Déjà Coup

Read: 2 Samuel 20

Now a scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He sounded the trumpet and cried out, “We have no portion in David, no share in the son of Jesse! Everyone to your tents, O Israel!” So all the people of Israel withdrew from David and followed Sheba son of Bichri; but the people of Judah followed their king steadfastly from the Jordan to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 20:1-2, NRSV).

Just when everything was going so well. Absalom’s rebellion was finally in the rearview mirror, and the various constituencies were clamoring to get back into David’s good graces.

But then came Sheba son of Bichri—a “scoundrel”—who sounded the trumpet and managed to get “all the people of Israel” to abandon David and strike out on their own.

Was it really all the people of Israel? That would have been ten whole tribes—the lion’s share of the country. So, no—I suspect that tally is exaggerated. But isn’t that often the way when a coup-plotter tries to take over? The first thing they do is to hire a PR department to try to make people think everybody is on their side.

In any case, David finds himself in yet another dilemma. This “Sheba son of Bichri will do us more harm than Absalom,” he says to his general, Amasa. That’s remarkably clear-headed for a man who has recently been through hell and back, both politically and personally.

Speaking of Amasa—don’t get too attached to him. Amasa, remember, was Absalom’s former general—until Absalom was killed. You might have thought that would bring Amasa’s career trajectory to an abrupt end, but David shrewdly appointed him as his own general (19:13). I suppose you could explain this via the “keep your enemies closer” rule of thumb, but it was also a decision that allowed David to kill two birds with one stone. First, it made it much easier to win the loyalty of Amasa & Absalom’s troops. But as a bonus, it was a way to get back at David’s former general Joab for rebuking David over his excessive mourning (19:1-10). So, out with Joab and in with Amasa.

Did you really think Joab was going to take this demotion lying down? If you don’t like blood and gore, you might want to skip verses 4-13. That’s the part about Joab disemboweling Amasa and leaving him to die along the side of the road. If this whole episode reminds you of how Joab assassinated Abner in 3:26-39, you’re on to something. A spear through your rival’s stomach under the guise of an embrace seems to be Joab’s MO.

Joab throws Amasa’s body into a field and covers it with a cloak. Lest we assume that this is an act of belated respect, the storyteller takes pains to tell us that it is to stop the troops from rubbernecking. Good old Joab.

But now that he’s back in charge, he still has to take care of the rebellious Sheba son of Bichri. (It will be the best way to convince David to let bygones be bygones, after all.) Joab finally runs Sheba to ground in the far northern city of Abel. There, Joab wastes no time in getting out the battering ram. The message is clear: If I have to destroy this whole city and everybody in it, I’m perfectly willing to do so.

Enter a “wise woman” with other ideas. Coaxing Joab over for a conference, she proposes a better idea. She is a peace-loving person, she says, and her hometown is “a mother in Israel.”

Joab responds with what has to be one of the most disingenuous lines in the Bible. “Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy!” (Oh, no, Joab—you’d never do that!) But the remark shows that the wise woman has Joab just where she wants him, and she makes her modest proposal: How about if the good citizens of Abel just toss Sheba’s head over the wall instead?

Evidently Joab likes the idea because soon Sheba’s head comes catapulting out over the wall. Joab and the army go home happy, and the inhabitants of Abel have a story to tell their grandchildren. The end.

But is it? I called this reflection “Déjà Coup” because it comes so quickly on the heals of Absalom’s failed attempt. And at the risk of a spoiler, it won’t be the last coup we’ll encounter in this story. There are more where these coups came from.

To be honest, however, this story also gives me déjà vu for a more contemporary coup. While I am in no way advocating a violent solution to our national dilemma, I do wonder if there might be some wisdom in it with regard to a certain disgraced ex-president currently holed up in the GOP. Just hand him over and get on with your lives, people. We’d all like to have a country we can pass down to our grandchildren.

Ponder: What about this story gives you déjà vu—the uncanny sensation that you’ve experienced something before? Is there any wisdom in it for the present?

Pray: Guide us, O God, as we seek wise and peaceful solutions for our nation.