Haftarah Parshat Vayehi
(1 Kings 2:1-12)
December 14, 2013
11 Tevet 5774
In recent years, a heated debate has been going on in modern religious circles in Israel over how to view biblical heroes. The Hareidi Leumi (those on the right wing of the Religious Zionist spectrum) present the heroes of the Bible in an idealized form, ignoring any blemishes of character, while those with a modern outlook see the figures of the Bible as human beings whose complicated lives also have something to teach. David’s problematic deathbed requests to his son, Solomon, present a resolute problem to both kinds of readers. David’s parting words to his son include not only an admonition for his son to observe God’s commandments, but also explicit orders to carry out what seems to be vengeance on his father’s enemies. Among these requests we find the following: Further, you know what Joab ben Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s forces, Abner ben Ner and Amasa ben Jether, he killed them, shedding blood of war in peacetime, staining the girdle of his loins and the sandals of his feet with blood of war. So act in accordance with your wisdom, and see that his white hair does not go down to Sheol in peace.” (2:5-6)
Joab had been the head of David’s military forces and was probably his most faithful servant. He carried out David’s wars and put down the most serious breach in David’s rule when he quashed the rebellion of David’s son, Absalom. In all of the instances mentioned, Joab was doing David’s bidding, protecting the stability of his rule. Still none of the acts that David mentioned were uncomplicated in his eyes. While Joab killed David’s son Absalom to quell a rebellion, David did not forgive him for his death nor for the death of his generals despite their on again and off again loyalty. What probably sealed his fate, though, was his allegiance to Adonijah who sought to wrest the monarchy from David in his waning days. (See 1 Kings 1:7 )
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (15th century Portugal, Spain), who served as a government minister, knew from inside the workings of government. He concluded that David really meant to warn his son about the potential for palace intrigues at the hands of the likes of Joab. He wanted the events of his life to serve as an example for his son of the things that could potentially happen to him. In sum, he wanted him to know that the reality that he would live as king was different from the reality most people live, for better and for worse, and that his survival depended on it. The lessons that Abrabanel takes from this story are not pretty. They are not the kind of realities that regular people want their children to emulate but they are realities and the Bible is full of them. Why? – Because that’s life.