The Book of II Shmuel
Rav Amnon Bazak
LECTURE 65: CHAPTER 3 (4)
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DAVID AND YOAV
I. DAVID'S RESPONSIBILITY
In the previous lecture, we noted the enormous damage that Yoav ben
Tzeruya's murder of Avner might have caused David, and the way that David
succeeded in convincing the people that he had no part in what happened. But the question may still be raised:
Generally speaking, Biblical characters do not encounter hardship without some
spiritual reason. Why then was David
punished in our story?
It seems that the answer to our question is found in David's response to
Yoav. Yoav argued before David that
Avner was a spy, and that he was not seeking peace:
“You know Avner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive you, and to know your
going out and your coming in, and to know all that you do.”
What was David's
response to Yoav's accusations? All that Scripture says in the next verse is:
And when Yoav was come out from David, he sent messengers after Avner, and they
brought him back from Bor-Sira; but David knew it not.
the fact that David did not know what Yoav was doing. But at the same time it emphasizes
what is not stated here: the verse implies that David did not respond to Yoav's
charges. One might have expected
David to dispute Yoav's arguments, so as not to leave him any room to understand
that he is free to act in accordance with his appraisal of the situation. As we saw at length in the previous
lecture, David clearly had no interest in any harm coming to Avner. At the same time, however, David
apparently did not want to confront Yoav head on, and therefore he preferred to
remain silent. This silence seems to
cast upon David a certain degree of responsibility for what happened, and this
explains the hardship that he suffered.
This apparently is also the way to understand what the gemara had
to say regarding this matter:
R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: All the curses wherewith
David cursed Yoav were fulfilled in David's own descendants. [It is written:] "Let there not fail
from the house of Yoav one that has an issue, or that is a leper, or that leans
on a staff, or that falls by the sword, or that lacks bread" (v. 29) – "He that
has an issue" [was fulfilled] in Rechov'am… "A leper" – Uziyahu… "He that leans
on a staff" — Asa… "He that falls by the sword" — Yoshiyahu… "That lacks bread"
— Yekhonya… R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Thus people say: Let yourself be
cursed rather than curse [another]. (Sanhedrin 48b-49a)
This is a radical statement: David's curses are perceived as having been
baseless, and therefore they fell upon his own descendants! But, according to
what was suggested above, it is perfectly reasonable: David too was partly
responsible for Avner's murder, and when the curses fell upon his own
descendants, David in effect received the punishment that he himself had
II. "AND THESE MEN THE SONS OF TZERUYA
ARE TOO HARD FOR ME"
The end of the story does not make any allowances for David either. David is aware of the fact that after
having convinced the people that he was not connected to Avner's murder, and
that the murder only caused him harm, it might have been expected that he would
punish Yoav for his action. But at
this point David is incapable of striking at Yoav, and therefore he deems it
necessary to clarify the matter, at least within his innermost circle:
And the king said unto his servants,
“Know you not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?
(39) And I am this day weak, and just anointed king; and these men the sons of
Tzeruya are too hard for me; the Lord reward the evildoer according to his
David explains to his servants that he is still at the beginning of his
reign, and that he must solidify his power, and therefore he cannot touch the
sons of Tzeruya.
Though he seems to be saying that practically speaking he cannot do anything to
them, David appears also to be aware of the fact that without their help, he
cannot establish his kingdom on firm foundations.
David's issue with the sons of Tzeruya seems to be very broad, and not
limited to Avner's murder. Indeed,
already in I Shmuel (chap.
26), we noted Avishai's hot temperament, and how he wanted to kill Shaul when he
went down with David into his camp.
In the future, additional conflicts will erupt between David and Yoav and
Avishai. In one of them, Avishai
seeks permission to strike Shimi ben Gera, who had cast stones upon David, and
David says to him: "What have I to do with you, you sons of Tzeruya?"
(16:10). Similarly, when Avshalom's
rebellion came to an end and Shimi ben Gera came to apologize, Avishai advised
David to do away with him, and once again David responded: "What have I to do
with you, you sons of Tzeruya, that you should this day be adversaries
unto me?" (19:23).
We should not, however, overlook the positive sides of the two sons of
Tzeruya, traits that well explain why David could not have established his
kingdom without them. In one of
David's fiercest battles, when the fighting was taking place on two fronts, at
the fore and in the rear, against Amon and against Aram, it was the sons of
Tzeruya who saved the people from utter defeat, with an impressive demonstration
of great faith, on the one hand, and courage and bravery, on the other:
Yoav saw that the battle was set against him before and behind, he chose of all
the choice men of Israel and put them in array against the Arameans; and the
rest of the people he committed into the hand of Avishai his brother, and he put
them in array against the children of Amon.
And he said, “If the Arameans be too strong for me, then you shall help
me, but if the children of Amon be too strong for you, then I will come and help
you. Be of good courage, and let us
prove strong for our people, and for the cities of our God; and the Lord do that
which seems Him good.” (10:9-12)
Yoav and Avishai were both very complex characters, and Scripture
conceals neither their virtues nor their faults.
Knowing full well their positive sides, David could not remove them from
A complicated relationship developed between him and Yoav, one that we shall
discuss again later in the book.
Nevertheless, Avner's murder continued to disturb David until his dying
day, and he never forgot the damage that Yoav caused David when he killed Avner. In his testament to Shlomo, David
says, "Moreover you know also what Yoav the son of Tzeruya did unto me,
even what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Avner the son
of Ner and unto Amasa the son of Yeter, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war
in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and
in his shoes that were on his feet" (I Melakhim 2:5). David emphasizes that Avner caused
harm not only to Avner, but also to David himself – "did unto me." Accordingly,
David commands Shlomo, "Do therefore according to your wisdom, and let not his
hoar head go down to the grave in peace" (ibid. v. 6). Shlomo already has the power that
David was lacking: to strike at Yoav and establish his kingship without him.
instructs Benayahu ben Yehoyada to strike at Yoav, even though the latter had
seized hold of the horns of the altar.
He explains this command as follows:
king said unto him, “Do as he has said and fall upon him and bury him; that you
may take away the blood that Yoav shed without cause from me and from my
father's house. And
the Lord will return his blood upon his own head, because he fell upon two men
and better than he, and slew them with the sword, and my father David knew it
not: Avner the son of Ner, captain of the host of Israel, and Amasa the son of
Yeter, captain of the host of Yehuda.
(ibid. vv. 31-32)
Shlomo emphasizes two points.
First, he notes that as long as Yoav lives, Avner's blood falls upon the house
of David. For the Torah says, "And
no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by
the blood of him that shed it" (Bamidbar 35:33) – and as long as the
blood of the killer is not shed, the blood of his victim cries out from the
ground. It is cast upon anyone who
has the authority to punish the killer, but fails to do so. Now, says Shlomo, the responsibility
for the death of Avner will be removed from the house of David for once and for
Second, Shlomo does not forget to note, "And my father David knew it
not." Decades have passed, but the trauma of Avner's death is still running
after David and Shlomo. Shlomo once
again emphasizes that Yoav had acted without his father's knowledge, and this is
part of the severity of the act that now justifies his execution, even when he
is holding onto the horns of the altar.
III. THE PRICE
Even though we can understand why the sons of Tzeruya were left
untouched, this was still a complicated step, which extracted a certain price. In the end, at least three people
understood that David stood behind Yoav's action, or at the very least, did not
think to punish him for it.
The first two are Rechav and Ba'ana, with whom we shall deal at length in
the next lecture. However, echoes of
our story can also be heard in the words of Shimi ben Gera cited above:
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 you
are a man of blood.” (16:7-8)
Which blood is Shimi ben Gera referring to? Surely there is no reason to
cast upon David the responsibility for the deaths of Shaul and his three sons on
Mount Gilboa! It seems then that he is referring to the story in our chapter,
for Avner was a member of the house of Shaul,
as the Metzudot explains (ad loc.):
As if he
said: On your advice Avner and Ish-Boshet were killed.
Shimi was wrong in his criticism of David: David had no interest in the
deaths of any member of Shaul's house, and he certainly did not directly cause
them any harm. But nevertheless,
David's stoning at the hands of Shimi ben Gera can be seen as a punishment for
his responsibility – if only indirect – for Avner's death, and for keeping Yoav
ben Tzeruya in his position as commander of Israel's army even after the murder
This story is then a sad one, involving the deaths of two of Israel's
army commanders: Avner dies in our chapter – and from the perspective of
Biblical justice, he is punished for his responsibility for the split in the
kingdom and its ramifications; and years later, Yoav is killed in punishment for
Avner's murder. Even David, who
aspired to unite his kingdom through peaceful means, paid a certain price for
his inability to control Yoav and prevent him from acting in accordance with his
(Translated by David