Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 3:1, 6-39, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 2.
Note: The Explore the Bible curriculum has a narrower focus on 2 Sam 3:8-21. I have expanded the lesson to include most of chapter 3 in order to put 3:8-21 in context.
David’s claim to the throne is strengthened when Abner, a military commander under Ish-bosheth, defects and strikes a deal. David’s commander, Joab, however, takes matters into his own hands and kills Abner. This is an act of treachery that David must address quickly and wisely to keep good relations with Abner’s former people.
The passage is applicable today because it prompts us to reflect on how God’s providence can work through conflict and sin and what to do when events spin out of our control.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
1 The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time. David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker.
3:1 gives us important background for the story at hand. David and Ish-Bosheth (Saul’s son) are rival claimants to the throne who are engaged in a lengthy civil war. As the war goes on, David’s power and influence increases, while Ish-bosheth’s wains.
6 During the war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner had been strengthening his own position in the house of Saul. 7 Now Saul had had a concubine named Rizpah daughter of Aiah. And Ish-Bosheth said to Abner, “Why did you sleep with my father’s concubine?”
8 Abner was very angry because of what Ish-Bosheth said. So he answered, “Am I a dog’s head—on Judah’s side? This very day I am loyal to the house of your father Saul and to his family and friends. I haven’t handed you over to David. Yet now you accuse me of an offense involving this woman!
As the civil war progressed, Abner cemented his influence and place in the Ish-Bosheth camp (Ish-Bosheth, being Saul’s son, is the head of “Saul’s house”) even as it became apparent that he was fighting for the losing side. At some point along the way, Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of sleeping with Rizpah, Saul’s concubine. In response, Abner takes great offense to being thus accused, arguing that he has been a loyal subject.
We can take Ish-Bosheth’s accusation in one of three ways:
- Abner slept with Rizpah as a way of appropriating Saul’s authority for himself. Doing so would have been an act of treason, as it undercut Ish-Bosheth’s own authority. (For more on this, see ETB, 26.)
- Abner and Rizpah were romantically involved, and Abner did not mean for their relationship to be seen as a challenge to the throne.
- Ish-Bosheth was either mistaken or falsely accused Abner to undercut Abner’s growing influence. Notice that the text never explicitly says that Abner slept with Rizpah.
While many sources agree with number 1, I am not so sure for two reasons. First, if Abner really was gunning for the throne, it would be strange for him to cede authority to David, as he does later in the chapter. Second, Abner holds up his loyalty in response to Ish-Bosheth’s accusation. Of course, Abner may just be lying here, but he can also be understood as being sincere.
For my own part, I suspect that number 3 is closer to the truth of the matter, once again for two reasons. First, the text never actually says that Abner slept with Rizpah. Second, Abner seems to take offense to being accused of impropriety rather than being justly caught.
In the end, not very much hinges on how we understand what exactly happened between Abner and Ish-Bosheth. The important thing is that, whatever happened, a rift was created between Ish-Bosheth and the commander of his army.
9 May God deal with Abner, be it ever so severely, if I do not do for David what the Lord promised him on oath 10 and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David’s throne over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beersheba.” 11 Ish-Bosheth did not dare to say another word to Abner, because he was afraid of him.
Here we see the extent of Abner’s influence over Ish-Botheth’s camp. In the previous section he implied that he had the power to hand Ish-Bosheth over to David (v. 8). Now, in light of the rift between Ish-Bosheth and himself, Abner decides to do just that. Note here that Abner is aware that David had a divine (though not a blood) claim to the throne. This was public knowledge, and it seems that his disagreement with Ish-Bosheth pushed Abner over to David’s side. In response, Ish-Bosheth remains silent due to fear.
12 Then Abner sent messengers on his behalf to say to David, “Whose land is it? Make an agreement with me, and I will help you bring all Israel over to you.”
13 “Good,” said David. “I will make an agreement with you. But I demand one thing of you: Do not come into my presence unless you bring Michal daughter of Saul when you come to see me.” 14 Then David sent messengers to Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, demanding, “Give me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to myself for the price of a hundred Philistine foreskins.”
15 So Ish-Bosheth gave orders and had her taken away from her husband Paltiel son of Laish. 16 Her husband, however, went with her, weeping behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go back home!” So he went back.
Abner first reaches out to David via messengers. This is a smart move considering he is one of David’s primary enemies! David agrees to “make covenant” with Abner, meaning that he will enter into a binding agreement with him. David requires one concession before proceeding, however. Before he will meet with Abner in person, David requires that Michal, the daughter of Saul (to whom he was married), be returned to him. Here’s how Michal’s story has played out to this point:
- We are told that Michal loves David. (1 Sam 18:20)
- Saul promises to give Michal to David in marriage for the price of “100 Philistine foreskins.” The idea here is that Saul is hoping that David will die as he fights for the right to marry Michal. (1 Sam 18:20-25)
- Saul gives Michal to David in marriage after David makes good on the “bride price.” (1 Sam 18:26-30)
- Michal helps David escape after Saul tries to kill him. (1 Sam 19:1-17)
o At this point, David and Michal are separated from one another.
- Saul gives Michal to Paltiel even though she is David’s wife. While the text doesn’t say why Saul does this, it would seem that he is trying to remove any claim that David might have to the throne through Saul’s own family. (1 Sam 25:44)
As John Goldingay has described her, Michal is a “political football passed from one man to another.” As such, her story is something of a tragedy. Unfortunately, we are rarely given insight into Michal’s thoughts on all of this. Nor do we know David’s motivation in demanding Michal’s return to his side. Though he may be acting out of love, it is just as plausible (if not more so) that David is acting politically. After all, having Michal as his wife gives him some legitimacy with those who support the house of Saul. Moreover, while we are told in 1 Sam that Michal loves David, we are never told that David loves her in return. What we can say with certainty is that Michal and her current husband, Paltiel, have been caught up in the political machine, and a truly heartbreaking scene is the result. Paltiel follows Michal until he is ordered by Abner to go home. He weeps every step of the way.
It may seem odd here that David demands that Abner return Michal to him and then sends this same demand to Ish-Bosheth. Abner, it seems, is pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure that David’s demand is met.
17 Abner conferred with the elders of Israel and said, “For some time you have wanted to make David your king. 18 Now do it! For the Lord promised David, ‘By my servant David I will rescue my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines and from the hand of all their enemies.’”
19 Abner also spoke to the Benjamites in person. Then he went to Hebron to tell David everything that Israel and the whole tribe of Benjamin wanted to do. 20 When Abner, who had twenty men with him, came to David at Hebron, David prepared a feast for him and his men. 21 Then Abner said to David, “Let me go at once and assemble all Israel for my lord the king, so that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may rule over all that your heart desires.” So David sent Abner away, and he went in peace.
After securing Michal for David, Abner moves to do the same with the people of Israel (minus, of course, the tribe of Judah, which already follows David). Note here that most of the tribes take little convincing. As he meets with the elders of each, he says that they have wanted to go over to David’s side “for some time.” Ish-Bosheth has already lost the confidence of his people. Now Abner capitalizes on this sentiment to sway their loyalty.
The Benjamites, however, are a different matter. Because Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, the Benjamites will take more convincing before ceding authority to David. Abner makes sure to handle this potentially thorny issue in person.
Abner then meets with David, who lays out a feast, and leaves in peace to rally Israel to David. It is at this feast that Abner officially calls David his “lord and king.”
22 Just then David’s men and Joab returned from a raid and brought with them a great deal of plunder. But Abner was no longer with David in Hebron, because David had sent him away, and he had gone in peace. 23 When Joab and all the soldiers with him arrived, he was told that Abner son of Ner had come to the king and that the king had sent him away and that he had gone in peace.
24 So Joab went to the king and said, “What have you done? Look, Abner came to you. Why did you let him go? Now he is gone! 25 You know Abner son of Ner; he came to deceive you and observe your movements and find out everything you are doing.”
26 Joab then left David and sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern at Sirah. But David did not know it. 27 Now when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into an inner chamber, as if to speak with him privately. And there, to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel, Joab stabbed him in the stomach, and he died.
Joab is the commander of David’s army, and he is not pleased to learn that Abner has met with David and that David let him go “in peace.” Though Joab asserts that he is concerned that Abner is spying on David rather than defecting to David, we find in v. 27 that Joab is also driven by a family grudge. Abner killed his brother in a battle in 2 Sam 2. Now he gets his revenge by murdering Abner under false pretenses. Joab does all of this behind David’s back.
28 Later, when David heard about this, he said, “I and my kingdom are forever innocent before the Lord concerning the blood of Abner son of Ner. 29 May his blood fall on the head of Joab and on his whole family! May Joab’s family never be without someone who has a running sore or leprosy or who leans on a crutch or who falls by the sword or who lacks food.”
30 (Joab and his brother Abishai murdered Abner because he had killed their brother Asahel in the battle at Gibeon.)
31 Then David said to Joab and all the people with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and walk in mourning in front of Abner.” King David himself walked behind the bier. 32 They buried Abner in Hebron, and the king wept aloud at Abner’s tomb. All the people wept also.
33 The king sang this lament for Abner:
“Should Abner have died as the lawless die?
34 Your hands were not bound, your feet were not fettered.
You fell as one falls before the wicked.”
And all the people wept over him again.
35 Then they all came and urged David to eat something while it was still day; but David took an oath, saying, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I taste bread or anything else before the sun sets!”
36 All the people took note and were pleased; indeed, everything the king did pleased them. 37 So on that day all the people there and all Israel knew that the king had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner.
38 Then the king said to his men, “Do you not realize that a commander and a great man has fallen in Israel this day? 39 And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me. May the Lord repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!”
David must now clean up the mess that Joab has made. Remember that Abner has been acting as the mediator between David and Israel. Now Abner is dead at the hands of David’s military commander. If David is not careful, he himself will be implicated in Joab’s treachery.
So, David moves swiftly to contain the situation. First, he proclaims himself innocent and pronounces a curse on Joab’s house. Second, he honors Abner publicly through a song of lament and a mandatory funeral procession (even Joab has to honor Abner by escorting his body to the tomb). Third, David fasts until sunset on the day of Abner’s burial. In all of this, David sends the right messages, as “All the people took note and were pleased … and all Israel knew that the king had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner.”
While David is definitely dealing with the optics of Abner’s murder, this does not mean that he had no personal grief in the matter. As Walter Brueggemann says, “We need not doubt David’s genuine respect for Abner, but the funeral is also a media event.” A king, as with most leaders, must deal with matters on both personal and organizational/systemic levels.
Interestingly, David does not punish Joab. Instead, he leaves any punishment to God. The stated reason for this is that “these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me.” Apparently, David is not in a position to challenge his top general.
Notes for Teaching
Let’s face it. 2 Sam 3 is a tough section to teach from. Rather than showing glowing examples of integrity and grace, it presents us with in-fighting, betrayal, and murder. These themes seem more appropriate to a popular movie than a Sunday School class! So, what do we focus on after telling the story? I think there are three themes worth tackling.
First, 2 Sam 3 gives us a picture of how God’s purpose can be worked through human drama. We know from 1 Sam 16 that God intends to make David king. In 2 Sam 3, we see that David becomes king through a messy process. Even though much of what transpires in this chapter is not worthy of emulation, God’s will is still ultimately done. This is the great mystery of providence – we often see that God was present and active in the moments when everything was coming apart. Be careful, here, of baptizing sin in God’s will or of making sin God’s fault. Though God works through the drama in 2 Sam 3, the text never says he caused treachery or murder. One of my least favorite phrases is, “Everything happens for a reason.” That makes sin seem like it is part of God’s master plan. Rather, with Paul I would say that God works in all things for our good. He redeems what we humans mess up.
Second, we can focus on the theme of events spiraling out of our control. Notice that David goes from having Israel handed to him on a platter by Abner to having to manage a PR crisis in a very short time. We might suppose that everything should be easy for God’s anointed. The story shows, however, that even when God is on our side we may have to exercise wisdom to deal with events that are beyond our control. David does this masterfully in 2 Sam 3.
Third, we can focus on Michal’s place in the story. Her situation is difficult. The fact that she is Saul’s daughter has made her politically valuable, and people treat her more as an object than as a person. Notice, for instance, that Michal is never addressed, nor does she speak in the story. Rather, she is passive. Thus, she is constantly acted upon and is at the whim of the powerful men in her life. Because this narrative is so troubling in our cultural context (in which women have made great strides toward equality) – and rightly so! – it may be wise to address this theme of Michal’s passiveness directly. The key here would be to explore how Michal’s treatment does not match her stature as a woman made in God’s image.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we know about David’s ascent to the throne? How did he become king of all Israel?
- Would you expect his road to kingship to be easy or hard?
Explain: Fill in gaps if necessary. Also note that David’s ascension to the throne is difficult. It is full of intrigue and betrayal.
Abner and Ish-Bosheth
Read: 2 Sam 3:1
- What does this verse tell us about the political climate in Israel/Judah?
Explain: Explain who Abner and Ish-Bosheth are.
Read: 2 Sam 3:6-12
- Why do Abner and Ish-Bosheth have a falling out?
- Why would it matter if Abner slept with Rizpah?
- Do you think Abner is guilty or innocent of sleeping with Rizpah?
- What does the passage tell us about Abner’s influence in the Saul-camp?
- Why would Abner send messengers to David before going himself?
Abner and David
Read: 2 Sam 3:13-16
- What is David’s answer to Abner’s offer?
- Why does David send a message to Ish-Bosheth about Michal about conversing with Abner?
- What does David mean when he talks about “the price of a hundred Philistine foreskins”?
- Why do you think David wants Michal back?
- What do you think of Michal’s treatment in this passage? (Make sure to let women speak here!)
- How should we as Jesus-followers respond to Michal’s treatment?
Read 2 Sam 3:17-18
- What do we learn about Israel’s loyalty to Ish-Bosheth in this passage? Why did they want to make David king?
- Why would Abner speak with the Benjamites separately?
Read 2 Sam 3:19-21
- Why does David roll out the “red carpet” for Abner and Abner’s men?
- What does it mean that Abner “went in peace”?
Explain: Explain who Joab is and that he was not present during David’s meeting with Abner.
Read: 2 Sam 3:24-27
- What is Joab’s reaction to David’s meeting with Abner? Why?
- Does anyone know the backstory of Abner killing Joab’s brother?
- Do you think that Joab is really worried about Abner being deceitful, or does he just want revenge?
- What political ramifications will Abner’s murder have for David?
David’s Damage Control
Read 2 Sam 3:28-29
- How do you think David felt when he heard about Joab killing Abner?
- What is David doing here?
Read Sam 3:31-34
- What is David doing here?
- How do you think Joab felt about having to escort Abner’s body?
Read 2 Sam 3:35
- What is David doing here?
- Why is David doing all of this? Is he sincere?
Read 2 Sam 3:36-37
- What was the outcome of David’s actions?
Trust and/or Initiative?
- Why do you think God didn’t make it easier for David to ascend the throne?
- If God isn’t making things easy, how must David walk the line between trusting God and taking initiative himself? Are these two things compatible?
- Was God in all of this? How?
- What does this teach us about God’s presence when chaos seems to rule?
- Did God make all of this happen?
- Is there a difference between God working through (or despite) something rather than directly causing it?
Explore the Bible Curriculum
Walter Brueggemann’s 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series.
John Goldingay’s 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone