Since 2011, I have done a summer preaching series called Is That Really in the Bible? For several years I knew exactly what stories I wanted to be able to tell you: Ehud, the left-handed assassin; David cutting off a portion of the King Saul’s robe while the king was relieving himself in a cave; Balaam’s donkey talking back to him. But I am now on my seventh year of doing this summer series and I am having a harder and harder time finding those obscure stories that astound.
One of my reasons for preaching on these stories is an attempt to get you to read your Bibles. But the story I am going to tell you today was a new one for me. The tables were turned and someone (Bob Mullins) introduced me to a story in the Bible I had never heard or read: the story of the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah. Several years ago, when Bob began this dig in Israel he suggested that I might want to preach on this text during my summer series. First, I had to locate it and read it.
The story of the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah is the story of a separatist movement in the middle of political upheaval. Here is the prequel. King Saul was the first king of the united monarchy of Israel. King Saul’s rule didn’t last very long and eventually King David became his successor. King David’s son, Absalom, decided he would like to be king and so he led a revolt against his own father. David fled Jerusalem but eventually, David’s troops, under the leadership of his nephews, Joab and Abishai, beat Absalom’s troops. Now think about that. If it isn’t bad enough that Absalom is leading a resistance movement against his own father, Joab and Abishai are first cousins to Absalom and they are on opposite sides. It puts a new spin on the phrase “All in the family”.
As Absalom’s troops are losing, Absalom flees for his life but his hair gets caught in the branches of an oak tree. This left Absalom a sitting duck. Joab (his cousin) found him hanging from the branches and killed him. Even though King David’s own son was trying to take over his throne, David had left explicit instructions that he didn’t want Absalom killed. So David was angry with Joab and he put a different nephew, Amasa, (he had lots of nephews) in charge of his troops. It is an odd move because Amasa had actually been the commander in charge of the rebel forces, under Absalom. Now King David is back in power of the united monarchy and he has appointed his treacherous nephew, Amasa, in charge of the army; and removed his faithful nephew, Joab, from that position.
King David’s rule continued on, shaky at best. The northern kingdom was still angry. That is where our story for today begins. A man named Sheba ignites another movement against David’s reign. Sheba was a member of the tribe of Benjamin and he secured the loyalties of those who had formerly been attached to the house of Saul and part of the revolt of Absalom. Sheba declared war.
So King David goes to his nephew, Amasa, the commander of the troops, and says, “Collect the men from the southern part of the kingdom. Return with them within three days.” But Amasa doesn’t come back in three days. In other words, he disobeyed the king. Where was he? Joining the revolt? Or maybe he was informing Sheba of the king’s plan?
David circumvents Amasa and goes next to Abishai. Remember that Abishai is one of his nephews that helped him defeat Absalom’s revolt. Abishai is also the brother of Joab, who was stripped of his former command and yet remains loyal to David. Joab collects his men and follows his brother Abishai into battle on behalf of David. They want to catch Sheba before he enters a fortified city and escapes.
While Abishai and Joab are pursuing Sheba, Amasa shows up belatedly. Joab goes up to greet him. Joab says, “Is it well with you, my brother?” Then he grabs Amasa’s beard with his right hand and he kisses him. Remember from other biblical stories we have looked at together that the naming of which hand he uses in this gesture is important. You would never touch someone with your left hand, considered your wiping hand. Joab reaches out to his cousin, Amasa, with his right hand….a sign of welcome between military leaders…and family.
What Amasa doesn’t know is that Joab is holding a sword in his left hand….the hand no one would consider using. Joab killed his own cousin, who he considered a spy for the resistance. He doesn’t think twice. Joab is mercilessly devoted to King David. He leaves his cousin bleeding out on the road. He and his brother, Abishai, leave and head out in pursuit of Sheba. Joab…so, so violent. He killed Abner, who he believed was spying on David. He killed Absalom who led a revolt against David. He killed Amasa who he guessed was a spy against David. David would rebuke Joab but he always called on him when he needed the resistance squashed and Sheba is next on David’s list.
Sheba is hiding out in Abel Beth Maacah…a city in the northern kingdom. It is border town on the crossroads of many routes. Like many border towns it finds itself in the middle of political upheaval, not of its making. Sheba and his men are holed up here and Joab knows it. Abel Beth Maacah is built with two city walls. An extra wall of security is a good idea for a border town. Joab and his men build a ramp over the first wall so that they can just tear down the second wall. He and his men have scaled the first wall and are beginning to destroy the second wall when a wise woman calls out: “Hey listen. Bring Joab to me. I need to talk to him.”
Before we go on with the story, we must stop and point out that this woman may not have had a name but she had a title: wise woman. This woman may have been a judge. What we know is she was considered a shrewd woman. She clearly had the authority and trust of her people. She is the one who is either sent or self-proclaimed to negotiate a peace settlement. But she is not only respected on the inside of the city walls. She gains respect on the outside of the city walls. Joab’s men go and find him, just as she requested.
When Joab is brought to her she confirms his identity and then says to him, “Abel Beth-Maacah isn’t a place you should just feel free to destroy. We have an important heritage here. We are known for wisdom and peace and fidelity. I am one of the wise, peaceful, faithful of Israel. I need to ask you, why would you want to destroy a city that is the mother of Israel. Why do you want to destroy the heritage of Yahweh?”
No man ever tried to negotiate with Joab. Joab was a fierce, righteous warrior. It didn’t matter what he was commanded to do. He did what he thought was necessary to instill the rule of David, even when David explicitly asked him not to do it. He wasn’t use to someone calling him out. But this woman didn’t command him about anything. She asked him some well-appointed questions. She let him know that while they were chipping away at the wall to find the rat named Sheba, there were living, breathing people inside these walls….people of wisdom and faithfulness. She told him, “People are God’s heritage and here we stand while you prepare to slaughter us. We are innocent and we belong to Yahweh.”
Joab responds to the wise woman, “Far be it from me to destroy anything of the Lord’s. You do realize don’t you that you are harboring a fugitive. Give him to me and we will be on our way.”
“Okay,” she said. “But we will be the ones to judge Sheba, not you. We will cut off his head and throw it over the wall to you.” So the people of Abel Beth Macaah cut off his head and threw it over the wall. Joab and his men left satisfied and went back to Jerusalem to show Sheba’s head to King David. Abel Beth Maacah and its people were saved because of this wise woman. For her decision that one should die rather than many should die, we learn to know the wise woman of Abel Beth Macaah.
As a life-long member of the pacifist Church of the Brethren this is a hard scripture for me. It made me think about how on American Bandstand Dick Clark would have two audience members rate the songs. On a scale from 35-98 they would give a song a rating based on how easy it was to dance to its beat. This week while I was writing this sermon I thought to myself, “I would give this scripture a 40 as a text that is easy to preach to.”
But that is the point of my summer series. There are so many scripture texts that are filled with the earthiness of the world that we never bother to read because they make us uncomfortable. There is someone who refers to my summer series as Susan’s sermons filled with blood stories and potty stories. I don’t make these stories up. The amazing thing about the Bible is that it hasn’t been cleaned and sanitized. We make it that way because we usually only tell the stories that make us comfortable. I’m afraid that we do that with our Bible and we also do it with our lives and the world. We don’t want to read about the news that frightens or disturbs us. We put our heads in the sand and pretend that all that mayhem isn’t happening or that it is it doesn’t have anything to do with us. It is so much easier to live in a world where everything ties up in a neat little moral bow than to confront the world in which we live.
I wish this story would end differently. I wish the wise woman would have invited Joab in for tea and cookies. Then Sheba and Joab would shake hands without any hidden swords and figure out the best way forward. I don’t like that the people of Abel Beth Maacah would cut off the head of someone they were harboring. But we don’t get to write this story. We do get to push up against it. We do get to ask ourselves important questions. Who am I in this story? What wisdom do I carry? Would I sacrifice someone else to save my life? Why is this story in our Bibles? Is it relevant to my life?
And then we get to remember the New Testament…the testament to the one who laid down his life for his friends…the one who blessed us as peacemakers
…the one who called us to a new way of living…the one who lived as a servant, not a king…the one we follow. Amen.