And Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-maacah, and all the Bichrites assembled and followed him in. And all the men who were with Joab came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah. They cast up a mound against the city, and it stood against the rampart, and they were battering the wall to throw it down. Then a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, that I may speak to you.’” And he came near her, and the woman said, “Are you Joab?” He answered, “I am.” Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your servant.” And he answered, “I am listening.” Then she said, “They used to say in former times, ‘Let them but ask counsel at Abel,’ and so they settled a matter. I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel. You seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” Joab answered, “Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy! That is not true. But a man of the hill country of Ephraim, called Sheba the son of Bichri, has lifted up his hand against King David. Give up him alone, and I will withdraw from the city.” And the woman said to Joab, “Behold, his head shall be thrown to you over the wall.” Then the woman went to all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri and threw it out to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, every man to his home. And Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king.
Now Joab was in command of all the army of Israel; and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was in command of the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and Adoram was in charge of the forced labor; and Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was the recorder; and Sheva was secretary; and Zadok and Abiathar were priests; and Ira the Jairite was also David’s priest. – 2 Samuel 20:14-26 ESV
Finally, like a cool breeze on a hot summer day, we get a refreshing glimpse of true wisdom in the midst of all the folly that has filled the preceding chapters. Time after time, we have seen impulsiveness, anger, fear and recrimination rule the day. Decisions have been made based on nothing more than raw emotion. Very smart people have made some very dumb choices. Godly individuals have made ungodly decisions. And the results have been death and destruction. Joab has just brutally murdered Amasa, leaving his body laying in the middle of the road for all to see. Now he is besieging the city of Abel, in an attempt to capture Sheba, the leader of yet another rebellion against David. They have surrounded the city and erected siege walls against it. They are in the process of attempting to knock down the city’s walls, and the prospects of yet more bloodshed loom large. Then wisdom shows up.
This short little vignette, located where it is in the narrative of David’s life, provides us with a stark counterpoint to all that we have seen so far. In it, we are introduced to an unnamed woman who is recognized for her wisdom. She is simply referred to as a “wise woman.” And other than that, we know nothing else about her. She resides in the city of Abel. And like everyone else residing in the city, she is having to watch as David’s troops batter the walls in an attempt to wreak destruction. But no one knows why. There is no indication that anyone inside the city even knew that Sheba was there or what he had done. Outside the walls, Joab has made no attempt to parlay with the city officials in order to negotiate the handover of Sheba. Driven by the same emotions that led him to kill Absalom and Amasa, Joab is foolishly and stubbornly focused on one thing: The capture and death of Sheba. And even the destruction of a city filled with fellow Israelites would not stand in his way.
Then wisdom showed up, in the form of a nameless woman who saw a serious problem and had the foresight to do something about it. As all her fellow residents stood by helplessly and hopelessly, she decided to act. She called out to Joab, asking for an opportunity to talk with him. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion surrounding the siege, she calmly called for a conversation, a chance to discuss what was going on and how they might avert a tragedy. Once she had Joab’s attention, she said to him:
“There used to be a saying, ‘If you want to settle an argument, ask advice at the town of Abel.’ I am one who is peace loving and faithful in Israel. But you are destroying an important town in Israel. Why do you want to devour what belongs to the Lord?” – 2 Samuel 20:18-19 NLT
She reminds Joab that the city had a reputation for wisdom. It was also an important town in Israel. He was not attacking a foreign city filled with pagans. He was threatening the lives of his fellow Israelites. And the woman describes herself as peace loving and faithful, intentionally contrasting herself with Joab and his troops. She wanted peace. Joab wanted to devour what belonged to God. And she wanted to know why. That’s when Joab informs her of Sheba’s presence in their midst and of the crime for which he was guilty. This was apparently news to the woman and the rest of the people inside the city walls. They had no idea they were harboring a fugitive from justice. And when the woman found out that the cause of all their problems was a single individual who was guilty of leading a rebellion against the king, she didn’t waste a minute doing something about it. She met Joab’s demands and delivered Sheba to him. But she chose to do so in an interesting way. She convinced the leaders of the city to cut off Sheba’s head and throw it over the wall. We are not told why she chose this method, but it would seem to indicate that she she didn’t trust Joab. She wasn’t about to open the city walls in order to let Sheba leave, because she feared that Joab and his troops might storm the city anyway. She also knew that if Sheba was guilty of treason against the king, the penalty was death, so she decided to go ahead and speed up the process, giving Sheba the fate he deserved, and Joab his head as proof that the guilty one had been dealt with effectively.
By keeping the city gates closed and throwing Sheba’s head over the wall, she protected the citizens inside and tested the reliability of Joab’s words. If Joab got what he said he wanted and failed to call off the siege, she would have exposed his deceit with a minimum of risk. So her decision to cut off Sheba’s head was a wise move on her part. And it accomplished what she had set out to do: Deliver her city from further harm. Joab and his troops dispersed, leaving the residents of Abel unharmed. Her wise counsel spared the city and presented Joab from committing yet another crime of passion.
What is interesting is how this section of the story is immediately followed by a seemingly out-of-place listing of David’s key administrative heads. You see the names of Joab, Benaiah, Adoniram, Johoshaphat, Sheva, Zakok, Abiathar, and Ira. Among them are David’s military commander, the captain of his bodyguard, his royal historian, court secretary and priests. These prominent men served as David’s inner circle, providing him with counsel and acting as his royal cabinet. They were well-known and revered. They were powerful and influential. Their names and titles are mentioned, but nothing is said about their character. And they stand in contrast to the woman in our story, who though unknown and unnamed, was recognized for her wisdom. It wasn’t who she was that mattered. It was what she was – she was wise. She was known for having the character quality of wisdom and she proved it by her behavior. The men whose names are listed in the closing verses of this chapter had the titles and the prestige of serving on the king’s royal cabinet. But their positions would prove meaningless unless they possessed wisdom. Solomon, David’s son and successor to his throne, was known for his wisdom, given to him by God. And he would later write these important words concerning wisdom.
For the Lord grants wisdom!
From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He grants a treasure of common sense to the honest.
He is a shield to those who walk with integrity.
He guards the paths of the just
and protects those who are faithful to him.
Then you will understand what is right, just, and fair,
and you will find the right way to go.
For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will fill you with joy.
Wise choices will watch over you.
Understanding will keep you safe. – Proverbs 2:6-11 NLT
It was this woman’s wisdom that diverted a tragedy. She had knowledge and understanding. She possessed common sense. She knew what was right, just and fair. She saw the right way to go and she went there. And her efforts kept her city safe and resulted in much joy. We can only imagine the celebration that took place inside the city walls of Abel that night after the siege was lifted and the troops had dispersed. Wisdom had brought joy. Which is why Solomon went on to say, “So follow the steps of the good, and stay on the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:20 NLT).
David would have done well to surround himself with individuals like the wise woman from Abel. He seemed to have a tendency of choosing men who were untrustworthy and prone to foolishness. When it comes to leadership, character should always trump external characteristics. In fact, if we go all the way back to the day when God had sent Samuel to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king of Israel, He told the prophet:
“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT
Wisdom is God-given and resides in the heart, not the brain. It is far more than intellect. Some of the brightest people can be the greatest fools. The essence of foolishness is a rejection of God. It is living as if God does not exist or does not matter. Paul describes that plight of those who, in their intelligence, determine they don’t believe in God or end up creating a god of their own choosing.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. – Romans 1:21-22 NLT
Wisdom really does work. But it’s only available to those who know God and fear Him.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.