How a Woman Commanded the Commander of King David’s Armies
A curious biblical account from King David’s reign offers several lessons, including on the role of women in authority
It was during the days of David’s Kingdom. A Benjaminite named Sheba ben Bichri had started an uprising against David that spread through Israel. Joab, commander of David’s armies, chased ben Bichri all the way up to the far northern border of Israel with Lebanon, to a town then called Abel Beth Maacah (today’s Metulla).
Joab set his army in siege around the town, threatening to destroy it in order to smoke out the rebel ben Bichri and his followers. But a local “wise woman” (possibly an oracle?) shouted out to Joab to stop. Her northern outpost was loyal to King David, she told Joab, “a city and a mother in Israel” (2 Samuel 20:19). Here the story emphasizes that the town was a strategic northern stronghold and the phrase “a city and a mother in Israel,” which appears only once in the Bible, describes the town’s role (as a mother) in defending the nation from the armies of the north.
Our unnamed “wise woman” goes on to negotiate with Joab, explaining to the seasoned commander that he doesn’t need to destroy her frontier town in order to stop ben Bichri. She can get the town’s people to kill him and “throw his head over the wall.”
After consideration, Joab likes the plan, ben Bichri’s head rolls, and a woman preserves a strategic stronghold in Israel from an overly-zealous army general.
Recent finds uncovered at the Abel Beth Maacah site help unravel this curious story of how a woman could guide a military commander. Archeologists found several rooms at Abel Beth Maacah filled with cultic religious objects dating back to David’s Kingdom (11th – 10th century BCE). For example, a jar holding 425 ankle bones of sheep, goats, and deer was found, the likes of which have been uncovered in numerous sites around the Mediterranean world. Archeologists believe these were ritual objects used in rites like foretelling the future or in the casting of lots.
The discovery of such a large number of cultic objects at Abel Beth Maacah suggest that the outpost town was a place where people would come to get guidance and direction. This is confirmed by the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah, who explains to Joab in 2 Samuel 20:18, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter.”
Abel Beth Maacah was a border town, exposed to the influences of these kind of ancient Near East practices, such as fortune-telling and divination. But, at the same time, the town was a buffer bearing the brunt of foreign invasions.
That’s why Joab was in a dilemma. Should he destroy the spiritually-corrupt town now harboring a rebel against David’s kingdom, or allow the people to continue their strategic military role in defending Israel in spite of their ungodly practices?
It was a Wise Woman who offered the pragmatic and sound military advise to the General that it is better to have ungodly friends on your side than righteous enemies. And once again the Bible gives us an example of a woman fulfilling a public role in society with authoritative spiritual leadership and political prudence.