David and the Death of Ishbosheth

By Isaac Miller


The sweltering heat of the midday had given way and cool evening breezes from the west were beginning. David, now girded in some of his light armor with most of his men seated in assembly, wandered over to a window, hearing some tumult outside. Two men with full, thick beards, one of whom had obvious reddish-brown stains below chest level on his garments, were riding brown horses into the city toward David’s headquarters. As he sized the men up from a distance, he said, “We have some visitors. Let’s meet them outside.”

The two bearded men dismounted when they saw David and his men approaching on foot. David was in the middle, with Abishai and Joab to his right and left, some of his seasoned warriors next to them, and the younger men to the outside, including Benaiah son of Jehoiada. One of the two bearded men removed a sackcloth bag with contents the size of a large melon from the side of his horse, and said “Hail, my Lord the King!” The man closed distance to about two spears’ lengths away from David, knelt, and said, “Behold, the head of Ishbosheth the son of Saul your enemy!” He then stood, removed a bloodied, severed head from the bag, flung the bag carelessly behind him, and held it by the hair as high as his left arm could hold it in front of him, with a wide, full-toothed grin. For a moment, he breathed heavily through his teeth.

With a careful eye, David sized up the usurper. The white of his teeth shone brightly in the sun through the blackness of his beard, dark complexion, and bloodied garments. All the marks of a Benjamite were there, complete with preference for the left hand, a marker as honest and shameless as the fact that he held the head of his own monarch by the hair. A few women in the loosely assembled crowd gasped, scurrying away with their little ones.

The few wavelike perturbations along David’s jawline and his narrowed eyes were the only visible changes in his appearance. A brief eternity passed as David stared into the vacant, already sunken eyes of the decapitated Benjamite monarch. The apparent usurper’s breathing returned to a normal cadence and intensity, though a worried look imperceptibly began to appear on his face. As if David was as removed from the situation as Ishbosheth’s head was from his body, David then lowered his eyes to the ground, turned around, and began to walk away, while the head suspended in midair descended slowly to the man’s side, synchronized with the calm of David’s movements and pace.

Four of David’s men on the periphery responded to the situation with the same deliberate calm, slowly reaching their hands closer to their belt-sheathed swords. After David had gone about 5 paces alone, he stopped, tilted his head slightly upward, and said with the reverence of a priest at an altar, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my soul from all adversity…” He then turned to face the two men, whose bushy eyebrows and foreheads were now furrowed at the odd behavior of the man they believed they had just made king of all Israel. “How did you do this, sons of Benjamin?” No longer staring at the bodyless piece of bone and flesh offered to him but to the man holding it, David’s tone was unnervingly indifferent.

“I am Rechab and my brother is Baanah. We came upon Ishbosheth at midday, when he was resting upon his bed, and smote him under the fifth rib. We have avenged my Lord the King of Saul’s seed. We have ridden all night to reach you and bring you these tidings.”

He nodded as if he had received precisely the answer he expected, and took a step behind and to his right, taking an angled, defensive stance. The four men who had reached to their swords quietly unsheathed them as Rechab and Baanah were fixated on the ruddy son of Jesse. David’s voice boomed as a series of sledgehammer blows, with cold, matter-of-fact confidence, striking their targets precisely, their impact stunning them into paralysis. “When I was in Ziklag after the death of Saul, a man came to me, saying he had slain Saul, thinking he had done me a favor. That man was slain where he stood. How much more, when a righteous man is slain in his own bed by his own kindred.” David finished walking back to his headquarters, a few of his men joining him, only hearing the short-lived pleading of the two men before the sounds of metal crushing and slashing into bone and flesh began and ended. “Make sure Ishbosheth’s head is buried with Abner in the place of honor here in Hebron. Do as you see fit with the others,” he ordered one of his younger men, who went to clean up.

David and his men reconvened at his headquarters. David’s men were elated, never having believed their long struggle against the Benjamites would conclude so decisively and abruptly and by an internal coup that could not be connected to David.

David’s brooding disposition in the face of such an effortless triumph was typical David – like snow in Summer or rain during harvest, his moods were often contrary to expectations. Great victories were often followed by stern warning, reminding the men how close they were to catastrophe and upbraid them for some minor loss of discipline or some tactical error. Yet when David and his men were plundered by the Amalekites, they found him singing songs of conquest and encouragement. Losses or retreats resulted in unmitigated enthusiasm about their planned counterattack or nearness to victory. David’s jarring contrariety could suck the air out of a room during times of triumph or provide a critical backstop to the morale of his men at the hardest times. His men had just dealt with his mourning over Abner’s death; this was more of the same.

Abishai the firstborn of Zeruiah was the first to talk political strategy. “My lord, nothing stands between us and the kingdom. We will send for the elders to meet with you here in Hebron. They should all arrive within a few weeks. They have no choice but to unite around us, and Israel will confront its enemies with the full force of all twelve tribes.” Abishai was usually fairly muted, but could not restrain the same grin from appearing which he only ever wore before or during a battle.

“Who makes a king a king, Abishai? What keeps his mightiest warriors from banding together, taking off his head, and replacing him?” David said, ready to launch into a Levitical lecture. Joab rolled his eyes, positioned safely out of sight at David’s periphery.

“My lord, I…” Abishai halted for a moment, then said carefully, “We know you are to be king over all Israel. You are the light of Israel to us,” Abishai replied, mostly searching for something that would slow the coming flood.

Abishai’s effort was in vain. David’s eyes were wide and fiery; his voice was passionate, but controlled. “Every one of you here is here because you chose to commit your lives to the vision God gave me for Israel, because Samuel anointed me with the horn of oil. None of you were forced to follow me by your material conditions. Any of you would have been successful anywhere else – as mercenaries, as farmers, as merchants, as shepherds. The rest of Israel is desperate. They feel the encroaching threat of the gentiles around them. They suffer for the consequences of Saul’s failures. I never wanted them to join me on these terms, because once they are safe, and are no longer under threat, they will begin to question the necessity of our union as a people. And that will sow seeds of division, and some of those seeds will bear fruit, and it could split Israel again, as it split when Saul was slain. You must be able to think beyond the next battle or the next day for the sake of your own houses and our people. When we are successful, men may begin to question whether Israel must remain united. The tribes may think they can do it without the other tribes and deny our common destiny in the God of Abraham.” David tilted his head slightly toward Joab, looked downward slightly, and continued after a pause. “Men who believe they can dominate the world with only their sword and their arm will soon find themselves slain by one. Only when our hearts are in harmony can we truly be united as a people.”

Hushai the Archite sat in a chair closer to the wall, away from the central table where David and his warriors stood. He had arrived in Hebron that afternoon. He was a slightly overweight friend of David’s, a few years older, who was a skilled manager of David’s supply lines, tribute, and intelligence. The size of his belly – a strategically employed hallmark of a strong networking personality and a subtle humility – matched his joviality which was impossible to dislike. He had never been much of a fighter and his arms looked more like a scribe’s, but he was sharp-witted and invaluable to David, and never failed to make him laugh. Hushai had an impeccable sense of wines and could give the region and vintage with a few sips. Most of David’s men considered Hushai a high-level business associate of sorts for David. They knew he acquired supplies for him, but few knew the extent of David’s network and the breadth of activities involved. That was a closely guarded secret between Hushai and David.

Hushai stepped into the conversation to offer some constructive direction. “I’ve ensured that the fate of Ishbosheth and his murderers will be clearly announced from Dan to Beersheba. At the very least, they will know that it was not your will that matters be as they are now. It could be a lot worse, my friend; you’re not getting spears hurled at you anymore or hiding all over the countryside of Judah.”

David replied with a wry smile. “Sometimes I wish I was. Friends and enemies were much more obvious back then.” David looked over in Hushai’s direction and continued. “Thank you. It is important that we hear from the elders of the tribes frequently and are open about our intentions. Our perspectives must remain broad and our hearts open to our brothers. Please begin preparations to receive the elders with no expenses spared.”