For example, the individual Zeruiah is named a total of twenty-six times (twice as many times as Nehemiah, for example) in four separate books of the Old Testament. Zeruiah also had three prominent sons: Joab, Abishai, and Asahel (2 Samuel 2:18). But who was Zeruiah?
The answer to this question is found in the genealogy of David, recorded in 1 Chronicles 2:3-16. This genealogical summary records that David had seven older brothers (also mentioned in 1 Samuel 16:10-11) and two sisters. Zeruiah was one of David’s two sisters, and the three sons of Zeruiah (Joab, Abishai, and Asahel) were David’s nephews. This explains a number of otherwise puzzling events or circumstances in David’s reign.
For example, 2 Samuel tells us that when David’s son Absalom attempted to forcibly take the kingship and sought to kill his father, he made Amasa the commander of the Israelite army (2 Samuel 17:25). Even though Amasa led the forces that tried to overthrow and kill David at this time, once Absalom had been defeated King David retained Amasa as commander of the army in place of the previous commander Joab who had disobeyed David by killing Absalom.
We might wonder why David would trust Amasa, but the answer to this question is found in 2 Samuel 17:25 and 1 Chronicles 2:16–17. Amasa was the son of a woman called Abigail (not David’s wife by that name). This Abigail was David’s other sister in addition to Zeruiah (1 Chronicles 2:16). So Amasa was David’s nephew. This is why David asked Amasa, “Are you not my own flesh and blood?” (2 Samuel 19:13).
Unfortunately for Amasa, Joab (the son of Zeruiah) killed his cousin to regain his role as head of Israel’s army. The fact that Joab was David’s nephew explains why David would not execute him despite his crimes, but had Solomon kill him – as Solomon did not have the same direct familial ties to the commander.
Royal politics, as with many other aspects of life in the biblical world, were often driven by such family connections and relationships. Responsibilities to close family members were particularly strong, and it was rare for individuals in power to kill or even punish close relatives unless they were perceived as a direct threat. In the cases we have looked at here, David not only would have had to break this societal attitude if he had executed his nephews Amasa or Joab, but also he would have disgraced his own sisters by doing so.
The identity of David’s two sisters helps us to understand David’s actions or lack of action on several occasions and looking at the family connections involved can often help us to understand the story of this and other Old Testament kings.
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