This chapter marks the beginning of civil war in Israel. There had been strains and tensions before, but now it breaks out into open hostilities. As we will see, there are noble men on both sides, and scoundrels on both sides. Life is not always a simple white hats/black hats affair.
“And it came to pass after this, that David inquired of the Lord, saying, Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah? And the Lord said unto him, Go up. And David said, Whither shall I go up? And he said, Unto Hebron . . .” (2 Sam. 1:1-32).
Summary of the Text:
Saul had fallen because he would not obey the Lord, or in other instances, inquire of Him. With Saul out of the picture, David begins by humbly seeking the Lord’s will for his movements (v. 1). Go to Hebron, God tells him. So David moved there with his family (v. 2). All the men who had been with him in Ziklag, and their families, moved with him to Hebron (v. 3). The men of Judah, David’s tribe, came and anointed him king there (v. 4). Immediately after this, David reaches out to the courageous men of Jabesh-gilead (vv. 4b-7), the men who had buried Saul. In the meantime, Abner brought Ish-bosheth to a place east of the Jordan called Mahanaim, and made him king there (apparently gradually) over the northern tribes (vv. 8-9). We then have a comparison of the reign of Ish-bosheth and David (vv. 10-11).
Now it happened that a small force with Abner ran across a small force with Joab at Gibeon (vv. 12-13). Abner proposes some sort of tournament or ritual combat, and Joab agrees (v. 14). Twelve men from each side came out, and they all slew each other (v. 15-16). The tournament erupted into a battle, and it went badly for Abner (v. 17). There were three sons of Zeruiah (1 Chron. 2:16), who was David’s sister. These men were Joab, Abishai, and Asahel, who was very swift (v. 18). Asahel made a point of pursuing Abner, who twice tried to stop Asahel from chasing him (vv. 19-22). Finally, Abner struck Asahel with the butt of his spear and killed him (v. 23). Joab and Abishai pursued Abner until sundown (v. 24), when Abner was able to regroup with his men at the top of a hill (v. 25). Abner calls upon Joab to halt (v. 26), which Joab decides to do (vv. 27-28). Abner and his men traveled all night back to Mahahaim (v. 29), just as Joab and his men traveled back to Hebron the same way (v. 32). When the tally was made, the fatalities were disproportionate in favor of David’s men (vv. 30-31).
Hebron and Mahanaim:
To get a lay of the land, David’s temporary “capital” was about 55 miles southwest of Mahanaim, where Ish-bosheth was located. David’s territory was due west of the Dead Sea, and Ish-bosheth “controlled” both sides of the Jordan north of the Dead Sea. Gibeon was in the border area about halfway between. It is likely that Ish-bosheth was headquartered east of the Jordan because the Philistines made things dicey to the west.
Hebron was an important city in Judah, and had been associated with Abraham (e.g. Gen. 13:18), and was a Levitical city (Josh. 21:13).
The discrepancy between the length of Ish-bosheth’s reign and David’s here is likely accounted for by the time it took for Ish-bosheth to consolidate his reign, and the time it took all Israel to acknowledge David after Ish-bosheth’s death.
Getting to Know Abner:
Abner was a noble character, despite being in opposition to David. He sets Ish-bosheth on the throne instead of taking it himself, for example. Abner was Saul’s cousin, and captain of his army (1 Sam. 14:50), and clearly had the power to make himself king. He was not worried about Asahel killing him; he was worried about how he would face Joab if he was forced to kill him. He and Joab knew each other—having apparently studied at West Point together—but Abner was clearly not cold-blooded the way Joab was.
“I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war” (Ps. 120:7). Robert E. Lee once said that it was good that war was so terrible—otherwise we would grow too fond of it. And of all wars, civil wars are the worst. The eagerness with which the twenty-four warriors dispatched one another was a grim foreshadowing of what was to come. Asahel’s single-minded pursuit of Abner (and glory for himself) is another indicator of how these things go. And Abner’s vain desire to keep things constrained show us another side of this kind of conflict.
How Envy Devours:
Subsequent events will show that not only were David and Ish-bosheth rival kings, but that Abner and Joab were rival military commanders. What would happen to Joab if someone of Abner’s caliber came over to David’s side? Joab knew the answer to that question, and he acted accordingly. He was shrewd, but still a fool.
When John the Baptist gave way to Jesus, he said that Christ would increase, and the he would decrease. Jesus taught us to defer to one another, to take the lowest seat, to become the servant of all. But in countless situations, we still jockey for position, we still throw elbows. We would rather be the biggest frog in the smallest pond than to have much more than we do and be the seventeenth biggest frog in the biggest pond. If there were a button in front of you that would make you, a poor person, and all other poor people in the world, twice as well-off, but it would also make every rich person five times better off, would you push it?
This is not just a matter of income, or status, or military power. James asks us to figure out where conflicts in our midst come from (Jas. 4:1-7). Do they not come from desire that wars within our members?
Because of this, many would rather be a Joab—a wrong man on the right side—than an Abner, a right man on the wrong side. This is because we are trying to write the narrative of the world in big block letters, and we want it to shake out simplistically. There are, of course, two other options, but never become the kind of person who hides personal sin behind a righteous cause.