David and Joab – being the friend of a narcissist

Absalom and Joab

Trapped by his beautiful hair, the rebel Absalom is killed by Joab in this painting by the early 17th-century artist Giovanni Battista Viola from the Louvre.

This will probably be my final post, at least for now, in my series about David being a narcissist. I wanted to write something about what it’s like to be the friend of a narcissist, and in some ways I can relate to the biblical character Joab who seems to me to have been one of David’s best friends (if narcissists have “friends” in the same way most of us think of friendship).

Joab was David’s nephew – the son of his sister Zeruiah – the comander-in-chief of his army (1 Chronicles 11:4-6), and probably the commander of an elite group known as “the mighty men” (2 Samuel 10:7). He is credited with defeating several of David’s enemies and taking a number of cities (including Jebus, better known as Jerusalem, which became David’s capital [2 Chronicles 11:4-9]), and was the leading military figure throughout David’s reign. He is depicted as David’s staunchest supporter, and as the power behind the throne. At times he went against David’s express wishes – such as when he had David’s rebel son Absalom killed against David’s orders – but it seems when he did so it was always for David’s benefit. When Joab achieved victories for David, he gave David the credit even after David ceased to be actively involved in military campaigns (such as in the Ammonite and Syrian wars 2 Samuel 12:26-30; 21:15-17). Joab was the person responsible for putting down the rebellions of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:1-17) and Sheba (2 Samuel 20:1-22). In fact, Joab never lost a battle! To protect David, he also covered up David’s affair with Uriah’s wife. Unlike Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, Joab had no ambitions to occupy the throne himself. His only interest was to support David.

Yet David does not seem to show much gratitude to Joab for all he did for him. After Joab killed Abner (who switched his allegiance from Ishbosheth, Saul’s successor, to David) to avenge the murder of his brother at Abner’s hand – a move which benefitted David politically –  David publicly humiliated him and made him walk in sackcloth at Abner’s funeral. Yet, all the time Joab continued to work to support and strengthen David’s hold on power. After the death of Amnon, David’s heir apparent, he engineered for Absalom to return to court because he knew David pined for him (2 Samuel 14:1). This was a politically savvy move, as it brought Absalom back to Jerusalem where his ambitions could be held in check, because Absalom’s popularity was increasing and David’s was waning. Soon after, when David was publicly humiliated by an irate citizen, David blamed Joab for his declining popularity! (2 Samuel 16:9-10). Despite this public betrayal Joab remained loyal and saved David’s throne during Absalom’s revolt. Again, instead of being grateful to Joab for putting down the rebellion and saving his life, David lamented Absalom’s death, sapping the morale of his loyal fighting men and earning the rebuke of Joab on their behalf (2 Samuel 19:5-6). Again and again David publicly humiliated Joab and blamed him for his miseries, yet Joab remained loyal and worked tirelessly to support him. David’s generosity to others never flowed to Joab. Eventually David replaced Joab with Absalom’s former general Amasa, even though he lacked the support of the military and was a less capable leader. When there was another attempted revolt against David, this time by Sheba, it was apparent that Amasa would not be capable of putting down the rebellion. Joab murdered him, regained control of the military, defeated Sheba and put down the revolt. When Joab returned to Jerusalem it becomes clear that he was acknowledged by David as commander-in-chief (2 Samuel 20:23), although we get no details. Again it seems that David is incapable of recognising loyalty or showing gratitude to his most devoted supporter.

On his deathbed David warned Solomon to watch out for Joab! Even though he benefitted politically from the deaths of both Abner and Amasa, he told Solomon their deaths (at the hand of Joab) should be avenged, so after David’s death Joab was murdered on the orders of Solomon while seeking sanctuary at the altar of the Tabernacle (1 Kings 2:30-31). Loyal to David to the end, Joab was struck down on the advice of his ungrateful and vindictive ‘friend’ who depended on him for his success but could not bring himself to show any gratitude. In death, David proved himself, in my opinion, to be a narcissist beyond doubt. Narcissists depend on loyal supporters; they have a way of attracting people who are loyal and resourceful, and who will be useful to them, but they never really make them their “friends”. For a narcissist it’s a one-way relationship: they expect the people who are closest to them to be loyal and devoted, but it is never reciprocated. They seem to be almost incapable of showing gratitude, of putting themselves out for someone else, or able to reward loyalty.

I sympathise with Joab. Loyal to the end, but murdered for it. He probably would have made a better king than David, although he had no personal ambitions to rule. It’s likely he even genuinely loved David and only wanted the best for him. Narcissists are likeable, even loveable, but are rarely capable of reciprocating that love and devotion. Unless you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, or been a friend to one, it may be difficult to understand why someone like Joab could be so loyal to someone who never rewarded his loyalty or showed any gratitude. But if you have had that misfortune then, like me, you may be able to identify with the real victim in this story, Joab: the loyal and devoted servant who was humiliated, shunned and punished for his devotion.