A Biblical “Game of Thrones”
I only watched one or two episodes of Game of Thrones; it was a little bloody for me. But the Hebrew Bible has its own “Game of Thrones,” the story of King David. King David is such a surprising hero, given the number of things he does that are morally questionable to say the least. He is both hero and anti-hero. David is beloved by God, according to one biblical author, but the bible is certainly ambivalent about him. The word “Satan” is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe David as an adversary. He is depicted as feigning madness in an attempt to avoid the wrath of the king of the Philistines. And he carries oﬀ the wife of a man named Nabal after shaking him down for flocks and herds under threat of violence. His relationship with King Saul’s son Jonathan is touching, a friendship so warm that it is hard not to see it as a love aﬀair, a love that “passes the love of women,” as the Bible characterises the love between David and Jonathan. But he is also an insatiable collector of other men’s wives. The salacious, bloodthirsty and shocking incidents related in Samuel must have shaken the later biblical authors, because many of those incidents are left out when his story is retold in Chronicles. David’s sons were dangerous and rebellious; one of them raped his own half-sister, and others went to war against David to claim the throne. When David was old, he left a hit list of enemies, ordering his son and heir Solomon to kill them after he died; not exactly a forgiving man.
In the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, the character of David appropriately takes centre stage. But behind and around him stand a host of figures with supporting roles in the narrative.
Among the most interesting of them is Joab ben Zeruiah, one of the three sons of David’s sister, a violent and unpredictable man (well, predictably violent, but apparently unpredictable to those unfortunate enough to trust him) who fights alongside David in the battle against Saul, and later is his field commander. For a character who is not part of the chain of tradition of our people, and who represents none of the values that ultimately develop in the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Bible as it traces the creation and development of the Jewish people, we learn a lot about him.
In the period when the forces of King Saul were skirmishing with those of David, Joab’s brother attempts to attack Abner, who is fighting on the side of Saul. Abner tries to discourage him, knowing that killing him will provoke a vendetta with Joab, but he can’t avoid the fight, and quickly and eﬃciently kills Joab’s brother. Later, Abner makes peace with David, who sends him away in peace. Joab learns of this, and sends messengers to bring Abner back. It appears that he does this falsely, in the name of David, otherwise Abner would never have put himself at risk; he certainly knew what kind of man Joab was, and had predicted this possibility when Joab’s brother confronted him. Nonetheless, Joab manages to fool Abner and, drawing him aside as if for a friendly chat, kills him.
Joab is a great fighter and a violent man, whose impulses are held in check only (and not always) by his loyalty to David. When David’s son Absalom rebels against David, David asks his commanders to “deal gently with my boy Absalom for my sake.” Absalom’s rebellion fails and he is caught when his hair is entangled in a tree. Joab strikes him down and has him finished oﬀ.
While David is bewailing Absolom, his army begins to steal away, worried that David’s strength and morale are waning. (2 Samuel 19:6) Joab berates David directly, in a fierce, remarkable display, reminding him that if Absalom had been left alive, David and his supporters would be dead, and that if David went on in this manner and continued to appear weak and unmanned by grief, he would soon have no allies and no army. At this, David gets up and stands silently by the gate, diminished, but still worthy of the loyalty of his troops, and the crisis ends. Neither of these men can succeed without the other.
David then (2 Samuel 19:11) replaces Joab with Joab’s own cousin Amasa. But Joab is soon back in charge, and his oﬃcial position as David’s main commander is aﬃrmed. His treachery is as undiminished as his power; almost predictably, knowing Joab as we now do, he murders Amasa while pretending to draw him close for a kiss of friendship.
Shortly before David’s death, (1 Kings 2:4) he speaks to Solomon, giving him his “hit list” of revenge. In the end, Joab may be kin and the commander of the army, but David is King, and he tells Solomon to have Joab killed because of the murders we have seen him commit, as well as the one he does not mention, the killing of Absalom.
We are told (1Samuel 18:14) of David, “And David succeeded in all his ways, and the LORD was with him.” God grants David a dynasty that will last forever, even if David and his successors violate the law, which they do, repeatedly (they are chastised, but never disinherited.) Joab, however, is neither a prophet nor a king, and thus he is an instrument of history, not a creator of it; there is no divine prophecy attached to him. He is not a protagonist in any story but his own. It is, however, through the portrayal of characters like Joab that the vividness of the story is able to show the reader “man’s creaturely condition,” and thus is one of the reasons that these stories have survived the generations. The picture we are given of Joab includes his actions, his emotional state, his words both reported and in direct speech, his gestures, and even his costume (described by David as covered from waste to feet in the blood of those who trusted him). Time and again, he has the last word until, in the end, Solomon does.
The David story, which functions in the Hebrew Bible almost as a standalone tale, is shocking; full of treachery, very bloody and sexy. As I read it, I find myself saying, “this is in the Bible?!” It reads very much like Game of Thrones, a struggle over a throne that one can’t help but wonder why anyone wants it. It is, I think, this vividness of character and incident that makes the Hebrew Bible, as complicated and varied as it is, ultimately a remarkable literary source. Even if it weren’t “the Bible,” it would be a compelling and powerful read. A best-seller!
Rabbi Gershon Silins