Before continuing with the account of the decline of the house of Saul, our text (vv 2-5) lists the sons who were born to David during the seven years that he reigned in Hebron . Of these sons, Amnon, Avshalom (Absalom) and Adonoiah all play leading roles in the ensuing narrative of the life of David.

In verse 3 we learn that Avshalom - who was later to rebel against and almost snatch the very kingship from his father - was David's son from Ma'achah daughter of Talmi ("Ptolemy"?) king of Geshur. The rabbis teach that Ma'achah was captured in war (I Samuel 27:8 refers to David's campaign against the Geshurites) and was thus in the category of EISHES YEFAS TO'AR, the "beautiful captive woman" that her Israelite captor is permitted to marry under certain conditions (Deuteronomy 21:11). However, written directly after this mitzvah in the Torah is the law of BEN SORER U-MOREH, the "rebellious gluttonous son" (ibid. vv 18-21), who must be stoned to death. Avshalom is the prime exemplar of the case of the rebellious son born to the YEFAS TO'AR.

The rabbis taught that EGLAH the wife of David mentioned in v 5 is none other than Michal daughter of Saul, whom he betrothed with 100 Philistine foreskins and who was beloved to David like a favorite calf (cf. Judges 14:18 where Samson alludes to his wife as a calf).


The civil war between the House of Saul (Benjamin) and the House of David (Judah) was part of a protracted historical process which began in the time of Joseph in Egypt when Judah stepped forward to become protector and guarantor of Jacob's youngest son, Benjamin (Genesis 43:9; 44:18ff). Benjamin was unique among the twelve tribal founders inasmuch as he was the only "Sabra" - he was the only one of Jacob's children who was actually born in the Land of Israel (Genesis 35:16). Home-born Israelis are called Sabras after the prickly, thick-skinned desert cactus fruit that is so sweet and refreshing inside! The tribe of Benjamin showed their prickly nature in their war against the other tribes in the aftermath of the gang-rape of the Pilegesh in Giv'ah (Judges chs 19-21), while Saul showed similar tough-skinned Gevurah ("might") throughout his reign.

Nevertheless, as explained by the ARI, the House of Saul was rooted in Olam HaTohu, the "World of Devastation", and their kingship could not endure, for the TIKKUN ("repair") was to come about only through the House of David. Indeed, later on, it was only through identifying himself with Judah that Saul's Benjaminite descendant Mordechai - known as HeYehudi, "the Judah-ite" (Esther 2:5)- was able to rectify Saul's flaw by destroying Haman the Amalekite. (YEHUDAH has the connotation of denying idolatry, see Likutey Moharan I, 10.) The conflict between the House of Saul and the House of David was later expressed in the conflict between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel.

The fall of the House of Saul in David's time came about through the rashness of his son Ish-bosheth, who vented his suspicions that Avner was involved with Saul's concubine. If this was true, it was forbidden by Torah law (Rambam, Laws of Kings 2:1-2), which prohibits anyone else marrying a dead king's widow (see RaDaK on II Samuel 3:7). Avner greatly resented these suspicions after he had resolutely stood up for the House of Saul, and this gave him a strong motive to go to make peace with David and bring over the rest of Israel to support his kingship.

David made his acceptance of Avner's overtures conditional on the return of his wife Michal, whom Saul had given to Palti son of Layish (I Samuel 25:44). As indicated briefly at the end of the commentary on the above-referenced chapter, the halachic ramifications of Michal's "marriage" with Palti are very complex as normally a woman who marries a second husband is thereafter forbidden to return to her previous husband (Deut. 24:4), although Saul had no right to take Michal from David and give her to another man. In any event, the rabbis taught that Paltiel understood that he was not free to be with Michal as a husband, and that he drove a sword between himself and her in bed in order to remind himself that if he so much as touched her the sword of divine punishment would be unleashed against him. Paltiel's going out after Michal weeping (I Samuel ch 3 v 16) is darshened as referring to his weeping over having lost the great mitzvah of abstention from a tempting but forbidden relationship that was now being taken from him (see Rashi ad loc.).

Although Avner had a personal motive for ceasing to support the House of Saul, he showed great courage and true statesmanship in setting national unity above any partisan interests he may have had as Saul's commander-in-chief.

When Avner visited David in Hebron to talk about national reconciliation, Joab was absent fighting and pillaging the Philistines. On hearing of these negotiations on his return, Joab suspected that Avner had ulterior motives and had come to Hebron to spy on David and check out the weak points in his regime (v 25). Joab had good reason to mistrust Avner, who had killed Joab's brother Asa'el as told in ch 2 v 23.

Thus Joab and his brother Avishai were under Torah law in the role of GO'EL HA-DAM, "avenger of the blood". Joab succeeded in assassinating Avner by waylaying him inside the gate of Hebron . The "gate" alludes to the Sanhedrin, where Joab challenged Avner as to the legality of his killing of Asa'el. Avner is said to have replied that he was justified in doing so since Asa'el had been pursuing him and thus came into the category of a RODEIF ("pursuer"). Joab replied that where possible a person being pursued should strike the RODEIF only hard enough to deflect him but not to needlessly kill him. Avner replied that he had not been able to aim sufficiently accurately, at which point Joab asked him how come he was able to aim for Asa'el's fifth rib. Avner had no reply to this.

The text states that Joab took Avner aside "to speak to him BASHELI". This unusual Hebrew word has the connotation of "innocently" - indicating that Joab did not let Avner understand what he was intending to do. The rabbis state that Joab asked Avner a complex halachic question (which as deputy leader of the Sanhedrin in the time of Saul, Avner had the authority to answer). The question was how a girl with a stump-arm can carry out the mitzvah of HALITZAH (removing the sandal of her dead husband's brother if the latter does not want to perform the levirate marriage with her, see Deut. 25:9). Avner crouched down to demonstrate how such a girl could release the straps of her brother-in-law's sandal using her teeth, at which point Joab took his opportunity to drive his sword into Avner's fifth rib to avenge his brother's blood. [In Exodus 3:5, God's command to Moses to REMOVE his shoes uses the word SHAL, "take off", which according to the drush is alluded to in the word BA-SHEL-I in our present verse. See RaDaK on II Samuel 3:27.]

David immediately dissociated himself from the assassination of Saul's commander-in-chief, and went on to curse Joab very severely, although the latter remained his commander-in-chief almost to the end of David's life. It is ironic that the curses called down upon Joab and his descendants by David - who as king embodies the attribute of MALCHUS, associated with severe Judgment - were all visited on David's own descendants. Rehaboam was a ZAV (a man suffering a morbid flow from his member); Uzziah was a leper; Asa went with a stick because of illness in his legs; Josiah died at the sword while Jehoachin was lacking bread. These curses fell on David's descendants because David intended to kill Joab and should not have cursed him as well (RaDaK on v 29).

A king does not normally attend funerals (Rambam, Laws of Mourning 7:7; Laws of Kings 2:4) but David made an exception in the case of Avner to demonstrate publicly that he had had no hand whatever in his assassination and wanted to avoid any further escalation of the civil war and on the contrary was anxious to bring it to a close. David's statesmanlike behavior indeed found favor in the eyes of all the people (v 36) and contributed greatly to the resolution of the conflict.


With the death of Avner, the House of Saul was further weakened, and besides Saul's son Ish-bosheth, the only surviving member of any significance was the young son of Jonathan (who had been Saul's "crown prince") - MEPHI-BOSHETH, who as a child escaping from the Philistines after Saul's defeat had fallen and become lame. Mephi-bosheth appears again in the narrative later on (ch 9 etc.).

The perpetrators of the bloody daytime assassination of Saul's son Ish-bosheth during his afternoon rest thought that their act would win them favor in the eyes of David, whom they perceived as being no different from the normal run of new rulers, who are anxious to "neutralize" all possible rivals.

However David's eyes were always to God (v 9), and he had no more patience for this kind of murderous criminality than he had shown to the Amalekite who prided himself on having dispatched Saul (ch 1 v 15-16). David had no intention of founding the kingship that was to lead to the building of the Temple and the establishment of the Sanhedrin by its side upon the bloody assassinations of all perceived opponents. (It would greatly benefit the world if today's political assassins would learn the lesson.) David made a gory public example of the killers of Ish-bosheth in order to deter others, and had the severed head of Ish-bosheth buried in the grave of Avner in Hebron . The site of the grave of Abner is just a few minutes walk from the graves of the Patriarchs in Hebron and can be visited until today.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5767 - 2006-7 All rights reserved