I’ve read through 1 and 2 Samuel my fair share of times. Apart from reading it on my own, really who has been to church and not heard about the ascension of Saul, his downward spiral, and King David’s rise to power? Those stories are important and, if you go to church in America, inescapable.
The last two times I’ve read through these books though, I realized that there were a number of female figures that I had never noticed before. Over this short blog series, I’m just going to share excerpts about these women along with my own thoughts and some snippets of amateur research. My writing won’t be asserting that somehow these women were an integral part of the story, rather my purpose is simply to pull them form the background and take a moment to consider the fact that they were mentioned, who they may have been as people, and the roles they played in brief episodes from ancient Israel’s glory days.
The Woman Who Killed A Would-Be King
The next woman featured in this series comes up, not surprisingly, at a tense time in King David’s life. Absalom, David’s son, has led a rebellion to take the throne from his father and has been killed. Very soon afterwards, we see in 2 Samuel 20 that a man named Sheba gathers support in Israel and rebels against David. David sends his general, Joab, along with other soldiers to pursue Sheba and his men, and stop the rebellion.
Joab eventually catches up with Sheba at Abel Beth Macaah, a city in northern Israel. Sheba has taken his followers and hidden inside the city. The only way to get to them is to overcome the city’s strong walls. So, Joab and his soldiers settle in to besiege the place, building an earthen ramp against the city walls, and preparing to break a portion of the wall down entirely. In the midst of this drawn-out battle, a woman’s voice stills the fighting.
And they do. Joab, the general, the guy in charge, approaches the front lines at the city wall to speak with this “wise woman”.
Again, she tells him, “Listen”. And again, he does.
This wise woman shares the history of the city with Joab, it is apparently known for its wise counsel. The city is peaceable. It is faithful to Israel and, by extension, David. Joab and his men are destroying this innocent city, a place that is apparently “a mother in Israel”.
Joab is taken aback by the woman’s accusations. He tells this wise woman that he has no desire to destroy the city, he only wants one man, Sheba son of Bichri.
Then, astoundingly, Joab offers the woman a deal. Deliver Sheba, not all of his supporters, only Sheba, to the forces attacking the city and they will leave.
Our wise woman thinks this sounds like a great solution. “Behold,” she responds casually, “his head shall be thrown to you over the wall”. Then she leaves. She tells her people what just went down. And they throw Sheba’s head over the wall.
This woman doesn’t send a messenger out to Joab and she never places herself in a place of vulnerability, she asks him to approach the city wall and, for some reason, he respects her position as “wise woman” enough to grind his forces’ progress to a halt and talk with her. This woman defends her city with words that force a powerful man to explain himself to her. This woman doesn’t consult her people before making a deal with the king’s general, she just does it, knowing that they will follow her. This woman asks the people of Abel Beth Maacah to track down a traitor, and they throw his head over a wall.
What a bad ass.
Now, I’m not a supporter of beheading people. It’s grotesque. I’m sad that Sheba had to die and, honestly, the morality of Israel and Judah’s violence throughout the Old Testament is a troubling issue that leaves me with a lot of questions.
However, this passage impresses me because we see in it that women played a role, at least in some areas of Israel at this time, that was powerful. There were women who stopped battles and guided cities and chose if people lived or died. The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah shows me that women were integral to regions of ancient Israel in ways that I haven’t been taught. She shows me that there’s more to learn about the role women played then and about their capacity for leadership throughout the Bible.
Sources (things I read before writing this):
-The Bible (duh)
One last note: I know the painting featured isn’t about this story, but I thought it was appropriate.