In book 1 of Melachim (Kings) 2:28, Yoav took hold of the horns of the altar. What is the significance of this?

When the news reached Joab, he fled to the Tent of the LORD and grasped the horns of the altar—for Joab had sided with Adonijah, though he had not sided with Absalom.

Was it a safety net or was he praying to G-d?


3 Answers 3


Yoav believed that grabbing on to the "horns" of the altar would provide him a sanctuary so that King Solomon would not kill him. The Judaica Press edition in the commentary on 1 Melachim 2:28 cites Makos 12a:

Our sages make note of Yoav's strange behavior. They conclude that Yoav made several miscalculations. He took hold of the horns when only the top of the altar offers asylum. Only the altar in the Temple offers asylum and he took hold of the altar in Shilo. He made one final mistake. The altar protects only the kohain in the midst of his service, whereas Yoav was not of the priestly family (Makos 12a).

Note that he may have thought that King Solomon would not dare have human blood spilled at the altar, but this is only speculation on my part.


Exodus 21:14 (Sefaria):

וְכִֽי־יָזִ֥ד אִ֛ישׁ עַל־רֵעֵ֖הוּ לְהָרְג֣וֹ בְעָרְמָ֑ה מֵעִ֣ם מִזְבְּחִ֔י תִּקָּחֶ֖נּוּ לָמֽוּת׃ (ס)

And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die.

Ha'emek Davar commentary citing Ramba"m states that if there is no warning or sighting of the murder, a person may be considered an unintentional killer. Prior to the designation of refuge cities, the alter was considered the place of refuge. It's possible that Yo'av may have thought that he was in this category, and was seeking refuge this way. However, Shlomo killed him, not because of the murder, but because he rebelled against the king.


He viewed it as a safe haven that would offer him a refuge.

See the Metzudas Dovid:

בחשבו שלא יטמא את המקום, להרגו שמה

Thinking that he would not defile the place, to kill there.

Ralbag develops this idea further, noting that it was a major faux pas by Yoav. Essentially, he didn't realise that it did not help to hold the horns of the altar because he killed on purpose and with deceit. And it was wrong to assume that it would offer him a sanctuary as the king is able to punish the people with the most severe punishments of the Torah. And finally:

גם לא היה מועיל ליואב אחוז בקרנות המזבח כי לא היה כהן ועבודה בידו אבל ראוי שנלמד מזה שזאת החזקה בקרנו' המזבח היתה מועילה לו שלא ימסרוהו למלך להמיתו אם לא היה מחוייב מיתה בב''ד

Also, it did not help Yoav to hold the horns of the altar because he was not a Kohen and the avoda (the service) was in his hand. However, it is appropriate that we learn from this that this possession of the altar's horn was beneficial to him so that he would not be handed over to the king to be killed if he was not obligated in the death penalty in beis din (court)...

Rabbeinu Bachya on Bamidbar 35:11 perhaps gives the best appraisal of the situation:

ואמרו במדרש מכה נפש בשגגה, דוקא בשגגה ולא בזדון, שאם הרג בזדון ואמר בשגגה הרגתי אין קולטין אותו, ואפילו נכנס למזבח מוציאין אותו משם והורגין אותו, שנאמר (שמות כ״א:י״ד) וכי יזיד איש על רעהו להרגו בערמה מעם מזבחי תקחנו למות, שכן מצינו ביואב שנאמר בו (מלכים א ב׳:כ״ח) ויחזק בקרנות המזבח, ומשם לקחוהו והרגו בניהו.

A Midrashic approach based on Tanchuma Massey 12: “The words: ‘he who kills a person inadvertently,’ emphasise the fact that the deed was inadvertent not accompanied by malice.” If a person who had killed intentionally were to claim that his deed had been committed inadvertently the city of refuge does not afford him any refuge even if he had already reached it. He would be removed even from the Holy Altar in the Temple and convicted. We know this from Exodus 21:14; "If someone kills a person deliberately, using subterfuge, you shall even remove him from My Altar to apply the death penalty to him.” We find that this is precisely what happened to Yoav, David’s commander-in-chief, who held on to the corners of the Altar in order to escape prosecution for murder (Kings I 2,28). He was forcefully removed and executed by Benayahu.

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