Joab is David’s nephew, son of his sister Zeruiah, who became the commander of David’s military during his reign. As a fearless and talented commander, he was responsible for the defeat and capture of many city-states. He remained fiercely loyal to David until the end of David’s reign. At that point, however, he sided with David’s son Adonijah to take the throne without his father’s blessing.
Joab was a complex individual who often acted impulsively against the King’s wishes, killing three men in cold blood, for example. Yet, he was a key figure in helping David expand his kingdom. He was finally executed under Solomon for his betrayal at the end of David’s life.
Joab’s Early Days
The Biblical text does not offer details of how Joab initially aligned himself with David. However, since he was David’s nephew, it is likely Joab joined David at the cave of Adullam in I Samuel 22 with the rest of his family.
David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him.I Samuel 22:1 (ESV)
The Bible states that David’s father’s house joined him at the cave after he escaped from Saul. I can only assume that when their grandfather Jesse decided to join David, Joab and his two brothers jumped at the bit to join their uncle as well. It is during this time during David’s exile (approximately seven years) that Joab gained the reputation as a skilled fighter and leader among David’s men.
A Natural Military Leader
Before Joab officially became the commander of the army (see 2 Sam 8:16), he was the de facto leader of David’s men second only to David. In 2 Samuel 2:14 , there is a fierce encounter between Israel and Judah. Here, Abner, the commander of Israel’s army addresses Joab as the leader of Judah’s army. This is early in David’s reign over Judah, before uniting the kingdom. Despite having clear command of the army, we learn from the biblical text that his official title would come only later, after the capture of Jerusalem.
Since it appears that David had not officially placed Joab in that position, one can only assume that he naturally took on that role. He had clearly built a reputation for himself early on and Abner, who had been the commander of the military under Saul and later Ishbosheth, was distinctly aware of who he was.
The idea that Joab would rise up on his own to lead David’s men is in line with his character. He was often a man that was willing to do what was necessary to accomplish his own will but also appeared to have an appreciation and love for the men he led.
One of Three Warrior Brothers
Joab is often referred to as “Joab, son of Zeruiah.” When the Bible references a lineage, it usually names the father, a common practice in patriarchal societies. However, since the Bible uses the mother’s name, it brings attention to Zeruiah herself. Little is known about David’s sister, but we do know she raised three fearless, warrior sons. Joab was one of them. The others were Asahel and Abishai, both listed in the biblical text as elite warriors.
Executioner in Chief
Joab was a fearless leader, but he was also ruthless, especially with those that he considered his enemies. In three different recorded instances, Joab took it upon himself to execute three high ranking individuals, all against David’s wishes.
Joab’s Murder of Abner, the Commander of Saul’s Army
In II Samuel 3, Abner strikes a deal with David to transfer Israel (the northern Kingdom) to David (who ruled Judah). Joab was infuriated by this new alliance. Abner, in II Samuel 2, had killed Joab’s brother Asahel in self-defense. So Joab had pleaded with David to no avail and behind David’s back, he and his brother Abishai murdered Abner. David, in his fury, places a curse on Joab and his descendants, but really does not subject him to any other repercussions.
Joab’s Murder of Absalom, David’s Son
When Absalom revolted against his father David, Joab and two other commanders loyal to David defeated Absalom and his army. Prior to the commencement of hostilities, David had given strict orders for his son Absalom to not be harmed. In the melee, Absalom got caught in a tree by his hair and the man who found him told Joab of Absalom’s predicament. Joab proceeded to spear Absalom and killed him against David’s orders.
Why Joab took such extreme measures is left to debate. Joab could have felt that Absalom had become too much of a liability for David and did so to protect the king and Israel in the long run. Absalom had proven to be very problematic for David, distracting him at first and later attempting a coup. Absalom had built a strong following, and getting rid of the head would force his followers to disperse.
It could have also been that Joab was settling old scores. In II Samuel 14: 25-31, Absalom burns Joab’s barley field, a great economic loss for Joab. He did so in order to force Joab to speak to David on his behalf. Initially, Joab acquiesced to Absalom’s demands, but the coup might have proven to be too much for Joab. When the opportunity presented itself, he executed Absalom.
Joab’s Murder of Amasa, The Commander of Absalom’s Army
In what appears to be an effort to reunite the kingdom after Absalom’s coup, David offers the position of head of his army to Amasa, the commander of Absalom’s army. It was a politically expedient move, but it, no doubt, angered Joab. In essence, David fired him. So while David’s army was quelling yet another insurrection, Joab took advantage of the confusion to murder Amasa.
8 When they were at the great stone that is in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Now Joab was wearing a soldier’s garment, and over it was a belt with a sword in its sheath fastened on his thigh, and as he went forward it fell out. 9 And Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. 10 But Amasa did not observe the sword that was in Joab’s hand. So Joab struck him with it in the stomach and spilled his entrails to the ground without striking a second blow, and he died. Then Joab and Abishai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri.II Samuel 20:8-10 (ESV)
Joab retook control of the army and surprisingly, once again, David did not reprimand Joab.
Joab’s Role in the Fall of Uriah
The death of the warrior Uriah is one of history’s greatest injustices. The scheme to murder Uriah was conceived by David, but it was expeditiously executed by Joab. Once Joab received the order, he didn’t question it, even knowing full well that Uriah was one of David’s elite warriors. (This is a little known fact, but you can read the full background on Uriah in this analysis.)
In order to cover his intentions for Uriah, Joab directed an entire unit of men to attack near the city’s outer wall which was in effect, a suicide mission. Uriah was not the only one that lost his life that day (See II Samuel 11:14-25). Clearly, Joab’s loyalty to David at this point was unquestionable and David clearly used it to his advantage.
Joab’s Greatest Military Accomplishments
Despite Joab’s brutal record, he was a brilliant military strategist and highly capable fighter. He accomplished a great feats for Israel and that seals his name in Israeli history.
The Capture of Jerusalem
The well-fortified city of Jebus (also known as Jerusalem) appeared to be impenetrable, but David had chosen it as his future capital. To apparently spur ingenuity and bravery, David promised the title of Commander and Chief to whoever penetrated the city via a water shaft. Joab volunteered and in achieving this feat, he made it possible for David to take the city. (You can find a full analysis of that account here.) Joab would also take the lead in repairing the city after the defeat of the Jebusites. This marks the beginning of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (I Chronicles 11:4-9)
Victory Against Edom
Joab struck down 12,000 from Edom at the Valley of Salt (Psalm 60:1). This victory came when Edom attacked from the south while David and his army were otherwise engaged in the north. (An analysis of these events from the viewpoint of Psalm 60:1 can be found here).
Successfully Defended a Simultaneous Attack from the Front and Rear
Joab was able to repel combined Ammonite and Syrian forces attacking both his front and rear. This is no small military feat. His impromptu decision to split his army into a smaller, elite group to face the Syrians while the remainder of the army attacked the Ammonites, saved the day. (See II Samuel 10: 7-13).
The Capture of Rabbah
Rabbah was a city with natural defenses, but its capture was necessary for Israel to control the entire region. Joab broke through the city’s defenses and captured its water supply. With control of the city’s water source, the capitulation of the entire city was imminent. However, Joab restrained himself from taking the city and saved the final conquest for David (See II Samuel 12:26-31)
The Defeat of Absalom’s Rebellion
Joab helped defeat Absalom’s rebellion, leading one third of David’s forces (while two other commanders led the rest) to victory (See II Samuel 18:1-18)
The One Who Subdued Joab
Clearly, from Joab’s history, few could cross him and get away with it. However, Joab was masterfully subdued and by a woman no less. When Joab was in pursuit of the rebel leader, Sheba, he was out for blood. Sheba escaped the fortified city Abel of Beth-maacah and Joab besieged the city in order to capture him. However, a wise woman intervened and negotiated a plan to give Joab what he wanted to prevent Joab from destroying her city. Joab surprisingly agreed and spared the inhabitants. (Read the full analysis of this account here.)
Joab Excluded From The Mighty Men
Despite Joab’s bravery and accomplishments, he is conspicuously missing from the roll call of David’s mighty men, also known as The Thirty (I Chronicles 11:10-47). This group of highly-skilled, courageous, and loyal warriors, deserve their own discussion (analysis of The Thirty forthcoming, I promise!). However, for the sake of this article, suffice it to say that they were an elite group of warriors who many believe were part of a special forces type unit. Its inception, presumably, was during David’s time in exile.
There are two separate lists with the names of those who were part of this group. One is found in I Chronicles 11:10-47 and the other in II Samuel 23. Joab’s two brothers Abishai and Asahel appear on these lists. The Bible prominently mentions Abishai even though he had a hand in the murder of Abner. Joab, however, is not included. Could it be because he was always either the de facto leader or formal leader of David’s army and by mere rank was never part of this elite unit? Or was it that the treason at the end of David’s reign would have sparked his removal from the highly praised Thirty? It is difficult to know for sure, but certainly worth discussing!
Joab’s Good Deeds
Although Joab could be merciless, he actually played a role on several occasions in helping David and his men.
Helping a Grieving Father Bring His Son Closer to Home
After David’s son Absalom killed his brother and fled to Syria, the ordeal heavily impacted David. Absalom had been away for three years and perceiving that the matter still grieved David, Joab conceived a plan to convince King David to allow his son to return to Jerusalem. He used a wise woman to approach the king with a story that would help the King to see reason (II Samuel 14:1-24). It worked and David gave Joab permission to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem.
As mentioned earlier, Absalom had even had Joab’s barley field burned, but Joab still spoke to King David on Absalom’s behalf. Joab’s intervention prompted David to go see his son after his return to the capital.
Helping David Maintain the Loyalty of His Military While Giving His Men the Honor They Deserved
The death of his son Absalom grieved David greatly. When the warriors returned from battle, they did not return to a grateful king, but a grieving one who had opted not to receive them. Each one returned to his tent, feeling deflated even though they had struck a great victory. Joab correctly assessed that the King’s attitude was demoralizing his army and that could weaken his hold on an already fragile nation. Joab confronted King David with very poignant words.
Unlike his humble demeanor towards David when he tried to convince him to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem, the text leads us to believe that Joab was visibly angry at David for his lack of concern for the welfare of his army (See II Samuel 18:33-19:8). His apparent lack of decorum didn’t seem to bother David who humbly took the correction, composed himself, and greeted his men at the gates of the city.
Joab Attempts to Keep David From Sinning
One of David’s greatest mistakes was taking a census, a task that fell on Joab, to determine the potential strength and size of his military. The matter displeased God and David’s error cost Israel dearly (2 Samuel. 24:1-17).
Unlike the incident with Uriah, here Joab tries to dissuade David from making a mistake. Joab knew and understood that taking the census would leave Israel vulnerable to God’s judgment. However, the text says that “the king’s word prevailed against Joab.” Joab reluctantly followed orders, but intentionally left the tribe of Benjamin and Levi out of the count because “the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.” (See I Chronicles 21:1-7)
Joab’s Final Betrayal
At the end of David’s reign, when he was well advanced in years and his health quickly declining, his son Adonijah attempted to usurp the throne. Adonijah astutely sought Joab’s help as control of the military would be necessary to take the crown. Joab aligned himself with Adonijah while other key figures such as Benaiah (captain of David’s guard), The Mighty Men, Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, refused to do so. Upon hearing of Adonijah’s intentions and Joab’s betrayal, David moved quickly to anoint and crown Solomon as King. The move caused Adonijah to abandon his plans, but Joab’s treachery would finally face dreadful consequences.
Although David never took action against Joab’s assassination of Abner and Amasa, nor of his betrayal towards the end of his life, he made sure to give instructions to Solomon to hold Joab accountable. Solomon did not waste any time after David’s death to remove threats from his kingdom. He ordered the execution of Adonijah and the exile of Abiathar the priest (who also sided with Adonijah).
Joab, perceiving that he was next, fled to the Lord’s tabernacle and took hold of the horns of the altar. Upon hearing of Joab’s actions, Solomon ordered Benaiah to execute Joab. When Benaiah arrived, he ordered Joab out of the tabernacle, but Joab refused, claiming that if he would die, he would do so in the tabernacle. Benaiah sought Solomon’s counsel before proceeding, and Solomon ordered him executed there, in the tabernacle itself.
Joab, a Hero?
Many paint Joab as an evil villain, but that clouds the complexity of his character. He certainly leaves a lot for debate on the intentions behind his behavior, but one cannot ignore his great military accomplishments. And those accomplishments and his ability to rally the men and do the impossible in the face of great odds may have been a reason David was so reluctant to admonish him more severely. So Joab certainly was not a man after God’s own heart like David, but his contribution to Israel’s security during the Davidic kingdom makes him a military hero.