The Wise Woman of Abel

 

I clutch my shawl around my head and neck with one hand, and shade my eyes with the other. All around me in the street, people walk quickly, speak in hushed tones, and glance over their shoulders. My eyes squint and meet those of a small boy, not yet old enough to understand what is happening, but old enough to know what to feel. Fear.

For weeks Joab’s army has been building a siege ramp outside the walls of our city. For weeks we have been preparing for inevitable invasion. My neighbors and friends huddle close to family, panic simmering in their midst. I stand alone. I’ve been alone for over forty years. Today would be no different. Clutching my fist tighter, I set out towards the wall.

The army’s arrival has not stopped me from my morning ritual. My daily walks started when I was a young girl. Never having known my mother, I had just lost my father in the wars against the Philistines. I had no other family and lived with the neighbor down the street who had four daughters and three sons of their own. I didn’t really belong to them, so when the light would peer in through the warped wall I laid my head against at night, I would pry a nail loose and swing the board around, allowing a small space for me to squeeze through, out into the quiet streets. Then, I would walk. I nearly always found myself at the wall. Running my fingers along the surface, I studied the cracks and crevices, memorizing patterns and oddities, learning what only I could know. Abel Beth Makaah knew my deepest secrets and stories. I belonged to her and she belonged to me. This city was mine.

A deep thud jolts me back to the footsteps in front of me and I realize the siege has begun. Battering rams beat a methodical rhythm that dares to interrupt the pace I set. It would be easy to fall into their cadence, but I fight the urge to assimilate. When I make it to the gates, I an the only living thing there. Everyone else has retreated to the security of their homes, awaiting the fall of the gates. Abel was my home. I had nowhere else to go to feel safer.

A chink of the stone wall falls in front of me, sending a cloud of dust into my face. My eyes sting from the debris but my heart ignites. Why are my people standing for this? Somebody needs to do something. Dust swirls and dances around my feet, but no one joins me on the stage.

I start to turn around when the doors to the city burst open. A cloud of dust settles and I see a row of men standing armed and ready to attack. They hesitate when they see me. I think they must expect me to run. I half-expect that myself. Instead, I slowly turn back toward them, a lone barrier between them and my love.

A man with a sword moves towards me.

“S-s-s-top,” I stammers. He keeps coming.

“STOP!” I yell this time, my audacity surprising me even more than the look on the soldier’s face.

“Joab. I want to talk to him. I-I want to talk to Joab.” Fear and love was driving me to open my mouth and I had little control over what I was saying. A deep well of emotion and conviction rose up inside me. I had no idea what I would say to Joab, but I knew I needed to try.

The soldier smirks, “Ok. We’ll bring you Joab.” His tone indicates this wouldn’t be a good thing, and tales of Joab’s ferocity and ruthlessness flood my mind. I clutch my chest to keep from gasping, but my feet stay firmly planted.

It seemed like hours before Joab came, but the sun hadn’t moved from its high point in the sky so it must have been minutes. Beads of sweat form on my forehead and I fight the urge to wipe them–doing so would only smear dirt across my face. Ranks step aside and Joab emerges. He’s shorter than I imagined, but his eyes are creased and black. He strides towards me like a man walks up to the dinner table, famished and ready to devour his stew. His eyes look me over but I can’t read them. I imagine he thinks of me like most others do – surprised to find me, an aging woman, alone. He stops about a foot in front of me. Even with a short stature, his form blocks the sun. I cringe when I search his eyes and find nothing. King David trusts him, though, so I will too.

“Are you Joab?” I ask. My voice is steady, fueling my courage.

“I am,” he says. “And who are you?”

I lose myself in his question for a moment as I think about a city I love, a people who are my family, daily rhythms I rely on in my solitude. Who I am doesn’t matter, though. Not to people like him. He has a job, and right now, I am standing in his way.

“I am every woman and man, girl and boy who call Abel home. Listen to what we have to say to you.” The air is heavy and my words echo across the stillness. I let them sink in before going on, demanding an acknowledgment from the man who I have no business demanding anything from except my life.

“I’m listening,” he says.

“You are destroying the Lord’s inheritance by invading our city. We are the faithful, the peaceful, the mothers of Israel. Abel is known to be home to answers and resolutions. Why do you bring conflict to us now? Why do you threaten God’s wrath against you by destroying His faithful children?” The wind picks up and swirls around us.

Joab responds: “I am a man who wants to honor God. Far be it from me to swallow you up in the presence of the Lord. Far be it from me. But, there is a man in your midst who is stirring up strife in Israel. We look for him. Hand him over and we will leave.”

“Who is this man?” I say.

“Sheba.”

He snarled when he said the name. I had heard whispers of this man entering our city, lurking in the dark corners, waiting for a time when he could safely show his face to the light.

“You…will have his h-h-ead,” I say. “We will throw it from the wall.”

“Fine,” he says and turns on his heels. His cloak whips against me and almost knocks me back, but my feet don’t move. “By tomorrow,” he calls.

I turn and run, only stopping for breath when I reach the main square. I begin to shout and knock on everyone’s door.

“Come out! Come out! We can save our city. We can save ourselves. Come here the good news.”

A group of men come out, followed at a distance by a few women and children who had snuck from behind closed doors to hear. The men look wary. I meet eyes with one – a former flame of mine. It has been twenty years since we almost shared a life together. I let my gaze linger to plead my cause. Believe me. Trust me. Joab listened to me, so maybe these men would too.

I look at the circle that forms around me. One, a man who had jeered at me across the street just that morning. Another had murmured “unfortunate soul” once as he saw me approaching his clan – he had a quiver-full and I had none. My long lost lover stands next to him having long-since moved on from me. A widower in mourning and his son thirty years my youth stand beside me. They all send their daughters to sit at my feet and listen to my words, but would they listen to me now? I prayed silently that God would give my poor voice an amplifier on this stage set against me, and then I spoke.

“I spoke to Joab.”

Murmurs of disbelief.

“If we give him the low-life Sheba, he will take his army and leave.”

Chuckles turn into laughter.

“If you find this man and bring him to me, I will cut off his head and throw it over the walls of Abel.”

Silence.

The men return to their families. I silently beg the women whose eyes I find in the corners. Please. Tell them to do as I say.

They say nothing to me. I walk back to the edge of the city and trace the etches and crevices as I pray and implore God to hear me. Joab had listened, but perhaps he was humoring me on a whim. Would God, also, turn His back on me and leave me wondering? Does my voice not count?

I walk along the wall hoping the men who trust me with their daughters would trust me with themselves. I stop only to kneel in the gap between Abel and certain death. I spend all of that day rubbing the pads of my fingers raw. Dusk pokes its grey fingers into the spaces I had lingered. I stop at the last turn before the entrance to my city, my home.

I hear a wail and then a whoosh. I look up to see the head of our enemy blotting out the last of the evening light. It had been done. They had listened. Someone had listened. I exhale. All the breath leaves my body and I feel as though I might crumple to the ground in relief and utter exhaustion. The enemy would pack their things tomorrow and leave us. God had heard my voice. Things would go back to normal.

My body is weary and my mind is spent. I turn back to return to my home and my bed and pass one of the men I had beseeched earlier that day. He looks my way like he always does, and says nothing to me, muttering only to his wife. She looks at me, smiles, and mouths “thank you” with her lips. She nudges her daughters towards me and they envelop my tired legs in their embrace. They’re giggling and I reach down to touch their noses as they gaze up at me. Maybe things would go back to normal, but maybe some things would change.

 

2 Samuel 20:15-22

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.”

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