When David returns to the land after the death of Absalom, he is met by three individuals: Shimei, Mephibosheth and Barzillai. In this post I want to briefly focus on the third encounter described in 2 Sam 19:32-41 and compare it to another encounter found in the next chapter.
The encounter with Barzillai is clearly the most positive of the three. While Sheba is an enemy of David who cursed him back in 2 Sam 16 and the role of Mephibosheth is somewhat ambiguous (is he an enemy or a friend of David?), Barzillai is clearly a friend who did good to David when he was in need. Because of this he is the only one of the three that is explicitly invited by the king to cross the Jordan and go to Jerusalem with him (2 Sam 19:34). Yet notice the response of Barzillai. Instead of accepting this generous offer he tells the king that he does not want to be a burden to him and suggests that a man named Kimham take his place. David agrees to this and the encounter ends with a kiss and a blessing:
And when the king had crossed over, the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his own place. (2 Sam 19:40)
Significantly, the keyword “kiss” reappears in the very next chapter. As I mentioned in my last post, 2 Sam 20 tells the story of Sheba’s rebellion against David that in many ways parallels the earlier rebellion of Absalom. According to 2 Sam 17:25 Absalom set a man named Amasa over the army in place of Joab. After Absalom’s death at the hands of Joab David decided to make Amasa the commander of the army – in place of Joab. Thus Amasa was twice chosen over Joab. In both cases this was not surprising. While Joab had at first supported Absalom, their relationship turned sour after Joab refused to see Absalom and Absalom responded by having Joab’s field burned (2 Sam 14:29-33). As for David, he had clearly instructed Joab not to harm Absalom, but Joab had not obeyed these orders. Since Joab’s execution of Absalom was not the first time he had taken matters into his own hands and since Absalom was David’s son, it is understandable that David replaced Joab as commander of the army.
With this background in mind, we are now ready to go to 2 Sam 20. There David instructs Amasa to summon the men of Judah in order to deal with Sheba’s rebellion (v 4). Amasa goes out but fails to return at the appointed time (v 5). This causes David to turn to Abishai. He is now to go out and pursue after Sheba (v 6). This is the perfect opportunity for Joab, Abishai’s brother, to get back into the game. Notice v 7:
So Joab’s men went out after him, along with the Cherethites and the Pelethites and all the mighty men; and they went out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri.
No word about Abishai – it is Joab’s men that go out and they go out “after him,” that is Joab. Once again Joab thus takes matters into his own hands. And he continues to do so as the encounter with Amasa in vv 8-10 shows.
It is at this point that the keyword “kiss” reappears. While the encounter between David and Barzillai ended with a kiss, the encounter between Joab and Amasa begins with a kiss – or, to be more precise, an “almost-kiss,” since the kiss never actually happens! Joab pretends like he will kiss Amasa, but instead of kissing him, he kills him. And by doing so he reveals that he is the exact opposite of Barzillai. For while Barzillai is concerned about being a burden to the king (which he would not have been), Joab does not care about the effect his actions have on other people. While Barzillai unselfishly lets another enjoy the reward that was justly offered to him, Joab selfishly kills the one who justly took his place. In short: while Barzillai puts others ahead of himself, Joab cares only about himself.
It is worth noting that this is precisely the problem of Israel at this point in the narrative. The encounter between Joab and his “brother” Amasa (20:9; 17:25) is thus illustrative of the brother conflict between Israel and Judah in the larger narrative. In both cases selfishness and the desire to be first/more important (19:42-44) lead to a conflict between brothers. The murder of Amasa thus serves as a warning to Israel and Judah: the end result of such conflict is always death.
In stark contrast to this stands the encounter between David and Barzillai, which serves as a positive example how brothers should deal with one another. Instead of only pretending to care about each other (“Is it well with you, my brother?”), they show true love to one another. Instead of putting their own interests first, they put others ahead of themselves. In doing so, they were acting like the one they worshipped, who came to this earth, to his brothers, not to kill them but to serve them and to unselfishly die in their place so that they might live.