2 Samuel 20: Sheba Rebels Against David, David’s Officials
David has to deal with a lot of consequences of previous actions—his and others’—in this chapter.
First, we may recall from the last passage that David has just returned to Jerusalem but there is tension in the nation because he had the people from his fellow tribe of Judah bring him back. Someone had to do it, and I posited in my post about that event that David was probably doing the right thing politically, but it ruffled feathers anyway: as soon as the deed was done the rest of the nation chose that moment to say, “Wait a minute, why didn’t you let us bring you back?!?” So now, in this passage, a man from the tribe of Benjamin named Sheba decides that he doesn’t want David as king anymore, and declares himself king. The entire nation follows him, except for the people of Judah1 who continue to follow David.
However, before David can even deal with that problem he has his concubines to worry about. Recall that in 16:15–17:23 Absalom made a point of publicly sleeping with some of the concubines that David had left behind in Jerusalem, so upon his return David has them put under guard in a house, where they are provided for, for the rest of their lives, but living as widows (with no sexual relations with David), no longer as concubines.
And finally, David has a new commander of his army: in the previous passage he had made Amasa head of his army in place of Joab, and it’s now time to put him to work: David tells Amasa to gather the men of Judah and be back in three days (presumably to go and fight Sheba and his people).
However, Amasa takes longer than that to return. So David turns to Abishai—who, remember, is Joab’s brother—and tells him to to pursue Sheba. So Abishai takes the men who’d previously been under Joab and heads out to pursue Sheba. Joab is also with Abishai, however, which is important because…
Amasa finally joins up with Abishai and Joab and the men, and Joab kills him to resume control of the army:
While they were at the great rock in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Joab was wearing his military tunic, and strapped over it at his waist was a belt with a dagger in its sheath. As he stepped forward, it dropped out of its sheath.
Joab said to Amasa, “How are you, my brother?” Then Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. Amasa was not on his guard against the dagger in Joab’s hand, and Joab plunged it into his belly, and his intestines spilled out on the ground. Without being stabbed again, Amasa died. Then Joab and his brother Abishai pursued Sheba son of Bikri.
One of Joab’s men stood beside Amasa and said, “Whoever favors Joab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab!” Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the middle of the road, and the man saw that all the troops came to a halt there. When he realized that everyone who came up to Amasa stopped, he dragged him from the road into a field and threw a garment over him. After Amasa had been removed from the road, everyone went on with Joab to pursue Sheba son of Bikri.
As they pursue Sheba, it seems like Sheba’s position is getting stronger and stronger: we’re told in verse 14 that as he’s passing through each region he gathers more and more followers, so the more he runs the bigger his army gets! And yet Joab and Abishai and the men finally corner Sheba in a city named Abel Beth Maakah and start building siege works against the city.
However, anyone looking forward to a great battle will be disappointed, while fans of wisdom will be heartened:
… a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come here so I can speak to him.” He went toward her, and she asked, “Are you Joab?”
“I am,” he answered.
She said, “Listen to what your servant has to say.”
“I’m listening,” he said.
She continued, “Long ago they used to say, ‘Get your answer at Abel,’ and that settled it. We are the peaceful and faithful in Israel. You are trying to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why do you want to swallow up the LORD’s inheritance?”
“Far be it from me!” Joab replied, “Far be it from me to swallow up or destroy! That is not the case. A man named Sheba son of Bikri, from the hill country of Ephraim, has lifted up his hand against the king, against David. Hand over this one man, and I’ll withdraw from the city.”
The woman said to Joab, “His head will be thrown to you from the wall.”
Then the woman went to all the people with her wise advice, and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bikri and threw it to Joab. So he sounded the trumpet, and his men dispersed from the city, each returning to his home. And Joab went back to the king in Jerusalem.
Which leaves us to wonder: what’s going to happen to Joab? I wrote in the previous post about David’s feelings toward “the sons of Zeruiah,” namely Joab and Abishai, and although he put Amasa in charge of the army for mostly political reasons I think David had also felt it was finally his chance to get rid of Joab. So how will David react when Joab shows up in Jerusalem again, saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m commanding your army again—deal with it!” And we’re not actually told how David reacts… except that this chapter ends with a listing of David’s officials, and there’s Joab, right at the beginning of the list:
Joab was over Israel’s entire army; Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Kerethites and Pelethites; Adoniram was in charge of forced labor; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; Sheva was secretary; Zadok and Abiathar were priests; and Ira the Jairite was David’s priest. (verses 23–26, emphasis added)
So I’m reading into that and assuming that David just decided to live with Joab leading his army again.
I know this is my blog, so I can write about whatever I want to write about, but it’s at a point now where I’ve been writing about David’s weaknesses for so long that I’m just looking forward to him being a good king again! Not that there’s a lot of weakness in this passage, but there’s still some weirdness between him and the “sons of Zeruiah” going on.
That being said, when we read about David in other parts of the Bible he’s written about favourably. To use the phrase I keep using, David is “a man after God’s own heart.” He’s a human man, with human weaknesses—we’re all weak in one area or another, usually multiple areas—and it’s not wrong to look at those weaknesses and analyze them and even ask how we can do better in those areas. But never with a judging eye; I can see the mistakes David made, and learn from them, but if I think I’m a better man than David I’m going off track. If someone was reading about my life thousands of years from now, would they be reading that I was “a man after God’s own heart?” I doubt it.
I think there is always a danger when Christians read the Old Testament—or even when we read about the weaknesses of the Apostles in the New Testament Gospels—of judging the people we’re reading about, looking down on them, which means that we’d be missing the point. The Bible says we’re all sinful—all of us, every single one of us—and therefore we’re all going to make a lot of mistakes. I should be able to read about, and think about, mistakes others have made without thinking I’m better than them. I should be able to take warnings from their actions and apply them to my life, without thinking that doing so somehow makes me smarter than them or more godly than them.
I don’t know if this is another one of those passages that sounds weird—or maybe even cruel—to the modern reader, but anytime it comes to concubines in the Scripture—or sex in general, frankly—there are probably questions that get raised2.
If it seems cruel that David would “lock up” the concubines—after all, it wasn’t their fault, why are they being punished?—then we should remember what David probably should have done, if he were going according to the customs of the day, which would be to have them executed. It’s not about “punishment,” it’s about politics. These women were “defiled,” not in the sense of having committed sin, but more in the sense of having become “unclean.” Of course, David wasn’t God, so we shouldn’t push the word “unclean” too far; I’m just saying that this isn’t about sin, it’s about the fact that it wouldn’t be appropriate for David to continue having these women as concubines. And I’m assuming that any other king, in those circumstances, would likely have had the women put to death, to “get rid of the problem”—not to mention to make a statement.
David doesn’t do that. He cares for them for the rest of their lives.
Joab and Abishai
As mentioned, I don’t presume David to be happy to find out that Joab is leading his army again. In fact, I think the only reason he keeps putting up with Joab is that Joab is such a good leader when it comes to his army that David is afraid he’ll start losing battles if he doesn’t have Joab! (We should wonder if this means a lack of faith on David’s part—shouldn’t he trust in the LORD instead of trusting in men, even Joab?—though the Scriptures never explicitly make that point.)
There’s one part of this passage that I just find childish, however: David has had bad things to say about “the sons of Zeruiah” for a long time, has finally gotten rid of Joab in the last chapter and replaced him with Amasa, but immediately finds that Amasa isn’t living up to his duties, so he turns back to “the sons of Zeruiah” to get him out of another mess… but refuses to speak to Joab about it! Instead, in verse 6 he asks Abishai to do it, I guess feeling that Abishai is the “lesser of two evils” when it comes to “the sons of Zeruiah.” David must have known that Joab was going to be going along, and Joab is the one who’s been leading David’s army all along—verse 7 doesn’t even call this group of soldiers “David’s army” or “the army,” it calls them “Joab’s men”—but David is being so petty about this that he won’t even bring himself to talk to Joab directly.
I don’t want to call the people of Judah “Judeans,” because eventually that’s what the entire Southern nation will be called. “Judahites”? Probably. ↩︎
I know how that sounds. I’m not trying to sound more “enlightened” than other people, and I’m not trying to claim that people would be fine with concubines if they were as worldly as I am. I’m not saying that having concubines is a good or acceptable practice; I’m just advocating that we don’t judge 10th Century B.C. actions according to 21st Century moralities. We can say (and Scripture supports) that having concubines is a bad thing, and we shouldn’t do it, while still looking at David’s actions in light of the customs of his day. ↩︎