The Most Relatable Character in the Old Testament

Many resonate with David’s rollercoaster of a faith journey, but perhaps his overlooked counterpart captures the flaws of Christians more accurately?

Before sitting down to write this, I did a quick survey of people’s favorite Old Testament Bible character and story.

Without much surprise, one leader in the survey was the character of David and of course the associated story of David and Goliath. This came as no surprise as David captures many people’s hearts with his underdog status and humble spirit. However, when David finally reaches the throne of Israel, there is another man whose story is interwoven into the story of David. In fact, they share almost completely equal page time. Who is that character? Joab: captain of David’s army.

Why don’t more people think of Joab as a common Bible character though? He occupies many stories as a supporting character and leads in several stories on his own. The likely problem is that he shares the story with David and David serves for most people as a connectable character with whom they sympathize and in whom they see themselves. Missionaries too can struggle with the idea of being spiritual heroes. While this isn’t always intentional, it can build during visits home or on furlough. They can seem to be like David facing the Goliath of the unreached. Or they can connect with the struggle and loneliness of David. However, for me personally as a missionary, when I began to see myself more as a Joab, his story provided a place of challenge for my heart that helped me to capture the tendencies of my selfishness. I believe that if more missionaries considered how much we may be like Joab, we may be better able to quash our selfishness before it causes us to sin, especially since we can often serve without as much accountability as our pastor counterparts (I know this is a generalization).

We first see the heart of Joab early in the reign of David. While we think of David as becoming king after Saul died, there was actually a civil war for some time. In an early battle, the general of David’s enemy killed Joab’s brother. Eventually that general fell out of favor with his leader and decided to come and join David. David was quick to forgive and welcome him into his circle. However, Joab was not so happy as this man had fought him for years and killed his brother. When Joab had the chance, he called the general aside privately and killed him (2 Samuel 2-3). When I stop to think about it, Joab’s response seems so much more natural and normal. If someone has fought you for years and taken things that were precious to you, would you forgive them the moment they asked?

Repeatedly through the remainder of 2 Samuel, David often responds to situations with overwhelming grace and forgiveness. He doesn’t punish his son Amnon for a horrible act in the family. He doesn’t step in when another son, Absalom kills Amnon. He refuses to fight when Absalom takes over his own kingdom. And when fighting does begin, he begs his army not to kill the very son who took his kingdom. That level of forgiveness would often be considered weakness and a failure of leadership. Indeed, that is exactly what Joab thinks each and every time. And whenever Joab thinks that David isn’t responding the correct way, Joab works to take care of the situation the correct way.

Time and again, Joab acts in the way he feels will best bring success and security to the kingdom. It is no surprise then that when David sends word to leave Uriah out to die in battle, there is no question from Joab. That sort of behavior is exactly in line with his method of doing business. And so, for Joab, the success of David is of far greater worth than pleasing God. Indeed, we see no hint that Joab values God’s character in any way until the very end of his life. When David dies, he appoints Solomon to be king next. However, Joab had aligned himself with another son of David, Adonijah. Upon realizing that he backed the wrong candidate for king, Joab runs for the tabernacle of God. But rather than sacrifice and repent, he clings to the altar with his own hands and refuses to leave the premises. Ultimately, Solomon’s new general comes into the tabernacle and kills Joab.

Joab operated his life based upon human wisdom and strategy. His only attempt to appeal to God is in a corrupt last-ditch effort to save his own life. But how much different is that story than my own life or the life of other missionaries? Do I operate on the principals of God or on strategy and human logic and planning? Do I submit my life to God at every moment or only when my own efforts have utterly failed? As I realize that I am much more likely to act like Joab, I realize that it will require humility of a daily sort. Joab ultimately spilled his own blood on the altar instead of recognizing the need to live in sacrifice to God. In order to avoid the same fate, I must submit my wisdom in favor of God’s each and every day.

As missionaries, we are often excellent planners and spend much time making strategies. But our service must always come under the guiding hand of our loving God.

Caleb Gibbs

Caleb Gibbs serves with his family in Jamaica as a missionary with ABWE. His focus is on training and discipleship with the churches of Jamaica. He is passionate about teaching every part of the Bible and seeing people grow in their understanding and excitement for the more obscure aspects of the Bible. Support the Gibbs’ ministry.