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Joab's Shofar

by Tim O'Hearn

It is not unusual to read about trumpets in the scriptures. The shofar was an important communications device in the ancient Jewish world. Two silver shofarim were designated for the priests to signal assemblies to the nation of Israel. (Numbers 10) Of course, the most well-known use of trumpets is the holiday of Rosh HaShana, known in the Bible under the name the Feast of Trumpets. (This holiday occurs on September 25 in 2014.) There are other uses of the shofar that might teach us lessons, though they may be less obvious.

In 2 Samuel 2, David’s army, under the leadership of Joab, was facing the army of the tribe of Benjamin, under Abner. Abner had been a leader under King Saul of Benjamin, and now led the resistance to David’s becoming king over all Israel. The two armies were camped on opposite sides of the pool of Gibeon. They engaged in a battle in which Abner killed Joab’s brother, Asahel, but was soundly defeated. Abner begs Joab to end the fighting before more people die. “So Joab blew a shofar, and all the people stood still, and pursued after Israel no more, neither fought they any more.” (2 Sam 2:28)

Several years later, after David had been established as king, Absalom, his son, led a rebellion. It seemed that he had gained the support of much of Israel, and so David had fled the capital. Absalom followed him and the opposing troops engaged in battle. Again, Joab led David’s army. During the battle, Absalom was guilty of inattentive driving of his mule (texting his general, perhaps), and ended up getting his head caught between the limbs of a tree. His mule went on and he hung suspended between heaven and earth. Contrary to David’s orders, Joab and his armor bearers killed the young upstart. “And Joab blew the shofar, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel: for Joab held back the people.” (2 Samuel 18:16)

We often hear of the trumpet signaling the attack, but sometimes there is value in restraining the urge to fight. Sometimes we should be like Jubilation T. Cornpone (in the play Li’l Abner) who “led the charge that took us straight to the rear.” When is it good to listen to the shofar of retreat?

The first time Joab blew the retreat was when the victory had been established, and to fight further would have brought greater harm than good. We face these situations on occasion. Those who are prone to debate the scriptures, particularly those who do so with the intention of showing others how wrong they are, sometimes should listen to Joab’s shofar. There is a time for showing people what the scriptures say. There is a time, even, for demonstrating the error of their ways. If a person is unaware of his sin he will never repent. When one crosses the line between correcting another and begins giving them more than forty lashes, then they should retreat. Getting one to the point of repentance may bring salvation; continuing to beat him beyond that point tends to bring resistance. Quit while you are ahead, as Joab did.

The second time Joab blew retreat, he did so too late. He had the situation in hand, but waited to recall the army until after he had crossed the line. The time to blow retreat is before being overcome by sin, not after. Too often there is a tendency to “rush in where angels fear to tread.” We attack sin as if it is something to be embraced rather than conquered. A good general knows that a timely retreat may give him an opportunity for victory another day. Joab had known that against Abner, but failed to practice it when tempted to kill Absalom.

Listen for the shofar. The whole point of the blowing of the instrument on Rosh HaShana is to call one away from sin and toward repentance. Listen to the shofar while it can still give an advantage. Learn the right time to give up. Be like the younger Joab, rather than the older one.