Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 20:1-22, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 10.
David puts down another rebellion.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider wisdom in the midst of conflict.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
To understand what is going on in 2 Sam 20, we first need to know the key players in the narrative. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- David: The newly reinstated king of Israel.
- Amasa: The new commander of David’s armies. Amasa was previously the commander of Absalom’s rebellion. David gave him this new position in order to win Amasa’s support for David’s reinstatement.
- Joab: The former commander of David’s armies.
- Abishai: Joab’s brother.
- Sheba: A new rival claimant to the throne.
- Wise Woman: An unnamed woman who brokers peace for her city.
1 Now a troublemaker named Sheba son of Bikri, a Benjamite, happened to be there. He sounded the trumpet and shouted,
“We have no share in David,
no part in Jesse’s son!
Every man to his tent, Israel!”
2 So all the men of Israel deserted David to follow Sheba son of Bikri. But the men of Judah stayed by their king all the way from the Jordan to Jerusalem.
2 Sam 20 follows on the heels of 2 Sam 19, and it is important to note that the two chapters are related. Verse 1 tells us as much when it says that Sheba son of Bikri happened to be “there,” which refers to the scene set in 2 Sam 19. At the end of that chapter, animosity broke out between the tribe of Judah and the other tribes of Israel over David’s procession back to Jerusalem. 19:40b sets the stage: “All the troops of Judah and half the troops of Israel had taken the king over [the Jordan river].” The northern tribes (described here as Israel) apparently did not appreciate this great showing from Judah. According to 19:41, they issued a complaint: “Soon all the men of Israel were coming to the king and saying to him, ‘Why did our brothers, the men of Judah, steal the king away and bring him and his household across the Jordan together with all his men?’” This complaint apparently refers to Judah’s delay in accepting David back to Jerusalem (the northern tribes came around to David before Judah did). Now these late comers have stolen the procession, and the northerners are having none of it! In response, the men of Judah say, “We did this because the king is closely related to us. Why are you angry about it…” Their claim is that blood relations give them precedence over the other tribes. The northern tribes, of course, don’t appreciate the idea that David might be more attached to Judah than to them. In the end, the argument is not resolved, but Judah is yelling louder.
Now enter Sheba, who was “there” as all of this took place. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to act on his own desire for power, or maybe he was truly incensed at Judah’s actions and acted accordingly. Whatever the case, Sheba voices the sentiment of resentful Israel. His message basically comes down to, “Fine, let Judah have David. We will have nothing to do with him.” In all of this, David is silent even though the northern tribes address their first complaints directly to him. In theory, David might have averted Sheba’s words by offering a diplomatic answer that played to the northern tribes’ frustration. Ultimately, we are not sure why David remains silent. It may be that he feels his hands are tied because the tribe of Judah ultimately controls Jerusalem. In the end, the northern tribes desert David before he even re-enters the capitol city.
3 When David returned to his palace in Jerusalem, he took the ten concubines he had left to take care of the palace and put them in a house under guard. He provided for them but had no sexual relations with them. They were kept in confinement till the day of their death, living as widows.
David knows that he has a crisis to deal with – he’s barely been reinstated and has already lost the support of ten tribes! It is therefore interesting that his first act upon returning to Jerusalem is directed toward the concubines whom he left behind when he fled. These women, who were originally meant to look after the palace, became pawns in Absalom’s play for power. To show his power and insult his father, Absalom had sex with them in a tent that was placed so that all Israel would know what was going on. David now gathers up these women and puts them under a kind of house arrest. We are not told whether the guard is placed to keep the concubines in or intruders out. I suspect that David is aware that these women have become symbols of Absalom’s power even now that Absalom is dead. David therefore locks them out of sight and doesn’t have anything to do with them himself, though he does provide for them. If this is the case, David deals with remnants of the former rebellion before turning his attention to the new one.
In all of this, it is important for us to remember that the women were not at fault in this scenario. They became pawns in a struggle between powerful men. As such, they are swept up in events. Theirs is a difficult story, and we shouldn’t act as if it is not.
4 Then the king said to Amasa, “Summon the men of Judah to come to me within three days, and be here yourself.” 5 But when Amasa went to summon Judah, he took longer than the time the king had set for him.
6 David said to Abishai, “Now Sheba son of Bikri will do us more harm than Absalom did. Take your master’s men and pursue him, or he will find fortified cities and escape from us.” 7 So Joab’s men and the Kerethites and Pelethites and all the mighty warriors went out under the command of Abishai. They marched out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba son of Bikri.
Turning his attention now to the revolt, David commands Amasa, his new military commander, to rally the men of Judah. Amasa, however, fails to complete this task in the three days that David allots to him. We are not told the reason for this delay, but Walter Brueggemann argues that it amounted to purposeful disobedience. He states, “The delay is not a casual ‘being late for the boss.’ It reflects a failure to obey, probably reflecting a deep policy disagreement.” Regardless of his reasons, Amasa fails to properly perform the very first task that David gives him.
Knowing that he doesn’t have time to waste, David names Abishai as commander of his best troops and sends them after Sheba. Note here that “Joab’s men … went out under the command of Abishai” (v. 7). Here we see a sign of the animosity that has grown between Joab and David sense the former killed Absalom. Though the men are still Joab’s, David does not name Joab to lead them. Instead, Joab’s brother, Abishai, is given the place of preeminence.
8 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.
9 Joab said to Amasa, “How are you, my brother?” Then Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. 10 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.
11 One of Joab’s men stood beside Amasa and said, “Whoever favors Joab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab!” 12 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. 13 After Amasa had been removed from the road, everyone went on with Joab to pursue Sheba son of Bikri.
Now we find that Joab will not stand for the current state of affairs. Amasa barely enters the scene before Joab murders him. As usual, we are not given insight into Joab’s state of mind, and we are left to wonder about his motives. Was he killing a man who was being disloyal to the king by being disobedient, or was he killing his primary rival in order to advance himself? I suspect that the latter is at play. Earlier in the David narrative, Joab killed Abner, another rival commander. Also, there were other ways to deal with Amasa than killing him! Joab, though he is loyal to David (he never makes a play for the throne), will accept nothing less than the highest position of command, and he feels comfortable going around David to take it. Joab and Abishai immediately continue their pursuit of Sheba.
With Amasa now dead, the troops decide to follow Joab, but not before Amasa’s body is ignominiously dumped and hidden from view in a nearby field. It is interesting that the troops refuse to move forward while Amasa’s body is in the middle of the road. It is as if they are aware of Joab’s injustice and cannot stomach it so long as they see the body. Once the body is hidden from view, however, they have no qualms with moving forward. This is not unlike the moral outrage that we feel when we see or hear about injustices (unsafe working conditions, for example) but don’t give them much thought when they disappear from the headlines.
14 Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel Beth Maakah and through the entire region of the Bikrites, who gathered together and followed him. 15 All the troops with Joab came and besieged Sheba in Abel Beth Maakah. They built a siege ramp up to the city, and it stood against the outer fortifications. While they were battering the wall to bring it down, 16 a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come here so I can speak to him.”
Sheba ends up in a city called Abel Beth Maakah after traveling through “the entire region of the Bikrites,” who presumably are related to “Sheba of Bikri.” Sheba, it seems, has made his way into friendly territory. Abel Beth Maakah will apparently serve as his center of operations, much like Hebron was the launching point of Absalom’s rebellion. This time, though, David need not flee, for he has a powerful military force on his side. Joab proceeds to successfully besiege the city until a “wise woman” calls for his attention.
17 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.
18 She continued, “Long ago they used to say, ‘Get your answer at Abel,’ and that settled it. 19 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?”
20 “Far be it from me!” Joab replied, “Far be it from me to swallow up or destroy! 21 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.”
22 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.
Were it not for the wise woman, Abel Beth Maakah would have fallen to Joab. Instead, she takes it upon herself to broker peace. As she does, we find that she is a skilled negotiator who deftly changes the terms of the conflict. Before she speaks, Abel Beth Maakah is aligned with Sheba. The city did, after all, let him into the city, and it currently protects him even as the city itself is under threat. Joab’s logic is simple: Kill Sheba and demolish anything that gets in the way of that goal. After the wise woman speaks, though, the city is no longer aligned with Sheba. Instead, it is a venerable place that has been celebrated in Israel’s history. Why would Joab seek destroy such a place?
Of course, the wise woman must know about Sheba – he showed up with an army! However, in framing the conflict as she does, she allows Joab to separate Sheba from the city and to look noble in doing so. He need not be the sacker of a peaceful city if only the one man he seeks is handed over. The city does eventually hand Sheba over (by beheading him and throwing his head over the city wall). Thus, the city is kept safe, and Joab captures his prey. Everyone wins in this scenario but Sheba, but his fate was sealed when he inspired the uprising. He will either win or lose in this conflict. There will be no in between. In the end, the wise woman and her city decide that standing by Sheba is not worth the danger that comes with it. Sheba has lost the contest.
Notes for Teaching
This is one of those passages that seems more fit for tv than a Sunday School setting! That said, the story does allow us to reflect on wisdom in the midst of conflict. David and the wise woman both provide exemplary examples. Here are points that I think are worth noting:
- David seeks to deal with the conflict quickly rather than letting it simmer and grow to a point where it becomes unwieldy.
- David refuses to allow Amasa to sabotage him.
- The wise woman finds a third way rather than buying in to the all or nothing mentality of Joab and Sheba.
- The wise woman speaks to be heard.
- The wise woman helps Joab come to her conclusion by giving him a chance to look controlled and reasonable on the battlefield.
And then we can also look at the many negative examples in the story:
- David fails to stem the conflict before it starts.
- Amasa disobeys.
- Joab commits murder.
- The army finds no fault with Joab after Amasa’s body is hidden.
All of this can amount to an interesting case study of conflict that I suspect will produce a lot of discussion.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we remember about how Absalom’s rebellion ended?
- Why wasn’t David invited directly back to Jerusalem?
Explain: Fill in blanks as needed. Also, let students know that today we will see David returning only to find more conflict.
A New Conflict
Read 2 Sam 19:40-43
- What is happening in this passage?
- Why are the men of Israel angry with the men of Judah?
- Why do you think David lets others do all the talking rather than speaking up himself?
Read 2 Sam 20:1-2
- Who is Sheba?
- Why does he gain the support of the men of Israel so quickly?
- How might David have solved this problem before it began?
- Do we ever remain silent when we should speak up? Why?
Read 2 Sam 20:2-3
- Why do you think David attends to the concubines rather than dealing immediately with Sheba upon returning to Jerusalem?
- How should we understand the concubines in this story? Are they treated fairly?
Read 2 Sam 20:4-7
- What is David’s plan for dealing with Sheba?
- Why do you think Amasa took longer than David commanded?
- Was it wise for David to go over Amasa’s head?
- Why does David name Abishai as commander of Joab’s men? Why not Joab?
Read 2 Sam 20:8-13
- What do you think were Joab’s intentions when he killed Amasa?
- Why do you think David never punishes Joab outright for this kind of thing?
- Why does the army stop at Amasa’s body, and why does it go one once the body is removed?
- Is this a good or a bad thing?
- Are there ways that we practice this “out-of-sight out-of-mind” mentality?
A Wise Woman’s Intervention
Read 2 Sam 20:14-22
- Who is the wise woman in this passage?
- What can she teach us about wisdom in the midst of conflict?
- In light of this story, how can we deal wisely with the conflicts that will surely arise in our lives?
Walter Brueggemann’s 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series
John Goldingay’s 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone
Explore the Bible curriculum
 Brueggemann, W. (1990). First and Second Samuel (p. 330). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.