Walter Brueggemann: The Duty and Destiny of a Shoveler

What follows here is an act of self-indulgence. It is not likely to be informative, instructive, or edifying for you, dear reader. Thus, you may desist from reading further. I have written this simply because I wanted to, to see what I could make of a line I have read recently.

The line is from the third volume of the trilogy of Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell, a wonderful read. Cromwell was the chief aide to and fixer for Henry VIII. He fixed everything for the king. He fixed the church as it departed from Rome. He fixed the dissolution of the monasteries. He broke the back of noble families that had foolishly crossed the king. And he managed the coming and going of Henry’s first four wives. He was the son of a lowly blacksmith, but he rose to great power and wealth, becoming second only to the king in the realm. He was not unlike Joseph to Pharaoh in the book of Genesis (Genesis 41:40).

Of Cromwell Hillary Mantel can write:

Somewhere — or Nowhere, perhaps — there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light, there are middens [dunghills] and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name (The Mirror and the Light 373).

Cromwell is the great shoveler! There was, moreover, plenty to shovel in Henry’s self-indulgent reign. But then, characteristically, powerful persons need shovelers because almost every powerful person, short of a society of philosophers, produces plenty of excrement that requires disposal.

This wondrously understated paragraph by Mantel got me to wondering if I could identify such a shoveler in the Bible. And sure enough, the nominee is Joab, the shoveler for King David. Thus, in what follows I will explore how and in what ways Joab is a compelling match for the heavy lifting that Cromwell will do in his turn for the king. We may identify the shoveling work of Joab in six distinct episodes:

II Samuel 3:24-27
Abner, the leader of Saul’s continuing northern movement, seeks to make peace with David. Joab, however, perceives Abner as a threat to David (and surely a threat to Joab’s position as well). Joab reprimands David for allowing Abner to escape from his grasp (3:24). But then Joab on his own seeks out Abner and kills him:

When Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside in the gateway to speak with him privately, and there he stabbed him in the stomach. So he died for shedding the blood of Asahel, Joab’s brother (v. 27).

David does not object to the killing of Abner. He objects that he might be blamed for the killing and makes sure that Joab receives the credit/blame for the death of Abner.

II Samuel 11:14-21
Joab obeys the instruction of David, putting Uriah forward in battle where he is sure to be killed. By doing this, Joab has rescued David from a most awkward situation concerning the pregnancy of Bathsheba. Joab is confident that David will not worry about the outcome of the battle, but only that Uriah has been eliminated. The king blows off the killing of Uriah without blinking:

Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another (v. 25).

II Samuel 14:1-24
Joab perceives that David is preoccupied with his son Absalom, even though Absalom has been banished from the court for the murder of his brother. Joab receives no instruction from the king, but he understands that David will welcome his banished son back into his presence. Joab undertakes a surreptitious initiative so that Absalom might be restored to the king’s presence. He choreographs a scene “in order to change the course of affairs” (v. 20).

Joab’s choreography works to perfection. When David discerns Joab’s hand in the plot for restoration, he agrees to it, as though Joab had forced his hand: “Very well, I grant this; go, bring back the young man Absalom” (v. 21).

Not unlike Cromwell, Joab is careful for himself and bows in obedience to the king, expressing gratitude that the king has accepted his surreptitious aid:

Joab prostrated himself with his face to the ground and did obeisance, and blessed the king; and Joab said, “Today your servant knows that I have found favor in your sight, my lord, the king, that the king has granted the request of his servant” (v. 22).

II Samuel 18:1-15
Absalom is in rebellion against his father. The father and son are at war. Joab is on the hunt for Absalom who is a threat to his father. Joab is indignant when he learns that Absalom had slipped away from his men when he might have been killed: “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him he to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt” (v. 11).

But the potential killers of Absalom were reluctant to kill the king’s son (v. 12). Joab, partisan that he is, has no such scruple. He is single-minded in his devotion to David; he has no reservation about seeking the death of the king’s son. He finds Absalom, and his men kill him: “And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him” (v. 15).

Beyond the death itself, Joab carefully orchestrates the report of the death to David, for he knows that the king wanted Absalom protected even as he rebelled (vv. 19-32; see v. 12). Joab, much more than David himself, is clear-eyed about the requirements of monarchy. He will readily act against the reluctance of the king, and will do what is necessary for the wellbeing of David. He will not linger over David’s sentimental attachment to his son.

II Samuel 19:1-8
Joab must deal with the king’s deep grief over the death of Absalom. The king is seen in public to be smitten with disconsolate grief over his loss (18:33-19:5). It is as though David has taken a leave of absence from being king, a sure manifestation of weakness. Joab will have none of it. He cares not at all about the king’s grief. He cares only that David be perceived in public as strong, engaged, and functioning as king. He does not hesitate to rebuke the king for his parental emotion:

Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines ... for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased (vv. 5-6).

Given this reprimand he makes to the king, Joab issues a command to the king that he must appear as a king: “So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants” (v. 7).

In response to Joab’s imperative, David obeys, appears, and assures his troops. By his own lights, Joab has saved the king from his debilitating show of vulnerability.

II Samuel 20:7-10, 20-22
Joab is preoccupied with the challenge to David posed by Sheba, a Benjaminite and perhaps one who continues the claim and threat of the party of Saul in the north. David dispatched one, Amasa, to eliminate the challenge of the rebel from the north. Amasa, however, delays and misses his appointment. We are not told why he was late, and the narrator does not care. What counts is that the challenge to the king lasted longer than it should have. In response to the delay, Joab, without any mandate from David, acts quickly and decisively:

Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. But Amasa did not notice the sword in Joab’s hand; Joab struck him in the belly so that his entrails poured out on the ground, and he died. He did not strike a second blow (vv. 9-10).

Joab promptly disposes of Amasa and pursues Sheba who posed a threat to David. Joab pauses with a wise woman and declares his reluctance to “swallow up or destroy,” but explains why he must act against Sheba. The wise woman understands and accepts Joab’s requirement and presents Sheba’s head to Joab:

And they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri, and threw it down to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, and all went to their homes, while Job returned to Jerusalem to the king (v. 22).

Having completed his shoveling work, another unblinking protection of the king, Joab returns to home base.

II Samuel 24:1-9
David initiates a census. In response, Joab issues a generic good wish to his king (v. 3). But then he confronts David with a wonderment as to why the king would want to conduct a census: “But why does my lord the king want to do this” (v. 3)?

Joab recognizes that a census bears marks of bureaucratic control that cannot enhance David in the eyes of his populace (or of YHWH). Joab does not hesitate to question the king. The king does not bother to answer Joab, and Joab promptly moves in obedience to conduct the census. Joab is vigilant for his king, but he will in the end obey the will of the king: “Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded” (v. 9).

It is astonishing to notice how much of David’s narrative is occupied by the action of Joab. Two features stand out in my reading of the narrative. First, Job is a killer for the king. He does not hesitate to dispatch and eliminate those who jeopardize David’s rule. He executed Abner (3:27), Uriah (11:16-17), Absalom (18:14-15), and Amasa and Sheba (20:9-10, 21-22).

This is indeed the work of a faithful shoveler. Never does Joab show any remorse or regret for violent actions. And not once does David commend or thank Joab. It is as if the killings are beyond the ken or intent of the king, even though David surely recognized both the brutality of Joab and the gains he received from that brutality.

Second, it is remarkable that Joab can frontally question David in aggressive ways. Thus in the case of Abner:

What have you done? Abner came to you; why did you dismiss him, so that he got away? You know that Abner son of Ner came to deceive you, and learn your comings and goings and to learn all that you are doing (3:24-25).

In the case of the death of Absalom, Joab boldly reprimands David for his show of grief in neglect of his royal work:

Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today ... for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. You have made it clear today that commander and officers are nothing to you (19:5-6).

And with reference to the census:

But why does my lord the king want to do this (24:3)?

In each case the narrative exhibits Joab in his mastery of the matter at hand. In the case of Uriah, Joab knows exactly what is up with David; he knows that the good news of the death of Uriah will override any other matter of the battle (11:18-22). In the death of Abner, Joab knows that the king would not object the killing. In the case of Absalom, he carefully prepares the report to David in a way that protects the son of Zadok the priest, a member of the king’s inner circle (18:19-32). In addition to “bringing down the bodies” (see Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies), Joab manages public relations for the king. He looks after the king’s interest even when the king behaves, in his judgment, foolishly and irresponsibly.

It is not difficult to conclude that the success of David is due in part to the action of Joab in the same way that Henry’s success depended on Cromwell. What does the shoveler get for all of his risky, daring action and attentiveness? After the elimination of Abner, David is most concerned that he will to be blamed for the convenient death. In order to deflect any such notion, David stages an elaborate state funeral for Abner, declaring that “a prince and a great man” has died (3:38). More than that, David requires Joab to participate in public grief, surely a profound humiliation for Joab: “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn over Abner” (3:31).

David does not mind humiliating his shoveler. He cares only for his own self-protection.

And then, finally, as with many such shovelers, Joab is undone by the son of David. On his deathbed, David admonishes his son to eliminate Joab:

Moreover you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa, son of Jether … Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace (I Kings 2:5-6).

For the first time, Joab miscalculates; he bets on the wrong son of David, Adonijah, as successor to David. As a result, Solomon acts swiftly to eliminate the long standing shoveler who served the family faithfully:

Strike him down and bury him; and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. The Lord will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa, son of Jether commander of the army of Judah. So shall the blood come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendant forever, but to David and to his descendants and to his house and to his throne, there shall be peace from the Lord forevermore (I Kings 2:31-33).

Like his father before him, Solomon is devoted to maintaining for himself and his house the appearance of innocence from any bloodguilt. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that both Abner and Amasa are innocent and that Joab is guilty. And of course it can be granted in both cases that Joab eliminated a rival. But any claim of innocence is rather belated in this royal family that has gained so much from Joab’s ruthless loyalty. But so it goes with shovelers!

Like Cromwell, Joab has been absolutely essential for the maintenance of royal power and yet completely dispensable at the right time. And like Cromwell, at the end Joab is disdained and dismissed. The narrator gives us all of this without blinking or explaining or justifying. It is what it is! History makes clear that Joab helped to maintain the “family.” At the end, of course, as a son of Zeruiah (like Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith) is not valued by the winners. We get this final note:

Benaniah son of Jehoiada went up and struck him down and killed him; and he was buried at his own house near the wilderness (I Kings 2:34).

That’s it! A son of Zeruiah, like the English son of a blacksmith, is left dead, not grieved, not thanked.

From this remarkable narrative I will extrapolate only two obvious points. First, this cunning, thick narrative makes clear that Israel’s faith was formed and practiced in the world of Realpolitik. This cast of characters is calculating, ruthless, and formidable. And they have found a narrator to match their greedy, violent resolve.

The point is important because it makes clear that the rootage of Messianism (especially Christian messianism) is in the real world. The expectation of a “New David” who will restore Israel to power is grounded in the remembered David. And while Jesus is saluted as “son of David” (Mark 10:47-48), he does not fit the claim, he does not welcome the claim, and his genealogy does not add up to that. This rootage is an important corrective to any excessively pious reading of “Jesus as the New David.” This recognition also suggests that the New Testament, not unlike the Old, is deeply grounded in historical political realism.

When Jesus “set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem,” he surely knew about the dangerous contradiction to Jerusalem politics that he was to perform and enact (Luke 9:51). This does not mean he had some secret “foreknowledge,” but that he was alert and realistic about the world of power. Paul Lehmann has written wisely and shrewdly about the “transfiguration of politics” and focuses on the conflict of Jesus with Pilate, the imperial governor:

The political thrust of this participial “lifestyle” is exposed in the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate. The question of the Establishment is up: the question whose world is this, and by what or whose authority. It is understandable that Pilate should have asked Jesus, “Where have you come from?” … Pilate’s honest perplexity about truth was revealed in his puzzlement that should require truth if it sought to command authority … Jesus, on the other hand, affirms, both by conviction and by role, that the only authority power has is the authority of truth (The Transfiguration of Politics: The Presence and Power of Jesus of Nazareth in and over Human Affairs 55).

The David story invites us to ponder the strange vulnerability of power and the equally strange power that is denied the powerful. If and when politics is transfigured after the manner of Jesus, there will be no need for a shoveler. Imagine!

Second, we can readily keep one eye on contemporeneity as we think about the shoveler. If it is true, as it surely is, that powerful people characteristically require a shoveler often referred to as a fixer. However a fixer is often thrown under the bus by their patron when they no longer have any use. The writer of the David narrative knows about the sad outcome of power that lacks the basis of truth (see John 18:38). The end for Joab, as we have seen, is not good. But consider the end for David as well. His final word to his son and heir is an inventory for vengeance. His final wisdom is “eliminate the threat” (Joab, Shimei) and reward your donar, Barzillai (I Kings 2:5-9).

This final moment for the king is not one glory; it is one of fear. It is alright to recite the lines attributed to David:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil (Psalm 23:4).

Except that David, in his fear, needed a shoveler. And then he did not! Like his master, Joab died in fear:

When the news case to Joab … Joab fled to the tent of the Lord and grasped the horns of the altar (I Kings 2:28).


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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