Abishai, the little-known warrior who saved David’s life, was an instrumental commander in David’s military. He is not as well known as his notorious brother, Joab, but he was just as capable and just as fearless. Abishai held two prominent positions within David’s military. He typically commanded a division in the army and was a member of the exclusive military club known as “The Thirty” (David’s mighty men). No doubt his military skills contributed greatly to the growth of David’s empire and squashing rebellions.
Nephew to a King, Brother to a General
Abishai was one of three warrior brothers who served under King David. But he was also David’s nephew, the son of his sister Zeruiah. His brothers were Joab, the commander of the Army, and Asahel, a commander in the militia.
Impulsive and Fearless
Abishai’s impulsiveness, with little fear of consequences, is one of his marking traits. His impetuous nature led to extreme acts of courage at times but would invite David’s ire at others.
Abishai Volunteers for a Suicide Mission
When Saul was pursuing David in the wilderness of Ziph, Abishai fearlessly volunteers to accompany King David on a suicidal mission. Through scouts, David learns of Saul’s location and asks both a Hittite warrior and Abishai if either will follow him into the enemy’s lair. Abishai volunteers and he and David sneak into the camp undetected. With impressive stealth, both men reach a sleeping Saul and steal his sword (and a jug of water). (I Samuel 26).
That same impulsiveness that drove Abishai to so quickly volunteer, would also drive him to ask David the unthinkable, a chance to spear Saul. By this point, Abishai should have known David was unwilling to execute the Israeli king. David previously had the opportunity to kill Saul himself but refused to. Upon hearing Abishai’s request, David corrected him, telling him it was improper to kill God’s anointed king. The lesson, however, did not seem to make an impression on Abishai.
Abishai and Joab Murder Abner
A few years later, Abishai’s brother Asahel is killed in self-defense by the commander of Israel’s army, Abner, during the battle of Gibeon (II Samuel 2:12-32). David ruled only Judah at this time, but Abner would later make peace with David. The agreement between David and Abner was strategic in nature because Abner planned to use his influence to bring the whole of Israel under David’s control (II Samuel 3:1-25). However, Joab conspires with Abishai, and both kill Abner in revenge for their brother’s death (II Samuel 3:26-30). In this act, he was insubordinate, driven by passion, and stood in direct contrast to David’s gracious treatment of Saul.
Abishai asks to execute Shimei.
There is at least one other record illustrating Abishai’s impetuous nature. While David fled from Jerusalem during his son Absalom’s coup, David and his entourage came across a noble from Saul’s family named Shimei (II Samuel 16:5-14). Shimei threw stones at David and his party and insulted David. It was a bold, but foolish move. Abishai wanted to strike him dead right there and there for insulting his king, but David stayed his hand once again, responding with, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah?” (II Samuel 16:10). Clearly, Abishai was not the only impulsive, bloodthirsty brother.
Although impulsive, Abishai was a capable leader and military commander. Based on the textual evidence, Abishai commanded one of two or three divisions in David’s army under his brother Joab. There are three separate accounts confirming this role. (For more on the organization of the military, read, “The Organization of David’s Military.“)
Abishai in Command Against the Ammonites
Abishai and his brother Joab were able to defeat a two-front engagement against the Ammonites and their Syrian mercenaries. In this account, Joab divided his forces into two divisions, placing Abishai in command of the forces engaging the Ammonites while he faced the Syrians (II Samuel 10). The battle turned in Israel’s favor causing both the Syrian and Ammonite forces to flee.
Abishai Prevails Against the Edomites
There are three separate scriptures referencing the defeat of the Edomites. On the surface, the three verses appear to contradict each other. II Samuel 8:13 attributes the defeat to David, II Chronicles 18:12 attributes the defeat to Abishai, and Psalm 60:1 attributes the defeat to Joab. However, it is common for anyone in the chain of command to be given credit for a military victory achieved by his subordinates. That is clearly what happens here.
Knowing that Joab was the commander of the Army, the victory could be more directly attributed to Abishai. The mention of Abishai in the scriptures during the war against the Edomites highlights his effectiveness as a military leader and tactician.
Abishai Commands a Division to Defeat Absalom
In the battle to reclaim his throne during Absalom’s coup, David divides his military forces into three divisions (II Samuel 18:2). He places Abishai in command of one of them and Joab and Ittai the Gittite in command of the other two. The battle is fought mostly in the woods of Ephraim where the rough terrain contributed to a large number of casualties. King David’s forces, however, emerge victorious.
Abishai in Pursuit of Sheba
Not too long after Absalom’s coup, Sheba rallies the men of Israel to follow him and rebel against David. By this point, David had replaced Joab as the commander of his army with Amasa. Amasa was instructed by David to call up the men of Judah (probably militia reserves to reinforce its depleted force from the Absalom coup). Amasa tarries, so David places his existing force under the command of Abishai to pursue Sheba. David’s choice illustrates his confidence in Abishai’s abilities as a commander (II Samuel 20).
Unfortunately, while en route, Joab murders Amasa and takes control of the military. While the text does not implicate Abishai in the plot against Amasa, it appears he might have relinquished control to his brother Joab. (II Samuel 20:10)
Leader of the Thirty
Abishai was a member of the elite group, “The Thirty,” also known as David’s Mighty Men. This was an honor shared by his brother Asahel, but not Joab. Per II Samuel 23:18 and I Chronicles 11:20, Abishai might have commanded the group at one point. The translation of this verse is difficult so there is a disagreement among scholars about whether he was chief of the three or chief of the thirty. Considering his position within the army, he was likely the commander of the larger group.
Regardless of his position among The Thirty, Abishai was a warrior’s warrior. The biblical text chronicles Abishai’s most incredible feat, killing three hundred men with a spear.
Abishai Saves David’s Life
When David was in his 60s, Israel was again at war with the Philistines. By this point, most giants had been killed, but four remained who fought with the Philistines. One of them, Ishbi-benob, sought David in the field of battle and almost killed him. David was no longer that young, vibrant warrior who slew Goliath with a sling. Age had taken its toll and it showed on the battlefield.
Abishai reached David in time to save him from the giant no doubt using his superb skills as a warrior to best Ishbi-benob (II Samuel 21:16-17). However, this incident effectively ends David’s military career. David’s men told him he was no longer able and capable of joining his forces in the heat of battle.
Loyal to His Brother and to His King
King David clearly trusted Abishai to command his forces throughout the wars of expansion and the wars to secure his kingdom. Abishai proved his loyalty to David on several occasions, the most notable one was toward the end of David’s reign when he saved his life. However, it is also clear that Abishai was easily influenced by his brother Joab, engaging in insubordination against his King when they killed Abner and then when he presumably relinquished command to Joab while in pursuit of Sheba. It is telling, though, that when Joab commits treason against King David and the heir to the throne, Solomon, Abishai’s name is absent from the record. That might have been a bridge too far for Abishai. This mighty warrior might have been ultimately loyal to David after all.