From New World Encyclopedia
Illustration from the Morgan Bible (Maciejowski Bible) depicting the death of Ish-bosheth.

Ish-bosheth (also called Eshba'al, Ashba'al, or Ishbaal), was the second king of Israel, succeeding his father Saul after his death at the Battle of Mount Gilboa. He reigned for several years from the city of Mahanaim the late eleventh century B.C.E., facing a civil war led by the future king David and his powerful general Joab.

After years of waning effectiveness, Ish-bosheth lost the loyalty of his own military chief, Abner, who went secretly over to David's cause after being accused by Ish-bosheth of sleeping with one of Saul's concubines. In the process of mobilizing support for David's cause, however, Abner was slain by his rival, Joab. The politically and militarily weakened Ish-bosheth was soon assassinated by two of his own captains. He left no known heirs, and the apparent heir to the throne, Ish-bosheth's newphew Mephi-bosheth, was eventually placed under life-long house arrest in Jerusalem by King David.


Ish-bosheth's men, under Abner, battle David's forces, under Joab.

Not the first in line to Saul's throne, Ish-bosheth was proclaimed king over Israel by Abner, the captain of Saul's army, at Mahanaim, after Saul was killed at the battle of Gilboa along with his other sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua (2 Samuel 2:8; 1 Samuel 31:1). Ish-bosheth was reportedly 40 years old at this time and reigned over Israel for two years (2 Samuel 2:10). However, 2 Samuel 3:1 indicates a longer period. Scholars believe Ish-bosheth may have been younger than 40 when he came to the throne, and that he probably reigned for closer to seven years.[1]

Prior to Ish-bosheth's reign, Saul's son Jonathan had been the heir-apparent to the throne of Israel. Abner, Saul's military commander, was also Saul's first cousin and thus an older second cousin—a type of "uncle"—to Ish-bosheth. While Ish-bosheth and Abner consolidated support in the north, Saul's former captain and estranged son-in-law, David, had established a following among the tribe of Judah. Formerly allied with the Philistines, David ended this alliance and now sought the kingship of Israel, setting up his capital in Hebron, southwest of Jerusalem. Although Ish-bosheth was next in line by right of succession, David claimed divine authority on the basis of his being anointed by the prophet Samuel.

A long civil war followed. Ish-bosheth established his capital at Mahanaim. Its exact location is unknown, but it is guessed to be situated east of the Jordan River in the area of Gilead. The Bible indicates that Ish-bosheth controlled the larger territory, including: "Gilead, Ashuri (probaly meaning Asher), and Jezreel, and also Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel." David, meanwhile, reigned only over a single tribe, Judah, and clearly not the whole territory assigned to it. The degree of control by either king over these territories is disputed. Philistines were still dominant in much of the area west of the Jordan River, and the cohesion of the northern tribes under Ish-bosheth's ineffectual rule could not have been strong.

Abner and Joab

The Bible relates few details about the war between David as king of Judah and Ish-bosheth as king of Israel. However, a key element in the struggle was clearly a blood feud between Ish-bosheth's general, Abner, and David's general, Joab.

In a moment of apparent peace between the two camps, Joab met Abner at the pool of Gibeon. Abner proposed that their younger warriors engage in apparently friendly hand-to-hand combat. The fighting, involving 12 young men from each side, quickly turned serious, with Joab's men gaining the upper hand. Joab's fleet-footed brother Asahel chased Abner. Abner twice declined to engage Asahel. However, when Asahel stubbornly refused to give up the chase, Abner finally turned and killed him with a blunted spear thrust. Joab's forces then pursued Abner to exact vengeance, and the tribe of Benjamin rallied to Abner's defense. After considerable bloodshed, Abner offered a truce, and Joab accepted. The casualties among Joab's forces were counted at 19 missing, while the number of dead among Abner's allies was 360. The scope of this battle, while not nearly so impressive as other warfare described in the Bible, may be typical of the historical tribal warfare that characterized this period of Israel's history.

Abner's Defection

The struggle between David's and Ish-bosheth's forces continued for "a long time." The Bible relates that during the course of events, "David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker" (2 Sam. 3:1). A major unfavorable event for Ish-bosheth occurred when Abner turned traitor and went over to David's side after a scandal involving Abner's alleged affair with a concubine of Ish-bosheth's father, Saul (2 Sam. 3).

Having consolidated his own position in Ish-bosheth's kingdom, Abner allegedly sought to strengthen his political position by taking possession of Saul's former concubine, Rizpah, daughter of Aiah. When Ish-bosheth attempted to assert his own authority by accusing Abner of this crime, Abner did not deny it, but rebuffed Ish-bosheth, saying:

Am I a dog's head—on Judah's side? This very day I am loyal to the house of your father Saul and to his family and friends. I haven't handed you over to David. Yet now you accuse me of an offense involving this woman! (3:8)

Abner leaves David with treacherous orders.

Fearing Abner's position as the veteran leader of the army, Ish-bosheth failed to act decisively in the matter, and Abner used the opportunity to send messengers to David offering to defect. "Make a covenant with me," Abner offered, "and I will help you bring all Israel over to you." (3:12)

As proof of Abner's good faith and his ability to deliver, David demanded that he bring with him Michal, the daughter of Saul, who had been David's first love and young wife, but had later been given by Saul to another man. Apparently thinking Abner was arranging a peace agreement with David on Israel's behalf, Ish-bosheth foolishly allowed both Michal and Abner to leave, giving orders that she be taken forcibly from her husband. In a truly pitiful scene, Michal's husband, Paltiel son of Laish, followed the delegation, "weeping behind her all the way to Bahurim," until the decisive Abner ordered him to go home.

Abner then reported to David at his capital of Hebron, bringing not only Michal, but also 20 soldiers and a pledge of loyalty from Saul's tribe of Benjamin, as well as the promise of support from elements of other northern tribes who had lost faith in Ish-bosheth's leadership. David then dispatched Abner north to garner the promised support.

However, David had not counted on the craftiness of his own general, Joab. Learning of Abner's visit to Hebron, Joab immediately sent messengers to recall him. When Abner dutifully returned, Joab stabbed him in the stomach and killed him, "to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel." There can be little doubt that Joab also sensed in Abner a threat to his own position. David publicly declared himself innocent of the crime, cursing Joab's family and ordering him to repent publicly for the murder. However David did not demote Joab or otherwise punish him for his act.


Still apparently believing that Abner was on Israel's side and not David's, Ish-bosheth reportedly became greatly discouraged at the news of Abner's death.

David receives the obeisance of Ish-bosheth's nephew, Mephi-bosheth.

Sensing Ish-bosheth's weakness, two of his captains, Baanah and Recab, conspired to do away with him. Approaching his house on a hot afternoon when the king was napping, they stabbed him in the stomach and decapitated him, then made their escape. They brought his head to David at Hebron, expecting a reward. David, not at all impressed by these men who would kill their own king, promptly had the assassins put to death and then buried Ish-bosheth's head with some degree of honor, in Abner's tomb (2 Sam. 4).

The royal house of Saul came to an end with Ish-bosheth's death. However, his nephew Mephi-bosheth, a son of Jonathan, survived him. Once his kingdom had been consolidated, David brought Mephi-bosheth to Jerusalem, ostensibly to "show kindness" to Saul's line, but no doubt also to prevent Mephi-bosheth from becoming a rallying point for northern tribes opposed to Judah's dominance. Although Ish-bosheth's lineage is not heard from again, the cause of Israel's independence from Judah would reassert several more times in succeeding decades, finally succeeding in the days of David's grandson Rehoboam, who lost the northern territories to the successful rebellion of Jerobaom I.

The Names

The names Ish-bosheth (used in 2 Samuel) and Ashba'al of Eshba'al (used in Chronicles) are unusual in some ways, as they have ambiguous meanings in the original Hebrew. "Ish" means "[great] man" and "bosheth" means "[given to] bashfulness/humility" or "[sensitive to] shame." However, it can also mean "shameful (or shamed) person." He is also called Ashba'al in Hebrew. "Ba'al" here could mean "master," but could also refer to the Canaanite deity, Baal. Thus the name could be "[person of] master[y]," or it could refer to a "man of Ba'al." Archaeologists have found that in Saul and David's time, "Ba'al" names were not uncommon in Israel.

Critical scholarship suggests that bosheth is a substitute for Ba'al, when Ba'al became an unspeakable word. A similar but opposite principle applied when the word Adonai (Lord) was substituted for the unspeakable name of the Hebrew God Yhwh, or Yahweh.


Map showing tribal areas.

The civil war between David and Ish-bosheth seems to have occupied only a small area in northern Judah. As with all of the northern kings, historians are skeptical to accept the biblical story of Ish-bosheth's reign at face value. No northern account of Ish-bosheth's reign, or Saul's, has survived intact. To the writers of the Bible, who were generally partisans of the southern cause, David is the archetype of the righteous king beloved by God, whose decisions in war (if not in love) nearly always reflect the divine will. Ish-bosheth, on the other hand, is the product of a lineage already rejected by God when his father Saul failed to be zealous enough in battle against Israel's enemies. Ish-bosheth not only inherits Saul's occasional weakness, but exemplifies it in his every act. However, no mention is made of any sin committed by Ish-bosheth. Perhaps his very name (Esh-ba'al—man of Ba'al, or Ish-bosheth—man of shame) is enough.

Yet, even if Ish-bosheth is not treated fairly by the biblical writers, there is little reason to doubt the outline of his reign as they present it. He became king through Abner's strength more than his own. The one battle described in his reign is more of a skirmish between Joab's men and Abner's, resulting in a blood feud between the two war chiefs. When Joab finally avenged his brother's death at Abner's hands, both the blood feud between their families and the war between David and Ish-bosheth came to an end. The story of David's demanding the return of Michal from Ish-bosheth as part of an agreement worked out through the "back-channel" of Abner also has the ring of truth to it, as does the tale of Abner's alleged affair with one of Saul's concubines. Ish-bosheth's assassination is likely an historical fact and even David's treatment of his killers is quite plausible, especially in terms of character.

Ish-bosheth's story also reveals the historical truth that David's "united kingdom" was not united at all during the first years of his reign. He controlled only certain parts of Judah, not even yet including the Jebusite town of Jerusalem, not to mention the many areas under Philistine domination. Neither Saul, nor David in his early years, nor Ish-bosheth was truly a national-level king. During the entirety of the struggle between them, Ish-bosheth and David were in reality only tribal leaders, with Ish-bosheth and not David having extended his influence beyond his own tribe of Benjamin to include Ephraim, probably Asher, Jezreel, the Gileadite portions of Gad, and other non-Benjaminite areas. Once David proved victorious in the civil war, he consolidated his rule but faced several rebellions in which some among the northern tribes rejected his reign, including a major revolt led by his son Absalom which drove David from his own capital.

The spiritual legacy of Ish-bosheth as king of the northern tribes reasserted itself in the days of Jeroboam I, the Ephraimite labor leader who, with initial support from the northern prophet Ahijah, challenged the rule of David's grandson Rehoboam and successfully asserted Israel's independence from Judah.


  1. John William Weavers, "The Second Book of Samuel." In Interpreters' One-Volume Commentary on the Bible George A. Buttrick and Charles M. Laymon (eds.), 1971.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bright, John. A History of Israel. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000. ISBN 0664220681
  • Buttrick, George A., and Charles M. Laymon (eds.). The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Abingdon Press, 1971. ISBN 978-0687192991
  • Finkelstein, Israel. David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition. Free, 2006. ISBN 0743243625
  • Galil, Gershon. The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1996. ISBN 9004106111
  • Grant, Michael. The History of Ancient Israel. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984. ISBN 0684180812
  • Keller, Werner. The Bible as History. NY: Bantam, 1983. ISBN 0553279432
  • Laymon, Charles M. “The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible.” Abingdon. 1971.
  • Miller, J. Maxwell. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 1986. ISBN 066421262X

Preceded by:
King of Israel
Albright: c.1000 B.C.E.
Galil: c.1010 B.C.E. – 1008 B.C.E.
Succeeded by: David


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