II Samuel 11
Joab is a bad man. Normally when we think of the sordid episode of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba, Joab doesn’t even come to mind, even though he is a rather significant character in the whole unfolding drama.
Usually we think about David. David is a hero in battle. He snuffed out the Philistine giant with just a little rock, he was King Saul’s most successful general in battle, putting to rout many of the enemies of the people of God. And we all know about David’s legendary faith. David is known in all of the Bible for his exuberant acts of worship and for simply being “A man after God’s own heart.” David was a faithful follower of his God, and a very evil person.
And then there’s Bathsheba. Bathsheba is probably the most mysterious character in this whole episode. We know very little about her, and yet over the years, interpreters of the bible have written much, all of which is speculation. What we do know about her is that she was the daughter of Eliam, and the wife of Uriah the Hittite. The writer of Second Samuel, who seems to have been an eye witness to this whole business, also indicates that Bathsheba was very beautiful.
And then of course, we often remember poor, dead Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, who is, or was a wonderfully honorable guy in all of his dealings including those in his marriage, in his military service and in his service to his king. Uriah is a shining example of faithfulness under all circumstances. He is worthy of our emulation. He is the only true hero in this story and he ended up quite dead.
And so we’re left with Joab, and it would not be an unforgivable act of ignorance for us to ask, “who?” He’s not exactly one of the Bible’s best known characters. Joab is actually David’s nephew, the son of one of David’s sisters. But in this story, Joab is David’s secretary of war, and he has been for some time. He’s an accomplished strategist, and his skill in planning and executing battles has been a great asset to David. Militarily, he is unquestionably a hero. He and David are friends, in addition to being relatives, and for the most part, Joab is fiercely loyal to David. He can be trusted, even in the most sensitive of issues, and his loyalty comes very much into play as David struggles to cover up and hide his act of adultery.
But as I’ve already clearly indicated, Joab also has his dark side. Because he has a position of high authority, he soon learns to crave even more power. That’s the way it is sometimes. Power begets a lust for more power. And eventually Joab’s loyalty to David will be superficial at best, and in evidence only when it suits him or benefits him. Ultimately, Joab will become an enemy of David, and Solomon, David’s son, will order him executed.
But in our story this morning David and Joab are bosom buddies. They have to be. They have a very difficult and embarrassing situation to take care of that has legal implications that David doesn’t even want to think about. If it is discovered somehow, that the child growing in Bathsheba’s womb belongs to David, both he and she could be executed as punishment for the crime of adultery. And that of course, must never happen.
And so David needs a good strategist to get him out of this difficulty, and the best strategist that he knows is his secretary of war. Inquiring minds have always asked, “How much did Joab know, and when did he know it?” Was he just an unknowing dupe who ignorantly and unwittingly did David’s bidding without knowing exactly what he was doing? Was he David’s toy, and therefore innocent of any intentional wrong doing?
I don’t for a minute believe that that is the case. I am convinced that Joab is a fully informed co-conspirator, who was in on this from the very beginning, and that he knew exactly what he was doing. And I’m convinced of this for a couple of reasons. First of all, David and Joab are very close friends. There is no hint so far in the history of these two characters that anything has even begun to go wrong between the two of them. They are pals and buddies. Each trusts the other. Secondly, David desperately needs a “go to” guy, a “fix it” guy, a partner in skullduggery, and what better strategist is there than Joab? Joab will certainly have a strategy that will make David emerge from this spot of trouble smelling like a rose. And that’s exactly what happened. After breaking nearly every one of the Ten Commandments in this episode alone, David emerged having gotten away with everything. At least for a while.
And so I’m almost completely positive that Joab was in this from the very beginning as a fully fledged, fully informed co-conspirator. I’m pretty sure that David enlisted Joab’s help as soon as David heard from Bathsheba that she was pregnant. Time is pretty much of the essence here, and there is still almost time to make it look like Uriah is the father of Bathsheba’s baby. And if Uriah hadn’t been so loyal to his king and so committed to his military service, it might very well have happened as planned. But as it was, even salacious talk, presents, and getting him drunk did not drive Uriah home to have sex with his wife.
And so, with time running out, Uriah needs to die, and the easiest way to do it is to kill him off in the war, and to make it look like an innocent death. And David can then become a loyal hero; because what will he do? He will marry the girl even though she’s pregnant by her poor dead husband. Instead of being a poor neglected widow who is also a single parent, Bathsheba will have a taste of royalty. How noble of David to do this, all the people will say.
But the real reason that I am convinced that David and Joab have been co-conspirators from the very beginning, is the nearly, no completely, incomprehensible story between verses 18 and 25. This story is clearly part of the cover-up, and it is an extremely elaborate part of the cover-up, but nobody knows exactly what it is referring to, even though it involves what seem to be real time events. And, there’s even a historical reference thrown in there for who knows what reason. Many have tried to decode the details in this story, but they have done it without success. Almost everyone agrees that this is some sort of coded message between David and Joab, set up well in advance, and probably well rehearsed, to relay the message that Uriah is dead, and that all is well. Only an experienced strategist could come up with a story like this. And David’s response, sent to Joab by return messenger, clearly indicates collusion. David says, “Thus you shall say to Joab, ‘do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it.”‘ That’s David’s code for, thanks for the message that all is well. Thanks especially for your help in this matter, all is greatly appreciated, love David.
Opportunities for co-conspiracy abound. There’s not a day that goes by in the news that someone isn’t accused of conspiring with another to do such and such, or to hide and cover up some sort of illicit behavior. Co-conspiracy at the government level is no different in our own day than it was in David’s government. We can always expect evil people to do evil things. That sort of behavior should never surprise us. If the king of Israel, who was known as a man after God’s own heart can behave abominably with one of his trusted, but evil advisers, we should not be surprised by anything that we read in our newspapers. What happens “up there” will always happen “up there.” Do not let this matter trouble you; for the sword devours now one and now another.
But what about “down here?” Opportunities for co-conspiracy abound “down here,” too, don’t they? Those opportunities are present in our work, here in church, in our relationships with one another, in our families, and in every place that we have any other kind of relationship. But “down here”, co-conspiracy ought never to happen, if the intended outcome is to cover up or hide evil behavior. Surprise birthday parties and the like are of course, excluded from this prohibition, since they are often more easily planned with acts of co-conspiracy, and the intended outcome is never evil.
In fact even “up there” Joab could have said, no way David, fight your own battles, face your own demons, I’ll not fall prey to your evil wiles. Nor will I participate in your evil deceptions. But because I am your friend, and because I love you, I will stand by you as you face your troubles. But Joab was neither friend nor lover, nor did he fear God. He was, like David, an evil person. And co-conspiracy was his game