Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Tribute to Some Nameless Kick-Butt Women

I am currently in the midst of a long-overdue re-reading of the historical books of the Bible. It’s been a fascinating journey full of strange and entertaining characters. Sometimes they’re inspiring. Sometimes they’re infuriating. Sometimes they’re axe-crazy. I’m glad I do not live in ancient Israel.

Partly that’s because of the deep sexism of the culture. But while some biblical stories relating to women make me want to shriek and shake a bit of sense into the world, the backdrop of sexism ironically also provides for some of my favourite moments in the narrative.

Every now and again, the flow of man’s history will be interrupted and forced to change direction as some random woman abruptly pops into the story and leaves her mark. Sometimes, she is denied so much as a name in the telling, and yet the writers cannot ignore her and cannot write her out of the narrative. She shows up, changes the course of history – sometimes with only a verse or two – then disappears as suddenly as she arrived. Everyone goes along as best they can, trying to believe that only the men are consequential, but the nameless woman knows better.

I would like to remind you of three nameless kick-butt women from ancient Israel.

First: The nameless woman who killed just happened to be nearby when Abimelech died (Judges 9:50-54)

Abimelech, a depraved and blood-thirsty warlord wreaking havoc in pre-monarchy Israel, was running around trying to be king. He had a mercenary army and probably delusions of godhood. He murdered his seventy brothers, apparently all at once. He slaughtered the entire population of Shechem, the town that had first trusted him with the power to rule. He killed all the men, women, and even the babies, and sowed their land with salt.

Then he laid siege to the town of Thebez (the Bible doesn’t say why), which had a tower stronghold in the middle. He pressed the people so hard, that everyone in Thebez took part in its defense, including the women: while the men used bows and slings and spears to defend the keep, the women threw domestic implements over the wall.

Abimelech, who had survived the political machinations of Shechem; Abimelech, who had not been touched in numerous chaotic battles or by any of his seventy brothers; Abimelech, who the whole nation feared; Abimelech, who walked under the firing range of the wrong angry woman. She hucked an “upper millstone” at his head and that was the end of him.

Or almost. It was a clearly fatal wound, but not an immediate death, so Abimelech, realizing that it wouldn’t have been any man taking pot shots at him with kitchenware, made a desperate attempt to save his reputation. He told his armour bearer to run him through with his sword so that he wouldn’t be remembered as “that guy who got killed by a woman”.

His armour bearer obliged, but it didn’t matter. The woman’s actions ended the land’s immediate trials but also informed Israel’s future battle strategies. By the time of King David’s reign, every military commander knew not to get too close to the wall of the city you’re laying siege to. Not unless you wanted to end up like Abimelech, that schmuck who wasn’t truly suicided by his armour bearer. Abimelech, that schmuck who got too close to a woman with her millstone.
Second: The witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28)

Saul was duking things out with the Philistines, as he had spent most of his reign doing. He had a bad feeling about how this particular campaign was going to go, and his men advised him to seek out a local medium for a seance so that he could confer with the dead prophet Samuel. Despite having killed all the witches in the land earlier in his career, somehow this one had survived Saul's reach. And despite the general prohibition against witchcraft and the occult which we must hold to as Christians, we are also forced to admit that this woman’s interactions with King Saul are hilarious.

She was scared to help him, because she didn’t want to get killed, so he promised that he wouldn’t hurt her. She summoned up Samuel, as requested, and Samuel delivered some very bad news to Saul: he would be literally dead dog meat by the end of the coming battle. Saul was so distraught (as one might expect someone to be) to hear of his imminent death that he immediately fell face-first in the dirt, petrified. The witch, perhaps nervous about her own fate, given that bearers of bad news aren’t always looked upon kindly, told him what he should do about this horrible news.

He should eat his dinner.

When you’ve just learned that it is absolutely certain that you are going to, in very short order, meet your maker (who is very, very angry with you), it is always best to follow this up with a tasty meal.

“You’ll feel better,” she told him, and Saul’s men agreed. The witch cooked him up a fat young calf with all the fixings and served it to him. Saul ate it. He started to feel better. He left, not harming the witch in any way. He went to battle and got slaughtered with his sons.

Seriously. Perhaps she didn’t change history with her actions, but it does take a certain amount of guts to tell a condemned king to sit down and eat your supper. So though I disapprove of pagan practices and although I have no rights to this movie, allow me to offer up a certain scene from The Matrix as a toast to the witch of Endor:
Third: The nameless woman who nattered at Joab and solved a rebellion (2 Samuel 20:15-22)

The commander of David’s army, Joab, was a difficult man to control. Even David couldn’t do it. The most oft repeated thing that David has to say to Joab is “What is it with you, son of Zeruiah?!” Mostly he just seems to have been lucky that Joab didn’t betray him until he was a doddering old man and willing to abdicate, anyway.

As an aside, I am not aware of any other person in the Old Testament who is known primarily as the son of his mother, rather than of his father. Well, except for Joab’s brother, Abishai. (He also earns a few exclamations of “What is it with you, son of Zeruiah?!” from David.)

A man named Sheba had revolted against King David and Joab set off to track him down and kill him before the revolt grew out-of-control. David had recently deposed Joab as army commander and given the position to a different guy, so on the way to find Sheba, Joab murdered the new guy and took his position back. Then he traced Sheba to a town called Abel-Beth-Maacah. He began ripping apart the town’s walls (his hands probably still dripping with the blood of Amasa’s recent murder) to get inside.

Through the chaos, an unnamed woman popped out and demanded to talk to Joab. He identified himself (probably staying well back from the wall – he knew what had happened to Abimelech) and was met with a barrage of reprimands: “What the heck are you doing, man? This is a peaceful town! This is a wise town! People come to us for advice; we’re like everyone’s mother! What are you doing killing your mother?!”

There’s no note anywhere on any aspect of Zeruiah’s life or death, but apparently Joab was horrified by this charge. The NASB version of the Bible that I use is pretty clunky and doesn’t translate feeling very well. Yet nevertheless, in this instance, Joab uses exclamation marks and repetition to express his point.

“Far be it, far be it from me that I should swallow up or destroy!” protested the man who’d personally murdered at least three people (including his cousin) and slaughtered great numbers en masse in battle, “It’s just.... there’s this guy.... who’s trying to depose David.... please let me have him.”

I imagine him standing sheepishly, staring at his sandals, while the woman natters away at him. Joab, who can defy the king and kill with impunity, rendered helpless by the cross scolding of a random but unimpressed woman who makes him feel guilty and reminds him about his mother.

This fearless wise woman huffed. “I’ve got peeps inside the town. We’ll go deal with him. You wait here patiently.” Joab waited. The woman’s peeps tossed Sheba’s decapitated head over the town’s wall. Joab meekly went home.
“There was ‘nothing she could do’ but she did it anyway.” Bernard T. Adeney


Justin Heinrichs said...

Jael was pretty cool too. Assassinated the enemy leader Sisera with a tent pole.

Carla said...

Yup. Jael is one of my favourites. :-) But she has a name, so she didn't make it into this post.

Justin Heinrichs said...

Rizpah was another one who seemed pretty cool but she had a name.
To appease the Gibeonites, David agreed to have her sons and nephews murdered because she was a concubine of Saul.
The gibeonites hung up the bodies to be eaten by birds but Rizpah spent months scaring the birds away to protect the bodies until David felt bad and agreed to give them a burial.
She seemed like a pretty cool mom.

Brianna Morris said...

I love this. Thanks for the stories!