A 3000-year-old antiquity offers timeless lessons for the modern world
Near the northern border of Israel, the fortress city of Abel Beth-Maacha once stood at the crossroads of three kingdoms – Israel, Damascus, and Tyre. There, beneath countless layers of ancient dust, archaeologists recently uncovered an exquisite glass image of unusual artistic precision – a regally bearded head wreathed in a golden crown.
The identity of the noble figurine may forever remain a mystery. But the story of Abel Beth-Maacha offers a compelling reminder of how we imperil our own future if we fail to take instruction from the past.
In the earliest days of the Jewish monarchy, King David’s son Absalom launched a rebellion in an attempt to seize his father’s throne. A crafty and charismatic manipulator, Absalom rallied eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel to swear allegiance to him. There were even many from David’s own tribe of Judah who defected to Absalom’s camp, forcing the rightful king to flee for his life into exile.
David’s cause looked hopeless. But a last-minute reversal of fortunes led to the routing of Absalom’s army, and the rebellious prince was slain as he quit the field of battle. When Absalom’s supporters laid down their arms and repented their insurrection, David prepared to reclaim his throne.
THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT
Observing that David’s kingship was still on shaky ground, an opportunist named Sheva ben Bichri moved to exploit the raw emotions of the people and rekindle the embers of disunity. By trumpeting his separatist message, he rallied the other tribes around him and convinced them to reject David and sever all ties to Judah.
David recognized that this rebellion posed an even greater danger than Absalom’s. By stoking the fires of disaffection, Sheva not only jeopardized David and his crown but threatened to irreparably split the Jewish kingdom in two.
David’s generals responded swiftly, advancing on Sheva’s forces before they had time to organize and scattering them in all directions. Sheva himself fled northward, eventually coming to the fortress of Abel Beth-Maacha, where he sought refuge.
When David’s top general, Joab, arrived at Abel Beth-Maacha, he assumed that the townspeople were loyal to Sheva and had offered him protection. Immediately, Joab ordered his soldiers to surround the city and begin constructing a siege ramp to scale the outer walls. Once inside, Joab’s men would treat the entire population as enemy combatants.
WORDS FROM A WISE MOUTH FIND GRACE
But as the soldiers prepared their assault, the voice of a wizened woman made itself heard above the fray. The old woman challenged Joab, demanding what evidence he had that the townspeople were in league with the Sheva. She reminded the general that Jewish law requires armies to sue for peace before they attack and allow innocents the opportunity to escape the city and save themselves.
Brought back to reason by the woman’s sensible words, Joab stayed the attack, giving the city-dwellers time to pull Sheva from his hiding place and execute him themselves. To prove their loyalty to King David, they cut off the usurper’s head and lobbed it over the city walls for Joab and his army to see. The soldiers withdrew, and peace returned to the land.
The lessons of Sheva’s rebellion and the siege of Abel Beth-Maacha reverberate in our times more clearly than ever. There will always be unscrupulous individuals ready to exploit conflict for personal gain, eager to carve differences of perception into chasms of acrimony. The instigators of strife always wrap themselves in words of righteous indignation, proclaiming their commitment to justice and equity with provocative slogans and insincere promises.
There will always be miscreants who put others at risk to save themselves, who offer up others on the altar of expediency and self-interest, who sow discord because they have no positive contribution to make to the community of civil society.
There will always be zealots who become so impassioned in their cause that they will rush headlong into battle without first determining whether the enemy before them is real or imagined, whether they might be perpetrating even greater evil than that which they think to oppose.
And there will usually be a quiet voice of reason crying out against the madness, calling all parties back to their senses, offering a clear path to peace through the fog of war.
Whenever that voice cries out, it is our duty to listen.
Published in Jewish World Review
Photo credit: Pierre Andre LeClercq