Ish-Bosheth, A Shameful King

james-tissot-reehab-and-baanah-bring-the-head-of-ish-bosheth (2)Picture by J. Tossot: Captains taking Ish-Bosheth’s head to King David.

References: 2 Samuel 2:8-11, 3:6-11; chapter 4.

Heart of the Story: King Saul’s son, Ish-Bosheth, reign over Israel was propped up by Abner, commander of the military. After Abner was killed, Ish-Bosheth’s own men killed him.

Back Story:

King Saul, the first monarch of the 12 tribes of Israel, and three sons (Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malki-Shua) died at the Battle of Mount Gilboa against the Philistines. Saul’s younger son, Ish-Bosheth, either escaped the Philistine slaughter or was not present. Perhaps Saul ordered Ish-Bosheth to remain at home as a safety net for his dynasty. After Saul’s death Abner, Saul’s cousin (1 Samuel 14:50-51) and commander of the Israelite army, established Ish-Bosheth as king.

Originally Ish-Bosheth’s name was Eshbaal. Bible chroniclers changed Eshbaal’s name to Ish-Bosheth possibly because Eshbaal sounded too much like Ba’al, a false deity worshiped in Old Testament times. Ish means great man while boshet means given to bashfulness and humility or sensitive to shame. Ish-Bosheth was born around 1047 B.C. and possibly became king when he was 40 years of age; however, some scholars believe he became king when he was 32-33 years old.  From this point of view, Ish-Bosheth’s reign equaled that of David’s reign over Judah at Hebron, e.g. 7.5 years.

Ish-Bosheth’s court was at Mahanaim, on the east side of the Jordan near the border between Gad and East Manasseh and outside Philistine threat. Primarily, Ish-Bosheth ruled over Gilead and Jezreel and over the Ashurites, Ephraimites, and Benjamites. After King Saul’s death, Judah had seceded from the rule of Saul’s house and proclaimed David king.

Ruin of Ish-Bosheth

Over the years, the war between the houses of Saul and David continued with David becoming stronger. In Israel, Abner increased his influence with the 10 northern tribes. Afraid that Abner wanted the throne of Israel, Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of having an affair with Saul’s concubine Rizpah. If true, Abner’s behavior was a power-play to wrest the kingdom from Ish-Bosheth. Deeply offended by Ish-Bosheth’s accusation, Abner averred that he would transfer all of Israel from the house of Saul to that of David.

After these events David sent messengers to Ish-Bosheth demanding – not asking or requesting – that that Michal be returned to him. Michal was Saul’s daughter, Ish-Bosheth’s sister, and David’s first wife. Wanting to hurt David and perhaps punish Michal for helping David escape him, Saul had given Michal to be the wife of another man. Ish-Bosheth ordered Abner to take Michal from her present husband and returned her to David. Seemingly, Ish-Bosheth did not care enough about his sister to ask her  preference.

Soon afterwards, David’s commander murdered Abner. When Ish-Bosheth heard that Abner was dead, he lost his courage to continue as king of Israel. All of Israel was alarmed because they knew that Abner’s strength, not Ish-Bosheth’s, protected them.

Ish-Bosheth was murdered while taking his noonday rest. Two of his captains, the brothers Recab and Baanah, entered his bedroom. They stabbed the king in the stomach then cut off his head. Recab and Baanah took Ish-Bosheth’s head to King David at Hebron. Expecting David to commend them, they proudly showed David Ish-Bosheth’s head and said “This day the Lord has avenged my lord the king against Saul and his offspring” (2 Samuel 4:8).

David was both angry and appalled that the brother’s thought he would be pleased with their actions. He called them wicked and said that they killed an innocent man on his own bed. David ordered his men to kill Recab and Baanah. Their hands and feet were cut off and their bodies hung by the pool of Hebron. Their hands were removed because they were used to assassinate Ish-Bosheth and their feet cut off because they were used to run to David with the news of the murder.

David buried Ish-Bosheth’s head in Abner’s tomb at Hebron. The Bible provides no information on where the remainder of Ish-Bosheth was buried; perhaps somewhere around Mahanaim. Apparently, his body was not placed in Saul’s family tomb at Zela, Benjamin where Saul and his other three sons were buried.

Conclusion. Ish-Bosheth, the second king in Saul’s dynasty, was not a king who inspired loyalty. Probably, he never sired children and he used his sister, Michal, as a political pawn. King Ish-Bosheth feared and alienated his military commander. Eventually, he was murdered by two trusted captains who had access to his home.

Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth 3/14.

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