Joab and David

Janet McLarren has been leading our class this week in a brief survey of anthropology and its connection to biblical translation in those places of the world without Scripture. I have enjoyed hearing her speak and share her insight. But today’s was an especially intriguing talk, and she brought her husband in to help share an illustration from the Bible that brought out the importance of an awareness of anthropology.

Joab. That man irked David. Yet David refused to do anything about it. He eventually left it to Solomon to make retribution 1. But David was King, so why didn’t he get rid of the man himself?

As the rest of the hour showed, anthropology suggests an answer, rooted in the patrilineal system of the day. 1 Chronicles 2:9-17 and 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 13:32-33 give plenty of information to put together David’s family history (at least as far as the system was concerned). We spent a good part of the class diagramming the family tree. Long story short, David is Joab’s maternal uncle. And in a patrilineal setting, it is not uncommon for there to be quite a warm, affectionate 2 relationship between a child and its maternal uncle – though the child is not technically part of the family, being outside the paternal line. In fact, it is the fact of this disconnect that allows for a such an affectionate relationship to be developed. Seems a little odd in our culture, but this is what was offered.

It was suggested that it is likely that Zeruiah, Joab’s mother, was even a caretaker to David (though no information is explicitly given in the Bible to support this), possibly even attempting to secure David’s protection for Joab after her death. David and Joab’s nearness in age make it very reasonable that Zeruiah is an older sister who was tasked with the care of David, forming a deep and lasting connection. Either way, it seems that David may have had a connection with his sister that made a close relationship with Joab possible and likely, possibly making it more difficult to do away with this extended relation. Solomon, completely unrelated to Joab because of the patrilineal system, and acting as judge over this case of multiple-manslaughter, is at freedom to dispose of Joab without violating the social hierarchy.

Another interesting anthropological note is the sparsity of patrilineal family members in David’s court. We counted two of those in his court as being family members. This seems odd in a system prone to nepotism. Could David have been attempting bring unity by including non-family in his court, to the exclusion of those within his family? It is an interesting consideration from my vantage point. Other side conversations crept up towards the final moments of the discussion that I was not able to stay and hear.

Hopefully this gives you a taste of some of the thought-provoking stuff translation 3 and historical and social context might bring up.


  1. Now you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me—what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace. (1 Kings 2:5-6, NIV)
  2. It was shared that this relationship can also have a certain bit of play and trickery involved that would go beyond normal allowance in the culture. The relationship of Jacob and Laban was given as an example.
  3. The whole point of the exercise was aimed at suggesting it might make sense in translation to explicitly state Zeruiah’s gender and/or relationship to David to make the implicit anthropological reality more clear for readers unfamiliar with the lineage of David and the history of Israel. While part of me cringes at this, part of me sees the benefit that might be had.

About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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