The Wise Woman of Tekoa

We have seen that women served as prophets, along with men, in ancient Israel.  They also served as advisors, whom King David and his chief military commander (and hired thug) Joab consulted.  The first wise woman that we know of is the Wise Woman of Tekoa.  We never learn her name.

The story of the Wise Woman of Tekoa is found in 2 Samuel 14:1-21.  King David, who loved all his children if not all of his many wives, was grieving over his son, Absalom.  Absalom had fled after he killed his half-brother, Amnon, who had raped his full sister, Tamar.  You can read that wonderful story in 2 Sam. 13.  In 2 Sam. 13:39, “The king continued during all that time to mourn over his son; but his longing reached out for Absalom as he became reconciled to the death of Amnon.

When Joab observed how the king felt toward Absalom, he sent for a wise woman from the town of Tekoa.  He instructed her, “Pretend to be in mourning. Put on mourning apparel and do not anoint yourself with oil, that you may appear to be a woman who has been long in mourning for a departed one. Then go to the king and speak to him in this manner.”  Joab instructed her as to what she was to say.  When the king asked her what she wanted, she said:

Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. Your servant had two sons, who quarreled in the field. There being no one to part them, one of them struck his brother and killed him. Then the whole clan confronted your servant and demanded: ‘Give up the one who killed his brother. We must put him to death for the life of his brother whom he has slain; we must extinguish the heir also.’ Thus they will quench my remaining hope and leave my husband neither name nor posterity upon the earth.”

When David promised her that her remaining son will not be harmed, the wise woman asked, “Please let your servant say still another word to my lord the king.” She adds:

Why, then, do you think of this same kind of thing against the people of God? In pronouncing as he has, the king shows himself guilty, for not bringing back his own banished son. We must indeed die; we are then like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up. Yet, though God does not bring back life, he does take thought how not to banish anyone from him.

David was suspicious.  Can a mere woman speak words of wisdom?  So he asked her if Joab put her up to all this, and the woman admits that Joab indeed instructed her in what she was to say, to “come at the issue in a roundabout way.”  Now the woman proved her wisdom.  She flattered David, saying, “But my lord is as wise as an angel of God, so that he knows all things on earth.” Turning to Joab, the king grants his request: “Go and bring back young Absalom.”

Tekoa, the birthplace of the prophet Amos, was renowned for the abundance and high quality of its olive oil.  Olive oil is a symbol of wisdom.  It says in the Talmud: “And Joab sent to Tekoa and fetched thence a wise woman.” Why to Tekoa? — R. Johanan said, Because they were accustomed to olive oil, wisdom could be found among them. Our Rabbis taught: And let him dip his foot in oil: this refers to the territory of Asher which flowed with oil like a fountain” (Menahot 85b).  The reference is to the blessing that Moses gives to the tribe of Asher in Deut. 33:24-25: “More blessed than the other sons be Asher! May he be the favorite among his brothers, as the oil of his olive trees runs over his feet!”

Perhaps or probably the author or editor of the story of the Wise Woman of Tekoa was embarrassed that a woman could serve David in this way, and so attributed her words of wisdom to Joab, a conniving and murderous general.  But even if her words were those of Joab, the woman certainly knew how to approach the king and how to convince him to send for his fugitive son.  Joab apparently was not able to do this on his own.  It is a pity we do not know this woman’s name, while the name of Joab lives on.  In any case, Absalom himself later rebelled against his father, and was killed by Joab in battle.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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