One of the most important questions to ask while studying a biblical text is: why is this written the way it’s written? In other words: why did the author say this and why did he say it like this and not like that? The reason this question is so important is because the text is written in a very intentional way. Every detail is important and has significance.
Consider, for example, the story of Abner’s death in 2 Samuel 3. For the purposes of this post I will only comment on two details connected to his death that are easily overlooked but actually turn out to be quite significant. Note first of all that in 3:27 the author mentions that Abner came back to Hebron. The fact that Hebron is mentioned is significant, because the author did not have to give us this information. He could have simply told us that Joab sent messengers after Abner, that Abner came back and that Joab killed him. But apparently the author does not just want us to know that Abner was killed but also where he was killed. In fact, the author gets even more precise by revealing that Abner was killed in the gate of Hebron. Why is this important?
At this point a second important question comes into play, namely the question: What does this remind me of? In this particular case the terms “Hebron” and “gate” in combination with a killing done to avenge a relative should cause the attentive reader to remember several passages that talk about so-called cities of refuge. Of particular interest is the legislation given in Joshua 20:1-9:
Then the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood. ‘And he shall flee to one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place, so that he may dwell among them. ‘Now if the avenger of blood pursues him, then they shall not deliver the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand. ‘And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the manslayer shall return to his own city and to his own house, to the city from which he fled.'” So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the appointed cities for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them, that whoever kills any person unintentionally may flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stands before the congregation.
Note that in contrast to Num 35 and Deut 19 this chapter only gives instructions concerning the person who killed another unintentionally, that is without premeditation. Such a person was to flee to a city of refuge, state his case in the gate of the city, and be given a place to dwell in the city. According to v 7 Hebron was one of the six cities of refuge selected by the sons of Israel.
With this information in mind we now return to 2 Sam 3:27. The author informs us in that verse that Joab killed Abner “on account of the blood of Asahel his brother.” Thus Joab was acting as an avenger of blood. However, Asahel was killed during battle which means that his death was not murder in a technical sense. In addition, when the author reported the death of Asahel back in 2 Sam 2, he was at pains to show that Abner did not want to kill Asahel and apparently acted purely in self-defense. This means that Abner killed without premeditation and therefore should have been safe in Hebron. Instead he is murdered there in the gate – the very place where the slayer was to state his case before the elders before receiving refuge in the city. By specifying where Abner died, the author thus helps the reader to evaluate Joab’s act. By killing Abner in the gate (the place of judgment in ancient times) of Hebron Joab took judgment into his own hands (instead of letting the congregation pronounce the sentence) and showed his disregard for the law of God. Yet by killing Abner in the gate Joab fittingly also pronounced judgment upon himself and foreshadowed his own death: as he killed Abner in a place of refuge so he himself would later be killed in a place of refuge (1 Ki 2:28-35). In contrast to Abner, however, Joab was guilty, for he did kill with premeditation and therefore was not safe in a place of refuge.