In the Book of Samuel, Abner (Hebrew אבנר "Avner" meaning "father of [or is a] light"), is cousin to Saul and commander-in-chief of his army (1 Samuel 14:50, 20:25). He is often referred to as the son of Ner.
Abner is only referred to incidentally in Saul's history (1 Samuel 17:55, 26:5), first appearing as the commander who introduced David to Saul following David's killing of Goliath. He is not mentioned in the account of the disastrous battle of Gilboa when Saul's power was crushed. Seizing the youngest but only surviving of Saul's sons, Ish-bosheth, Abner set him up as king over Israel at Mahanaim, east of the Jordan. David, who was accepted as king by Judah alone, was meanwhile reigning at Hebron, and for some time war was carried on between the two parties.
The only engagement between the rival factions which is told at length is noteworthy, inasmuch as it was preceded by an encounter at Gibeon between twelve chosen men from each side, in which the whole twenty-four seem to have perished (2 Samuel 2:12).[a] In the general engagement which followed, Abner was defeated and put to flight. He was closely pursued by Asahel, brother of Joab, who is said to have been "light of foot as a wild roe" (2 Samuel 2:18). As Asahel would not desist from the pursuit, though warned, Abner was compelled to slay him in self-defence. This originated a deadly feud between the leaders of the opposite parties, for Joab, as next of kin to Asahel, was by the law and custom of the country the avenger of his blood. However, according to Josephus, in Antiquities, Book 7, Chapter 1, Joab had forgiven Abner for the death of his brother, Asahel, the reason being that Abner had slain Asahel honorably in combat after he had first warned Asahel and had no other choice but to kill him out of self-defense. This battle was part of a civil war between David and Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul. After this battle Abner switched to the side of David and granted him control over the tribe of Benjamin. This act put Abner in David's favor. The real reason that Joab killed Abner was that he became a threat to his rank of general. He then justifies it later by mentioning his brother.
For some time afterward the war was carried on, the advantage being invariably on the side of David. At length, Ish-bosheth lost the main prop of his tottering cause by accusing Abner of sleeping with Rizpah (cf. 2 Samuel 3:7), one of Saul's concubines, an alliance which, according to contemporary notions, would imply pretensions to the throne (cf. 2 Samuel 16:21ff.).
Abner was indignant at the rebuke, and immediately opened negotiations with David, who welcomed him on the condition that his wife Michal should be restored to him. This was done, and the proceedings were ratified by a feast. Almost immediately after, however, Joab, who had been sent away, perhaps intentionally returned and slew Abner at the gate of Hebron. The ostensible motive for the assassination was a desire to avenge Asahel, and this would be a sufficient justification for the deed according to the moral standard of the time. The conduct of David after the event was such as to show that he had no complicity in the act, though he could not venture to punish its perpetrators (2 Samuel 3:31-39; cf. 1 Kings 2:31ff.).
David had Abner buried in Hebron (2 Samuel 3.31-39). His tomb, according to a medieval Jewish tradition, is considered to be in a building not far from the Cave of the Patriarchs. Soon after Abner's death, Ish-bosheth was assassinated as he slept (2 Samuel 4), and David became king of the reunited kingdoms (2 Samuel 5).
- In the 1960 film David and Goliath, Abner (Massimo Serato) tries to murder David (Ivica Pajer) when he returns in triumph after killing Goliath; however, Abner is slain by King Saul (Orson Welles).
- According to Chisholm (1911), [t]he object of the story of the encounter is to explain the name Helkath-hazzurim, the meaning of which is doubtful (Ency. Bib. col. 2006; Batten in Zeit. f. alt-test. Wissens. 1906, pp. 90 sqq.).