The Book of II Shmuel
Rav Amnon Bazak
LECTURE 63: CHAPTER 3 (2)
AVNER CROSSES OVER TO DAVID'S CAMP
CONFILICT BETWEEN AVNER AND ISH BOSHET
The story of Avner's decision to cross over to David's camp opens with a
verse describing the situation in Ish-Boshet's house:
And it came to pass, while there was war between the house of Shaul and the
house of David, that Avner showed himself strong in the house of Shaul.
This verse implies
that Avner solidified his position as the strong man in Ish-Boshet's kingdom –
something which, in effect, stood at the foundation of the entire kingdom. In
the previous lectures, we noted Ish-Boshet's weakness and the fact that it was
Avner who established his kingdom. It seems, however, that at a certain stage,
even Ish-Boshet began to feel uncomfortable with the presence of such a powerful
and authoritative person, who was – at least formally – subordinate to him.
Indeed, at a certain point, Ish-Boshet's patience lapses, and he comes to Avner
Now Shaul had a concubine whose name was Ritzpa, the daughter of Aya; and he
said to Avner, “Why have you gone in unto my father's concubine?”
Before we consider the claim itself, let us note the literary device that
Scripture employs: "And he said to Avner" – who? Anyone who reads the verse
quickly is liable to answer: Shaul! Clearly the reference is to Ish-Boshet, but
to our great surprise, his name has not been mentioned for tens of verses. It
stands to reason that by formulating this verse as if Ish-Boshet's name was
erased from it, Scripture wishes to express its belittling attitude toward the
man. Scripture uses this device in several other places, one of which is in the
continuation of our story: "And he could not answer Avner another word, because
he feared him" (v. 11). In this way we get the impression that Ish-Boshet has
Let us now consider the claim itself: What does Ish-Boshet want from
Avner? Are we dealing here with a complaint about Avner's morality or spiritual
values? It stands to reason that the complaint is made on an entirely different
plain. In several places in Scripture, we find sons cohabiting with their
fathers' concubines in order to proclaim thereby that they are the heirs to the
throne. The most striking example is, of course, Avshalom, who under Achitofel's
advice, sleeps with his father's concubines on the roof before all of Israel
(see below 16:20-22). Similarly, we can understand Shlomo's anger at Adoniya
after he asked Bat-Sheva to ask Shlomo to give him Avishag the Shunamitess as a
wife (I Melakhim 2:13-25). This apparently also explains Reuven's action
when he slept with Bilha, his father's concubine (Bereishit 35:22). Thus,
Ish-Boshet comes with a complaint against Avner - he is trying to strengthen his
position through the symbolic act of cohabiting with his Shaul's concubine.
This claim enrages Avner:
Then Avner was very wroth for the words of Ish-Boshet, and said, “Am I a dog's
head that belongs to Yehuda?
This day do I show kindness unto the house of Shaul your father, to his
brethren, and to his friends, and have not delivered you into the hand of David,
and yet you charge me this day with a fault concerning this woman. (9)
God do so to Avner, and more also, if, as the Lord has sworn to David, I do not
even so to him; (10) to transfer the kingdom from the house of Shaul, and to set
up the throne of David over Israel and over Yehuda, from Dan even to
Avner does not deny that he had relations with Ritzpa the daughter of
Aya; what bothers him is the interpretation that Ish-Boshet attached to this
step. In effect, Avner argues against Ish-Boshet as follows: It was I who raised
you to the throne at that critical moment when I could have turned you over to
David. You should have understood and accepted this "arrangement," that whereas
you are the official king, it is I who decides things in this kingdom. I am
comfortable with this arrangement, for I am not Shaul's son as you are, and in
great measure, this is also the best possible arrangement that you could have
reached. Now, instead of understanding and internalizing that your kingdom's
entire existence depends on me, you accuse me of trying to undermine your
reasonable to assume that it is not only on account of this insult that Avner
decides to abandon Ish-Boshet. He certainly already noticed how the house of
Shaul was sinking and the house of David was on the rise. Ish-Boshet's words
served as the "last straw," and for Avner this insult made the situation
irreversible. Accordingly, Avner proclaims in Ish-Boshet's ears his decision to
move over to David's camp and to hand over to him the kingdom over all of
words reveal a negative point about himself. When he declares, "As the Lord has
sworn to David, I do not even so to him," Avner attests to the fact that he is
aware of God's oath to David.
Thus, it becomes clear that in his innermost being, Avner knew all along that
whatever he had done until this point was contrary to the will of God.
case, Ish-Boshet, the non-person, responds to Avner's words with total shock:
And he could not answer Avner another word, because he feared him.
It seems that this
response only sharpens Scripture's negative assessment of him. If this is the
way Ish-Boshet reacts to Avner's words, why did he see fit from the outset to
confront him? Ish-Boshet's inability to understand the situation is a central
feature in the one action of Ish-Boshet recorded in Scripture.
Thus, in the end, we receive a rather negative picture of the two people
who split the kingdom: Ish-Boshet, a weak king who lacks the wisdom to rule, and
Avner, who only now remembers to act in accordance with God's will, and this too
for personal reasons. It is no wonder, then, that the house of Shaul continues
to sink against the backdrop of the rise of the house of David.
In any case, it is clear that Avner's proposal fits in with David's
aspirations. As we saw in the previous chapters, David aimed at unifying the
kingdom of Israel through peaceful means – and here Avner all but serves him a
unified kingdom on a silver platter.
Indeed, David responds to Avner in the affirmative, but presents him with
a single request:
And he said, “Well; I will make a league with you; but one thing I require of
you, that is, you shall not see my face, except you first bring Mikhal, Shaul's
daughter, when you come to see my face.
At the same time,
David directs this request to the official king – Ish-Boshet:
And David sent messengers to Ish-Boshet, Shaul's son, saying, “Deliver me my
wife Mikhal, whom I betrothed to me for a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.”
We already dealt at length with the root of the complicated and
problematic relationship between David and Mikhal (see our lectures on chap. 18
and on the end of chap. 25 of I Shmuel [lectures 36 and 49]). In brief,
we will mention that from the very beginning, this relationship rested on shaky
foundations: Mikhal's one-sided love, on the one hand,
and David's interest to "marry into the king's family,"
on the other. This situation could not last forever, and indeed, while Shaul was
pursuing David and David was wandering in the wilderness, the connection between
David and Mikhal was severed. David marries two wives, Avigayil and Achinoam,
and Shaul gives his daughter Mikhal to Palti the son of Layish (I Shmuel
35:42-44). Now David asks that Mikhal, who had been taken from him without
justification, be returned to him.
Consider that in the two
different requests – the one to Avner and the other to Ish-Boshet – David offers
two different explanations for his request. When he turns to Avner, he
emphasizes that Mikhal is "the daughter of Shaul," and this is
well-understandable; David asks for Mikhal as part of the process that he is
conducting with Avner – the unification of the kingdoms of Yehuda and Israel. It
is clear that the return of Mikhal will strengthen David's standing in the eyes
of Israel, for in this way he once again becomes the son-in-law of the previous
king, and following the deaths of Shaul's sons – with the exception of the weak
Ish-Boshet – David is effectively Shaul's natural heir.
When, on the other hand, he
turns to Ish-Boshet, David presents his demand in the name of justice: "Deliver
me my wife Mikhal, whom I betrothed to me for a hundred foreskins of the
Philistines." In this way, David wishes to emphasize that he does not want
Mikhal to be returned to him merely in indirect fashion, as part of the conflict
between Avner and Ish-Boshet, but rather in manifest manner, and therefore the
official ruler – Ish-Boshet, Mikhal's brother – must take part in the repair of
the injustice that Shaul committed against David when he took her away from him.
There is something missing in
both requests: David does not demand Mikhal's return based on feelings of love,
or even feelings of gratitude toward her. David's requests follow from entirely
different considerations, unrelated to his relationship with Mikhal.
What is Scripture's stance
regarding David's request? The answer to this question may be learned from the
And Ish-Boshet sent and took her from her husband, even from Paltiel the son of
Layish. (16) And her husband went with her, weeping as he went, and
followed her to Bachurim. Then said Avner unto him, “Go, return;” and he
The touching description of Paltiel ben Layish's weeping is undoubtedly
intended to stir up empathy towards him and criticism of David. Even if David
acts out of legitimate motives, the bottom line is that his action involves
injury to an individual.
Moreover, it is possible that David is punished for this step later in
the book. When he runs away from Avshalom, David arrives in the very place where
Mikhal was taken away from Paltiel ben Layish, and there he encounters Shimi ben
king David came to Bachurim, behold, there came out thence a man of the family
of the house of Shaul, whose name was Shimi, the son of Gera; he came out, and
kept on cursing as he came. And he cast stones at David, and at all the servants
of king David; and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand
and on his left. And thus said Shimi when he cursed, “Begone, begone, you man of
blood, and base fellow; the Lord has returned upon you all the blood of the
house of Shaul, in whose stead you have reigned; and the Lord has delivered the
kingdom into the hand of Avshalom your son; and, behold, you are taken in your
own mischief, because your are a man of blood…” So David and his men went by the
way; and Shimi went along on the hillside over against him, and cursed as he
went, and threw stones at him, and cast dust. (II Shmuel 16:5-8, 13)
The parallel between the two stories taking place in Bachurim is evident:
David caused Paltiel to "go weeping" ("halokh u-vakho"), and he is
punished by way of Shimi who "goes cursing" ("halokh va-yekalel");
David caused injury to Mikhal the daughter of Shaul, and in corresponding
fashion Shimi ben Gera cast stones at him, cursing him for the harm he caused
the house of Shaul.
This picture completes the critique of David's step alluded to in our chapter.
Nevertheless, highlighting the weeping of Paltiel ben Layish also
emphasizes the fact that Mikhal did not cry. What was Mikhal thinking when she
was being taken to David? Did she really believe that he suddenly began to love
In chapter 6, we will once again meet Mikhal and see how this sad matter
of the relationship between David and Mikhal ends.
After completing the first condition – the return of Mikhal – Avner now
begins to fulfill the second promise that he had made to David – turning all of
Israel to him:
And Avner had communication with the elders of Israel, saying, “In times past
you sought for David to be king over you; (18) now then do it; for the Lord has
spoken of David, saying, ‘By the hand of My servant David I will save My people
Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their
(19) And Avner also spoke in the ears of Binyamin; and Avner went also to
speak in the ears of David in Hebron all that seemed good to Israel, and to the
whole house of Binyamin.
These verses reveal
another aspect of the split of the kingdom. Avner's remarks to the elders imply
that they had already asked him to set David as king over them; and it stands to
reason that Avner is referring to the period following the death of Shaul. Thus,
it becomes clear that already then the elders of Israel inclined to accept
David's aspiration to establish a united kingdom. Avner split the kingdom not
only in opposition to David's turning to the people of Yavesh-Gil'ad, as we saw
in chapter 2, but also in opposition to the desires of the elders of Israel.
Now, in any event, Avner tells the elders that the time has come to appoint
David as king over all of Israel.
After obtaining the agreement of the elders of Israel, Avner approaches
the "hard core" of Shaul's supporters – the people of Binyamin – and obtains
their agreement as well. He then comes to David with the report that his
proposal was accepted both by the people of Israel and the entire tribe of
Binyamin. David greets him with favor:
So Avner came to David to Hebron, and twenty men with him.
And David made Avner and the men that were with him a feast. (21) And
Avner said unto David, “I will arise and go, and will gather all Israel unto my
lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign
over all that your soul desires.” And David sent Avner away; and he went in
Now, after a basic
agreement has been reached, Avner declares his intention to actualize the
matter: to gather Israel and crown David as king over all of Israel. From
David's perspective, this is a realization of his dream - the unification of
Yehuda and Israel through peaceful means.
(Translated by David