Walter Brueggemann: The Results Men

In her book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (2022), Caroline Elkins details the way of the British Empire amid its colonies to effect the extraction from the colonies of cheap labor and cheap material resources needed by Britain. The maintenance and administration of the extraction domain of the Empire was led by a series of bureaucratic governor-generals and their aides whose work was to maintain the orderly processes of extraction, while at the same time maintaining a face of civility. Among the bureaucratic administrators, Elkins names in particular are Terence Gavaghan, Gerald Templer, and Orde Wingate. What caught my eye is that Elkins labels these several colonial administrators as “results men,” that is, as servants of the Empire who were particularly interested in and committed to “results,” and who had no scruples about the means required to achieve desired results (p. 575). Those means included any form of violence necessary to achieve the “results.”

The use of the phrase “results men” got me to thinking: perhaps every empire relies eventually on “results men.” Thus Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell (on which see the trilogy of Hilary Putnam), and Richard Nixon famously had Bob Haldemann and John Ehrlichmann. Even George Washington had Alexander Hamilton and Franklin Roosevelt had Sydney Hillman.

Pushing back behind such instances, I had the thought that the primary nominee in the Bible for a “results man” would most likely be Joab, the great ruthless military man who did the unpleasant work to support the rise of David to kingship. The narrative of II Samuel, our primary “historical” source for David, is much preoccupied with the actions of Joab. Joab was even above the “mighty men of David” (II Samuel 23:8-37); in the formation of David’s inchoate royal government Joab was “over the army,” that is, Secretary of Defense or Chief of Staff (8:16, 20:23). He earned his way to that latter post with David by his courage and bravery, and by his unfailing, uncompromising loyalty to David. In passing, we are told that Joab won great military victories for David against the Arameans and the Moabites (II Samuel 10:7-14). Not only does he defeat the Ammonites, but at exactly the right moment he defers to David, summoning David to come to claim the victory that Joab has won for him:

Joab sent messengers to David, and said, “I have fought against Rabbah; moreover, I have taken the water city. Now, then, gather the rest of the people together, and encamp against the city, and take it; or I myself will take the city, and it will be called by my name.” So David gathered all the people together and went to Rabbah, and fought against it, and took it. He took the crown of Milcom from his head; the weight of it was a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone; and it was placed on David’s head. He also brought forth the spoil of the city, a very great amount (II Samuel 12:27-30).

More important for our purpose than these battle reports, however, are the specific narrative accounts of Joab’s hand-to-hand performance, partly in loyalty to David, partly in revenge, and partly to secure his own position. We may identify five such moments in Joab’s military career:

1. At the outset, David is at war with Saul for the throne. A sub-plot is the rivalry of two military families, that of Abner in the north and Joab and his brothers, sons of Zeruiah, in the South. In their bitter struggle for preeminence, Abner seeks to avoid the killing of Joab’s brother Ahasel, but Ahasel foolishly persists and is killed by Abner (2:18-23). In the next paragraph, Abner talks Joab down from more violence (2:26-28). But soon the conflict of David and Saul continues. Abner, Saul’s general, seeks terms of peace with David (3:9-21). This conciliatory (likely self-serving) move by Abner is turned down by David; but Joab rightly sees Abner as his rival for leadership. As quickly as he can, Joab stabs Abner to death, as service to David, but also to advance his own interest (3:26-28). While Abner’s death may have benefitted David, David cannot afford to be identified with the killing. For that reason, he takes steps to publicly humiliate Joab (3:31), while he himself conspicuously grieved for the slain Abner (3:32-37). He asserts his own innocence in a masterful public relations act, and voices his deep resentment concerning Joab and his brothers:

Today I am powerless, even though the anointed king; these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too violent for me (II Samuel 3:39).

The narrative has provided a clue for us about the jeopardy already building against Joab and his brothers.

2. But Joab is unfazed in his utter loyalty to David. He leads David’s battle against the Moabites while David remains at home (II Samuel 11:1). Then Joab silently, but with full understanding, undertakes the elimination of Uriah the Hittite, so as to eliminate an acute embarrassment for David. Indeed, Joab not only silently acts out David’s wish for the elimination of Uriah (11:16-17, but he takes great care to formulate his report to David with the wink of an eye:

The men gained an advantage over us, and came out against us in the field; but we drove them back to the entrance of the gate. Then the archers shot at your servants from the wall; some of the king’s servants are dead; and your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also (II Samuel 11:23-24).

Joab understands everything and says nothing. David nicely reassures Joab, all the while the two men have a silent agreement about what they have done together (11:25). Joab is fully implicated in the killing by David; or conversely, David is fully implicated in the killing by Joab. Either way, they have colluded in killing that served David well.

3. Joab asserts himself into the complex relationship between David and his son, Absalom (14:1-20). Joab acts, we are told, because he knows that Absalom was “on the king’s heart” (v. 1). Through a complex stratagem, Joab manages to get Absalom fully and honorably readmitted to the king’s presence (14:31). And then, by the very next verse, Absalom acts the rebel who wishes to seize the throne from his father (II Samuel; 15:1-12). While Joab has acted to restore Absalom to royal favor, there is no ambiguity about Joab’s loyalty. He is all David!  Consequently, after such a treasonable initiative, elaborate negotiations, and conflict between father and son, the settlement of the rebellion all comes down to Joab’s action. Joab is a “results man.” He does not hesitate to act. Absalom may be a beloved son of the king, but he is reckoned by Joab to be a traitor to his father. Joab has no patience for such niceties as the king’s emotion:

I will not waste time like this with you. He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him (II Samuel 18:14-15).

Joab has produced a result for his king. The rebel is dead.

Joab did what he had to do without blinking. He knows, nonetheless, that the news of Absalom’s death will not go down well with the king. And so, as in the case of the report of the death of Uriah the Hittite, Joab takes care about his communication with the king. In order to protect a well-connected messenger, Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest, Joab shrewdly dispatches a different messenger, a foreigner, a nameless Cushite (18:19-21).  And of course, the news of the death of Absalom, the traitor-son, does not go well with the king. Now, for the first time, David names Absalom as “my son”:

O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!...O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son! (II Samuel 18:33, 19:4).

The “results man” is undeterred by the grief of the king. He has a throne to worry about with no time for a weeping father. He rebukes the king for his public show of grief:

Then Joab came to the house of the king, and said, “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 your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now” (II Samuel 19:5-8).

Joab commands the king to make a public appearance, to wave to the crowd in triumph, or he will lose public support. The king obeys the uncompromising man of results!

Then the king got up and took his seat in the gate. The troops were all told, “See, the king is sitting in the gate”; and all the troops came before the king (II Samuel 19:8).

4. We now have three “results” that Joab has worked on behalf of David:

  • the elimination of Abner;
  • the elimination of Uriah;
  • the elimination of Absalom.

Joab’s action against Abner grated upon the king. David relied on Joab for the death of Uriah. In the case of Absalom, the king says nothing to Joab, but he surely was troubled by the death. But David’s vexation with Joab was not yet acute. And now, in a fourth case that is much less complex, Joab secures another “result” for his king. He confronts the rebellion of Sheba who leads a now feeble remnant of Saul’s following. Joab negotiates the death of Sheba the rebel:

Then the woman went to all the people with her wise plan. And they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, and all went to their homes, while Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king (II Samuel 20:22).

The matter receives no commentary, but David’s throne is yet again made secure.

5. Finally, we have one other episode in which Joab acts for the king, albeit this time against his own better judgment. The king proposes to conduct a census of “the people of Israel and Judah” (24:l). Joab knows that a census smacks of the bureaucracy of a kingdom that can serve only for taxation or for a military draft, neither of which could be a popular enterprise. Joab puts a question to the king:

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

He poses the question, but it is not really a question. It is a rebuke to the king like, “Why would you do such a stupid thing?” He warns the king against a mistaken policy initiative. David, however, is unyielding:

But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army (v. 4).

Having raised his objection to the king, Joab now acts in full and prompt obedience and initiates the king’s wish:

So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to take a census of the people of Israel. They crossed the Jordan, and began from Aroer and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites; and they came to Dan, and from Dan they went around to Sidon, and came to the fortress of Tyre, and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. So when they had gone all through the land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand (II Samuel 24:4-9).

We notice that the census is conducted by the military; and the outcome of the census is the number of potential soldiers. Thus the purpose of the census is to determine the extent of David’s military capacity.

Of course, we learn promptly in 24:10 that Joab had been right at the outset:

But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done…” (II Samuel 24:10).

Joab had obeyed his king, but he had yet again crossed the will of the king. There is no future comment on the matter.

We are not surprised by the turn of the narrative against Joab. Like all “men of results,”this one in ancient Israel is expendable. Joab has been steadfast in his intense loyalty to David. He has acted regularly in the king’s interest. Even so, Joab’s actions rubbed against the will of the king. He had killed Abner when David wanted Abner as an ally. He had killed Absalom who was David’s
well beloved son. He contradicted the king concerning the census.  David arrives in the narrative at this moment when “enough is enough.” And so, at the conclusion of the narrative concerning Absalom, David, who had fled from Jerusalem, is impatient about his return to his city; he is eager to be restored (19:9-10). He sends a chiding word to his two priests, Zadok and Abiathar; he reminds them that they are family (20:11-12). And then abruptly this:

And say to Amasa, “Are you not my bone and my flesh? So may God do to me, and more, if you are not the commander of my army from now on, in place of Joab.” Amasa swayed the hearts of all the people of Judah as one, and they sent word to the king, “Return, both you and all your servants.” So the king came back to the Jordan; and Judah came to Gilgal to meet the king and bring him over the Jordan (II Samuel 19:13-15).

The narrative has not apprised us of the moment when Joab was deposed by the king without explanation. David finds Amasa a useful figure who presides over his triumphant return to Jerusalem. Joab has been “fired.” (This must have been a shock to the public not unlike the dismissal of General McArthur by President Truman!)  Joab is gone in a whiff because, his many results withstanding, he has been around too long, has so many detractors, and is now eagerly swept away. Thus it is with many “results men,” not unlike Thomas Cromwell and not unlike Haldemann and Ehrlichmann. They are useful, and then they are used up. And so David, who makes his triumphant return to the city, amid much jubilation, alongside his new commander in his company. Of course many rushed to greet the king, hoping to find favor from him. Among those who gushed over the returning king was Shimei who had been previously saved by David, even though he had cursed the king (II Samuel 16:5-14). Some thought Shimei should die for such a cursing. Among those who thought that was Abishai, brother of Joab:

Abishai, son of Zeruiah answered, “Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed?” (II Samuel 19:21).

The king responds with what is now a refrain (see 3:39):

What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should today become an adversary to me? (II Samuel 19:22).

And so Shimei is spared, perhaps to spite Joab and his family. No mention is made of Joab. Indeed, no need of Joab for the restoration of David. The king, as kings do, has moved on, and Joab is used up without thanks and without pity. 

But Joab now is so filled with resentment that he acts abruptly to eliminate the man, Amasa, who has replaced him in the favor of David:

And 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 (II Samuel 20:9-10).

This ending is like what we might expect from a man of results who now is an enemy of the king and of the king’s new commander:

Amasa lay wallowing in his blood on the highway, and the man [one of Joab’s men] saw that all the people were stopping. Since he saw that all who came by were stopping, he carried Amasa from the highway into a field, and threw a garment over him. Once he was removed from the highway, all the people went on after Joab to pursue Sheba son of Bichri (II Samuel 19:12-13).

It is as though Joab was able to retain some of his popular support, at least for a time. That popular support, however, counted for nothing when the king had decided otherwise.

Finally we come to the tricky moment when David must transfer power to his son. By now, Joab is a spent force. But he is still around; and now he sides with David’s son, Adonijah in the contest for succession (I Kings 1:7). But Joab, now disregarded and forgotten, has his political judgment fail him. He bets on the wrong son! He sided with Adonijah and not Solomon, the son of Bathsheba. It is her son who will become king.

It remains only to give sad closure to the life and work of Joab, the consummate “results man.” David had for a long time been uneasy about Joab and his brothers and their propensity to violence. He was uneasy even though their violence mostly has been in his service. Thus it is not a great surprise that in the drawn out deathbed scene of the old king, Joab’s name comes up once more. In I Kings 2:1-4, David issues his last counsel to his successor, his son Solomon. These lines must have been for public consumption in order to exhibit the old king as a worthy son of the Torah. What follows this paragraph is a very different kind of advice for the new king, surely not intended for the public. In verses 5-9, we go behind the public portrayal of the king and actually see how “royal sausage” is made. These verses show that the old king (or the narrator) has a long, unforgiving memory. There is one happy note in these hard verses, a generous remembrance of Barzillai, on which see 19:31-40. (I Kings 2:7). Otherwise the king’s words are about settling old scores. On the one hand, there is a death sentence for Shimei, the northern rebel whom David had let live, perhaps to spite Joab (2:8-9). On the other hand, there is Joab who comes first on the list of the king:

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, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, and putting the blood of war on the belt around his waist, and on the sandals of his feet. Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace (II Kings 2:5-6).

He issues a death sentence for his best “result man.” He has no ambiguity about the matter. He has no more use for the ruthlessness of Joab.

Solomon is quick to act. First he deals with his rival brother, Adonijah (vv. 13-25). His agent in the execution is Benaniah who has replaced Joab as military commander. Second, there is Abiathar the priest who also bet on the wrong son (see 1:7). Respecting his sacral office, Abiathar is banned and not executed “at this time” (2:26-27). Third, there is Joab (vv. 28-30). The killing of Joab is carefully done. Benaniah, the new “results man,” sends word back to Solomon and receives assurance before he acts. But Solomon is adamant and unwavering; he can recall the same two killings by Joab that his father had named:

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 (I Kings 2:32).

Joab is now a pitiful figure grasping at the horns of the altar. Now he has no more medals, no more rank, and no more prestige. He is desperate, but his belated appeal to the Lord of altar and tent do him no good now. It is too late; he dies as results men are wont to do, unwept, unmissed, ungrieved. And Benaniah is now secure in his office. In order to conclude the paragraph, Shimei gets the same fate, even though David had let him live (2:36-46). It only required these several deaths to settle old scores and to secure the throne:

So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon (I Kings 2:46).

The kingdom of David had no more lasting commitment to this results man than did the British Empire. We are left to wonder why some willingly take on the role of “results men.” And why we engage them to do that work. The “results” often do not pan out. And we wonder, in the wake of this violence, if there could possibly be “a more excellent way.”

When the church reads the narrative of Joab, it can reflect upon the need for and the problem of “results” women and men. The church is not a natural habitat for “results men” or women. No doubt the church requires a few such persons in its midst, because there are plans to be made, decisions to be faced, buildings to be maintained, budgets to be managed, and programs to be implemented. There is need for some “results” in the church. For the most part, however, the church is not a community designed for or called to results. It is, rather, a movement of glad people who are “on the way” with Jesus. That journey is a meandering path with Jesus, from village to village, from hurt to hurt, from need to need, and from hope to hope. Thus as every wise pastor knows, the real “business” of most church meetings is not “the business,” but the richness of interaction among the members in a process that my friend, John McKnight, terms “associational life.” The church is a company in which, in a face-to-face way,

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it (I Corinthians 12:26).

In the process of such neighboring, the church engages in obedience to the gospel to do the reconciling, emancipatory, transformative work of Jesus. It is a way of life that is not propelled by “results,” but by faithfulness. For that reason, the church stands in sharp contrast to every “empire” and to every agency that is driven by “results.” Given such a different mandate, we are “on the way,” a way that may be as joyous as it may be costly.

Walter Brueggemann

September 5, 2022


Walter Brueggemann is 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.



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