Polzin, Robert. David and the Deuteronomist: a Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History


Polzin, Robert. David and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History.

Vol. 3. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993. 3 vols.

1. Variations on ahim: Murdering Brothers in Chapter 4

By the time one finishes reading the account of Ishbosheth’s murder and the execution of his murderers in 2 Samuel 4, there can be little doubt that the Deuteronomist’s constant introduction of brothers (ahim) into events following Saul’s death has central significance in this phase of the History. Despite their long association in the second half of 1 Samuel, David for the first time calls Jonathan “my brother” only at the beginning of 2 Samuel (1:26). As emphasized above, Abner is reluctant to kill Asahel because of fraternal considerations: “How could I then lift up my face to your brother Joab?” (2:22). Abner then invokes fraternity in pleading for his life before Asahel’s brother Joab, “How long will it be before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren?” (2:26). Joab is grateful for these words because they move him to cut short this “pursuit of their brethren” (2:27). In chapter 3, Abner angrily defends his loyalty to “[Saul’s] brothers” (3:8) and at the end dies “for the blood of Asahel [Joab’s] brother” (3:27). Finally, the narrator repeats this charge with further fraternal references, “So Joab and Abishai, his brother, slew Abner, because he had killed their brother Asahel in the battle of Gibeon” (3:30).

Here in chapter 4, we read about “Rechab and his brother Baanah,” who escape after killing Ishbosheth (v. 6)... (47)

Why then does 2 Samuel introduce so many literal “brothers” into its stories? My suggestion, fairly simple yet wide-ranging in its implications, is this: during the life and career of David and beyond, stories of murder and mayhem that are based upon fraternal considerations of a familial nature are frequent vehicles for reinforcing the History’s larger tribal and national concerns. The bloody chaos that envelops brothers (and sisters) within a single royal house or between fraternal defenders of one royal house and those of another is simply 2 Samuel’s reflection, in personal terms, of the History’s central social message about the institution of kingship as a major cause of frequent fratricide on a tribal or national level... (48-49)

The description of Ishbosheth’s death in verse 6 is crucial for an understanding of the following dialogue between David and the murderers: Baanah and Rechab “smote [Ishbosheth] in the belly.” This manner of murder, smiting (nakah) in the belly (homes), looks backward to Abner’s killing of Asahel in 2:23 and Joab’s and Abishai’’s reciprocal killing of Abner in 3:27. Moreover, it looks forward to Joab’s murder of Amasa in 20:10. What is important here is that “smiting in the belly” appears in the Bible only in these four passages and always in the context of an explicit reference to “brother...” (50)

Thus we have a variegated series of capital crimes revolving around matters of royal succession, with each instance in the narrative series progressing toward an ever more narrow meaning for fratricide: (1) Inter-national and Inter-tribal: a non-Israelite, who also doubles for David, claims to have killed Saul (2 Sam. 1); (2) Intra-tribal: Benjamites kill a Benjamite (2 Sam. 4); (3) Intra-familial: David’s own son seeks to kill him (2 Sam. 16:11); and (4) Fraternal (in the most literal sense): Solomon kills his older brother, Adonijah (1 Kings 2). The first two instances concern who will succeed to the throne of Saul; the last two concern who will succeed to the throne of David.(52)

The pursuit of royalty needs to be reversed. The back of Abner’s spear comes out of Asahel’s back (2 Sam. 3:23) just as Eli falls over backward and dies (1 Sam. 4:18). That is to say, the Deuteronomist writes this History for a pro-Davidic audience because, at least in the matter of kingship, they had got things all backward. (52-53)