Occasionally I read statements that get my attention. Recently one of these statements that caught my eye was about Joab, the commander of King David’s army. When David asked Joab and his sub-commanders to number the men of eligible fighting age in Israel, Joab didn’t want to: he objects to David’s command on the basis that it would bring guilt on Israel (1 Chronicles 21:3). 1 Chronicles 21:6 adds that Joab found David’s command abhorrent. Given Joab’s character, I found this curious.

There was no problem with a census as such: the Law allowed for them, provided the numbered people paid half-a-sanctuary-shekel tax. However, the reason David numbered Israel was lack of trust in Yahweh, leading either to pride in his powerful kingdom, based on the military victories given by God; or conversely, that the commanders and most powerful warriors in his trusted army were growing older, and he wanted his confidence bolstered by knowing he had large numbers of soldiers to command. In 2 Samuel, a synopsis of the previous chapters shows that, given the past, a census to bolster David’s confidence was unnecessary:

2 Samuel 21 – snippets about how David, and his kingdom, had been defended by his warriors. (Compare this with 1 Chronicles 18-20).
2 Samuel 22 – David’s song about God being trustworthy, and His protection of David.
2 Samuel 23 – lists David’s mighty men. Within this list is the narrative of three warriors obtaining water for David at the cost of their lives.
2 Samuel 24 – the numbering.

This shows the reason for God’s anger at David’s numbering (although 2 Samuel says that God was angry with Israel, which was why He allowed the census): David’s lack of trust in God’s provision and protection. It doesn’t explain Joab’s reaction, though.

Joab was a veteran warrior and military commander of the army of Israel; combining the tactical skill of General George Patton with the ruthless devotion to his sovereign of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State of Elizabeth I (at least, Walsingham as portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film Elizabeth: the Golden Years). Joab was loyal to David (except possibly in one instance), partly because he was David’s nephew, and spent most of his life fighting on David’s side, from the time King Saul sought to kill David, and upholding David’s kingship. He was loyal to the point of conspiring with David to murder Uriah, one of David’s faithful servants (probably a sub-commander of the army). He was loyal to the point of murdering David’s own son Absalom, after Absalom staged a coup d’etat to seize the throne of Israel.

David had told his commanders to treat the rebel son gently but Joab deliberately killed him. This is perhaps understandable when Joab, on his own initiative, arranged for Absalom’s return from self-imposed exile three years before, after Absalom had murdered his brother Amnon, after Amnon had raped Absalom’s sister Tamar. Joab’s motives may have been out of desire to preserve the kingdom of his king, and also out of anger at Absalom’s ingratitude at Joab’s politicking on his behalf. This particular episode shows that Joab was committed to the welfare of the army as well. He called one of his warriors “my son”, and rebuked David when the king openly mourned the death of his son because it dishonoured the warriors who had risked their lives for David’s kingdom.

Joab was ambitious and ruthless, killing at least one person who took his position. This was Amasa, one of Joab’s cousins; however, it could be argued that this was also a political murder, as Amasa was inefficient in putting down the rebellion of Sheba. This was important, as Sheba encouraged all Israel – except the tribe of Judah – to rebel against David; and the importance of preserving the kingdom could not be underestimated. Joab was also not above personal revenge: the instance of Absalom has already been mentioned. His brother Asahel was killed in a time of civil war, by Abner the commander of the army loyal to the dead king Saul. Joab murdered Abner in revenge.

Mentioned 26 times in connection with Joab and his two brothers is Zeruiah, their mother, who was David’s sister (1 Chronicles 2:16). She must have been a strong woman to have been mentioned so many times, and to be included in the ancestor lists, as in 1 Chronicles 2. The influence of parents cannot be understated in a person’s development but a psychological profile of Zeruiah based on such limited information would be mostly guessing. Zeruiah would have been sensible of the importance of her brother being king, and probably encouraged her sons’ loyalty to David.

The Biblical narratives portray Joab as a man loyal to his king and family, and relying on his family connections to protect him from the ramifications of his more unscrupulous actions, such as deliberately killing the king’s son, in defiance of the king’s orders. Undoubtedly it was his previous years of unquestionable loyalty and his power as commander of the army that protected him in this instance.

Given this portrayal of Joab, it seems odd that Joab objected to the census of men eligible to be mobilised for Israel’s army: in fact, that he found it so abhorrent that he refused to number the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. It’s odd for no other reason than that it’s wise for a commander to know how many soldiers an army has. Secondly, it’s perhaps most odd that the reason Joab gave (that is, the Chronicler wrote that Joab said) for not numbering Israel was it would bring guilt on Israel. Joab, the professional soldier, using a religious reason to avoid conducting a roll call? It seems unlikely that Joab was motivated by revulsion against the offence it would be to God. He would have been brought up hearing the stories of his country’s past and her encounters with God, but this didn’t mean he shared David’s devotion to Yahweh. This could explain the reason for his objection to David, but it doesn’t explain why he didn’t finish the census.

The explanation is most likely a mix of the professional, personal and perhaps political. He had been with David since the early days of his military career, when David was fleeing Saul, with Joab both fighting and commanding troops. There was a group of skilled, experienced, powerful warriors called The Thirty (2 Samuel 23 – though there were about 37: there may have been two groups, popularly known as “The Three” and “The Thirty”), who had been with David for a long time, and one reason behind Joab’s objection may have been distaste at having this elite cadre of professional soldiers mixed with farmers and tradesmen who would only be called up when there was the need.

But “abhorrent” is a strong word. Might Joab and the commanders also have felt betrayed? In all David’s military career the army won victory upon victory, and perhaps Joab felt that David no longer trusted their ability to defend the kingdom. Perhaps it was after the rebellion of Sheba that Joab put down, when the other eleven tribes of Israel rebelled against David’s kingship, and Joab was repelled by the idea that such rebels should be trusted as soldiers for Israel, especially after the loyal service to David that Joab and his fellows had provided for so long, including through two coups d’etat.

There’s perhaps a hint in Joab’s method of carrying out the census: he crossed the Jordan and began at Aroer, opposite Jerusalem, and went counter-clockwise around Israel, leaving Judah for last; and at the end, avoided counting Judah and Benjamin, which shared its southern border with Judah’s northern boundary very close to Jerusalem. What do we make of this? Joab wanted to avoid Jerusalem and Judah, who had always been loyal to David. Did Joab want to avoid damaging this loyalty by carrying out the census? There had been tensions among the tribes when Saul died and David had been named king, albeit by the prophet Samuel. There had been a civil war at the start of David’s reign and one incited by Sheba after Absalom’s rebellion, and perhaps Joab felt the census boded no good for the political stability of David’s reign.

What does all this mean for us today? No idea: perhaps it’s that if you’re a king, don’t tell your commanding general, if they’re also one of your cousins and closest associates, and if they’ve committed murder, and helped you cover up a murder, to carry out a national census: unless they’re the guest of another general, after they have a haircut, and before you’ve moved their clothes down onto a lower peg.

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