In this second study on 2 Samuel, we are studying 2:12-3:21. As we have seen in previous studies, David never desired to rush the Lord’s timing for his becoming king of Israel. He consistently refused to harm Saul in any way. And now, even after the death of Saul, he made no attempt to seize the northern territories. But Abner, Saul’s army commander, was not so restrained. Abner had made Ishbaal, one of Saul’s sons, the king of the northern tribes (2:8-10). And in 2:12-17 we see that Abner gathered the remains of Saul’s armies, now Ishbaal’s, and came against David.
That Abner could make such a decision indicates that the Philistines were not doing anything to follow up on the victory they won over Saul at Mt. Gilboa. They evidently were content with their occupation of the lush Miggido and Jezreel valleys. In addition, Abner obviously believed that David was a weaker opponent than the Philistines.
At any rate, Abner brought his army to Gibeon, where David’s troops, under the command of Joab, met him (v. 12). Now you do not want to confuse Gibeon with Gibeah. The two towns are located not far from one another. Gibeah was the town where Saul had a fortress early in his reign. It is a few miles northwest of Jerusalem. Gibeon on the other hand is a few miles further northeast from Gibeah.
The two armies placed themselves on opposite sides of a large pool of water at Gibeon (v. 13). And then they did something that is difficult to interpret. Abner proposed a contest, and Joab accepted the proposal. The problem is how to understand the intention of the contest. Under the circumstances, it hardly could have been for sport. Rather it seems that they were following the same principle that Goliath was following years earlier when he proposed single combat to decide the war between Israel and Philisita. However in this case, instead of one combatant on each side, there were a dozen (vv. 14-15).
The idea was that whomever won the contest would win the war, and many lives would be saved. You may remember that the Philistines did not surrender to Israel following David’s victory over Goliath. And nothing was settled by this contest either. In this situation the 24 contestants killed each other, and the two armies immediately engaged in all out battle. Joab and David’s army prevailed, and they put Abner and Ishbaal’s army to flight (vv. 16-17).
In verses 18-28 we see that as Abner and his men retreated, Asahel a fleet-footed brother of Joab set his sights on Abner and pursued him relentlessly (vv. 18-19). Abner not only saw Asahel coming after him, he repeatedly tried to talk Asahel him out of his foolish attempt, because Abner did not want to kill a brother of Joab (vv. 20-22). But Asahel would not back off. So Abner finally ran Asahel through with the butt end of his spear (v. 23).
That is interesting eyewitness type information. Perhaps the spear was still in Asahel’s body when it was found. At any rate, we will never know why Abner used the butt end of his spear instead of the usual business end. Since the spear penetrated all the way through Asahel’s body, the butt end may have been pointed, perhaps so Abner could conveniently stick it in the ground.
Joab and Abishai, the brothers of Asahel, continued the pursuit of Abner after they found Asahel’s body. The location of the hill of Ammah, where they caught up with him is no longer known (v. 24). At any rate, at the hill of Ammah Abner called out to Joab and convinced him that to kill more fellow-Hebrews would only cause increased bitterness. And so Abner called off the pursuit (vv. 24-28).
In verses 29-32 we see the results of the battle. Joab lost 20 men, counting his brother Asahel; and Abner lost 360.
Chapter three, verse one tells us that the war continued for some time, though there is no record of any actual combat. It may be that a state of war existed with little actual warfare. In any case, we see that David’s military strength steadily improved while Ishbaal’s steadily weakened. David still was waiting for the Lord to give him the go-ahead in regard to taking over the northern tribes. That would have kept him from attacking. And Ishbaal, following the defeats at Gilboa and Gibeon, was likely too weak militarily to attack David.
In 3:2-5 we find a list of David’s sons that wore born to him while he was ruling over Judah in Hebron. This is the author’s way of showing the growth of the house of David. There is a similar list of David’s sons in 1 Chron. 3:1-4. The first two sons were born to the two wives David had brought with him to Hebron. The other four sons were born to wives David had married at Hebron.
In verses 6-11 we see the decline of the house of Saul in contrast to the growth of the house of David. The idea that “Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul” is quite significant. The fact that Abner had claimed one of Saul’s concubines for himself is very revealing. In that culture, a king’s concubines automatically became the property of the king’s successor. Of course that successor was Ishbaal, and that is why Ishbaal protested what Abner had done. It appears that although Ishbaal was on the throne, Abner was the real power. So he threatened to hand Ishbaal’s kingdom over to David.
This was not an idol threat. The expression in verse 8, “Am I a dog’s head for Judah?” was one of contempt. Obviously from the time Abner placed Ishbaal on the throne, he intended to run the kingdom from behind the throne. He may even have thought that the throne might one day come to him. But by the time of this conversation, Ishbaal had become so weak militarily that Abner now believed the nation eventually would be united under David in any case. Therefore he, Abner, was beginning to think that he would be better off striking a deal with David than by continuing to support Ishbaal. At any rate, the threat silenced Ishbaal, because he feared Abner.
Soon after the conversation just discussed, we see in 3:12-21 that Abner followed through with his threat. He sent messengers to David to begin negotiations to unite Israel under David’s leadership. David apparently saw this as the Lord’s timing. He agreed to Abner’s proposal with only one condition. He wanted his first wife Michal, the daughter of Saul who had been taken from him years before, returned to him. Abner agreed to the condition, and Michal was returned over the protests of her husband (vv. 12-16).
Abner delivered on the agreement. He talked to the elders of Israel, including the Benjamites, and persuaded them to accept David as their king. Interestingly, verse 17 suggests that there already was a strong movement among the elders to make David the king. Indeed that may have been a major reason why Abner made the deal.
The Benjamites were a special case, because Saul’s family was a Benjamite family; and they had reaped many benefits from that association while Saul was king. But like the others, they agreed to the deal (v. 19).
Then Abner came to Hebron with 20 men as representatives of the northern tribes of Israel to formalize the agreement. David made a feast for them, and the covenant was established. The passage ends with Abner leaving to set up a celebration during which the northern tribes would present themselves before David to do homage to him as a final seal on the covenant.
Turning to application, I would suggest, first, that it is easy to make decisions that can get out of hand. The example, here, was the decision to have a contest between the two military factions at the pool of Gibeon (2:12-17). The contest, whatever the intentions were in setting it up, got completely out of hand and resulted in an all out battle with many deaths.
Second, it is easy to make a foolish decision. I refer to Asahel’s foolish pursuit of Abner, who was a seasoned warrior. Asahel died unnecessarily as a result of that foolish decision.