1 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 So David went up thither, and his two wives also, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail Nabal’s wife the Carmelite.
3 And his men that were with him did David bring up, every man with his household: and they dwelt in the cities of Hebron.
David inquired of the Lord if he could move back into Israelite territory once Saul was dead. One might perhaps assume this should be a no-brainer, but it is admirable of David to go to the Lord about it and even to inquire about what city he should go to, when the ‘yes’ answer is given.
Of course, where David goes, all his followers go too. It must have been overwhelming to Hebron to receive so many people at once, so David distributes his people about “in the cities of Hebron.” Happily, they were no longer refugees, and they undoubtedly had their goods with them, so the only difficulty would have been finding place for all of them. (Imagine if two wards worth of people were to move in suddenly.) I don’t doubt that David did his best to situate his people and negotiate with the Israelites already living there. His leadership abilities would have been quite clear.
4 And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah. And they told David, saying, That the men of Jabesh-gilead were they that buried Saul.
The men of Judah came and anointed David king over Judah. His skills in battle were known, his generosity with the spoils of war were known (he shared with Israelite cities, even though he was living in exile at the time), his leadership they could see for themselves as well as hear stories from his men. And they would not claim him king over more territory than would accept him.
David wasn’t a man to usurp power. He prefers the common consent of his people.
5 ¶And David sent messengers unto the men of Jabesh-gilead, and said unto them, Blessed be ye of the Lord, that ye have shewed this kindness unto your lord, even unto Saul, and have buried him.
6 And now the Lord shew kindness and truth unto you: and I also will requite you this kindness, because ye have done this thing.
7 Therefore now let your hands be strengthened, and be ye valiant: for your master Saul is dead, and also the house of Judah have anointed me king over them.
David sent messengers to praise Jabesh-gilead for retrieving and burying Saul’s body. This sent a strong signal that he was not the enemy of those who supported Saul, even though he clearly had reason to be resentful of how he’d been treated. Those who supported Saul against David would naturally be afraid of retribution, but David preferred to extend mercy and goodwill, since he knew that Saul’s wickedness had forced a lot of people to do what they would rather not have done to prove their loyalty.
He also encouraged them to be strengthened and valiant even though Saul was dead and there didn’t seem to be a clear leader for them to follow. They could follow him of course, if they wanted to, since Judah had made him king.
8 ¶But Abner the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s host, took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim;
9 And made him king over Gilead, and over the Ashurites, and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel.
10 Ish-bosheth Saul’s son was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David.
11 And the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months.
Abner, who was Saul’s cousin and captain of Saul’s armies prefers to support Ishbosheth, one of Saul’s sons. It is interesting that he does this even though in the following chapter we find him stumping for David throughout Israel on the grounds the Lord had said David would save them from the Philistines and that they had previously wanted David to be king.
We can see from the list of places that Abner makes Ishbosheth king over that this was a progressive consolidation of power over time. Evidently after Saul’s death the confederation of Israelite cities fell apart and had to be gathered up again. With all this, we can imagine Abner would be thinking about how he might wrest Judah from David as well.
12 ¶And Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon.
13 And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out, and met together by the pool of Gibeon: and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool.
14 And Abner said to Joab, Let the young men now arise, and play before us. And Joab said, Let them arise.
It is very interesting that Abner’s army and David’s army under Joab converges on the pool of Gibeon at the same day. This looks a lot like it was planned.
By suggesting the young men play, Abner means that this is to be a small-scale fight, probably to determine whether Judah will be under Ishbosheth or not, so that a large-scale battle can be avoided. Abner suggests it, so we can probably assume Abner planned this out. To me it seems like he is the aggressor.
So what is the result?
15 Then there arose and went over by number twelve of Benjamin, which pertained to Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David.
16 And they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow’s side; so they fell down together: wherefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is in Gibeon.
So they chose twelve men from both sides to fight the little battle, and no doubt they chose the best men they possibly could.
The scriptures say “they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow’s side; so they fell down together.” In short, they were so strong that they were equally matched, equally determined to win, and they all used similar fighting strategy such that they simultaneously grabbed and stabbed each other. And when all the 24 die like this, the result of the small scale battle is inconclusive.
The field was memorialized with the name “Helkath-hazzurim.” Our Bible footnotes say that means “field of foes,” but other commentaries give a range of other meanings, like “field of sharp swords” or “field of sharp blades” or “field of rocky men,” which might describe the determination of those 24 men to prevail at any cost.
17 And there was a very sore battle that day; and Abner was beaten, and the men of Israel, before the servants of David.
18 ¶And there were three sons of Zeruiah there, Joab, and Abishai, and Asahel: and Asahel was as light of foot as a wild roe.
With an inconclusive small-scale battle, the big one is begun. I have to wonder who started that. Regardless of who started it, Abner and Israel were beaten by David’s army. So even if in a small-scale battle they were even, in a large-scale battle David’s army was superior.
Here we are also introduced to Joab, Abishai, and Asahel, all sons of Zeruiah, who was David’s sister. Asahel is described as a very speedy fellow, and this becomes very important in the verses that follow.
19 And Asahel pursued after Abner; and in going he turned not to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner.
20 Then Abner looked behind him, and said, Art thou Asahel? And he answered, I am.
21 And Abner said to him, Turn thee aside to thy right hand or to thy left, and lay thee hold on one of the young men, and take thee his armour. But Asahel would not turn aside from following of him.
22 And Abner said again to Asahel, Turn thee aside from following me: wherefore should I smite thee to the ground? how then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?
23 Howbeit he refused to turn aside: wherefore Abner with the hinder end of the spear smote him under the fifth rib, that the spear came out behind him; and he fell down there, and died in the same place: and it came to pass, that as many as came to the place where Asahel fell down and died stood still.
Commentators are full of praise of Abner here for all the high-sounding arguments he uses to try to shake Asahel off his tail, and they come down hard on Asahel for foolishly persisting in hounding such an experienced and clever warrior as Abner. Abner warned him, they say, and then he killed him like he said he would.
However, they overlook some very important facts. 1) Abner and his men were beaten. They had already lost. Hence, the battle was in the mop-up stage. 2) Asahel pursued after Abner. Which meant Abner was running away from the battle.
The first argument Abner uses to try to shake Asahel is an invitation to kill someone else and take their armor. That armor was spoils of war. This makes it seem like Asahel’s motive was merely glory and ambition. However, Asahel may have also considered Abner the cause and perpetuator of the battle and thus a target of premier importance. Remove the leader, remove the problem, right? Asahel was right to stay focused on Abner.
The way Abner tells Asahel to “turn aside to the thy right hand or to thy left” makes me think that Asahel was chasing Abner right through the middle of Abner’s troops, from front to back.
Abner’s second argument to get Asahel off him is “wherefore should I smite thee to the ground? How then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?” This makes Abner sound like he’s such a superior solder and he doesn’t really want to kill Asahel, but Asahel is forcing his hand and Abner is so kind and concerned about his relationship with Asahel’s family….
Bull. Again, if Abner is so superior, why is he running away? There is no reason to suggest Abner is superior. And Abner’s relationship with Joab has been adversarial anyway! What does he care if Joab starts a blood feud? Abner has chased them from pillar to post under Saul’s regime. It is all empty words, until he manages to jab Asahel in the gut with the back end of his spear. Clear, but extremely grisly painful death.
24 Joab also and Abishai pursued after Abner: and the sun went down when they were come to the hill of Ammah, that lieth before Giah by the way of the wilderness of Gibeon.
25 ¶And the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together after Abner, and became one troop, and stood on the top of an hill.
Abner keeps running and manages to gather together a bunch of Benjamites on high ground to face the still-pursuing army of David.
26 Then Abner called to Joab, and said, Shall the sword devour for ever? knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end? how long shall it be then, ere thou bid the people return from following their brethren?
Once again, Abner gives high-sounding rhetoric to try and make Joab and his army think they are in the wrong.
“Shall the sword devour forever” – Remember, Abner was the one who started the whole thing in the first place and now he tries to spin it as a grudge-battle, meant as a way to get revenge on Abner and army. It is clear Abner thinks Joab is getting one back at them for all the times Abner and army has pursued David. Abner warns, “it will be bitterness in the latter end,” perhaps thinking of how bitter Saul became over trying to pursue David. He also asks how long it will be before Joab stops chasing those who are really his brethren. They are all Israelites, so why should they fight? Ask Abner; he is the one who started it. Who is really holding the grudge?
27 And Joab said, As God liveth, unless thou hadst spoken, surely then in the morning the people had gone up every one from following his brother.
Joab says that even if Abner hadn’t protested, Joab would have ended the pursuit in the morning. (Of course, Abner will have to take it on faith that is the case.) The army of David is not so vindictive as Abner makes them out to be.
28 So Joab blew a trumpet, and all the people stood still, and pursued after Israel no more, neither fought they any more.
29 And Abner and his men walked all that night through the plain, and passed over Jordan, and went through all Bithron, and they came to Mahanaim.
30 And Joab returned from following Abner: and when he had gathered all the people together, there lacked of David’s servants nineteen men and Asahel.
31 But the servants of David had smitten of Benjamin, and of Abner’s men, so that three hundred and threescore men died.
32 ¶And they took up Asahel, and buried him in the sepulchre of his father, which was in Beth-lehem. And Joab and his men went all night, and they came to Hebron at break of day.
So Joab takes his people home and takes Asahel’s body with them, and Abner takes his army back to Mahanaim. Both of them march all night to their destinations, which gives an idea of how strong they were. After their fighting and pursuing and all, they could still march all night. And we get a comparison body count. 19 of David’s men and 360 of Abner’s men are dead.
However, after all this, 2 Sam 3:1 says there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. Who was continuing this? Abner was in charge of the army of Saul, so it seems to me that he spun his defeat as rationale to fight David, probably making him into a dire threat.
I think it is interesting how David’s growth continues, even after Saul is dead. He doesn’t automatically become king of all Israel; he becomes king of a part, and still has to deal with opposition. All his experience still works together for his good because of his faithfulness. I think his upward trajectory gives us an idea of how Heavenly Father can help us too if we’re faithful.
Another thing I think we can learn from Joab and Asahel’s experience with Abner is how rhetoric is used to cast aspersions on the enemy. We see this in moral wars today. The thing to remember is that no matter what someone says, if you pay attention to what they are actually doing you understand what they are really like. Abner sounded pious and considerate, but he was cowardly, cruel, manipulative, and rebellious.