reflects the tension between farmers and semi-nomads.”

The Offering

The two brothers decide to make an offering to God, and each gives something they created from their own profession. So Abel gives the fat portions of the firstlings of his flock, while Cain brings fruit of the ground. God loves the animal sacrifice, but he has “no regard” for Cain’s offering. Cain, understandably, is rather upset by God’s social faux-pas, but God plays that oblivious guy at every Christmas party and tells Cain to just get over it.

Well, not exactly. He says: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen. 4:7), which really just adds insult to injury. Cain is a farmer, and he’s just given (of his own incentive – he’s listed in the story as the first to make an offering, and he does so without a command to) part of his livelihood to God. Worse yet, God tells him that if he doesn’t get over feeling upset, sin is “couching at the door” (Gen. 4:7).

Even very young children know to accept gifts with a bit more decorum.

Back to the idea that Cain and Abel are stand-ins for their lifestyles, I find it interesting that God seems to be showing preference for the herder rather than the farmer. The implication is clear – being a herder is a more righteous lifestyle than farming.

The First Murder

The First Mourning by Leon Bonnat c.1861

The First Mourning by Leon Bonnat c.1861

In any case, Cain is justifiably upset. Unfortunately, he decides to take his anger out on his brother rather than on God, so he takes him out into a field and kills him.

God comes along and asks Cain what where Abel is. I don’t think we need to take this as a literal question, since it does work perfectly well as a rhetorical strategy to get Cain to confess. Either way, Cain gives that famous answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).

The next bit is rather confusing. God curses Cain, saying that he “shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Thing is, he also says “When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (Gen. 4:12). Tilling takes a good deal of time – there’s a reason that we call agrarianism a sedentary lifestyle! So how can Cain be cursed both with wandering and with having less bounty when tilling? The only possibility I can see is that the land will so withhold it’s “strength” that making his living as a farmer will henceforth be impossible for Cain – forcing him to wander/scavenge. Unfortunately, even this interpretation is contradicted in a few verses…

Cain complains that this won’t work because he will be a fugitive and, therefore, “whoever finds me will slay me” (Gen. 4:14). This is a rather odd thing for someone to say when the only other people on the entire planet are his own parents (and possibly a couple siblings). Even if we allow that he’s merely anticipating a time when there will be many people, it’s still rather silly to imagine that someone who literally has never known anyone outside of his immediate family would immediately think of how other people will react to him.

But God acquiesces and declares that if anyone kills Cain, “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Gen. 4:15), and he marks him to make it official. Cain, who has now been hidden from God’s “face” (Gen. 4:14), “went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). Just to confuse things further, Nod may be etymologically related to the Hebrew word verb “to wander” – adding the possibility that Cain was merely banished to a place called Wander, and not actually banished to wander himself.

Cain’s Line

The next verse is a bit of a shocker, so brace yourself. “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch” (Gen. 4:17).

So Cain not only has a wife, but enough people to warrant the building of a city. I know that Adam and Eve supposedly lived a long time, but long enough to produce the children necessary to fill a large settlement? And where did Cain get his wife? If she’s his sister, there’s no mention of this. It seems that the authors of the Bible simply could not imagine what a world devoid of people would actually look like – they were writing a creation story super-imposed on a familiar world, a world that comes ready-made with people.

And what about that second part, where Cain builds a city? Once again, how does this fit in with God cursing him to wander?

Genesis 4:18-22 is a genealogy of Cain’s descendants. After a couple generations, we are told about the sons of Lamech: Jabal is the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle; Jubal is the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe; and Tubal-cain is the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron (rather impressive given that the Iron Age is still a rather long way off). We can see the obvious mythologising of cultural advance.I’d like to note that Lamech has two wives and this incident of polygamy is in no way condemned. In fact, nothing is said about it other than “Lamech took two wives” (Gen. 4:19).

What we do get is a really weird passage where Lamech seems to confess to murder to his wives. In Genesis 4:23-24, he says:

I have slain a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.

There’s no context provided for this. My study bible says: “An ancient song, probably once sung in praise of Lamech, is here quoted to illustrate the development of wickedness from murder to measureless blood revenge.” In other words, the Old Testament was pulled together in a particular cultural context – one that we no longer have. It makes it that much more difficult for modern Christians to read and understand it, since we’re just too far removed for passages like this one to make any sense. More than that, even among passages that seem to make sense, the average reader has no way of knowing whether they actually make sense or whether the reader is simply able to make sense of it by using their own culturally-specific leaps and assumptions.

I’ve heard the argument made that an intelligent God who truly wants to lead people to himself would never use a book to guide us – and this is a perfect example of why.

“And Adam knew his wife again…”

I assume that we’re travelling back in time after having followed Cain’s line in Nod for a while. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, as a replacement for the son they lost. No kidding: “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him” (Gen. 4:25). It’s difficult to imagine the worldview that sees one’s own children as replaceable in this way. But there you have it…

We aren’t given much information about Seth, other than that he has a son named Enosh. It’s during the time of Enosh that “men began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26). Note, once again, the use of collective language for humanity. If taken literally,  and assuming that Eve is not having litters, “men” should be counting perhaps 10-15 people at maximum. And yet, here we are using language that suggests a collective humanity…

Leaving that aside, my study bible notes that this verse, referring to the “name of the Lord,” “traces the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) back to the time of Adam’s grandson, in contrast to other traditions which claim that the sacred name was introduced in Moses’ time (Ex.3.13-15; 6.2-3).”